Berlin in detail

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From the Schloss Charlottenburg to the Reichstag, Fernsehturm (TV Tower) to Berliner Philharmonie, the Jewish Museum to the Sony Center – Berlin boasts some mighty fine architecture. It's an eclectic mix, to be sure, shaped by the city's unique history, especially the destruction of WWII and the contrasting urban-planning visions during the years of division. Since reunification, though, Berlin has become a virtual laboratory for the world's elite architects, David Chipperfield, Norman Foster and Daniel Libeskind among them.

Modest Beginnings

Very few buildings from the Middle Ages until the 18th century have survived time, war and modernist town planning. Only two Gothic churches – the red-brick Nikolaikirche (1230) and Marienkirche (1294) – bear silent witness to the days when today’s metropolis was just a small trading town. The former anchors the Nikolaiviertel, a mock-medieval quarter built on the site of the city's original settlement as East Germany's contribution to Berlin's 750th anniversary celebrations in 1987. It's a hodgepodge of genuine historic buildings like the Knoblauchhaus and replicas of historic buildings such as the Zum Nussbaum inn.

A smidgeon of residential medieval architecture also survives in the outer district of Spandau, both in the Gotisches Haus and the half-timbered houses of the Kolk quarter.

Traces of the Renaissance, which reached Berlin in the early 16th century, are rarer still; notable survivors include the Jagdschloss Grunewald and the Zitadelle Spandau.

Going for Baroque

As the city grew, so did the representational needs of its rulers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Berlin, this role fell to Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, who systematically expanded the city by adding three residential quarters, a fortified town wall and a tree-lined boulevard known as Unter den Linden.

This was the age of baroque, a style merging architecture, sculpture, ornamentation and painting into a single Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art). In Berlin and northern Germany it retained a formal and precise bent, never quite reaching the exuberance favoured in regions further south.

The Great Elector may have laid the groundwork, but it was only under his son, Elector Friedrich III, that Berlin acquired the stature of an exalted residence, especially after he crowned himself King Friedrich I in 1701. Two major baroque buildings survive from his reign, both blueprinted by Johann Arnold Nering: Schloss Charlottenburg, which Johann Friedrich Eosander later expanded into a Versailles-inspired three-wing palace; and the Zeughaus (armoury; today's Deutsches Historisches Museum) on Unter den Linden. The museum's modern annexe, named the IM Pei Bau (IM Pei Building) after its architect, was added in the 1990s. Fronted by a transparent, spiral staircase shaped like a snail shell, it's a harmonious interplay of glass, natural stone and light and an excellent example of Pei’s muted postmodernist approach.

Meanwhile, back in the early 18th century, two formidable churches were taking shape on Gendarmenmarkt in the heart of the immigrant Huguenot community, who at the time accounted for about 25% of the population. These were the Deutscher Dom (German Church) by Martin Grünberg, and the Französischer Dom (French Church) by Louis Cayart.

No king had a greater impact on Berlin’s physical layout than Frederick the Great (Friedrich II). Together with his childhood friend architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, he masterminded the Forum Fridericianum, a cultural quarter centred on today’s Bebelplatz. It was built in a style called ‘Frederician rococo’, which blends baroque and neoclassical elements. Since the king's war exploits had emptied his coffers, he could only afford to partially realise his vision by building the neoclassical Staatsoper (State Opera House); the Sankt-Hedwigs-Kathedrale (St Hedwig Cathedral), inspired by Rome’s Pantheon; the playful Alte Bibliothek (Old Royal Library); and the Humboldt Universität (Humboldt University), originally a palace for the king’s brother Heinrich. Knobelsdorff also designed the Neuer Flügel (New Wing) expansion of Schloss Charlottenburg. His crowning achievement, though, was Schloss Sanssouci (Sanssouci Palace) in Potsdam.

After Knobelsdorff’s death in 1753, two architects continued in his tradition: Philipp Daniel Boumann – who designed Schloss Bellevue (Bellevue Palace) for Frederick’s youngest brother, August Ferdinand – and Carl von Gontard, who added the domed towers to the Deutscher Dom and Französischer Dom on Gendarmenmarkt.

The Schinkel Touch

The architectural style that most shaped Berlin was neoclassicism, thanks in large part to one man: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, arguably Prussia’s most prominent architect. Turning away from baroque flourishes, neoclassicism drew upon columns, pediments, domes and other design elements that had been popular throughout antiquity.

Schinkel assisted with the design of Queen Luise's mausoleum in Schloss Charlottenburg’s park in 1810, but didn't truly make his mark until his first major solo commission, the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) on Unter den Linden, was completed in 1818. Originally an army guardhouse, it is now an antiwar memorial accented with a haunting sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz.

The nearby Altes Museum (Old Museum) on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), with its colonnaded front, is considered Schinkel’s most mature work. Other neoclassical masterpieces include the Schauspielhaus (now the Konzerthaus Berlin) on Gendarmenmarkt and the Neue Pavillon (New Pavilion) in Schlossgarten Charlottenburg. Schinkel’s most significant departure from neoclassicism, the turreted Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, was inspired by a Gothic Revival in early-19th-century England.

After Schinkel’s death in 1841, several of his disciples kept his legacy alive, notably Friedrich August Stüler, who built the original Neues Museum (New Museum) and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), both on Museumsinsel, as well as the Matthäuskirche (Church of St Matthew) in today's Kulturforum.

Housing for the Masses

In his 1930 book Das Steinerne Berlin (Stony Berlin), Werner Hegemann fittingly refers to Berlin as 'the largest tenement city in the world'. The onset of industrialisation in the middle of the 19th century lured to the capital hundreds of thousands, who dreamed of improving their lot in the factories. Something had to be done to beef up the city's infrastructure and provide cheap housing for the masses, and quick. A plan drawn up in 1862 under chief city planner James Hobrecht called for a city expansion along two circular ring roads bisected by diagonal roads radiating in all directions from the centre – much like the spokes of a wheel. The land in between was divided into large lots and sold to speculators and developers. Building codes were limited to a maximum building height of 22m (equivalent to five stories) and a minimum courtyard size of 5.34m by 5.34m, just large enough for fire-fighting equipment to operate in.

Such lax regulations led to the uncontrolled spread of sprawling working-class tenements called Mietskasernen (literally 'rental barracks') in newly created peripheral districts such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Wedding and Friedrichshain. Each was designed to squeeze the maximum number of people into the smallest possible space. Entire families crammed into tiny, lightless flats reached via internal staircases that also provided access to shared toilets. Many flats doubled as workshops or sewing studios. Only those in the street-facing front offered light, space and balconies – and they were reserved for the bourgeoisie.

