Berlin‘s history has left the city with an eclectic assortment of architecture. The city’s appearance in the 21st century has been shaped by the key role the city played in Germany’s 20th-century history. From historic buildings to stunning contemporary ones, Berlin is filled with buildings worth the visit.
Germany is a country with a war-fraught history. Half a century after the Second World War and almost 30 years since the Berlin wall came tumbling down, it has managed to reinvent itself as a progressive, forward-thinking city. The power that came with Germany’s empire is evident in every square inch of this now-modern town. With imposing structures from centuries back, museums holding some of the world’s most impressive antiquities, and structures that have become landmarks of modern design, it offers a glimpse of German culture, its past and how its future is shaping up. Today, Berlin is a vibrant, gritty city with a youth culture that is pervasive despite the region’s omnipresent history. With goth, punk rock and counterculture playing a big part of Berlin as we know it today, the city is a true dichotomy between old and new.
The History of Berlin Architecture
The evolution of the architecture of a certain region can vary greatly based on its historical influences. It has been observed through time that architecture can develop uniquely due to factors like weather conditions, religious beliefs, political influences, cultural practices, and even as security measures.
A war-ridden city with rigid colonial regiments that has now evolved into a vibrant progressive capital that promotes modernism and open-minded thinking. The city skyline in each era reflected the principles and requirements of the government that was based in the city at that time. Hence, to understand the Architecture of the city, we must first understand the motives of the regiment that built it. Architecture before the 20th century transitioned from the Romanesque to the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque Styles.
Although these phases were mostly influenced by the religious reforms that evolved during a particular reign, the true political influence on architecture began from the early 20th century after the unification of Germany and during the rule of the Prussian kingdom.Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended the throne the same year as his grandfather and father, to become the last German king and Emperor of Prussia. His intent was to make a statement by transforming Berlin to reflect himself and his Dynasty; a city that would exude “luxury” and would overthrow the British and French dominance. The style that developed during this showcase of power was a combination of Gothic, Neo-Baroque, and German Romanesque styles that was pompous while promoting innovation and modernity.
The era began with the inauguration of the Kaiser Cathedral, commonly known as the “Berlin Dome” and the renovations of the Berlin Opera and the Berlin Schloss Palace. Science and Technology were at its peak as universities and institutes were enlarged and developed to encourage new inventions while attracting famous names like Albert Einstein and the AEG Company who built their headquarters in Berlin. This resulted in rapid urbanization by demolishing and renovating new residential areas in a modern yet efficient manner. Peter Behrens and Alfred Messel were the forefronts of this functional style of Architecture which would eventually inspire the Bauhaus style in the 1920s. The AEG power station designed by Behrens was a classic example of a structure that displayed Berlin’s growth and the architect’s functional style. The 100m long and 15m high walls of steel supported a polygonal framed glass roof that allowed optimum entry of sunlight. The project featured advanced construction technology and industrial innovation in the field of Architecture. Wilhelm’s military strategies and imperialistic colonial policies eventually led to the onset of the Great War that put a grinding halt to the rapid development that was taking place in the city. The Pergamon Museum by Ludwig Hoffmann was the last ambitious project of this era that could only be completed at the end of the First World War.
The Great War ended in 1918 with the revolution in Germany that led to the abdication of the king. Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the Republic and Berlin lost its capital status to the city of Weimar, which was chosen to house the government. Despite the post-war damages in Berlin, it remained culturally relevant and made advancements in technology. The constant state of fear and hope was reflected in its architecture through radical shapes depicting futurism. Russian influence was evident in the structures as immigrants moved into the city due to the Russian revolution. This era also saw the beginning of The Bauhaus Movement, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. The Bauhaus School preached the philosophy that placed function over form, by encouraging designs that were understated, efficient, and useful to the public. This was a direct contrast to the style that prevailed during the Kaiser regiment. The school started in Weimar but eventually moved to Dessau in 1925 and finally settled in Berlin in 1932. The Bauhaus style was characterized by abstract and geometric styles that were often criticized for the lack of emotion and historical touch. Rigid angles of steel, glass, and concrete denied the building any personal touch, and only focused on mass production and functionality of the structure. The movement would still be influential in architectural practices later, but was shut down immediately in 1933 when the Nazis came to power and Hitler classified this movement as “Degenerate Art”. The Shell-Haus designed by Emil Fahrenkamp in 1932 followed the Bauhaus concept and was one of Berlin’s first steel-framed high rise commercial buildings that housed the headquarters of an oil company. The Berolina Haus by Peter Behrens is another example of a structure of this era that was censured for being expressionless and bland despite some modern touches of glass galleries as shops.
