Roadside Attractions: 3 Architectural Drives in Central Europe
Michael Gorra tours the Rococo churches of Bavaria and wonders if the frivolous-seeming structures can live up to the religious fervor they're meant to evoke. And Raul Barreneche devises itineraries in France and Switzerland highlighting the work of Le Corbusier and his present-day successors.
Great buildings interact with their surroundings in unexpected, dramatic ways—from ancient to postmodern, architecture has refigured the European landscape again and again. On the following pages, Michael Gorra tours the Rococo churches of Bavaria and wonders if the frivolous-seeming structures can live up to the religious fervor they're meant to evoke. And Raul Barreneche devises itineraries in France and Switzerland highlighting the work of Le Corbusier and his present-day successors.
4 DAYS, 500 MILES
WÜRZBURG, BAMBERG, NÜRNBERG, LANDSHUT, MUNICH
In 1445, the story goes, a child appeared on a hillside near the German city of Bamberg. While the approach of a shepherd named Hermann made him vanish, he came back the following year, this time with 14 companions. They told Hermann that they wanted a chapel built on the very spot where the boy had first shown himself. Although this structure took a decade to complete, a pilgrimage to the place got going immediately. Three hundred years later, the prince-bishop of Würzburg and Bamberg decided to build a new chapel, and after some discussion the commission went to a former fireworks maker named Balthasar Neumann, a master of light-drenched grandeur and very possibly the greatest architect of his century.
Vierzehnheiligen, or "Fourteen Saints," would be the first stop on what was, lapsed Catholic though I am, a kind of pilgrimage of my own, a 500-mile tour through the high-camp splendors of Bavarian Rococo. Years before, I had found myself beguiled by Munich's Asamkirche, a tiny jewel box of a place that the Asam brothers, Egid Quirin and Cosmas Damian, had put up at their own expense in 1746 after a career of building other churches throughout southern Germany. I'd opened its doors with no expectations, and had felt my whole body shiver with serendipitous delight. The 19th-century French chef Carême boasted that architecture was but an inferior branch of confectionery, and no building I'd ever seen before had looked so showily spun and molded and baked: its interior resembled nothing so much as a tray of petits fours, with a praline sunburst over the altar and putti sculpted from mascarpone.
Ever since, I'd wanted to immerse myself in what could be the last great movement in European ecclesiastical architecture. The Asamkirche was but a taste, and had awakened a craving that the rest of Munich couldn't satisfy. The greatest Rococo churches were said to lie out in the countryside, objects of pilgrimage that you had to work to reach.
The paradox of the style, according to Yale scholar Karsten Harries, is that for all the bravura sophistication of their décor, such churches are quite literally provincial. For they grew out of the popular piety of an 18th-century peasant society—from country folk who found in the drama of the Rococo's overblown altars an intoxicating miracle of growth and life. Vierzehnheiligen was one of those country churches, and its surroundings are rural still. While I was visiting friends in Hamburg, in the red-brick sobriety of Germany's Protestant north, I had a few days to spare and seized them, hopping a fast train to Würzburg, an hour east of Frankfurt along the twisty river Main. There I picked up an Audi A3 rental and set off to the east for Vierzehnheiligen. At first I drove beside the vineyards along the Main, then through the steep wooded hills known as the Steigerwald, emerging at last onto a rolling plain. And immediately I saw that the word chapel would not do for Neumann's majestic structure. I could see it from 20 minutes away, and thought how clever the saints had been to show up on a hilltop, a site that magnified the thrust of the basilica they must—in theory—have known would someday come.
I parked a few hundred yards down the hill, and then it was up and around a couple of steep curves on foot, past a field of sheep and onto the esplanade where the church rides over its valley. Huge: and yet the thing appeared to sway. Most buildings its size are anchored by a colonnade or a street. Vierzehnheiligen isn't, and the towers over its west portal rise so high above the nave as to seem like a false front, so massively insubstantial that it looks as though they, and not the lazy clouds above them, might simply float away.