The Empire Years

The architecture in vogue after the creation of the German Empire in 1871 reflected the representational needs of the united Germany and tended towards the pompous. No new style, as such, emerged as architects essentially recycled earlier ones (eg Romanesque, Renaissance, baroque, sometimes weaving them all together) in an approach called Historismus (historicism) or Wilhelmismus, after Kaiser Wilhelm I. As a result, many buildings in Berlin look much older than they actually are. Prominent examples include the Reichstag by Paul Wallot and the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) by Julius Raschdorff, both in neo-Renaissance style. Franz Schwechten’s Anhalter Bahnhof and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church), both in ruins, reflect the neo-Romanesque, while the Bode-Museum by Ernst von Ihne is a neobaroque confection.

While squalid working-class neighbourhoods emerged in the north, east and south of the city centre, western Berlin (Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf) was developed for the middle and upper classes under none other than the 'Iron Chancellor' Otto von Bismarck himself. He had the Kurfürstendamm widened, lining it and its side streets with attractive townhouses. Those with serious money and status moved even further west, away from the claustrophobic centre. The villa colonies in leafy Grunewald and Dahlem are another Bismarck legacy and still among the ritziest residential areas today.

The Birth of Modernism

While most late-19th-century architects were looking to the past, a few progressive minds managed to make their mark, mostly in industrial and commercial design. Sometimes called the ‘father of modern architecture’, Peter Behrens (1868–1940) taught later modernist luminaries such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. One of his earliest works, the 1909 AEG Turbinenhalle at Huttenstrasse 12-14 in Moabit, is considered an icon of early industrial architecture.

After WWI the 1920s spirit of innovation lured some of the finest avant-garde architects to Berlin, including Bruno and Max Taut, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Poelzig and Hans Scharoun. In 1924 they formed an architectural collective called Der Ring (The Ring) whose members were united by the desire to break with traditional aesthetics (especially the derivative historicism) and to promote a modern, affordable and socially responsible approach to building.

Their theories were put into practice as Berlin entered another housing shortage. Led by chief city planner Martin Wagner, Ring members devised a new form of social housing called Siedlungen (housing estates). In contrast to the claustrophobic tenements, it opened up living space and incorporated gardens, schools, shops and other communal areas that facilitated social interaction. Together with Bruno Taut, Wagner himself designed the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Colony) in Neukölln, which, in 2008, became one of six Berlin housing estates recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In nonresidential architecture, expressionism flourished with Erich Mendelsohn as its leading exponent. This organic, sculptural approach is nicely exemplified by the Universum Kino (Universum Cinema; 1926), which is today’s Schaubühne at Lehniner Platz; it greatly influenced the Streamline Moderne movie palaces of the 1930s. Emil Fahrenkamp’s 1931 Shell-Haus at Reichspietschufer 60 follows similar design principles. Reminiscent of a giant upright staircase, it was one of Berlin’s earliest steel-frame structures, concealed beneath a skin of travertine. Its extravagant silhouette is best appreciated from the southern bank of the Landwehrkanal.

Feature: Unesco-recognised 1920s Housing Estates

Architecturally speaking, Museumsinsel, Schloss Sanssouci and the Hufeisensiedlung in Neukölln could not be more different. Yet all have one thing in common: they are Unesco World Heritage Sites. Along with five other working-class housing estates throughout Berlin, the Hufeisensiedlung was inducted onto this illustrious list in 2008.

Created between 1910 and 1933 by such leading architects of the day as Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner, these icons of modernism are the earliest examples of innovative, streamlined and functional – yet human-scale – mass housing and stand in stark contrast to the slumlike, crowded tenements of the late 19th century. The flats, though modest, were functionally laid out and had kitchens, private baths and balconies that let in light and fresh air.

Hufeisensiedlung, Neukölln (Lowise-Reuter-Ring; U-Bahn: Parchimer Allee) Taut and Wagner dreamed up a three-storey-high horseshoe-shaped colony (1933–35) with 1000 balconied flats wrapping around a central park. From the station follow Fritz-Reuter-Allee north.

Gartenstadt Falkenberg, Köpenick (Akazienhof, Am Falkenberg & Gartenstadtweg; S-Bahn: Grünau) Built by Taut between 1910 and 1913, the oldest of the six Unesco-honoured estates is a cheerful jumble of colourfully painted cottages. Approach from Am Falkenberg.

Siemensstadt, Spandau (Geisslerpfad, Goebelstrasse, Heckerdamm, Jungfernheideweg, Mäckeritzstrasse; U-Bahn: Siemensdamm) This huge development (1929–31) combines Walter Gropius’ minimalism, Hugo Häring’s organic approach and Hans Scharoun’s ship-inspired designs. Best approach is via Jungfernheideweg.

Schillerpark Siedlung, Wedding (Barfussstrasse, Bristolstrasse, Corker Strasse, Dubliner Strasse, Oxforder Strasse, Windsorer Strasse, Wedding; U-Bahn: Rehberge) Inspired by Dutch architecture, this large colony was masterminded by Taut (1924–30) and sports a dynamic red-and-white-brick facade. Best approach is via Barfussstrasse.

Weisse Stadt, Reinickendorf (Aroser Allee, Baseler Strasse, Bieler Strasse, Emmentaler Strasse, Genfer Strasse, Gotthardstrasse, Romanshorner Weg, Schillerring, Sankt-Galler-Strasse; U-Bahn: Residenzstrasse) Martin Wagner's 'White City' (1929–31) includes shops, a kindergarten, a cafe, a central laundry and other communal facilities. Best approach is via Aroser Allee.

Wohnstadt Carl Legien, Prenzlauer Berg (streets around Erich-Weinert-Strasse; S-Bahn: Prenzlauer Allee) For this development (1928–30) in Prenzlauer Berg, Taut arranged rows of four-to-five-storey-high houses and garden areas in a semi-open space. Approach via Erich-Weinert-Strasse.

Nazi Monumentalism

Modernist architecture had its legs cut out from under it as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. The new regime immediately shut down the Bauhaus School, one of the most influential forces in 20th-century building and design. Many of its visionary teachers, including Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Wagner and Mendelsohn, went into exile in the US.

Back in Berlin, Hitler, who was a big fan of architectural monumentalism, put Albert Speer in charge of turning Berlin into the Welthauptstadt Germania, the future capital of the Reich. Today, only a few buildings offer a hint of what Berlin might have looked like had history taken a different turn. These include the coliseumlike Olympiastadion, Tempelhof Airport and the former air force ministry that now houses Germany's Federal Finance Ministry.

A Tale of Two Cities

Even before the Wall was built in 1961, the clash of ideologies and economic systems between East and West also found expression in the architectural arena.

