Germany’s buildings span some 1,200 years of architectural history and were created in a number of different styles. (The Porta Nigra, a 1,800-year-old arched gateway in Trier is Germany’s only remaining Roman-era structure of any significance.) But Germany’s rich architectural heritage suffered a devastating blow during World War II, when Allied bombing raids leveled entire cities and left many important buildings and churches in ruins. Some areas escaped damage, such as the medieval towns along the Romantic Road, but the overall devastation affected nearly the entire country. Many historic buildings you’ll see today are actually painstaking postwar reconstructions. Here are examples from around Germany of the major architectural periods.

Carolingian & Ottonian (9th–11th c.)  -- The earliest manifestations of a discernibly Germanic architecture date from the period of Charlemagne’s rule as king of the Franks (768–814) and Emperor of the West (800–14), called the Carolingian era after Charlemagne. Constructed around 800, Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen harkens back to earlier Byzantine models of building. During the next dynasty, founded by Otto I, architecture developed more complex ground plans, with a rational system devised for dividing churches into a series of separate units—a method that would be of consequence in Romanesque design.

Romanesque (11th–12th c.) -- Simple clear forms, thick walls, and rounded arches signal Romanesque architecture, a building style inspired by Roman models. The cathedral in Mainz and Dom St. Kilian in Würzburg are two of the largest Romanesque churches in Germany.

Gothic (13th–16th c.) -- Cologne cathedral is Germany’s greatest example of Gothic architecture, a style developed in France and diffused throughout Europe. The Gothic style is characterized by pointed arches, soaring vaults and spires, and flying buttresses. 

Renaissance (15th– early 17th c.) -- Augsburg is one of the best cities in Germany to see Renaissance architecture, a style whose calm precision, orderly repeating lines, and classical decoration harkens back ancient Rome. Renaissance architecture was imported from Italy into southern Germany, while a more highly ornamented Dutch style prevailed in northern Germany, in towns such as Hameln or the 17th-century section of Heidelberg Castle. 

Baroque (17th–18th c.) -- The Baroque unites architecture, sculpture and painting into an exuberant style that flourished in Catholic, Counter-Reformation areas in the south of Germany. The Residenz in Würzburg, the Zwinger palace in Dresden, and the palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam are important examples. Munich abounds in the Baroque.

Rococo (18th c.) -- Notch up the elements of Baroque and you have Rococo, exemplified by curving walls and staggering amounts of gilded and stucco decoration. A famous example of flamboyant Rococo church architecture is the Wieskirche in Bavaria. The style also found expression in theater, such as the Residenztheater by François Cuvilliés in Munich.

Neoclassical (19th c.) -- The stern Neoclassical style was meant to be a rebuke to the excesses of Baroque and Rococo. There are several great examples in Berlin, where the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel designed several buildings along the grand avenue Unter den Linden as well as the Altes Museum on Museum Island. His Munich counterpart was Leo von Klenze, who was entrusted with the neoclassical design of Königsplatz, including the Glyptothek museum and the Propyläen monument. 

Historicism (late 19th–early 20th c.)  -- The establishment of the German Empire in 1871 sparked a revival of numerous historic styles, often combining them into a single building. In Dresden, Gottfried Semper, for instance, incorporated Renaissance, Baroque, and neoclassical elements into his addition to the Zwinger and the Semper Operahouse. The most famous building of this era is Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein castle.

Jugendstil (early 20th c.) -- Jugendstil is the German name for Art Nouveau, an early-20th-century European movement that emphasized flowing, asymmetrical, organic shapes. Many Jugendstil villas line the streets of lakeside neighborhoods in Hamburg.

The Bauhaus Influence

Founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius (1883–1969), the Bauhaus School was forced to move to Dessau and finally to Berlin before it was banned by the Nazis in 1933 for being “too modernist.” But in its brief and beleaguered 14 years of existence, the Bauhaus managed to revolutionize architecture and design. The ornate historicism that dominated these fields until the end of World War I was replaced with a minimalist aesthetic that focused on the utility and functionality of the object. Everything from houses to factories and cradles to teapots was radically re-imagined, and the Bauhaus creations that emerged have now become icons of modern design. Teachers in the school included artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and architects like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Learn more at the Bauhaus museums in Weimar and Berlin. 

Modernism (1948 onward) -- A major housing shortage and rebuilding effort in bombed cities in Germany followed the devastation of World War II. If you walk down the streets or pedestrian zones in just about any major German city, you’ll see modernist buildings all around you. It’s a simple, functional style with straight lines and square windows, and it learned quite a few lessons from the Bauhaus. One of the most famous architects of the period since World War II is Hans Scharoun, whose daring Philharmonie concert hall in Berlin was completed in 1963.

Postmodernism (1980s onward) -- Some of the most exciting buildings in Germany have been built since reunification in 1990. Berlin especially is a showcase with Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center being major landmarks. In Cologne, OM Unger’s Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart have made a visual splash.


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