Neumann used a honey-colored sandstone for the façade, but neither its warmth nor the play of its surface prepared me for the vivid brilliance of the interior. Soft white and creamy blue, shades of pink and apricot jam—the high windows made this marzipan wonder look as bright as day, but nothing shone and the whole seemed instead to throw the light back in a mild radiance. And smack in the middle of the nave, on the very spot of the saints' alleged appearance, was an ornate baldachin, a shrine decorated with fourteen gypsum-white statues. There was St. Vitus, the patron of youth, and Catherine with a chunk of her wheel, and Denis, the first bishop of Paris holding his decapitated head in his hands. It was an ensemble of such commanding and unearthly presence that it made the church's main altar look almost like an afterthought, somewhere off in a corner.
I found a stool and sat down to soak in the church's spatial drama, my notebook open and binoculars around my neck. And then, just before noon, the west door opened and the sunlight roared in. The bells began to ring, and I turned to see a hundred 10-year-olds approaching. CHILDREN UNDER WAY WITH GOD, read the banner they carried, and it gave the name of their school in a town 20 miles away. But they didn't look as pious as I suspect their teachers would have wished. Most of them skipped past the holy water as they entered, and one boy who did stop to cross himself also forgot to remove his baseball cap, two habits fighting it out within him. Still, they seemed happy to be there, and later there came other children, teenagers. A girl of 15 got herself stuck in the confessional; she'd put herself in the priest's booth and pretended to absolve her boyfriend's sins. But now the door was locked, she couldn't get out, and one of her friends had to fetch the sexton—who laughed. And watching, I could see that the kids were relieved at that laughter, and that both the play and the relief were in equal measure a mark of their own Catholicism.
Yet as I sat there I began to feel a surprising ambivalence, not so much about the teenagers' behavior as about Vierzehnheiligen itself. For I couldn't quite imagine that scene in another kind of church, another kind of architecture. Doubtless it happens, but I can't picture that sexton's carefree amusement, or indeed my own, in the brooding corridors of Durham Cathedral or in Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore, which Henry James had described as "one of the churchiest churches in Europe." Those places have the capacity to stir and to trouble. This one was simply a delight, and its fluid, undulating space didn't seem especially "churchy." Its foamy, buoyant design appealed to the same part of me that enjoys movie musicals, and indeed the milky stucco of the saints' faces on that shrine had a purity as exaggerated as greasepaint. I would have loved it all in any secular building, but I couldn't talk myself into believing that such a place could stand as what Philip Larkin, in his poem "Church Going," calls "a serious house on serious earth."
I spent the night in Bamberg, a city split by a fast-flowing river, where kayakers rowed in the middle of the town itself. And late the next morning, still unsure just what I thought, I began my drive south, at first using the autobahn to edge around Nürnberg, then turning east onto a nameless and numberless road that took me down the valley of the Altmühl. Picture-book Germany, with ruined castles on cliff tops. Signs warned of deer crossings, and the walls of the roadhouse at which I stopped for lunch were covered with antlers. After lunch, it started to rain, a drizzle slipping into a downpour, my wipers squeaked and the car seemed to hydroplane on the slippery road, and then a bridge threw me over another river, and I realized that I had crossed the Danube.
My goal was Kloster Rohr, a monastery church in a town so small, it didn't even figure on my map. Finding it required me to stop three times for directions and finally to box the compass through an agricultural landscape of hopyards and grain fields; I saw villages so comically named that they reminded me of England's—Untermantelkirchen, right next to Obermantelkirchen, like Upper and Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds. On these country lanes, what might have been a half hour's drive from the Danube took closer to two, but it was just as well, for the church was closed when I arrived. In restauro? I prepared to stomp my foot and curse, but no, it was only a confirmation class, the doors would open soon, and so I sat in Kloster Rohr's lone café reading the London Review of Books and watching an old, unshaven monk drink three quick glasses of beer.