East Berlin

East Germans looked to Moscow, where Stalin favoured a style that was essentially a socialist reinterpretation of good old-fashioned neoclassicism. The most prominent East German architect was Hermann Henselmann, the brains behind the Karl-Marx-Allee (called Stalinallee until 1961) in Friedrichshain. Built between 1952 and 1965, it was East Berlin’s showcase ‘socialist boulevard’ and, with its Moscow-style 'wedding-cake buildings', the epitome of Stalin-era pomposity. It culminates at Alexanderplatz, the historic central square that got a distinctly socialist makeover in the 1960s.

While Alexanderplatz and the Karl-Marx-Allee were prestige projects, they did not solve the cries for affordable modern housing, which reached a crescendo in the early 1970s. The government responded by building three massive satellite cities on the periphery – Marzahn, Hohenschönhausen and Hellersdorf – which leapt off the drawing board in the 1970s and '80s. Like a virtual Legoland for giants, these huge housing developments largely consist of row upon row of rectangular high-rise Plattenbauten, buildings made from large, precast concrete slabs. Marzahn alone could accommodate 165,000 people in 62,000 flats. Since they offered such mod cons as private baths and lifts, this type of housing was very popular among East Germans, despite the monotony of the design.

West Berlin

In West Berlin, urban planners sought to eradicate any references to Nazi-style monumentalism and to rebuild the city in a modernist fashion. Their prestige project became the Hansaviertel, a loosely structured leafy neighbourhood of midrise apartment buildings and single-family homes, northwest of Tiergarten. Built from 1954 to 1957, it drew the world's top architects, including Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier and was intended to be a model for other residential quarters.

The 1960s saw the birth of a large-scale public building project, the Kulturforum, a museum and concert-hall complex conceptualised by Hans Scharoun. His Berliner Philharmonie, the first building to be completed in 1963, is considered a masterpiece of sculptural modernism. Among the museums, Mies van der Rohe’s temple-like Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) is a standout. A massive glass-and-steel cube, it perches on a raised granite podium and is lidded by a coffered, steel-ribbed roof that seems to defy gravity.

The West also struggled with a housing shortage and built its own versions of mass-scale housing projects, including Gropiusstadt in southern Neukölln and the Märkisches Viertel in Reinickendorf, in northwest Berlin.

Interbau 1987

While mass housing mushroomed on the peripheries, the inner city suffered from decay and neglect on both sides of the Wall. In West Berlin, an international architectural exposition called Interbau (IBA) 1987 was to set new initiatives in urban renewal by blending two architectural principles: 'Careful Urban Renewal' would focus on rehabilitating existing buildings; and 'Critical Reconstruction' would require any new buildings to fit in with the existing urban fabric.

Planning director Josef Paul Kleihues invited the royalty of international architecture to take up the challenges of Interbau, among them Rob Krier, Peter Eisenman, James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, Arata Isozaki and OM Ungers. Eastern Kreuzberg and the area south of the Tiergarten received the most attention. Good places to study the legacy of Interbau 1987 are on a stroll along the Fraenkelufer in Kreuzberg and along the streets surrounding the Jüdisches Museum such as Lindenstrasse, Ritterstrasse and Alte Jakobstrasse.

The New Berlin

Reunification presented Berlin with both the challenge and the opportunity to redefine itself architecturally. With the Wall and death strip gone, the two city halves had to be physically rejoined across huge gashes of empty space. Critical Reconstruction continued to be the guiding principle under city planning director Hans Stimmann. Architects had to follow a long catalogue of parameters with regard to building heights, facade materials and other criteria. The goal was to rebuild Berlin within its historic forms rather than creating a modern, vertical city.

Potsdamer Platz

The biggest and grandest of the post-1990 Berlin developments (and, incidentally, an exception to the tenets of Critical Reconstruction), Potsdamer Platz is a modern reinterpretation of the historic square that was Berlin's bustling heart until WWII. From terrain once bisected by the Berlin Wall has sprung an urban quarter laid out along a dense, irregular street grid in keeping with a ‘European city’. Led by Renzo Piano, it's a collaboration of an international roster of renowned architects, including Helmut Jahn, Richard Rogers and Rafael Moneo. Structures are of medium height, except for three gateway high-rises overlooking the intersection of Potsdamer Strasse and Ebertstrasse.

Pariser Platz

Pariser Platz was reconstructed from the ground up. It’s a formal, introspective square framed by banks, embassies and the Hotel Adlon that, in keeping with Critical Reconstruction, had to have natural stone facades. The one exception is the glass-fronted Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts). Its architect, Günter Behnisch, had to fight tooth and nail for this facade, arguing that the square’s only public building should feel open, inviting and transparent. The Adlon, meanwhile, is practically a spitting image of the 1907 original.


Some of Berlin’s most exciting new architecture is clustered in the revitalised Diplomatenviertel (Diplomatic Quarter) on the southern edge of Tiergarten, where many countries rebuilt their embassies on their historic pre-WWII sites.


The 1991 decision to move the federal government back to Berlin resulted in a flurry of building activity in the empty space between the Reichstag and the Spree River. Designed by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, and arranged in linear east–west fashion, are the Federal Chancellery, the Paul-Löbe-Haus and the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus. Together they form the Band des Bundes (Band of Federal Buildings) in a symbolic linking of the formerly divided city halves across the Spree.

Overlooking all these shiny new structures is the Reichstag, home of the Bundestag (German parliament), the glass dome of which is the most visible element of the building's total makeover masterminded by Norman Foster.

The glass-and-steel 'spaceship' on the northern riverbank is Berlin’s first-ever central train station, the sparkling Hauptbahnhof, designed by the Hamburg firm of Gerkan, Marg und Partner and completed in 2006.

More Architectural Trophies

In Kreuzberg, Daniel Libeskind's deconstructivist Jüdisches Museum (1999) is among the most daring and provocative structures in the new Berlin. With its irregular, zigzagging floor plan and shiny zinc skin pierced by gashlike windows, it is not merely a museum but a powerful metaphor for the troubled history of the Jewish people. Libeskind also designed the museum's extension, which opened in a nearby converted flower market in June 2013.

Near Gendarmenmarkt, along Friedrichstrasse, the Friedrichstadtpassagen (1996) is a trio of luxurious shopping complexes, including the glamorous Galeries Lafayette, that hide their jewel-like interiors behind postmodern facades.

Across town in the City West, several new structures have added some spice to the rather drab postwar architecture around Kurfürstendamm. The Ludwig-Erhard-Haus (1997), home of the Berlin stock market, is a great example of the organic architecture of the UK's Nicholas Grimshaw. Nearby, Kantdreieck (1995), designed by Kleihues + Kleihues, establishes a visual accent on Kantstrasse by virtue of its rooftop metal ‘sail’. Noteworthy buildings along Ku'damm itself are Helmut Jahn’s Neues Kranzler Eck (2000) and the Neues Ku-Damm-Eck (2001), a corner building with a gradated and rounded facade, designed by Gerkan, Marg und Partner and festooned with sculptures by Markus Lüpertz.