Hitler came into power in 1933, with grand plans of transforming Berlin into Germania. Much like Kaiser, Hitler’s goal was to use architecture as a display of power, prosperity, and force of Nazi Germany and promote his philosophy of National Socialism. Albert Speer was commissioned to create this vision of a “Thousand-year Reich” which would be inaugurated in 1950. Multiple historical buildings were demolished in order to accomplish this mission but the capital remained incomplete. Very few buildings remained from this era, with many being demolished after the Second World War. The Reichskanzlei (Chancellery), eventually pulled down by the Soviet Administration, was designed and executed by Speer within 2 years to accommodate a 300m gallery that took the visitor through a long route to the Fuhrer’s study with an aim to induce humility in the guests. The Goering Air Ministry (Reichslufthrstsministerium) and the Tempelhof airport, designed by Ernest Sagebiel still remain today as a symbol of Nazi architecture. The semi-circular shaped airport housed administrative buildings and the main hall. The facade was a row of tall windows with heavy cornices, a style that prevailed in Europe in the mid-’30s and was an essential part of Nazi architecture.
With the end of World War II and Hitler’s suicide, Nazism was abolished and Berlin was divided into two parts. The war destroyed so much of the infrastructure there. If you have ever seen the iconic Italian Neorealist film “Germany Year 0”, you will have a picture of the destruction. The common decision to restore Berlin to its former glory never materialized with the rising tensions of the Cold War. Numerous migrants fled from the east to the west due to their liberal regimes and a wall had to be built by the Soviets to stop this problem. The East and the West were desperate to showcase their superiority. East Berlin did so by building the Fernsehturm television tower which rose to a height of 365 m and could be visible even from West Berlin. West Berlin on the other hand developed the commercial city of Kurfurstendamm to showcase their prosperity. Several renowned architects like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Oscar Niemeyer developed housing concepts around the city. The Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) became the landmark of the city and symbolized a free Berlin. This era marked the construction of tall towers and was called the “Race to the sky”. During this period, my mother actually went to Germany and lived in West Berlin as an nanny. It’s fascinating to think about the political divides and conflict everyone who lived through that period in time experienced.
The wall of shame was pulled down and 3rd October 1990 was marked the official date of Germany’s unification. Berlin was declared the capital in 1991 and the parliament was established in the Reichstag building that had been unused for several years. Embassies were transferred from Bonn to Berlin, which resulted in the construction of several avant-gardes eclectic buildings. 800 Architects were known to participate in the magnanimous project that required the construction of new ministries, chancellery, and the redevelopment of the Reichstag Hemicycle. The refurbished Reichstag is now crowned with a glass dome as per the designs of Sir Norman Foster. The Bundeskanzleramt (chancellery building), one of the largest government buildings in the world, was designed in post-modern style with glass and concrete by architects Frank and Schultes. Berlin is now the most populous city of the European Union and continues to be a center of development with a diverse skyline that highlights its history and modernity.I have visited on multiple occasions, and experienced the openness and vitality of the city, filled with profound art, a liberal culture, and spectacular architecture.
Berlin’s 10 Most Amazing Buildings
1. Kino International
No architectural tour of Berlin would be complete without exploring the Soviet Era buildings found on avenues like Frankfurter Allee at the eastern end of the city — one of the most famous and iconic of which is Josef Kaiser’s Kino International. Completed in 1963, Kino International was one of East Berlin’s premiere theaters before the fall of the wall. Now it serves as a historic gem that shows selected pictures and hosts the occasional soiree. Along with the glamorous 60s style décor, the building design invites visitors to step back into a different epoch in the city’s history.The cinema, which holds almost 600 viewers, is inclined. The acoustic technology was developed especially for the theater and is similar to that of a recording studio. Walls are covered with acoustic dampening panels and the wall coverings, made of offset wood panels with open joints guaranteed an acoustic experience that was unique at that time. The waved ceiling also optimally reflects sounds to the seating area. In the 1980s, Kino International was one of the first cinemas in the GDR equipped with Dolby Stereo.