I had come for the altarpiece the Asam brothers had made in the 1720's: a dozen bigger-than-life-sized statues standing in immobile astonishment around an empty tomb, the apostles watching Mary fly up to heaven, her body seeming to float through the air. The rain stopped while I waited, and a late afternoon sun washed the sky clean. At five the church reopened and I went in, past a dozen children rushing out to their parents' Opels. An elderly couple followed me, but they stopped at a side chapel, and so I had the spectacle to myself—the angels with their beating wings, the soft folds of plaster clouds, the narrow-waisted Madonna in ecstasy. In his book Bavarian Rococo Church, Karsten Harries draws a comparison between the Rococo altar and the stage, and as I looked at the upflung arms and sublime confusion of those saints it was easy to see why. The Asams had created as powerful a moment of sacred drama as anything in Titian or Tintoretto, and yet Rohr is such an out-of-the-way place that my Blue Guide didn't even list it.
True pilgrims travel toward a devotional end, and in the Middle Ages were often warned against the distractions of the road. So I won't linger over the fact that Landshut, the city of 60,000 where I spent the night, struck me as one of the prettiest towns I have ever seen, or that my hotel there served me the only convincing German red I've ever had, a Pinot Noir—Blauburgunder from Baden. The next day's road lay due south at first; after an hour, when I raised my eyes from the road I could see the snowcaps of the Alps in the distance. Once past the tangle of roads around Munich, I headed west on 472, a roller coaster of sharp drops and long rising curves, and one that turned the next few hours into a parade of famous names. Though I did slow for a moment, my foot off the gas, I didn't let myself turn at the signs pointing the way to Oberammergau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Instead, I drove on through the open hills of the Allgäu, a landscape of icy lakes and slate-blue rivers and clearly a rural playground: on this June Saturday every other car seemed to be carrying a kayak or a bicycle. Then there was the road to mad King Ludwig's castle of Neuschwanstein, again not taken, as I sped north toward the Benedictine abbey of Ottobeuren.
If Kloster Rohr was a theater, then Ottobeuren was an opera house, its green towers presiding over a monastery that looked very nearly as large as Lincoln Center. Inside, an orchestra was setting up for a broadcast, and the cables of a temporary soundstage snaked across the floor. But what most sticks in my mind is a detail, probably invisible to anyone's naked eye and certainly to mine, that I saw through my binoculars high up in the crossing. Stucco had been worked into a frame that suggested a much flattened box at the theater, and painted on the wall within was a book, foreshortened to look as though it were balanced on the edge of the box itself. Next to it the artist had put a candlestick, and when I trained the binoculars on it I could see that its inch of wick was painted black, as though the spectator of this sacred show had just blown it out, and left.
The next day was Sunday, a morning of endless sky and more hills, and a fast road that brought me to the parking lot at Die Wies. Another pilgrimage church, another miracle. In 1738 a statue that stood here, The Scourged Savior, had been seen to weep, and by 1754 the church had been built, the work of the brothers Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmermann. It sits in a meadow—a Wies—paved with wildflowers, and walking toward it I thought of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen's description of Pemberley, "standing well on rising ground." They were of a date—the real church and the imagined house—a time when nature and architecture had fused into scenery. Inside Die Wies there's a frescoed vault made not of stone but of "timber, lath, and plaster," so that it seems, as Harries writes, to have a "tentlike lightness." The church's columns and piers look weightless, too—so pierced and carved and perforated that they seem incapable of bearing a load. There are filigree crowns and gilt plaster tassels, and borders done in a color chart of friendly pastels, reds and pinks and blues, a bit of lilac, and a kind of sea-swirl green. I felt as if I were standing inside a teacup.
Even more than Neumann's building, this place seemed at first to lack seriousness. Then the mass began. It was 11 o'clock and the pews were full, full not of tourists, nor even of Germans, but of Bavarians. I could hear their accent, the German equivalent of a Southern drawl—and of course there were the clothes. Many of the congregants were wearing the traditional regional clothing called Trachten: the women with dirndls rucked up on one side to expose the white lace of an underskirt, the men in gartered kneesocks and dark green lederhosen. Some of the kids had on the full rig, too, a Sunday best indistinguishable from that of their parents. Looking at them I remembered the children at Vierzehnheiligen, and as I stood in the back of the church I recognized the continued truth of what Professor Harries had said about the Bavarian Rococo. Its churches are the product of popular piety in every sense of the word.