Another highlight was David Chipperfield’s reconstruction of the Neues Museum (2009) on Museumsinsel. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it beautifully blends fragments from the original structure, which was destroyed in WWII, with modern elements. The result is so harmonious and impressive, it immediately racked up the accolades, including a prestigious award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2010.

Recent Developments & the Future

You'd think that, almost 30 years after reunification, the ballet of cranes would finally have disappeared, but there are still plenty of large-scale projects on the drawing board or under construction.

Construction of the replica of the former Prussian city palace (Berliner Stadtschloss) on Schlossplatz opposite Museumsinsel, which began in 2013, is on the finishing stretch. Set to open as the Humboldt-Forum in 2019/20, it will resemble its historic predecessor only from the outside, with the modern interior housing museums and cultural institutions.

In 2017, spies started moving into the new Berlin HQ of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND; Germany's federal intelligence agency) on Chausseestrasse, just north of the Scheunenviertel. Designed by Kleihues + Kleihues, the giant compound sits on a lot once occupied by the GDR-era Stadium of the World Youth and will provide work space for 4000 people.

The City West has also garnered several high-profile additions including the towering Waldorf Astoria Hotel and its equally soaring neighbour Upper West, a residential and commercial tower. Construction on Zoom, an office-and-retail building with a 150m-long, three-storey glass facade opposite the Astoria/Upper West twin towers, has also been completed.

Nearby, a couple of 1950s buildings have been reinvented for the 21st century. The iconic Bikini Berlin became Germany's first 'concept mall' after a total refurb in 2014. The curious name was inspired by its design: two 200m-long upper and lower sections are separated by an open floor supported by a curtain of columns. Today the middle section is chastely covered by a glass facade. Nearby, the sensitively restored 1950s Amerika Haus now houses the prestigious photography gallery C/O Berlin.

The biggest upcoming building project is the Europa-City, north of the Hauptbahnhof, an entire neighbourhood to be built on 40 hectares, complete with S-Bahn station, a bridge across the canal and leafy squares.

The Berliner Architekturpreis, which is awarded every three years, went in 2016 to the St Agnes Kirche, a brutalist church in Kreuzberg that was minimally converted into the spectacular art gallery König by Arno Brandlhuber.

Feature: Berlin & its Walls

1250 The first defensive wall is built of boulders and stands 2m high.

14th century The wall is fortified with bricks and raised to a height of 5m.

1648–1734 The medieval wall is replaced by elaborate fortifications.

1734–1866 A customs wall with 18 city gates replaces the bastion.

1961–1989 The Berlin Wall divides the city.

Feature: Prussia’s Building Master: Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Few architects have shaped the Berlin cityscape as much as Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841). After studying under David Gilly at the Prussian Building Academy in Berlin, he decamped to Italy for a couple of years to examine classical architecture in situ. He returned to a Prussia hamstrung by Napoleonic occupation and was forced to scrape by as a Romantic painter and furniture and set designer for a few years.

Things improved dramatically as soon as the French left Berlin in 1808, allowing Schinkel to quickly climb the career ladder within the Prussian civil service and eventually to become chief building director for the entire kingdom. He travelled tirelessly throughout the land, designing buildings, supervising construction and even developing principles for the protection of historic monuments.

Drawing inspiration from classical Greek architecture, Schinkel very much defined Prussian architecture between 1810 and 1840. His designs strive for the perfect balance between functionality and beauty, achieved through clear lines, symmetry and an impeccable sense for aesthetics. Berlin, which came to be known as ‘Athens on the Spree’, is littered with his buildings.

Schinkel fell into a coma in 1840 and died one year later in Berlin. He's buried on the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Mitte.

Feature: The Bauhaus

Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019, the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar by Berlin architect Walter Gropius as a multidisciplinary school that aimed to abolish the distinction between 'fine' and 'applied' arts, and to unite the artistic with daily life. One of its chief mottos was 'form follows function': products were crafted with an eye towards mass production and featured strong, clear lines and little, if any, ornamentation. From the beginning, the movement attracted such heavyweights as Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer and Wilhelm Wagenfeld.

After conservative politicians closed the Weimar school in 1925, it found refuge in Dessau before moving to Berlin in 1932 with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the helm. Just one year later the Nazis shut down the school for good. Most of its practitioners went into exile. Gropius became director of Harvard's architecture school, while Mies van der Rohe held the same post at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Both men were instrumental in developing the Bauhaus' stylistic successor, the so-called International Style.

Feature: Germania Mania

Part of Hitler’s Third Reich vision was to transform Berlin into Germania, the utopian world capital of a Nazi empire. Masterminded by Albert Speer (1905–81) and Hitler himself, there would be two major intersecting roads at its heart: the north–south axis running from the Reichstag to Tempelhof, and the east–west axis (today’s Strasse des 17 Juni) linking the Brandenburg Gate with Theodor-Heuss-Platz (then Adolf-Hitler-Platz) in Charlottenburg. At the top of the north–south axis, near today’s Reichstag, would rise the Grosse Halle des Volkes (Great Hall of the People), big enough to hold 180,000 people and topped by a 250m-wide dome.

Entire neighbourhoods north and east of Tiergarten were bulldozed to make room for these ambitious architectural projects. In the end, though, Speer only got as far as the Reichskanzlei (Hitler’s office, now destroyed) on Vosstrasse before the realities of WWII put paid to his vision.

Speer was sentenced to 20 years at the Nuremberg Trials. He spent most of them at a prison in Spandau where he penned a couple of autobiographical books, including Inside the Third Reich (1970), a detailed account of the day-to-day operations of Hitler’s inner circle. Read it alongside Gitta Sereny’s biography Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1996) for full insight into this controversial Nazi figure.

Literature & Film

Since its beginnings, Berlin’s literary scene has reflected a peculiar blend of provincialism and worldliness, but the city's pioneering role in movie history is undeniable: in 1895 Max Skladanowsky screened early films on a bioscope, in 1912 one of the world's first film studios was established in Potsdam, and since 1951 Berlin has hosted a leading international film festival.


First Words

Berlin’s literary history began during the 18th-century Enlightenment, an epoch dominated by humanistic ideals. A major author from this time was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, noted for his critical works, fables and tragedies, who wrote the play Minna von Barnhelm (1763) in Berlin. During the Romantic period, an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, it was the poets who stood out, including Achim von Arnim, Clemens Brentano, and Heinrich von Kleist, who committed suicide at Wannsee lake in 1811.

In the mid-19th century, realist literature captured the imagination of the newly emerging middle class. Theodor Fontane raised the Berlin society novel to an art form by showing both the aristocracy and the middle class mired in their societal confinements. His 1894 novel, Effi Briest, is among his best-known works. Naturalism, a spin-off of realism, painstakingly recreated the milieux of entire social classes. Gerhard Hauptmann's portrayal of social injustice and the harsh life of the working class won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912.

