Architecture of Berlin (History)

Berlin is essentially a creation of modern times, from a small trading town into the Capital of Germany, of which it architecture constantly changed throughout history.

The Grunderzeit

Grunderzeit (foundation years) was founded by Kaiser Wilhelm German empire in 1871. “This retro approach to architecture merely recycled earlier styles, sometimes even blending several together in an aesthetic hotchpotch called Eclecticism” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:56).  Public building during this period reflected the confidence of the united German with their ostentatious style. Prominent examples of neo-Renaissance style are the Reichstag by Paul Wallot and the Berliner Dom (Berlins Cathedral) by Julius Rashdorff .

Berliner Dom

And the Theater des Westens enforces Eclectism. 

The Birth of Modernism

The Grunderzeit period was not a time to experiment however, a few did manage to make their mark.  One being Peter Behrens (1868-1940), whom was sometimes called the ‘father of modern architecture’ (Schulte-Peevers 2009:56).  “Elements chracterising Modernism include a simplification of forms, the almost complete lack of ornamentation and the extensive use of glass, concrete and steel” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:56).  A key example is the 1929 Berolinahaus on Alexanderplats (now a C&A clothing store).  

However, the most accomplished structure by Behrens and an icon of early industrial architecture is the 1909 AEG Turbinenhalle (industrial cathedral). 

The Weimar years

WWI put all creativity on hold that resulted in more during the years of the Weimar Republic (the 1920s). Innovation lured a whole host of the finest avant-garde architects to Berlin, including Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Scharoun, Bruno and Max Taut, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hans Poelzig. Within 1923 they formed an architectural association called Der Ring, which later got adjusted to the Bauhaus. “Members were united not by a single architectural vision, but by the desire to break with traditional aesthetics and to create a modern, healthier and affordable yet human-scale- approach to building” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:57).  This idea was put into place with the demand for housing due to a shortage. “In cahoots with chief city planner, Martin Wagner, Ring members divised a new frm of social housing called Siedlungen (housing estates), which opened up the living spaces and incorporated gardens, schools, shops and othe communal areas that promoted social interaction” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:57). A key example is the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Colony) in southern Neukolln, of which is a horseshoe shaped building wrapped around a central garden, created by Wagner and Bruno Taut.


Nazi monumentalism

As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933 Modernist architecture was put to a halt. The new regime shut down Bauhaus school, “one of the most influential forces in 20th-centry architecture” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58) especially modernism. Hitler enforced architectural monumentalism by putting “Albert Speer in charge of turning Berlin into the Welthauptstadt Germanis, the future capital of the Reich” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58).  Today very few Nazi-era building surive. A key relic is the coliseum-like Olympiastadion created by Walter and Werner March, of which to this day still feels gargantuan despite a modernisation.  The legacy of the Third Reich architect, Ernst Sagebiel, still surives today with his massive Reichsluftfahrtsministerium (Reich Aviation Ministry, of which is today the Federal ministry of Finance.


The divided city

The Wall however turned Berlin into a divided city comprising of two separate cities that clash in economic and ideological systems between the East and the West, of which is prevalent within the architectural arena of the city space. “East Germans looked to Moscow, where Stalin favored a style that was essentially a socialist reinterpretation of good old-fashioned neoclassicism” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58).  This is starkly different to the modernist aspirations of the democratic West.

East Berlin

One of the standout architects in East Berlin GDR was Hermann Henselmann, of which was the mastermind of Karl-Marx-Allee. “Built between 1952 and 1965, it was East Berlin’s first ‘socialist boulevard’ and the epitome of Stalinist pomposity (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58).  At Alexanderplatz East Berlin city planners began embracing finally, modern architectural principles after the death of Stailn in 1953, although the modern architecture was not in an aesthetically appealing fashion. “Based on a carefully crafted ‘socialist master plan’, the square was enlarged, turned into a pedestrian zone and developed into East Berlin’s commercial hub and architectural showcase” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58). The only restored buildings that were pre-war and were not demolished were Peter Behrens’ functional Berolinahaus and the Alexanderhaus.




 West Berlin

West Berlin urban planning in contrast to the East sought to eradicate any hint of monumentalism by rebuilding the city in a modern, organic and rhythmic manner that provided many open spaces, of which can be a metaphor for a free open society. A key example: the Hansaviertel,


of which is a loosely structured leafy area that blends high-rises and single-family homes together. Another key example is was the daring construction project taking shape within the wartime wasteland of the Southeast of Tiergarten: the Kulturforum,


“a museum and concert hall complex just west of Potsdemer Platz that was part of Hans Scharoun’s vision of a cultural belt stretching from Museumsinsel to Schloss Charlottenburg” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:58). However, the Berlin Wall put an end to the ambition of creating a central link between the Eastern and Western city halves. Key masterpiece of sculptural Modernism was Scharoun’s Philharmonie. As well as the Staatsbibliothek (State Libray) and the Kammermusiksaal (Chamber Music Hall).  In addition, “Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) also had a commanding presence within the Kulturforum” (Schulte-Peevers 2009:56).


By Rebecca Holland



Schulte-Peevers, A. et al. (2009) Berlin: City Guide

London: Lonely Planet publishers LTD.


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