For in this place—and wearing those clothes— the weekly mass could provide something like a family holiday, an excursion into a landscape in which there seemed no division between the beauty of the meadows and that of the building itself, both of them made by a single hand. Voices soared, and the altar boy swung his ball of incense and the smoke puffed out, filling the church with a haze that made its prettiness shimmer into an otherworldly life. Any theater looks best with a show on before a full house, and at that moment Die Wies was as churchy as churchy could be.
4 DAYS, 302 MILES
ZURICH, BASEL, LUCERNE, GRAUBÜNDEN
Some of the most striking buildings in recent years have been going up in Switzerland—a stark rebuke to any lingering clichés about Alpine chalets. The Swiss have always been serious about minimalism: that simple Helvetica typeface, even the national flag. Now their architecture echoes that smart graphic sensibility.
THE ITINERARY | DAY 1 Head west from Zurich toward Basel on A1 to A3/E60, a quick 55-mile drive. The Schaulager (19 Ruchfeldstrasse; 41-61/335-3232; www.schaulager.org) is a Basel exhibition and art-research center designed by hometown firm (and Pritzker Prize winner) Herzog & de Meuron for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation. Renzo Piano's Beyeler Foundation (101 Baselstrasse; 41-61/645-9700; www.beyeler.com) houses Hildy and Ernst Beyeler's impeccable Modernist collection. Just over the German border, across the Rhine, is Weil-am-Rhein, home to the corporate campus of the Swiss furniture giant Vitra and its museum (1 Charles-Eames-Strasse; 49-7621/702-3200; www.design-museum.de), designed by Frank Gehry. Zaha Hadid's first-ever building (1993) is also here; originally a fire station, it's now an exhibition gallery filled with Vitra's chairs.
DAY 2 Leaving Basel, head south on N3 (to A2/E35; 60 miles) to Lucerne. That's where the Parisian minimalist Jean Nouvel built a striking concert hall, which opened in 2000 on the shore of Lake Lucerne (1 Europaplatz; 41-41/226-7070; www.kkl-luzern.ch). After wandering the fairy tale–like streets, spend the night in modern style at Nouvel's Hotel (14 Sempacherstrasse; 41-41/226-8686; www.the-hotel.ch; doubles from $343).
DAY 3 From Lucerne, head south on A2/E35 to Vals (via Oberalp Pass to Valserstrasse; 96 miles), in the mountainous Graubünden region, home to the reclusive Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. (En route, stop in Sumvitg to see Zumthor's St. Benedict chapel.) At the end of the Valserstrasse, in a narrow valley surrounded by nearly vertical mountain faces, is the renowned Zumthor-designed hotel and spa Hotel Therme (41-81/926-8080; www.therme-vals.ch; doubles from $200, Zumthor-designed rooms from $380). Next, head back to Ilanz going east on A13 toward Chur. Continue on A13 to Bregenz, just over the Austrian border (via A13/E43 to A1/E60; 91 miles), to Zumthor's glass-shingled Kunsthaus (Karl Tizian Platz; 43-5574/485-940; www.kunsthaus-bregenz.at), which overlooks Lake Constance.
DAY 4 On the way back to Zurich (via A14/E60 to A13/E43 to A1/E60; 91 miles), there are two buildings by über-minimalists Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer: the Museum Liner (5 Unterrainstrasse, Appenzell; 41-71/788-1800; www.museumliner.ch) and their glass-covered addition to the Winterthur Museum of Art (52 Museumstrasse, Winterthur; 41-52/267-5162; www.kmw.ch).
READING LIST The best of the new generation is on view in Thames & Hudson's Swiss Made, by Stephen Spier, Martin Schanz, and photographer Christian Richters.
4 DAYS, 845 MILES
PARIS, RONCHAMP, LYONS, MARSEILLES, ROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN
The architect Le Corbusier (né Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) inﬂuenced generations of Modernists with his wide-open floor plans, ribbons of glass, and, later in his career, high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by parks. On this expedition from Paris to the Mediterranean, you'll visit the greatest hits of the Modernist master.