Modernism & Modernity

In the 1920s, Berlin became a literary hotbed, drawing writers like Alfred Döblin, whose definitive Berlin Alexanderplatz is a stylised meander through the seamy 1920s, and Anglo-American import Christopher Isherwood, whose brilliant semi-autobiographical Berlin Stories formed the basis of the musical and film Cabaret. During his time in Berlin in the 1930s, Vladimir Nabokov penned The Gift about a writer and Russian émigré whose fled the Russian Revolution for Berlin.

Other notables include the political satirists Kurt Tucholsky and Erich Kästner. Many artists left Germany after the Nazis came to power, and those who stayed often kept their mouths shut and worked underground, if at all.

In West Berlin, the postwar literary revival was led by The Tin Drum (1958), by Nobel Prize–winner Günter Grass, which traces recent German history through the eyes of a child who refuses to grow. In the mid-1970s, a segment of the East Berlin literary scene began to detach itself slowly from the socialist party grip. Christa Wolf is one of the best and most controversial East German writers, while Heiner Müller had the distinction of being unpalatable in both Germanys. His dense, difficult works include The Man Who Kept Down Wages and the Germania trilogy of plays.

New Berlin Novel

In the 1990s, a slew of novels dealt with German reunification; many are set in Berlin, including Thomas Brussig’s tongue-in-cheek Heroes Like Us (1998), Uwe Timm's Midsummer Night (1998), Peter Schneider's Eduard's Homecoming (1999) and Jana Hensel's After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next (2002). The late Nobel Prize–winner Günter Grass contributed A Wide Field (1995) to the debate. Also worth reading is Cees Nooteboom's All Souls Day (2002).

The lighter side of post-reunification Berlin is represented by Sven Regener, frontman of the Berlin band Element of Crime, whose hugely successful Berlin Blues (2001) is a boozy trawl through Kreuzberg nights at the time of the fall of the Wall. The runaway success story, however, was Russian-born author Wladimir Kaminer's Russendisko (Russian Disco, 2000), a collection of amusing, stranger-than-fiction vignettes about life in Berlin. Both Berlin Blues and Russendisko were made into feature films.

Foreign authors also continue to be inspired by Berlin. Ian McEwan's The Innocent (1990) and Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin: A Novel (2015) are both spy stories set in the 1950s. Kanon also wrote The Good German (2002), which was made into a motion picture. The Berlin Noir trilogy (1989–91), by the late British author Philip Kerr, features a private detective solving crimes in Nazi Germany. Berlin history unfolds in a dreamlike sequence in Book of Clouds (2009) by Chloe Aridjis. Another popular German author is Volker Kutscher whose 2008 novel Der Nasse Fisch, a detective story set in the 1920s, forms the basis of the successful TV series Babylon Berlin, which was released on Netflix in 2017.


Before 1945

The legendary UFA (Universum Film AG), one of the world's first film studios, began shooting in Potsdam, near Berlin, in 1912 and continues to churn out both German and international blockbusters in its modern incarnation as the Filmstudios Babelsberg. The 1920s and early '30s were a boom time for Berlin cinema, with UFA emerging as Germany's flagship dream factory and Marlene Dietrich’s bone structure and distinctive voice seducing the world. As early as 1919, Ernst Lubitsch produced historical films and comedies such as Madame Dubarry, starring Pola Negri and Emil Jannings; the latter went on to win the Best Actor Award at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927. The same year saw the release of Walter Ruttmann's classic Berlin: Symphony of a City, a fascinating silent documentary that captures a day in the life of Berlin in the ‘20s.

Other 1920s movies were heavily expressionistic, using stark contrast, sharp angles, heavy shadows and other distorting elements. Well-known flicks employing these techniques include Nosferatu, a 1922 Dracula adaptation by FW Murnau, and the groundbreaking Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang. One of the earliest seminal talkies was Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (1930) starring Dietrich. After 1933, though, film-makers found their artistic freedom, not to mention funding, increasingly curtailed, and by 1939 practically the entire industry had fled to Hollywood.

Films made during the Nazi period were mostly of the propaganda variety, with brilliant if controversial Berlin-born director Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) greatly pushing the genre's creative envelope. Her most famous film, Triumph of the Will, documents the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally. Olympia, which chronicles the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, was another seminal work.

After 1945

Like most of the arts, film-making has generally been well funded in Berlin since 1945, especially in the West. During the 1970s in particular, large subsidies lured directors back to the city, including such New German Film luminaries as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorf, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. It was Wenders who made the highly acclaimed Wings of Desire (1987), an angelic love story swooping around the old, bare wasteland of Potsdamer Platz.

Some of the best films about the Nazi era include Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers among Us, 1946); Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979); Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstrasse (2003), and Oliver Hierschbiegel's extraordinary Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), depicting Hitler's final days.

The first round of post-reunification flicks were light-hearted comedy dramas. A standout is the cult classic Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), Wolfgang Becker’s witty and heart-warming tale of a son trying to recreate the GDR life to save his sick mother. It was Florian von Donnersmarck who first trained the filmic spotlight on the darker side of East Germany, with The Lives of Others (2006), an Academy Award–winner that reveals the stranglehold the East German secret police (Stasi) had on ordinary people.


These days, 'Germany's Hollywood' is no longer in Munich or Hamburg but in Berlin, with an average of 300 German and international productions and co-productions being filmed on location and at the Filmstudios Babelsberg each year. Well-trained crews, modern studio and postproduction facilities, government subsidies and authentic 'old world' locations regularly attract such Hollywood royalty as Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, 2009) and George Clooney (The Monuments Men, 2014). Other recent big productions include Brian Percival's The Book Thief (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015), Tom Hanks' A Hologram for the King (2015), the entire fifth season of the TV series Homeland (2015) and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2015).

Noteworthy recent films about Berlin include A Coffee in Berlin (Oh Boy in German, 2012), a tragicomedy about a young man struggling to find meaning in life in Berlin in the early 2000s, and Victoria (2015), miraculously filmed in a single continuous take, about a young Spanish woman who meets three Berlin guys after a night of clubbing and ends up robbing a bank, all in one night. Axolotl Overkill (2017), based on the 2010 novel by Helene Hegemann, also takes viewers on a high-paced ride around Berlin's notoriously hedonistic nightlife through the eyes of 16-year-old Mifti. On a more serious note, Alone in Berlin (2016), based on Hans Fallada's novel by the same name, deals with an innocent couple that falls victim to the Gestapo.

Internationally successful TV series starring Berlin are Berlin Station (2016), a high-tension spy drama, and especially Babylon Berlin (2017), a lushly filmed detective story set in Berlin just before the Nazis' power grab.

