Culture and identity are nowhere more tangible than in our built environment, our architecture. Yet the minds behind the structures that inspire and in so many ways define our world are rarely as famous as their buildings. While we lavish attention on the masters of other forms of art; the Mozarts, van Goghs and Steinbecks of the world, architects often go less noticed despite their work being the one form of art with which we cannot avoid interacting. Few individuals can claim to shape the unique character of each city and nation to the degree that architects do. Who can think of France without envisioning the Eiffel Tower or the Notre Dame Cathedral, or of England without conjuring up an image of Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. Germany too has its fair share of culturally defining structures and has produced many of the most influential architects of the last two centuries. Here is a short list of some of the best and most famous architects that have had a defining role not only in German architecture but also in the built world that surrounds us all.
1. Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius (1883-1969) is best remembered as the father of the Bauhaus movement and a pioneer of modernist architecture. Alongside Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn and the other architects of the Bauhaus school, Gropius championed a new, socially conscious architecture that married function and form. His ambition was to bring beauty and meaning to industrial society by means of architecture that was nonetheless functional and economical in the modern city. After the rise of the Nazi dictatorship, which labeled his architecture as “Bolshevist” and “un-German”, Gropius left Germany and eventually settled in the USA, where he continued to work and teach until his death in 1969. The Bauhaus movement is now recognized as one of the most influential movements in 20th-century architecture, design and art. The best surviving buildings of Gropius’ design are the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Manhattan’s Pan Am Building (now known as the MetLife Building) and the Gropius House in Massachusetts. The latter was the home that he designed for his family in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when he taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It is now a National Historic Landmark.
2. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) rose to prominence in the years after the First World War with designs like the German Pavilion in Barcelona, a building that exemplifies the modernism of the architect’s vision. It was commissioned by the German government for the 1929 International Exposition at Barcelona (demolished 1930; reconstructed 1986). Mies worked in partnership with the designer and architect Lilly Reich and served as the last director of the Bauhaus school before it was shut down in 1933 under pressure from the Nazis. Like Gropius he emigrated to the USA where he continued an illustrious career in Chicago, Illinois. His designs exhibit an obsession with fine detail and precision, all building towards an aesthetic whole; “God is in the details”, he is famed to have remarked. His later works are great skeletons of industrial steel sheathed in glass curtain-wall facades. Among the major commissions, his architectural firm completed were the Promontory Apartments in Chicago (1949), the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (1949–51) also in Chicago and the Seagram Building (1956–58) in New York City. These buildings exemplify Mies’s famous principle that “less is more” and demonstrate his exceptional sense of proportion and extreme concern for detail. He was the leading master of the International Style, which reached its zenith at this time. Miesian-influenced steel-and-glass high-rise office buildings soon appeared all over the US and indeed all over the world. Mies continued to create beautiful buildings during the 1960s, among them the Bacardi Building in Mexico City (1961) and the most Miesian of all, the New National Gallery in Berlin, dedicated in 1968.
3. Erich Mendelsohn
The Prussian-born architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) came to prominence in 1920 when he designed and built the “Einstein Tower”, a still-functioning astrophysical observatory of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam. This bizarre and intriguing building is a monument of expressionist architecture and is now a popular tourist attraction. His Mossehaus building at the intersection of Jerusalemerstraße and Schützenstraße in Berlin is exemplary of his pioneering Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture. In 1924, he founded the “Ring”, an association of progressive Berlin architects, with Mies and Gropius. In 1933 Mendelsohn fled to England to escape the rising antisemitism that accompanied the growing success of the Nazi party. Mendelsohn proceeded to design a number of important buildings in Palestine under the British mandate. These included the Weizmann House and the main branch of Anglo-Palestine Bank (now Bank Leumi) in Jerusalem. From 1941, Mendelsohn lived the last years of his life in the United State. He firstly taught at the University of California, Berkeley, before assisting the US government in building the model German housing estates used for experiments needed to build expertise for bombing Nazi Germany. His final works were largely building projects for the Jewish community in and around San Francisco, where Mendelsohn died in 1953 aged 66.
4. Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Anyone who has taken a city tour of Berlin, whether they know it or not, is intimately familiar with the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). Buildings he designed include the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) memorial on Unter den Linden, National Monument for the Liberation Wars on Kreuzberg Hill in Friedrichshain, Berlin Concert Hall (Konzerthaus Berlin) at the Gendarmenmarkt, and Altes Museum and Neues Museum on Museum Island. He also designed the famous Iron Cross medal of Prussia and later Germany.
