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.
Berlin is the prime example of a city that reflects its tumultuous political history through its buildings.
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.
Kingdom of Prussia- Imperial Germany
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 Weimar Republic and the advent of Bauhaus
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.
A Divided City
With the end of World War II and Hitler’s suicide, Nazism was abolished and Berlin was divided into two parts. 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”.
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.