Feature: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich (1901–92) was born Marie Magdalena von Losch into a middle-class Berlin family. After acting school, she first captivated audiences as a hard-living, libertine flapper in 1920s silent movies, but quickly carved a niche as the dangerously seductive femme fatale. The 1930 talkie Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) turned her into a Hollywood star and launched a five-year collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg. Her work on Sternberg's movie Morocco (1930) led to her only Oscar nomination. Although she never recaptured the successes of her early career, she continued making movies until 1984.

Dietrich built on her image of erotic opulence – dominant and severe but always with a touch of self-irony. She stayed in Hollywood after the Nazi rise to power, though Hitler, not immune to her charms, reportedly promised perks and the red-carpet treatment if she moved back to Germany. She responded with an empty offer to return if she could bring along Sternberg – a Jew and no Nazi favourite. She took US citizenship in 1937 and entertained Allied soldiers on the front.

After the war, Dietrich retreated slowly from the public eye, making occasional appearances in films but mostly cutting records and performing live cabaret. Her final years were spent in Paris, bedridden and accepting few visitors, immortal in spirit as mortality caught up with her. She's buried in Berlin.

Feature: Famous Film Locations

Wings of Desire (1987) The top of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) in Tiergarten is a place where angels congregate and listen to people's thoughts.

Bourne Supremacy (2004) The epic car chase where Bourne (Matt Damon) forces Russian assassin Kirill (Karl Urban) to crash his car into a concrete divider in a tunnel was filmed in the Tiergartentunnel a year and a half before its official opening in 2006.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) The flat where Alexander Kerner (Daniel Brühl) recreates life in East Berlin for his ailing mother is in a modern high-rise at Berolinastrasse 21.

The Lives of Others (2006) The apartment where two of the main characters, the playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) and his actor wife Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), make their home is at Wedekindstrasse 21 in Friedrichshain.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015) Scenes from the third instalment in this successful series were filmed at Tempelhof Airport.

Babylon Berlin (2017) The dance and party scenes set in the Moka Efta bar were filmed at the silent movie–era Delphi Cinema at Gustav-Adolf-Straße 2 in Prenzlauer Berg.


Just like the city itself, Berlin’s music scene is a shape-shifter, fed by the city’s appetite for diversity and change. With at least 2000 active bands and dozens of indie labels, Berlin is Germany’s undisputed music capital. About 60% of the country’s music revenue is generated here, and it's where Universal Music and MTV have their European headquarters.


For centuries, Berlin was largely eclipsed by Vienna, Leipzig and other European cities when it came to music. One notable exception is Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (The Marksman), which premiered in 1821 at today's Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt and is considered the first important German Romantic opera. Weber's music also influenced Berlin-born Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1843. The same year, fellow composer Giacomo Meyerbeer became Prussian General Music Director.

The Berliner Philharmoniker was established in 1882 and quickly gained international stature under Hans von Bülow and, after 1923, Wilhelm Furtwängler. After WWII, Herbert von Karajan took over the baton. In East Germany, a key figure was Hanns Eisler, composer of the country's national anthem.

The 1920s

Cabaret may have been born in 1880s Paris, but it became a wild and libidinous grown-up in 1920s Berlin. Jazz was the dominant sound, especially after American performer Josephine Baker's headline-grabbing performances at the Theater des Westens dressed in nothing but a banana skirt. More home-grown cabaret music came in the form of the Berlin Schlager – light-hearted songs with titles like ‘Mein Papagei frisst keine harten Eier’ (‘My parakeet doesn’t eat hard-boiled eggs’), which teetered on the silly and surreal. The most successful Schlager singing group was the a cappella Comedian Harmonists, who were famous for their perfect vocal harmonies, which sounded like musical instruments.

Another runaway hit was The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill. It premiered in 1928 with such famous songs as ‘Mack the Knife’. Friedrich Hollaender was also a key composer in the cabaret scene, noted for his wit, improvisational talent and clever lyrics. Among his most famous songs is ‘Falling in Love Again’, sung by Marlene Dietrich in Der Blaue Engel. Like so many other talents (including Weill and Brecht), Hollaender left Germany when the Nazis brought down the curtain, and continued his career in Hollywood.

The pulsating 1920s drew numerous classical musicians to Berlin, including Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith, who taught at the Akademie der Künste and the Berliner Hochschule, respectively. Schönberg’s atonal compositions found a following here, as did his experimentation with noise and sound effects. Hindemith explored the new medium of radio and taught a seminar on film music.

Pop, Punk & Rock before 1990

Since the end of WWII, Berlin has spearheaded many of Germany’s popular-music innovations. In West Berlin, Tangerine Dream helped to propagate the psychedelic sound of the late 1960s, while the Ton Steine Scherben, led by Rio Reiser, became a seminal German-language rock band in the '70s and early '80s. Around the same time, Kreuzberg's subculture launched the punk movement at SO36 and other famous clubs. Regular visitors included David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were Berlin flat buddies on Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg in the 1970s. Trying to kick a drug addiction and greatly inspired by Berlin's brooding mood, Bowie partly wrote and recorded his Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) at the famous Hansa Studios, which he dubbed the 'Hall by the Wall'. Check out Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town (2008) for a cool insight into those heady days.

In East Germany, access to Western rock and other popular music was restricted and few Western stars were invited to perform live. The artistic freedom of East German talent was greatly compromised as all lyrics had to be approved and performances were routinely monitored. Nevertheless, a slew of home-grown Ostrock (eastern rock) bands emerged. Some major ones like The Puhdys, Karat, Silly and City managed to get around the censors by disguising criticism with seemingly innocuous metaphors, or by deliberately inserting provocative lyrics that they fully expected to be deleted by the censorship board. All built up huge followings on both sides of the Wall.

Many nonconformists were placed under an occupational ban and prohibited from performing. Singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann became a cause célèbre when, in 1976, he was not allowed to return to the GDR from a concert series in the West despite being an avid – albeit regime-critical – socialist. When other artists rallied to his support, they too were expatriated, including Biermann's stepdaughter Nina Hagen, an East Berlin pop singer who later became a West Berlin punk pioneer. The small but vital East Berlin punk scene produced Sandow and Feeling B, members of whom went on to form the industrial metal band Rammstein in 1994, still Germany's top musical export.

Once in West Berlin, Hagen helped chart the course for Neue Deutsche Welle (German New Wave). This early '80s sound produced such West Berlin bands as D.A.F, Trio, Neonbabies, Ideal and UKW, as well as Rockhaus in East Berlin. The '80s also saw the birth of Die Ärzte, who released their last album, the live recording Die Nacht der Dämonen, in 2013. Einstürzende Neubauten pioneered a proto-industrial sound that transformed oil drums, electric drills and chainsaws into musical instruments. Its founder Blixa Bargeld joined The Bad Seeds, helmed by Nick Cave who spent some heroin-addled time in Berlin in the early 1980s.

