Berlin church tower left as ragged reminder of war to be transformed by Irish architectural firm

Architect Róisín Heneghan hopes design will help ‘future generations understand and experience this space’

When Berlin was rebuilt in the postwar years, the ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was left standing as a ragged reminder of the horrors of war.

Now Dublin-based architectural firm Heneghan Peng has won a high-profile competition for a new visitor centre located inside the old church tower.

Architect Róisín Heneghan said she hoped the winning design would help “future generations understand and experience this space”: a neo-Romanesque structure opened in 1895 and badly damaged in an air raid on November 23rd, 1944.

“We wanted people to get close again to the ruin so you feel the history embedded in those walls,” Ms Heneghan said. “For us the church is a symbol of Berlin’s complex history and an international site for memory, understanding and reconciliation.”


The design takes visitors from the current exhibition space in the old church porch into a modified first-floor space directly above which was added in the postwar years.

A key new addition here is a circular pool, a nod to the adjacent bombed-out rose window, which will collect rain water from – as well as mirror – the ruined tower above.

The design removes a postwar roof to reopen the tower and, with it, the first-floor space to the elements. The architects’ hope is to “create a continuous, central cavity with atmospheric force”.

The competition jury praised the Irish team’s “intelligent reinterpretation of a historical place” that will more than double to 500m its exhibition space. Visited by 1.3 million people annually, the jury said it was confident the redesigned, barrier-free space will “enrich Berlin in every respect”.

In partnership since 1999 with Shih-Fu Peng, Heneghan’s has worked in Ireland and internationally, from the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre to the Grand Egyptian Museum adjacent to the pyramids of Giza.

Their design is the latest facelift for the church ruined in a bombing raid that killed 9,000 Berliners, destroyed the nearby zoo as well as the building housing Ireland’s first diplomatic legation.

After a heated postwar debate the ruins of the main church were removed for a new octagonal building and hexagonal bell tower, designed by Egon Eiermann and opened in 1963. The church site in western Berlin was the backdrop to a Christmas market truck attack in 2016 that killed 12.

Berlin’s city government is co-financing the €11 million-project and its economics senator Franziska Giffey said on Wednesday she hoped the expanded site can “become an important factor for Berlin’s tourism economy”.

For Ms Heneghan, the key ingredient of the winning design is restraint.

“We didn’t add very much,” she said. “We have tried to make the church, the ruin itself, the focus.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin