Motorway church Siegerland
Modernist pilgrim’s churches

Motorway church Siegerland
Motorway church Siegerland | Photo (detail): © Peter Stockhausen

Since travellers no longer take to the road per pedes apostolorum (Latin for “on the feet of the Apostles”), the pilgrim’s church, a building type of earlier centuries, has fallen into oblivion. In Germany, however, and only very occasionally in Austria, the tradition has been preserved to this day in the form of the motorway chapel or church. Since 1958 travellers encounter guide markers for the houses of worship. There is no superordinate body responsible for their operation. Sponsors and initiators for the often ecumenical or non-denominational churches are local church congregations, associations or initiatives.

If the stressed motorist looking for a place of peace and quiet retreat follows the blue, white and red signs with the stylized symbol of a church, he meets at the edge of the concrete track with all conceivable forms of houses of worship. Evidently archaic pyramids and launching platforms, flying saucers, biscuit tins and shoe boxes have all served as models. Often these churches are also historical half-timbered chapels or parish churches; the most prominent is surely the “Feininger Church” in the Thuringian village of Gelmeroda, known as a favourite motif of the Expressionist artist Lyonel Feininger.

Origami model on the autobahn

Motorway church Siegerland Motorway church Siegerland | Photo: Peter Stockhausen What already greets the traveller from afar over the edge of the forest in Siegerland, North Rhine-Westphalia, on the A45 at the rest stop Wilsdorf, bears an amazing resemblance to the symbol on the guide marker. Especially when it shines white in the evening sky. The effect is quite deliberate. The architects Till Schneider and Michael Schumacher of Frankfurt on the Main have designed a church building that from afar assumes the form of the well-known symbol. Up close then the white artefact unfolds like an origami model into a more complex form, which cannot really be seized from any single direction – even though the church is actually based on a simple square groundplan.

Entrance with suction effect

Motorway church Siegerland Motorway church Siegerland | Photo: Peter Stockhausen The building is constructed as a timber framework on a concrete base, planked with rough, white-coated chipboard inside and out. The walls converge upwards in pyramidal peaks, forming the characteristic silhouette of spires. The church does not rest square on the ground but recedes in the base area, seeming to balance on the edge of the slope. The walls reach far out towards the car park and form a funnel-like entrance that seems almost to suck the visitor in – an architecturally formulated gesture of welcome, rarely to be found to this degree of significance and suggestive power.

Atmospherically gentle space

Motorway church Siegerland, inscription Motorway church Siegerland, inscription | Photo: Peter Stockhausen The wall next to the front door is adorned with Psalm 91:11: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways”. In designing the shimmering metal letters, the Frankfurt designer Peter Zizka was guided by the “boot lid typography of the fetish car”.

Motorway church Siegerland, interior Motorway church Siegerland, interior | Photo: Peter Stockhausen What emerges from the glass door, shining promisingly outwards in a warm, golden light when lit up in the evening, is, in contrast to the jagged, expressive exterior, a surprisingly different world of forms. A sheltering, enveloping, atmospherically gentle and friendly space receives the visitor. The cupola is again constructed of raw chipboard, cut into round forms and fitted into one another. This is actually just an open, frame scaffolding, which nevertheless is capable of producing the illusion of a sacred space. The light contributes to this effect, passing through the skylights of the towers into the wood-rib construction and creating a spiritual atmosphere, as if the Baroque architects the Asam brothers had stood by giving advice. A kind of choir recess forms the setting, illuminated by the zenith light, for the simple white crucifix and the equally simple altar. There are no fixed pews, only simple stools.

Motorway church Siegerland, interior Motorway church Siegerland, interior | Photo: Peter Stockhausen The architects could not draw on unlimited resources, for the 40th motorway church was built only with donations at the initiative of a private citizen with the help of a specially created Association for the Motorway Church, which also maintains and operates it.

Despite use of the simplest, most cost-effective construction methods and materials, the empathy of the architects has succeeded in creating a sacred space with an impressive atmosphere rarely to be found in modernist churches. The Siegerland motorway church is one of the most beautiful, spectacular and spiritual places that invite the traveller to moments of peace and worship on the German autobahn.

Reading tip

Helen Schiffer (ed.), Autobahnkirche Siegerland (motorway church Siegerland), Frankfurt am Main 2013, ISBN 978-3-00-043532-4