From Baroque to Bauhaus: An overview of German architecture styles
A huge array of architectural styles are to be found in Germany, with grand Gothic structures, fairytale castles, half-timbered houses and modernist glass and steel constructions all sitting happily side-by-side across the country. If you’re planning to get out and about to see some of the most iconic buildings the federal republic has to offer, or you’re just interested in all things architecture, here’s our guide to German architecture styles.
German architecture styles: A guide through the ages
Although Germany has only existed as a united nation since the late 19th century, humans have been living, working and building on the land for thousands of years, so it should come as no surprise that architectural styles of all different ages are represented right here. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of architecture in Germany through the ages, along with some examples of buildings done in these styles.
Ancient German architecture
Human dwellings dating as far back as 5.000 BC and beyond have been uncovered in Germany - a series of incredibly well-preserved prehistoric pile dwellings (stilt houses) discovered around the Alps were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 - but the first great examples of ancient architecture in Germany come from the Romans.
The Roman Empire once covered much of modern-day Germany and an impressive array of constructions came from their time in power. Thermal baths, bridges, amphitheatres and the limes defence system that marked the empire’s boundaries are all still visible today.
Famous ancient German buildings
Trier, sometimes called the “Rome of the North”, was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and today contains the highest concentration of important Roman buildings north of the Alps - many of them stunningly well-preserved - including an amphitheatre, the Roman Bridge, the imperial baths, the Basilica of Constantine, and the Porta Nigra, an enormous fortified gate.
German medieval architecture: Romanesque and Gothic
After the Romans departed from Germany, some of their architectural advances like baths, underfloor heating and aqueducts all but vanished, but their building methods survived to an extent. In Germany and the rest of western Europe, architects under the Merovingian, Carolingian and Ottonian dynasties continued to build large stone buildings, developing a new architectural style in western Europe known as Romanesque, that combined features of ancient Roman and Byzantine buildings with local traditions.
Romanesque architecture is characterised by its relative simplicity: semi-circular arches, thick walls, sturdy pillars, large towers and regular, symmetrical shapes. Although this period saw the building of many castles, they were greatly outnumbered by churches, as an increasingly Christianised Europe turned its gaze heavenward.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the iconic German buildings of this period are largely religious in nature, including Maria Laach Abbey, Lorsch Abbey, the 12 Romanesque churches of Cologne and the cathedrals of Speyer, Worms and Mainz.
Over time, Romanesque architecture evolved into Gothic architecture, a style that flourished in Germany and across Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages as religious fervour swelled and demanded grander, bigger and more spectacular structures, leading to a number of architectural advances like flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings. While these elements originally served structural purposes, they eventually became essential components of the Gothic aesthetic, second only to the period’s defining design element: the pointed arch.
Famous Gothic buildings in Germany
Some of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture in Germany include Cologne Cathedral, Hildesheim Town Hall, Ulm Minster (the tallest church in the world), Hohenzollern Castle, Maulbronn Monastery and the Frauenkirche in Munich.
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The Renaissance - a revival of ancient Greek and Roman thought and culture - developed first in France and quickly spread to other parts of Europe, including Germany. Taking a leaf out of the Greeks’ and Romans’ books, Renaissance architecture placed an emphasis on symmetry, proportion and geometry, and made use of style elements like columns, semicircular arches and domes.
Examples of classical buildings in Germany
Some famous buildings in Germany built in the style of the Renaissance include Heidelberg Castle, Johannisburg Palace in Aschaffenburg, St Michael’s Church in Munich, the Fugger Houses in Augsburg, and Cologne City Hall. The Juleum in Helmstedt is a great example of how the Weser region of Germany also developed its own style of Renaissance architecture during this period.
Baroque architecture in Germany
Baroque architecture began to develop in the early 17th century as part of the Counter-Reformation movement. As Protestant churches after the Reformation began to abandon splendour and adornment in favour of a more sober style, the Catholic Church went to the other extreme, creating a new style of highly decorative architecture intended to awe and inspire.
Baroque architecture borrowed elements like domes and colonnades from the Renaissance and made them grander, taller, more decorative and more dramatic with artfully directed light, gilded surfaces, twisted columns, grand staircases and other decorative elements designed to pull the gaze upwards.
Examples of Baroque-style buildings in Germany
Many of the buildings in Germany built in the baroque style are in Bavaria, including the Würzburg Residence, Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, and the Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Bamberg. The Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin is also a beautiful example of Baroque architecture.
Rococo: 18th century German architecture
Decorative German design reached a crescendo in the first half of the 18th century with the influence of French and Italian Rococo style, which is sometimes known as the late phase of the Baroque.
Rococo buildings in Germany
Some of the most famous Rococo buildings in Germany are Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, the Pilgrimage Church of Wies, and the Old Town Hall in Bonn.
Classicism, Neoclassicism and Romanticism: Prussian architecture and classical architecture in Germany
The lightness of Rococo vanished in the early 19th century, when a forbidding sort of Neoclassicism came to represent the military spirit of Prussia (a former German state of the time). The Romantically-tinged Neoclassicist style of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who became state architect of Prussia in 1815, is typical of this era.
Classicism and Neoclassicism can be considered a reaction against the ostentatiously-decorated Baroque and Rococo styles. As during the Renaissance, Classicism drew inspiration from the classical architecture of antiquity.
Classical buildings in Germany
Some famous buildings and monuments built in the classicist style include the Altes Museum (a Schinkel creation) on Museum Island in Berlin, Kӧnigsplatz in Munich, the Konzerthaus Berlin, and possibly the most famous monument in Germany: the Brandenburg Gate.