Pop, Rock & Hip-Hop after 1990

Since reunification, hundreds of indie, punk, alternative and goth bands have gigged to appreciative Berlin audiences. The still active Die Ärzte, Element of Crime and Einstürzende Neubauten were joined by other successful exports, such as alternative punk rockers Beatsteaks, and the pop-rock band Wir sind Helden, helmed by the charismatic Judith Holofernes, who released her first solo album in 2014. The Beatsteaks made headlines the same year with their latest (and seventh) studio album.

Other fine Berlin music originates from a jazz/breaks angle (electrojazz and breakbeats, favouring lush grooves, obscure samples and chilled rhythms). Remix masters Jazzanova are top dogs of the downtempo scene. Their Sonar Kollektiv label also champions similar artists, including Micatone. Reggae-dancehall has been huge in Berlin ever since Seeed was founded in 1998; frontperson Peter Fox' solo album Stadtaffe (2008) was one of the best-selling albums in Germany and also won the 2010 Album of the Year Echo Award (the 'German Grammy'). Also commercially successful is Culcha Candela, who have essentially pop-ified the Seeed sound and released their fifth studio album, Flätrate, in 2011.

Home-grown rap and hip-hop have a huge following, thanks to Sido, Fler, Bushido and Kool Savas, who cofounded Masters of Rap (MOR) in 1996. Also hugely successful are Berlin-based Casper and Marteria. K.I.Z., meanwhile, are more of a gangsta rap parody. Other famous Berlin-based artists include eccentric Canadian transplant King Khan, who fuelled the garage rock revival; the country and western band Boss Hoss; the electro-folky singer-songwriter Clara Hill; the indie rock band Gods of Blitz; and the uncategorisable 17 Hippies.

Techno Town

Call it techno, electro, house, minimal – electronic music is the sound of Berlin and its near-mythical club culture has defined the capital's cool factor and put it on the map of global hedonists. The sound may have been born in Detroit but it came of age in Berlin.

The seed was sown in dark and dank cellar club UFO on Köpenicker Strasse in 1988. The 'godfathers' of the Berlin sound, Dr Motte, Westbam and Kid Paul, played their first gigs here, mostly sweat-driven acid house all-night raves. It was Motte who came up with the idea to take the party to the street with a truck, loud beats and a bunch of friends dancing behind it – and the Love Parade was born (it peaked in 1999 with 1.5 million people swarming Berlin’s streets).

The Berlin Wall's demise, and the vacuum of artistic freedom it created, catapulted techno out of the underground. The associated euphoria, sudden access to derelict and abandoned spaces in eastern Berlin and lack of control by the authorities were all defining factors in making Berlin a techno mecca. In 1991 the techno-sonic gang followed UFO founder Dimitri Hegemann to the label Tresor, which launched camouflage-sporting DJ Tanith along with trance pioneer Paul van Dyk. Today Tresor is still a seminal brand representing Jeff Mills, Blake Baxter and Cristian Vogel, among many others.

Key label BPitch Control, founded by Ellen Allien in 1999, launched the careers of Modeselektor, Apparat, Sascha Funke and Paul Kalkbrenner. Another heavyweight is the collective Get Physical, which includes Booka Shade, Nôze and the dynamic duo M.A.N.D.Y., who fuse house and electro with minimal and funk to create a highly danceable sound. The charmingly named Shitkatapult, founded in 1997 by Marco Haas (aka T.Raumschmiere), does everything from cutting-edge electronica to tech-rock and mellow ambient. Another mainstay is the deep house duo Tiefschwarz. Other leading Berlin DJs include Berghain residents Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann, Tama Sumo and Steffi, who are all represented by the Ostgut label. .

Foreign artists have also influenced the Berlin scene, including the provocative Canadian songster and performance artist Peaches, UK-Canadian techno innovator Richie Hawtin and Chilean minimal master Ricardo Villalobos.

Feature: Berlin Tracks

  • 1973

Berlin (Lou Reed) Dark song about the tragedy of two star-crossed junkies.

  • 1977

Heroes (David Bowie) Two lovers in the shadow of the 'Wall of Shame'.

  • 1980

Wir stehen auf Berlin (Ideal) Love declaration by the seminal Neue Deutsche Welle band.

  • 1991

Zoo Station (U2) Bono embarks on a surreal journey inspired by a Berlin train station.

  • 1995

Born to Die in Berlin (The Ramones) Drug-addled musings revealing Berlin's dark side.

  • 2000

Dickes B (Seeed) Reggae ode to the 'Big B' (ie Berlin).

  • 2003

Berlin Du Bist So Wunderbar (Kaiserbase) The beer commercial turned chartbuster.

  • 2007

Kreuzberg (Bloc Party) Looking for true love…

  • 2008

Schwarz zu Blau (Peter Fox) Perfect portrait of Kottbusser Tor grit and grunge.

  • 2013

Where are We Now? (David Bowie) Melancholic reminiscence of Bowie's time in 1970s Berlin.

Painting & Visual Arts

The arts are fundamental to everything Berlin holds dear, and the sheer scope of creative activity in the city is astounding. The city itself provides an iconic setting for a spectrum of visual arts, its unmistakable presence influencing artists and residents just as it does those canny visitors who take the time to dive in.

Early Beginnings

Fine art only began to flourish in Berlin in the late 17th century, when self-crowned King Friedrich I founded the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in 1696, egged on by court sculptor Andreas Schlüter. Schlüter repaid the favour with outstanding sculptures, including the Great Elector on Horseback, now in front of Schloss Charlottenburg, and the haunting masks of dying warriors in the courtyard of today's Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum). Artistic accents in painting were set by Frenchman Antoine Pesne, who became Friedrich I's court painter in 1710. His main legacy is his elaborate portraits of the royal family members.

The arts also enjoyed a heyday under Friedrich I's grandson, Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), who became king in 1740. Friedrich drew heavily on the artistic expertise of his friend Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, a student of Pesne, and amassed a sizeable collection of works by French artists such as Jean Antoine Watteau.

The 19th Century

Neoclassicism emerged as a dominant sculptural style in the 19th century. Johann Gottfried Schadow's Quadriga – the horse-drawn chariot atop the Brandenburg Gate – epitomises the period. Schadow's student Christian Daniel Rauch had a special knack for representing idealised, classical beauty in a realistic fashion. His most famous work is the 1851 monument of Frederick the Great on horseback on Unter den Linden.