THE ITINERARY | DAY 1 Begin the pilgrimage with a stop at Villa Savoye (82 Rue de Villiers; 33-1/39-65-01-06; www.monum.fr) in Poissy, in a western suburb of Paris. Le Corbusier referred to houses as "machines for living," and this streamlined white box on stilts, with its curving, glass-enclosed ground floor designed to match the turning radius of the owners' roadster, proves his point. Immaculately restored in the mid-nineties, the house looks every bit as crisp and glamorous as when it was built, in 1930. From Poissy, jump on A13 and head southeast through the Marne Valley and Haute-Saône to Ronchamp (A13 to A6 to A5 to E54; 277 miles), where, in 1955, Le Corbusier built his famous chapel Notre-Dame du Haut (13 Rue de la Chapelle; 33-3/84-20-65-13). The pillowy roof, which mimics the shape of a seashell, is unmistakable.
DAY 2 From Ronchamp, head south toward Lyons (E54 to A36 to A6; 210 miles), then drive 15 miles northwest on N7 toward L'Arbresle and follow the signs for Éveux. That's where you'll find the Dominican monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette (33-4/74-26-79-70; www.couventlatourette.com), built in 1955. It's a tough-looking building, but it has pleasing proportions and lovely views. Visit one of the priory's perfectly proportioned cells: for $60 per person you can stay in it overnight.
DAY 3 The next day, head south on A7 to Marseilles (197 miles), where Le Corbusier built the Brutalist but human-scaled and subtly colorful Unité d'Habitation (280 Blvd. Michelet; 33-4/91-16-78-00), a "vertical village" that started the sixties fashion for exposed concrete. Several of the units within the complex make up a tiny hotel (www.hotellecorbusier.com; doubles from $67).
DAY 4 Start the last day with a leisurely drive along N98 through the seaside towns of the Côte d'Azur (or make a speedier trek east from Marseilles on the A8 motorway; 146 miles) past Monaco to the fragrant hills of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, where in 1952 Le Corbusier built Le Cabanon, his own wooden cabin by the sea, as well as a block of colorful guest cottages nicknamed Unité de Camping(Sentier Le Corbusier, Cabbé; 33-4/93-35-62-87).
GENERAL INFO The Corbusier Foundation (www.fondationlecorbusier.asso.fr) in Paris has biographical information on the architect and addresses of his existing buildings—with visiting hours, where applicable—in France, Switzerland, India, and elsewhere. The French Motorway Federation (www.autoroutes.fr) offers detailed directions for any itinerary.
WHERE TO STAY
Romantik Hotel Weinhaus Messerschmitt
This 18-room property in the heart of Bamberg (soon expanding to 68 rooms)also has an excellent restaurant, Hubertusstube, serving seasonal dishes. Doubles from $160; 41 Lange Strasse, Bamberg; 49-951/297-800; www.hotel-messerschmitt.de
Romantik Hotel Fürstenhof
A well-situated Art Nouveau villa between Bamberg and Ottobeuren. Don't miss the Michelin-starred Fürstenzimmer restaurant. Doubles from $150; 3 Stethaimer Strasse, Landshut; 49-871/92550; www.romantikhotels.com
WHERE TO EAT
The cuisine is André Greul's, the setting a Jugendstil villa hotel. Dinner for two $1253 Stethaimer Strasse, Landshut; 49-871/92550
WHAT TO SEE
2 Vierzehnheiligen, Bad Staffelstein; 49-957/195-080
7 Asamstrasse, Rohr; 49-878/396-000
Benedictine Abbey of Ottobeuren
Tours each Saturday at 2 P.M., from April to October. 1 Sebastian-Kneipp-Strasse, Ottobeuren; 49-833/27980; www.abtei-ottobeuren.de
Open daily from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. throughout the summer. 12 Wies, Steingaden; 49-886/293-2930; www.wieskirche.de