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July 7, 2024

German architects whose designs shape our everyday lives


Once upon a time the half-timbered Rathäuser, imposing Plattenbauten and colourfully-tiled U-Bahn stations that we all associate with the federal republic were half-baked ideas in the minds of German architects. 

Leaving the house in the morning, rushing below ground to jump on the train, crossing the square and taking a right to the office; who are some of the famous German architects whose work still shapes our lives every day?

A brief history of German architects and architecture

People have been living, building and working within the various configurations of Germany’s borders since time immemorial. But the oldest remaining German buildings date back to the fourth century. Trier Cathedral, which took over 1.700 hundred years to complete and was not designed by a single architect, is perhaps the most prominent remaining building.

Since then, German architecture has been characterised as having at least 23 distinct architectural movements – including Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicist, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and Modern – each with its distinct architects paving the way. 

The famous German architects behind our everyday lives

While the Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassicist styles are mainly the reserve of palaces, cathedrals, museums and galleries in today’s Germany, German architects from the 19th century onwards designed many of the quotidian private and public spaces we still use. Telling of the time, women were nigh totally excluded from informing these designs until the 1930s.

Image credit: ArTono / Shutterstock.com

Martin Dülfer

At the turn of the century, Germany saw an industrial boom and poorly connected villages began reaching towards each other to form what are today’s larger German cities. This period between the 1870s and 1910s would become known as the Gründerzeit. More housing was needed and entirely new city districts were developed, also known as “Gründerviertel”.

Of the many architects active in the Gründerzeit, Martin Dülfer was one of the most prevalent. Born in Wrocław in 1859 – Germany would lose the city to Poland after WWII – Dülfer spent his early career focusing on theatre architecture and then, from around 1900, on tenements.

Many of Dülfer’s designs were typical of the grand Altbauwohnungen style with Art Nouveau details which we see all over Germany today, and some of his only work to survive WWII bombing can still be seen in Munich. As Germany’s population exploded, streets were lined with Altbauwohnungen to keep up, and the practical tenement style would become so widespread in central Berlin that the term “Wilhelminischer Ring” was coined, referring to a belt of Altbauwohnungen encircling the central districts, which roughly reflects today’s S-Bahn ring.


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Alfred Grenander

Alfred Grenander was a Wahlberliner. Born in Sweden in 1863, he moved to study at Berlin’s Royal Technical College of Charlottenburg in 1885. Fresh out of university, Grenander quickly moved on to work as an engineer for the new Reichstag building – the version which would succumb to the Reichstag fire in 1933 – but perhaps his most prevalent architectural feat was yet to come.

In 1896 Siemens was beginning its effort to build the first U-Bahn line in Berlin and Grenander was hired to build its western terminus, today’s Ernst-Reuter-Platz U-Bahn station, which opened in 1902. From then until 1931, the Swede would go on to build 70 U-Bahn stations across the capital, including many of the stations which act as main hubs today: Alexanderplatz, Hermannplatz, Kottbusser Tor, Potsdamer Platz and Schönhauser Allee.

Active at the turn of the century, Grenander’s style shifted during his career, from the Art Nouveau designs still visible at Nollendorfplatz to the Neoclassical at Wittenbergplatz and Modern at Alexanderplatz. Grenander died in 1931 and, while he was buried in his native Sweden, the square before Krumme Lanke U-Bahn station in Berlin-Zehlendorf still bears his name.


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Image credit: tina7si / Shutterstock.com

Philipp Schaefer

In comparison to other European countries, where physical footfall has been almost totally eclipsed by Amazon cart clicks, Germany’s high streets are relatively healthy. But the brand which once reigned supreme, Kaufhof-Karstadt, is hanging on by a thread in most German towns and cities.

Once the gem of a city centre and easily recognisable from their grand designs, many of Karstadt’s buildings were designed by architect Philipp Schaefer during his 30 years working for the company, which was established in 1881.

Karstadt’s most iconic building was at Berlin’s Hermannplatz. Before it was destroyed by the SS in 1945, the building was a work of expressionist architecture, a style borne from Art Nouveau with futuristic influences originating in Germany and the Netherlands. Today, Schaefer’s works can still be found in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Berlin and other German cities. Another unsuspecting work of Schaefer’s? Berlin’s modern-day Bureau of Land Management at Fehrbelliner Platz 1, once the headquarters of Karstadt AG.


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Martin Wagner

One of the icons of the GDR’s landscape was Plattenbauten, the prefabricated, high-density apartment buildings that housed millions from Rostock to Karl-Marx-Stadt, now Chemnitz. But before Plattenbauten would go on to line boulevards, architect and urban planner Martin Wagner oversaw the construction of the first prefabricated apartment building in Berlin Lichtenberg. The bright umber Splanemann Estate was designed by architects Wilhelm Primke and Jakob Goettel and built between 1926 and 1930, while Wagner was serving as head of the municipal planning and building control office.

Wagner didn’t stop there with leaving his mark on Berlin; developments of the city’s U-Bahn in 1926, Platz der Republik, 1929 developments of Alexanderplatz and the outdoor swimming areas at Wansee and Müggelsee can all be traced back to him.

A staunch opponent of the Nazis, in the late 1930s Wagner left Germany to work on architectural projects in Istanbul and until 1950 took a professorship at Harvard University. Returning to Germany after the war, Wagner toured Dortmund, Essen, Bonn, Cologne, Hanover, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Stuttgart, Freiburg and Tübingen to observe West Germany’s postwar reconstruction projects, which he concluded failed to meet social needs.


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Image credit: Nina Unruh / Shutterstock.com

Karola Bloch

Born in 1905 in Łódź, Karola Bloch was a German-Polish Jewish architect who began her career in Vienna, followed by Berlin’s Technische Hochschule. A member of the German Communist Party, Bloch and her philosopher husband Ernst were at the centre of Germany’s pre-war anti-fascist circles, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius and György Lukács. Fleeing to Switzerland in the early 1930s, Bloch finished her architectural studies at ETH Zurich.

Following the war the couple returned to East Germany, where Bloch began some of her most pervasive work, planning Kitas and daycare centres for the Deutsche Bauakademie (German Building Academy). During Bloch’s appointment, 8.000 childcare facilities were built across the GDR, many according to her designs.

Forced out of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany for her anti-Stalinist politics, Bloch left her post and looked towards feminism in architecture and design, helping to found the International Union of Women Architects and working in the prisoners’ rights movement.


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Image credit: Dreamprint / Shutterstock.com

Walter Gropius

Of all the architects included here, perhaps none was more influential than Walter Gropius, with designs so ahead of his time that they still feel modern almost 100 years on.

The founder of the Bauhaus school is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modernist architecture and the International Style, which in the period since WWII 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.

But beyond these buildings, it is the interior and product designs of Gropius and other Bauhaus stalwarts like Lilly Reich and Marcel Breuer which have remained so pervasive. Perhaps nowhere is their influence more visible than in IKEAs the world over. The Swedish giant’s 2024 Nytillverkad collection, “celebrating 80 years of well-designed, functional products at a low price, created for the many”, may be a far cry from following the original Bauhaus principles, but only cements how Gropius’ ideas still inform everything from our coffee plungers to toothbrush holders.

German architects forgotten to the sands of time

From the big hitters to the little-known, underappreciated design mavens, who are your favourite German architects?

Thumb image credit: ArTono / Shutterstock.com



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