Germany's Architecture

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 are painstaking postwar reconstructions. Here are examples from around Germany of the major architectural trends.

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 Palatine or Octagonal chapel in Aachen  harkens back to earlier Byzantine models of building. During the Ottonian dynasty architecture developed more complex ground plans and a rational system was devised for dividing churches into a series of separate units, a method that was to be of consequence in Romanesque design.

Romanesque (11th–12th c.) -- Simple, clear forms, thick walls, and rounded arches signal Romanesque architecture, a building style adapted from earlier Roman models. The cathedral in Mainz  and Dom St. Kilian (p. ##) 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. Compared to Romanesque, Gothic style is slender and daring, with pointed arches, soaring vaults and spires, and enormous windows. A simpler and more monumental kind of Gothic architecture, built of brick, predominates in northern Germany in cities such as Lübeck .

Renaissance (late 15th–17th c.) -- Augsburg  is one of the best cities in Germany to see Renaissance architecture, a style characterized by calm precision, orderly repeating lines, and classical decoration over windows and doors. Renaissance architecture was imported from Italy into southern Germany.

Baroque (17th–18th c.) -- A decorative exuberance in curvy Baroque architecture sets it apart from the more sober Renaissance style. The Baroque flourished in Catholic, Counter-Reformation areas in the south of Germany. The Residenz  in Würzburg and the palace of Sanssouci  in Potsdam are two of the best examples in Germany. 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. One of the most famous examples of flamboyant Rococo church architecture in Germany is the Wieskirche  in Bavaria. The Rococo style was used in theatres of the time: The Altes Residenztheater  in Munich is one of the best examples.

Neoclassical/Neo-Gothic (19th c.) -- The Neoclassical style was meant to be a rebuke to the excesses of Baroque and Rococo. As the century wore on, Neoclassicism gave way to the more ponderous Neo-Gothic style. This faux-medievalism is what Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle  is all about.

Neoclassical Buildings of Note in Berlin & Munich

Neoclassical architecture has its stylistic roots in the Classical era of Greece. There are several great examples in Berlin, where the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) created a Neoclassical avenue called Unter den Linden and an island of museums, the Museumsinsel . In Munich the architect Leo von Klenze (1784–1864) designed museums like the Glyptothek  and monuments like the Propyläen at Königsplatz, inspired by Greek temples. This style can also be called Greek Revival.

Jugendstil (late 19th–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,

Bauhaus (1913–33) -- A rigorously modern style, free of frills and unnecessary decoration, Bauhaus was championed by Walter Gropius (1883–1969), who founded the Bauhaus school to create functional buildings and furnishings. The school was banned by the Nazis because it didn’t promote “German-looking” architecture. The Bauhaus aesthetic was taught and practiced in the United States by European expatriates and their disciples. The Neue Nationalgalerie  in Berlin, dating from 1968 and the last building designed by former Bauhaus teacher Mies van der Rohe, exemplifies the timeless Bauhaus style.

The Bauhaus Influence

Founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius (1883–1969), the Bauhaus 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 (it reemerged after World War II), the Bauhaus managed to revolutionize architecture and design. The banal historicism that dominated architecture and the kitschy overdecoration of everyday objects was swept away and replaced with unadorned exteriors and clear forms 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.

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) -- Postmodernism is a style practiced by architects who plunder the past and apply old styles to the buildings of today. James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie  in Stuttgart is a reminder of just how uninspired and dated most postmodern buildings are.


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