Great building needs a sense of purpose
I shall never forget the puzzled expression that dawned upon Gottfried Bohm's gentle demeanour while listening to dear old Eric Sorensen describe the briefing and commissioning procedures for the Millennium Dome.
Eric, (past LDDC and Millennium Commission chief executive), is of course a highly accomplished and very entertaining speaker, and last week, during David Rock's invitation to address the RIBA President's Dinner, he was on top form: vintage Sorensen at once revealing, provocative, instructive, expansive, incisive.
I was seated beside Mrs Bohm, also an architect. Indeed, most of the Bohms are architects; Gottfried's father was Dominikus, well known for his ecclesiastical work, and three of Gottfried's sons currently work in the practice.
Though I had never before met these architects, I have twice visited their church at Neviges near Essen - its impact does not diminish! Their work is exquisitely detailed (as illustrated within the new assembly chamber of the Saarbruken Palace project), but it is in the earlier Neviges project that Bohm's training as a sculptor is most clearly reflected through the expressive plasticity of its overall form. The key to comprehending this extraordinary building, the shell of which is made entirely of ferro-concrete, is to realise that its rugged multi-shaped concrete roof is symbolic of tents rather than a reflection of the surrounding hilly countryside.
In terms of complexity of narrative and subtlety of symbolism, Bohm approaches the level of Carlo Scarpa: Neviges reveals a sophisticated programme which is based on a functional interpretation of the brief and a highly poetic interpretation of 'church': as a resting place for those on the road; as a spiritual place to share Holy Mass and prayers, relaxation and music, discussions and lectures; and as a symbolic place for great feasts and celebrations.
Neviges is for pilgrims - the roof representing their tents joined together 'to form God's powerful tent - the Church'.
And this is of course why Bohm, whose richly conceived work is so rigorously defined in purpose and so steeped in meaning, betrayed such perplexity during Sorensen's delivery. For here was Eric, sharp as ever, revealing the essential paradox of British culture as he described the Dome: a building of immense size and breathtaking logistical demands; a project which he insists must inevitably be a huge success; an initiative born of nowhere generating a structure distinguished as much by its enormous cost as by its ambiguity of purpose.
The Millennium Dome is, he said, a classic and surreal project: an uplifting theme park, massive but impermanent, educational yet spiritual, egalitarian while multi-cultural, ironically incorporating a Spirit Zone initiated by Christians serving a multi-faith programme.
Sorensen jibed and teased incessantly as he talked, revealing in the process the essential dichotomy of the British temperament. Of course, we've left it all too late, but it will be there on the day - complete with Jubilee Line extension. Of course, we've shied away from monumentality, but the Dome's memory will be engraved on our public consciousness for generations.
Disneyesque? Of course not: it's a serious proposition! And above all, says Sorensen, this project will raise that sense of wellbeing and comfort so essential to public place and space.
Eric's a good friend to architecture and very good to listen to; I hope the Bohms enjoyed their evening.