The theater was designed by Josef Kaiser and Heinz Aust as a three-story reinforced concrete frame construction with light sandstone façades. Kaiser had already designed the Kino Kosmosand Café Moskau. Due to the predefined boundaries of the bar area, the floor plans of each story vary: the ground floor is 38×35 m and the second floor is 47×35 m. A characteristic open space with glass surfaces faces the street, while the side façades feature 14 relief sculptures by Waldemar Grzimek, Hubert Schiefelbein, and Karl-Heinz Schamal. After its two-year construction, the theater was opened on 15 November 1963 with a grand opening premiere. In addition to the theater itself, other rooms included a library, an office of the Oktoberklub, and a “Representation Room” in which VIPs and SED party functionaries were entertained before and after film premieres. Today, these rooms host regular parties of Kino International’s gay and lesbian club.
2. Bauhaus Archiv
3. Marie Elisabeth Lüders Haus
4. Haus der Kulturen der Welt
5. NHow Hotel
6. Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin
7. Thomaskirche, Leipzig
8. Cafe Moskau, Berlin
9. Exhibition Hall of the German Historical Museum
10. Chapel of Reconciliation
In the summer of 1990 the removal of the border fortifications began, leaving the land where the Church of Reconciliation had once stood overgrown with grass and shrubs. While the general trend was to get rid of the physical evidence of Berlin’s division, the Reconciliation Parish considered the most suitable use for the site, in a way that commemorated its past whilst looking towards the future. The result was to build a chapel on the site; a modern construction that considered ecological and historical concerns as well as the needs of its parishioners.
The Berlin architects Rudolf Reitermann and Peter Sassenroth were commissioned to design the chapel. Wooden columns were used for the outer oval wall, which recreates the shape of the chapel’s predecessor and the inner oval of the chapel is made from pressed clay and follows the usual east-west orientation of churches. The chapel was constructed in 1999 under the leadership of the Austrian clay artist Martin Rauch. Volunteers from Open Houses (a German charity founded in 1989 that specialises in preserving endangered historical monuments in east Germany, with the help of foreign volunteers) came from fourteen eastern and western European countries to support the building project. To construct the walls, 30 cm of moist clay was put into position and then compressed by 8 cm, giving the wall’s structure its strength. Within the clay, pieces of stone and even glass are visible and these came from the rubble of the previous church. It is the first clay-built public building to be built for over 150 years in Germany and the first clay-built German church. On 9 November 2000, on the eleventh anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chapel of Reconciliation was consecrated. The chapel unites architectural and ecological modernity with remembrance, standing as a triumph against its predecessor’s destruction. Its memorial and reconciliation roles are recognised by the chapel being part of Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstaette Berliner Mauer) and with it being included in Coventry Cathedral’s Community of the Cross of Nails: a world symbol for reconciliation and peace. The chapel also has a replica of Coventry Cathedral’s Statue of Reconciliation, a gift of the Cathedral found in Hiroshima and Belfast too – also places emerging from the destructiveness of war.
12. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is a Protestant church affiliated with the Evangelical Church in Berlin, Brandenburg and Silesian Upper Lusatia, a regional body of the Evangelical Church in Germany. It is located in Berlin on the Kurfürstendamm in the centre of the Breitscheidplatz. The construction of the church was part of a Protestant church-building programme initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his consort Augusta Victoria to counter the German labour movement and socialist movement by a return to traditional religious values. Wilhelm II decided to name the church in honor of his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I. The competition for the design was won by Franz Schwechten, member of the Bauakademie who had distinguished himself with the design of the Anhalter Bahnhof. Schwechten, a native Rhinelander, planned for a large church to be built in a Neo-Romanesque style modelled on the Bonn Minster with a Tuff stone facade.
