In the early 20th century, leading German architects and artists sparked a global design revolution that influenced buildings across the world. Several sites across the country have been preserved and tell the story of how the Modernist movement evolved in Germany's fast-changing society. Here are five of the best.
The short-lived Bauhaus school for architecture and design, active in Germany from 1919 until 1933, revolutionized the world of design, influencing art and architecture to this day. Moving from Weimar to Dessau and finally Berlin before being dissolved by the Nazis, the school employed Europe’s cutting-edge architects, leading artists and innovative designers. In Weimar, the two original school buildings and the Haus Am Horn model house are part of this dispersed World Heritage Site, and there's a new Bauhaus Museum in the city centre, too.
Dessau has some of the movement's finest buildings: the iconic Bauhaus school building from 1926 with its glass curtain wall, the Masters' Houses for the teachers, both open for tours, as well as the five Houses with Balcony Access. The city also has a new Bauhaus museum.
Set in the forests just outside Bernau near Berlin, the ADGB Trade Union School from 1930 consists of several light-flooded geometrical shapes connected by a glass corridor. Bauhaus architecture students collaborated on the construction, experimenting with exposed concrete, steel and glass. Still in use as a boarding school, it's possible to join tours of the site. A visitor centre is set to open in 2021.
Weimar lies between Frankfurt and Berlin and can be reached from both cities in about 3 hours by train or car. Dessau is 120km southwest of Berlin and can be reached in 1.5 hours by train or car. The ADGB Trade Union School is a 10-minute bus ride from the station of Bernau, 20km north of Berlin.
The functionalist Fagus shoe last factory (Fagus-Werk) is an important early example of the Modernist architectural concepts that would soon sweep across Europe and America. The building from 1913 that made architect Walter Gropius internationally famous has innovative glass curtain walls that maximize the natural light on the work floor, seemingly bending around the corners, giving the whole factory a transparent look – perhaps one of the first ever factories that looked like a pleasant place to work in.
All ten buildings on the complex are original and unchanged, having been carefully restored, giving unique insight in the rapid changes industry was going through at the time. The Fagus Factory is well prepared for visitors with a restaurant and a visitor centre offering video guides and tours of the interior.
The Fagus Factory is right beside Alfeld's station, a 40-minute train ride south of Hanover.
During the progressive Weimar Republic era, Berlin's property companies and collectives rethought public housing and started to build extensive new estates with tenants' well-being in mind. For the first time, regular Berliners had access to cleverly designed apartments and townhouses with bathrooms, modern kitchens and balconies, all set among pleasant greenery. Six estates built between 1913 and 1934 by the star architects of German Modernism, including Bruno and Max Taut, Hans Scharoun and Walter Gropius, now have World Heritage status. While some buildings may seem mundane, at the time they used revolutionary new concepts that were much-copied – their enduring design values proven by the fact that they are as popular now as they were one hundred years ago. The most famous is the Horseshoe Estate (Hufeisensiedlung) in the district of Neukölln, where there's an information centre and an apartment that's been restored to the way it would have looked in around 1930. You can even spend the night in the restored Tautes Heim museum house nearby. The other listed estates are the colourful Gartenstadt Falkenberg, Siedlung Schillerpark, Wohnstadt Carl Legien, Weiße Stadt, Großsiedlung Siemensstadt and the Ringsiedlung.
Scattered around Berlin's suburbs, the six estates are easy to reach by metro and bus. The Hufeisensiedlung is close to U-Bahn station Blaschkoallee.
The German port-city of Hamburg prospered during the rapid growth of international trade and shipping between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The impressive Speicherstadt ("city of warehouses") that was built on a series of narrow islands next to the harbour is the world's largest port-warehouse complex from that era.
The fairly conservative Neo-gothic exteriors of the fifteen huge brick warehouses hide interiors that had advanced warehousing technology. The castle-like Wasserschloss building, perched on the tip of one of the islands and surrounded by towering walls, is now a restaurant and tea shop. One warehouse is home to Miniatur Wunderland, the world's largest model railway and one of Germany's most-visited attractions, where over one thousand trains zip around fabulous landscapes.
The adjacent Kontorhaus district is home to eight massive office complexes housing port-related companies and dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. Resembling a pointy ship's prow, the Chilehaus – from 1924 – is the most remarkable of them all, a beautiful brick Expressionist building that is massive, yet looks light at the same time.
The Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus district are just south of Hamburg city centre, a short walk from the main station.
Stuttgart's Weissenhof Estate (Weißenhofsiedlung) attracted international attention in 1927 when it opened as an exhibition of modern residential building styles. It introduced new prefabrication techniques and features, including window bands, open-plan interiors and flat roofs. It later annoyed the Nazis for its "un-German" looks; members of the party compared it to an Arab village. Artistic director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe selected seventeen architects including Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut and Hans Scharoun to contribute designs, but it's the semi-detached homes by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier that stand out and are listed as a World Heritage Site. The Haus Le Corbusier has an odd facade supported by columns and topped by a rooftop flower garden with a covered promenade. The interiors, furniture and colours of the rooms inside have been restored to their 1927 state. There's a modern kitchen and bathroom, and the living space can be transformed into two bedrooms using sliding walls and by rolling beds out of the closets. An exhibition occupies the rest of the house, and you can join tours of the museum and the surrounding estate.
Take metro U5 from Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof station to the Killesberg stop, from where it's a short walk to the estate.
In the early 20th century, German architects and artists were at the forefront of modern design, and these five state-of-the-art World Heritage sites give excellent insight into the revolutionary innovations of the time.
Find out more about Germany's World Heritage gems by downloading our free eBook