The abbesses of Herford

Art in Architecture Competition – Realization 2023

The approach focuses on the influential and long history of the Herford Abbey. The impact of the women of the Damenstift with their prince abbey and immediate imperial abbey shaped the political, economic and spiritual-cultural fate of the city of Herford and the region for over a thousand years. This fact merely dawns on visitors to the cathedral and also those of the future Archaeological Window.

The names of all abbesses from the 9th to the 19th century are known. Herford prides itself as a “city of strong women”. Famous abbesses are honored throughout the city, as are female instigators of the 20th century, such as Friederike Nadig, who is honored on the town hall square with a contemporary bronze work by Asta Gröting.

According to the invitation to tender, in the future permanent exhibition of the Archaeological Window, the focus of media story-telling (in addition to Herford’s founding history) is to be on the more recent history of the Frauenstift and its authoritative abbesses.

This draft plans to make all 43 abbesses (including the three counter-abbesses of different times) from 803 to 1803 visible with their names. Thus they become visible as individuals at the place of their work. They are to characterize the entrance area of the Archaeological Window with their names.

An invisible LED surface (32 LEDs, each 5mm high, spaced 10mm apart) will be installed in the front of the concrete girders of the colonnades, to the right of the Wolperus Chapel; the names of the abbesses will be discreetly displayed over a width of approx. 3m (height approx. 35cm). Due to the use of ‘light concrete‘, the colorfulness of the concrete is preserved, the light is white. It seems as if the names shimmer out from inside the colonnades.

The pixels of the LEDs diffuse through the used light concrete (manufacturer Fa. Lucem, Aachen) to historical writings, which act like a door opener to past times, biographies and lifes.

Just as the Archaeological Window itself can only show rudimentary fragments and the overall picture of the former Herford Abbey must emerge in the visitor’s mind, this design also plays with perception: the closer one gets, the clearer it becomes: we are in the present, because this is a contemporary work using light. The location was chosen based on the assumption that visitors will enter the site of the Archaeological Window from this colonnade.

The chosen fonts are also intended to represent the time span of 1,000 years: the names of the abbesses pass slowly and one after the other in chronological order of their activity. I plan the time span for the total passing of all names to be about 7 min (about every 10 – 15 seconds a new name appears at the right edge and slowly glides to the left edge). 7 minutes for 1,000 years of history. The final programming is done in coordination with the users.

Furthermore the fonts and typefaces used over the pastcenturies have changed again and again: From late antique Romanesque uncials to the various revivals of anitquas, from varying common cursive scripts to the ever-changing fraktur, time can be made visible. Each abbess is assigned a script corresponding to her time. Visually, one runs through a chronology from the 9th to the 19th century. I.e. the letters preserved on grave vaults in the collegiate church will be used as reference.

It is not decisive for the viewers, the visitors and flaneurs, whether they see the entire sequence over the approx. 7 min. with all names. The abbesses and the time “encountered” can always be different. Maybe one or the other passerby starts googling individual names or recognizes them when visiting the Archaeological Window.

This intervention on the colonnades aims to make the names and thus the continuity of the work of the women visible with easy-to-maintain, long-lived and contemporary technology. The women have left their mark on history over a long period of time and far beyond Herford. The work discreetly blends into the new architecture structuring the site and extends it by a mental dimension towards the people who lived here.

Äbtissinnen von Herford has an effect on the city and starts a dialogue: with the other strong women of the city’s history, with passers-by, residents. The work invites everyone in a very personal way to visit the new archaeological window and to engage with the history of the city.