The new church was designed by Eiermann and consists of four buildings grouped around the remaining ruins of the old church. The initial design included the demolition of the spire of the old church but following pressure from the public, it was decided to incorporate it into the new design. The four buildings comprise, on the west of the ruins, the new church with a foyer to its west, and to the east of the ruins, a tower with a chapel to its northeast. The plan of the church is octagonal while the plan of the tower is hexagonal. These components are sited on a plateau measuring 100 metres long and 40 metres wide. The new buildings are constructed of concrete, steel and glass. The walls of the church are made of a concrete honeycomb containing 21,292 stained glass inlays. The glass, designed by Gabriel Loire, was inspired by the colours of the glass in Chartres Cathedral. The predominant colour is blue, with small areas of ruby red, emerald green and yellow. The church is 35 metres in diameter and 20.5 metres high with a capacity of over 1,000.
13. Berliner Fernsehturm
The Berliner Fernsehturm or Fernsehturm Berlin is a television tower in central Berlin, Germany. Located in the Marien quarter, close to Alexanderplatz in the locality and district of Mitte, the tower was constructed between 1965 and 1969 by the government of the German Democratic Republic. In addition to its main function as the location of several radio and television broadcasting stations, the building – internally known as “Fernmeldeturm 32” – serves as a viewing tower with observation deck including a bar at a height of 203,68 metres, as well as a rotating restaurant. Also, the Berlin TV Tower can be booked as a venue for events. The distinctive city landmark has undergone a radical, symbolic transformation: After German reunification, it changed from a politically charged, national symbol of the GDR into a citywide symbol of a reunited Berlin. Due to its universal and timeless design, it has increasingly been used as a trademark and is identified worldwide with Berlin and Germany. In 1979, the Berlin TV Tower received monument status by the GDR, a status which was perpetuated after the German reunification.The tower has become one of the most prominent symbols of the country and is often in the establishing shot of films set in Berlin, alongside monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Victory Column and the Reichstag building. It is also one of the ten most popular attractions in Germany with more than 1,000,000 visitors every year.
14. Reichstag Building
The Reichstag is a historic building in Berlin which houses the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament. It was constructed to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It was opened in 1894 and housed the Diet until 1933, when it was severely damaged after being set on fire. Tucked away behind the imposing facade of this 19th-century building is one of the Reichstag’s most impressive features, albeit a contemporary one. A free guided tour will take you up to the top of a spectacular glass dome, designed by Norman Foster in 1999 as part of a huge renovation project, which offers 360-degree views of the parliamentary and government district of Berlin. The original building suffered greatly in the early half of the 20th century, damaged by a mysterious fire in 1933 and then attacked by air raids during World War II. The building also became a key target for the Red Army during the 1945 Battle of Berlin, given its political significance – to this day, visitors can see Soviet graffiti emblazoned on its smoky walls.
15. Berlin Cathedral
The Berlin Cathedral (German: Berliner Dom), also known as, the Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church, is a monumental German Evangelical church and dynastic tomb (House of Hohenzollern) on the Museum Island in central Berlin. Having its origins as a castle chapel for the Berlin Palace, several structures have served to house the church since the 1400s. The present collegiate church was built from 1894 to 1905 by order of German Emperor William II according to plans by Julius Raschdorff in Renaissance and Baroque Revival styles. The listed building is the largest Protestant church in Germany and one of the most important dynastic tombs in Europe. In addition to church services, the cathedral is used for state ceremonies, concerts and other events.
Since the demolition of the Memorial Church (Denkmalskirche) section on the north side by the East German authorities in 1975, the Berlin Cathedral has consisted of the large Sermon Church (Predigtkirche) in the center, and the smaller Baptismal and Matrimonial Church (Tauf- und Traukirche) on the south side and the Hohenzollern crypt (Hohenzollerngruft), which covers almost the entire basement. Damaged during the Allied bombing in World War II, the cathedral’s original interior was restored by 2002. Currently there is discussion about restoring the historical exterior as well.