In the hilly landscape of Blumenau, a city located in the state of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, stands a gem of modern religious architecture by Gottfried Böhm, who recently passed away at the age of 101: the Mother Church of São Paulo Apóstolo, built from 1953 to 1963.
The São Paulo Apóstolo Church was built before the São Luiz Gonzaga Church in Brusque - two religious temples designed by Böhm with the office he inherited from his father, the architect Dominikus Böhm (1880-1955).
The new São Paulo Apóstolo Church was built on the site of the original Mother Church, which featured traditional architecture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the need to modernize the church structure and to meet the demands of a growing congregation, the Catholic Church decided to create a new building that would match the vibrant modernity of that time. This task was accomplished by a group of dedicated people, headed by Friar Brás Reuter, who selected Dominikus Böhm's project, developed together with his son Gottfried Böhm - both renowned architects behind groundbreaking church designs all over Germany.
The outcome was a modern building that does not reflect the architectural style of traditional Brazilian churches, leading to some resistance from both the church and the community. Nevertheless, the project has great symbolic value and dialogues with the modern construction techniques and new materials of the time, becoming a pioneering design in Brazil. This contrast between tradition and innovation was quite evident during construction, as religious activities continued in the old church whilst the new one was being built, so they coexisted for a brief period.
The church complex can be broken down into three distinct volumes: the bell tower, marking the entrance staircase, the baptistery, and the temple. The former, also known as Torre da Matriz (Mother Church tower), is a thirty-meter high gateway that separates the busy commercial area of the XV de Novembro street from the building lot. It holds the church's three bells and is the main entrance to the complex. This structure sits on the same spot as the former tower and is one of the most distinctive landmarks in the landscape of Blumenau. As one enters the plateau, the general shape of the church is revealed. Attention is immediately drawn to the baptistery due to the form and details of the thin concrete shells and the flèche, a small spire on the top of the structure, which seems to have dissolved into metallic bars.
In the temple, our eyes are guided to the altar and the circle of light formed by the rose window. The stained glass windows run through the entire length of the building and provide visual continuity. The church has a rectangular tripartite floor plan symbolically divided by columns evoking the Hallenkirchen, or hall-churches. The space is unified and there are no side chapels or any physical barriers to circulation. In addition to the simplicity of the open plan, with a well-defined perimeter, the temple also features exposed structural elements, ornamentation defined by materials and textures, and a powerful verticality emphasized by the tall and slender columns. Lighting plays a fundamental role by revealing the scale of the building and creating contrast between spaces of light and shadow, adding dimension to the overall space. This architecture was greatly inspired by Auguste and Gustave Perret's Notre-Dame de Consolation.
The São Paulo Apóstolo Church, now known as the Catholic Cathedral of Blumenau, is a major landmark in the urban and natural landscape. Researcher Leodi Covatti comments:
Scanning through the streets, one looks through the vertical element (the tower) and notices the framed image of a building, hidden in the middle of miscellaneous styles, creating a visual continuity. What could seem to be an obstacle now stimulates the curiosity of the observer, who, even at a distance, can recognize the slender columns and the delicate plane that hovers over a line of stained glass windows, just before even realizing it is a roof. At nightfall, the dramatic effect is more intense, and the light that emanates from the building seems to be supporting it. Each standpoint reveals a different picture (...). – Leodi Covatti
The works of Dominikus and Gottfried consist of volumes resulting from simple and proportional compositions using stones, bricks, and reinforced concrete, revealing their natural finishes. The spatial and architectural outcome engages with the land and its immediate surroundings, bringing the architects closer to German expressionism. Researcher Angelina Wittmann says that, apart from the choice of materials and the connection to the landscape, this architecture also experiments with more intense forms and the effects of light and shadow, which hints at characteristics of Brutalism - as seen both in the São Paulo Apóstolo Church and in its younger sister, the São Luiz Gonzaga Mother Church in Brusque.
COVATTI, Leodi Antônio. 2020. Matizes da modernidade: a Igreja Matriz São Paulo Apóstolo de Blumenau de Dominikus e Gottfried Böhm [Shades of Modernity: Dominikus and Gottfried Böhm's Mother Church of São Paulo Apóstolo de Blumenau].
WITTMAN, Angelina. 2020. Um Pritzker no interior de Santa Catarina: a igreja de Gottfried Böhm em Brusque [Discover Pritzker Prize Laureate Gottfried Böhm's Brutalist Church in Brazil].