A Hollow Tooth and a Haunting Memory

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Owen Lipsett on December 9, 2009

While this church is still operational in a new adjacent building, this review is primarily concerned with the remains of the original church, nicknamed "the Hollow Tooth." Visually, it’s stunning in that unlike most war-damaged buildings, it has been neither restored nor destroyed, but consciously left in a ruined state as a reminder of the horrors of war. The fact that it’s located in the heart of what was West Berlin’s main shopping street, the still fashionable Kurfürstendamm, where it is juxtaposed with post-war buildings, and (since 1963) a new modern belfry, makes it all the more poignant.

The original Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (meaning Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) was built between 1891 and 1906 to Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first ruler of a united Germany. His grandson and namesake, Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the first stone of the structure, which was designed in a neo-romanesque style by the Franz Schwechten, an exponent of the historicist style and one of the leading architects of day. Although the church was consecrated in 1895, its lower section, which included an enormous nave that could seat 2,000 people, was not completed until 1906.

The church’s interior was decorated with 2,740 square meters of wall mosaics depicting scenes from German Imperial history, with the aim of placing the Hohenzollerns (who were descended from the last Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights) within this tradition. Some of these are still visible in what remains of the entrance hall, which has been converted into a memorial hall, which contains a cross forged from nails found in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (which was destroyed by Luftwaffe raids) as well as a cross given by a pair of Russian Orthodox bishops in memory of the victories of Nazism. The spire originally stood 113 meters high, of which only 63 meters are left. As a small plaque explains, the church has been left in ruins as a monument to the futility of war.

Although not a historical monument on a par with its predecessor, the new church, built next door, on the sight of the old church’s nave, makes an interesting counterpoint. Its hexagonal bell tower is 53.5 meters high, with a flat roof, and has been nicknamed "the Lipstick and Powderbox" by Berliners. Designed by Egon Eiermann, it is worth stepping inside as it’s highly unusual in that its walls are made primarily of blue glass set in steel and concrete, with the result that it glows blue when illuminated at night. (The clock on its tower is lit blue by diodes as well). I personally found this color incredibly calming, and it makes a nice and hopeful counterpoint to the jagged edge of the ruin next door, whose importance you might want to consider while sitting inside.

Berlin, Germany, 10789
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