Hainburg, the most easterly town in Austria, has recently become home to a new Protestant church designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The Martin Luther Church sits on a wedge-shaped corner plot, on the site of a long disappeared 17th-century church. Primarily consisting of two small halls and a number of auxiliary spaces arranged along a straight circulation spine, the design is dramatically defined by a 20m-high bell tower and a swirling roof perched on four columns above the main prayer room.
The roof is a prime piece of digital design, three rooflights defined by twisting steel surfaces. Inspired by and developed from the concave curves of the roof of a nearby ossuary, it appears to fold inside and out like a Klein bottle. The rest of the building is rather simple (perhaps even a little bland) by Coop Himmelb(l)au standards, but this in itself testifies to the firm’s ongoing deployment of collage and juxtaposition.
“We couldn’t find a more efficient and precise method than in a shipyard,” explains Wolf Prix, principal of Coop Himmelb(l)au – who was born in Hainburg. He’s referring to the difficulty in achieving the apparently seamless twists and folds of the roof. Back in the mid-1990s the firm made headlines for their use of shipbuilding technology in the extension to the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands, and they are currently on site with the massive Dalian conference centre in China which also requires the specialist manufacturing skills of the Baltic shipyards.
“Niemeyer and Corbusier liberated the roof from being a simple shelter,” Prix says, making what might seem to be rather tenuous connections to the giants of modernism. But there are various genuine scholarly references that can be spotted. The three rooflights, for instance, call to mind the “appendix” of Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery with its multicoloured apertures. And unlike many contemporary buildings of a more flamboyant character whose roofs are equally convoluted but frequently can only be appreciated from orbit, Coop Himmelb(l)au’s roofs are designed to be stood beneath. As Prix puts it: “Corbusier made the promise, and Coop Himmelb(l)au are holding to that promise.”