Image credit: Alex Rebenchuk / Shutterstock.com
After leaping back into antiquity, architects in Germany in the 19th century began to embrace design elements from other periods of history - including both antiquity and the medieval period - and combined them into a new style known as Historicism.
Historicist buildings in Germany
Good examples of Historicist buildings in Germany include the Deutsche Bahn building in Bremen with its brick facade and columns, Saint Michael’s Church in Berlin, which combines Gothic elements with a domed roof, and Schwerin Castle. However, the period’s penchant for harking back to times gone by is best demonstrated by the country’s most famous building: Neuschwanstein Castle, which was constructed as a romantic homage to medieval architecture.
Art Nouveau (Jugendstil)
The Art Nouveau movement - known as Jugendstil in Germany - began in the late 19th century as another reaction, this time against the historicism and neoclassicism that had come to dominate design. Jugendstil’s proponents drew from both organic and geometric forms to create a new design that combined flowing curves, straight lines, and decorative, floral elements.
Art Nouveau buildings in Germany
Some good examples of buildings built in the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil style in Germany include Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, which was built as an artists’ colony in the late 19th century, the Hackesche Höfe building complex in Berlin, and the Münchner Kammerspiele.
Bauhaus & Postmodernism: Contemporary German architecture
Jugendstil helped open the door for radical experiments that characterised German architecture in the 20th century. And modern architecture - both in Germany and around the world - would not be the same without the influence of the Bauhaus School that originated in Weimar in the 1920s.
The Bauhaus School insisted on the strict harmony of style with function and a focus on the beauty of the materials themselves, with an almost puritanical disdain for decorativeness. Although originally there was no architecture school for Bauhaus, and before the Second World War few “modern” buildings were built in Germany, after the war this became the dominant architectural style for the ensuing three decades.
Bauhaus and postmodernist buildings in Germany
The Bauhaus School in Dessau is clearly the most famous example of Bauhaus architecture in Germany. Other postmodernist structures include the Messeturm in Frankfurt, the Alfred-Wegener-Institut in Bremerhaven and the New Synagogue in Darmstadt.
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Traditional German architecture
What most people think of as “traditional German architecture” are the half-timbered houses that are the pride and joy of the towns and cities that they are located in. This building method has been used for thousands of years across the world, but the country most known for this kind of architecture is Germany.
Half-timbering: What German houses should look like
Timber framing (known as Holzfachwerk in German) is a traditional method of building whereby heavy timbers are pegged together to create a frame, and the remaining gaps are filled with some kind of filling material. The frame is then often left exposed on the exterior, giving it the name “half-timbering”.
Where to find half-timbered houses in Germany
There are more than 2,5 million half-timbered houses spread across Germany, so you’re likely to run into some almost anywhere in the country, but some of the best places to see half-timbered houses in Germany are:
- Quedlinburg, Saxony-Anhalt
- Stade, Lower Saxony
- Celle, Lower Saxony
- Bernkastel-Kues, Rhineland-Palatinate
- Esslingen, Baden-Württemberg
- Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria
- Bamberg, Bavaria
If you’re really into half-timbered houses, you could even take the German Timber Frame Route, a tourist route in Germany that covers 3.500 kilometres, 100 medieval towns, and 700 years of building history.
A note on old German buildings
These towns and cities are particularly proud of their half-timbered medieval buildings - and they are among the most sought-after of all housing types - because old German buildings can be few and far between, especially in large cities. This is because Germany was bombed so heavily during the Second World War that great swathes of medieval architecture were simply lost.
Famous German architects
It’s usually the case that the buildings themselves are more famous than the architects who created them - but not always so! Here are some of the best and most famous German architects, who played a major role in shaping the German skyline.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 - 1841)
A prolific constructor of neoclassical and neo-gothic buildings, even if you don’t know the name Karl Friedrich Schinkel, you’ll almost certainly have seen some of his work. Schinkel’s most famous buildings can be found in and around Berlin, including the Neue Wache, the National Monument for the Liberation Wars, the Schauspielhaus at the Gendarmenmarkt, and the Altes Museum on Museum Island.
Gottfried Semper (1803 - 1879)
Gottfried Semper is best known for the building that bears his name: the Semper Opera House in Dresden. In a career spanning 40 years, he worked on a variety of projects on hugely different scales, from multiple grand buildings in Dresden and the redesign of Ringstraße in Vienna, to a baton for the composer Richard Wagner.
Peter Behrens (1868 - 1940)
Best known for his pioneering AEG Turbine Factory in Berlin in 1909, Peter Behrens had a long career spanning multiple decades and building styles. Many leading European architects also worked under him in the early 20th century, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius.
Walter Gropius (1883 - 1969)
The founder of the Bauhaus School perhaps needs no introduction. Gropius is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modernist architecture and the International Style, which in the period since the Second World War has become ubiquitous across Europe. His most famous buildings include the Bauhaus School in Dessau, the Gropius House in Massachusetts, the MetLife Building in Manhattan, and the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 - 1969)
Generally regarded as one of the pioneers of modernist architecture. He was the last director of the Bauhaus in the 1930s before emigrating to the US as Nazism took over Germany. His style is notable for its extreme clarity and simplicity and use of modern materials like industrial steel and plate glass.
Erich Mendelsohn (1887 - 1953)
Erich Mendelsohn is best known for his expressionist architecture from the 1920s, as well as for his “functionalist” department store designs. His most famous works include the Einsteinturm in Potsdam, the Mossehaus in Berlin and the Schocken department store in Stuttgart.
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Architecture in Germany
So there we are: a whistle-stop tour through architecture in Germany! Next time you’re out and about on the streets, look up - you’ll be surprised how much more you see.