In painting, heart-on-your-sleeve romanticism that drew heavily on emotion and a dreamy idealism dominated the 19th century. A reason for this development was the awakening of a nationalist spirit in Germany, spurred by the Napoleonic Wars. Top dog of the era was Caspar David Friedrich, best known for his moody, allegorical landscapes. Although more famous as an architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel also created some fanciful canvases. Eduard Gärtner's paintings documenting Berlin’s evolving cityscape found special appeal among the middle classes.

A parallel development was the so-called Berliner Biedermeier, a more conservative and painstakingly detailed style that appealed to the emerging Prussian middle class. The name itself is derived from the German word for conventional (bieder) and the common surname of Meier; visit the Knoblauchhaus in the Nikolaiviertel for fine examples. The Alte Nationalgalerie on Museumsinsel and the Neuer Pavillon of Schloss Charlottenburg are both showcases of 19th-century paintings.

Into the 20th Century

Berliner Secession

The Berliner Secession was formed in 1898 by a group of progressively minded artists who rejected the traditional teachings of the arts academies that stifled any new forms of expression. The schism was triggered in 1891, when the established Verein Berliner Künstler (Berlin Artist Association) refused to show paintings by Edvard Munch at its annual salon, and reached its apex in 1898 when the salon jury rejected a landscape painting by Walter Leistikow. Consequently, 65 artists banded together under the leadership of Leistikow and Max Liebermann and seceded from the Verein. Other famous Berliner Secession members included Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Käthe Kollwitz.


In 1905 Kirchner, along with Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, founded the artists' group Die Brücke (The Bridge) in Dresden: it turned the art world on its head with groundbreaking visions that paved the way for German expressionism. Abstract forms, a flattened perspective and bright, emotional colours characterised this new aesthetic. Die Brücke moved to Berlin in 1911 and disbanded in 1913. The small Brücke-Museum in the Grunewald has a fantastic collection of these influential artists.

Ironically, it was the expressionists who splintered off from the Berliner Secession in 1910 after their work was rejected by the Secession jury. With Max Pechstein at the helm, they formed the Neue Secession. The original Berliner Secession group continued but saw its influence wane, especially after the Nazi power grab in 1933.

The Bauhaus & Art Under the Nazis

The year 1919 saw the founding of the Bauhaus movement and school in Weimar. It was based on practical anti-elitist principles bringing form and function together, and had a profound effect on all modern design. Although the school moved to Dessau in 1925 and only came to Berlin in 1932, many of its most influential figures worked in Berlin. The Nazis forced it to close down in 1933. Unfortunately, the Bauhaus Archive, the museum built by Walter Gropius, will be closed for renovation until 2023 but there are still numerous events planned for 2019 on the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus.

After the Nazi takeover many artists left the country and others ended up in prison or concentration camps, their works confiscated or destroyed. The art promoted instead was often terrible, favouring straightforward ‘Aryan’ forms and epic styles. Propaganda artist Mjölnir defined the typical look of the time with block Gothic scripts and idealised figures.

Berlin Dada

Dada was an avant-garde art movement formed in Zurich in 1916 in reaction to the brutality of WWI. It spread to Berlin in 1918 with the help of Richard Huelsenbeck, who held the first Dada event in a gallery in February that year and later produced the First German Dada Manifesto. Founding members included George Grosz, photomontage inventor John Heartfield and Hannah Höch; Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp were among the many others who dabbled in Dada.

Dada artists had an irrational, satirical and often absurdist approach, imbued with a political undercurrent and a tendency to shock and provoke. The First International Dada Fair in 1920, for instance, took place beneath a suspended German officer dummy with a pig's head.

One artist greatly influenced by Dadaism was Otto Dix, who, in the 1920s, produced a series of dark and sombre paintings depicting war scenes – disfigured, dying and decomposing bodies – in graphic detail. Dix and Grosz went on to become key figures of the late 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an offshoot of expressionism distinguished by an unsentimental, practical and objective look at reality.


After WWII, Berlin’s art scene was as fragmented as the city itself. In the east, artists were forced to toe the social realism line, at least until the late 1960s when artists of the so-called Berliner Schule, including Manfred Böttcher and Harald Metzkes, sought to embrace a more interpretative and emotional form of expression inspired by the colours and aesthetic of Beckmann, Matisse, Picasso and other classical modernists. In the '70s, when conflicts of the individual in society became a prominent theme, underground galleries flourished in Prenzlauer Berg and art became a collective endeavour.

In postwar West Berlin, artists eagerly embraced abstract art. Pioneers included Zone 5, which revolved around Hans Thiemann, and surrealists Heinz Trökes and Mac Zimmermann. In the 1960s politics was a primary concern and a new style called ‘critical realism’ emerged, propagated by artists like Ulrich Baehr, Hans-Jürgen Diehl and Wolfgang Petrick. The 1973 movement, Schule der Neuen Prächtigkeit (School of New Magnificence), had a similar approach. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, expressionism found its way back on to the canvases of Salomé, Helmut Middendorf and Rainer Fetting, a group known as the Junge Wilde (Young Wild Ones). One of the best-known German neoexpressionist painters is Georg Baselitz, who lives in Berlin and became internationally famous in the 1970s with his 'upside-down' works.

The Present

Berlin hosts one of the most exciting and dynamic arts scenes in Europe. With an active community of some 10,000 artists, there have been notable successes, most famously perhaps Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Other major leaguers like Thomas Demand, Jonathan Meese, Via Lewandowsky, Isa Genzken, Tino Seghal, Esra Ersen, John Bock and the artist duo Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen all live and work in Berlin, or at least have a second residence here.

Berlin has also emerged as a European street art capital with some major international artists like Blu, JR and Os Gemeos leaving their mark on the city. Local top talent includes Alias and El Bocho. Street art is especially prevalent in eastern Kreuzberg (especially around the U-Bahn station Schlesisches Tor) as well as in Mitte (Haus Schwarzenberg) and around the RAW complex in Friedrichshain. In 2016, Urban Nation, the world's first museum dedicated entirely to street art, opened in Berlin's Schöneberg district.

Feature: Heinrich Zille: Illustrator

Born in Dresden in 1858, Heinrich Zille moved to Berlin with his family when he was a child. A lithographer by trade, he became the first prominent artist to evoke the social development of the city as the tendrils of modernity reached Berlin. His instantly recognisable style depicted everyday life and real people, often featuring the bleak Hinterhöfe (back courtyards) around which so much of their lives revolved. Even during his lifetime Zille was acknowledged as one of the definitive documenters of his time, and since his death in 1929 his prolific photographic work has also come to be seen as a valuable historical record.

In 1903 Zille was accepted into the Berliner Secession, although he didn’t really regard himself as an ‘artist’ as such, but more as a hard-working illustrator. When he died, thousands of Berliners turned out to pay their respects to the man whose pictures chronicled their daily lives with sharp humour and unsentimental honesty. There's a Zille Museum in the Nikolaiviertel dedicated to his life and work.