Schinkel was undoubtedly a genius; an accomplished painter, architect, city planner, designer of furniture and stage sets among other accolades. When he was a boy, fire engulfed his Prussian hometown of Neuruppin. This killed his father, an archdeacon, and destroyed the family home. The boy watched in amazement from a home for the widows of clergy as the town was reconstructed. He became an architect in the patronage of King Friedrich Wilhelm III in Berlin. At that time, the architectural taste in Prussia was shaped in the neoclassical style, mainly by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the architect of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Schinkel turned to Greek rather than Imperial Roman architecture, rejecting a style linked to the recent Napoleonic occupiers. In this, he was a noted proponent of the “Greek Revival” in Germany.
5. Gottfried Semper
The nineteenth-century architect Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) changed the face of Dresden like no other individual and deserves no small credit for making it one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in Europe. Semper was born into a wealthy industrialist family in Hamburg and studied Mathematics in Göttingen and architecture in Munich and Paris. During the late 1820s he traveled in Italy and Greece where he immersed himself in classical architecture. He practiced architecture in Dresden from 1834 until 1849 where he became professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts. Because of revolutionary activities during the failed May uprising of 1848, he was forced into exile to Switzerland, then Paris and London. He did not return to Germany until the amnesty of 1862. While in London he did not get many architectural contracts but produced great theoretical writings about architecture including his 1851 book The Four Elements of Architecture.
His style was influenced by early Renaissance, Baroque and the Greek classical revival. Among his most famous buildings is the Semper Opera House, considered to be the prime example of Dresden Baroque. After being gutted by fire in 1869, it was redesigned, partly again by Semper from exile, and completed in the Neo-Renaissance style in 1878. During the Bombing of Dresden in February 1945 most of the centre of Dresden including the beautiful Semperoper was reduced to shells or rubble. The opera house was reconstructed yet again and reopened exactly forty years later in February 1985. Other notable buildings by Semper in Dresden include the Semper art gallery, an extension to the older Zwinger Castle and one of his unrealized projects was later incorporated into the design of Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Bayreuth Festival Theater).
Notable mentions: Women in architecture
A shrewd reader may note the lack of women on this list. Well into the early twentieth century women faced staunch barriers to access higher education, state examinations or the Association of German Architects (Bund Deutscher Architekten). Despite these barriers, there were a number of significant female German architects who should not be overlooked, for example Emilie Winkelmann, the first freelance architect in Germany to establish an independent architectural practice in 1908. Consider also the architects Lilly Reich, Grete Schroeder and Margarete Knüppelholz, who brought exceptional talent and innovation to the field of architecture, yet were never granted the considerable opportunities that would have been available to their male peers with similar talent. As well as the lack of access to resources, women at this time were more inclined towards modest functional designs in preference to the grandiose magnitude that is often a hallmark of the notable male architects of the time. Despite the disadvantages and barriers that still hinder women in the field of architecture today, there are many up-and-coming women in the field of architecture, like the architects Anna Heringer and Tatiana von Preussen who follow in the footsteps of the greats on this list.
Notable exclusions: Nazi architects
Those with a particular inclination for German architecture or the Nazi period of German history may have noted two prominent names absent on this list, Albert Speer, remembered as “Hitler’s architect”, a title that does not adequately acknowledge his leading role in the crimes of the regime, and the lesser known Paul Troost, a leading influence over the bombastic Nazi architectural style. Although Speer and Troost may be the among German architects with the greatest name recognition by the public, their fame lies primarily with their association with National Socialism and the immense resources their willingness to be complicit in a genocidal regime allowed them access to. Had it not been for the support of Hitler’s regime, it can safely be assumed their architectural legacies would have been quickly forgotten. Their architectural vision was not nearly as remarkable as their utter lack of moral integrity. It is perhaps fortunate then that the great majority of their architectural works fell with the Third Reich.
Hopefully this list will help you to appreciate the immense impact that German architects have had on the built world around us today. These revolutionaries of modern architecture continue to inspire with their visionary designs in Germany and beyond, so be sure to keep an eye out for their buildings whether it be in Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona, Chicago or New York.
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.