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Expressionism: Architecture & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen a building with an unusual shape or extremely rounded edges? In early 20th century Europe, some architects created truly unique structures. In this lesson, we will explore Expressionism as an architectural style.

What is Expressionism?

Can buildings express inner ideas or feelings?

Expressionism was an early 20th-century movement in art and architecture. It developed between 1910 and 1924 among a group of architects from European countries including Germany, Austria, and Denmark. It was a time of great turmoil and upheaval in Europe and many of the architects had fought on the battlefields of World War I. Their experiences greatly impacted their work and what they created looked like nothing that had come before it.

Describing Expressionist architecture is a challenge because each structure is so different and is an individual statement by its creator. In fact, Expressionism is often defined by what is it not. It's not often symmetrical. The architects who designed Expressionist buildings avoided traditional box shapes and resisted basing their designs on past historical styles. They tended toward abstraction, which means the designs weren't based on objects or structures seen in the real world.

Expressionist architecture was designed to evoke inner feelings and extreme emotions. Buildings created in this style made a statement and stood out from the structures around them. Architects often used distorted unusual forms and incorporated innovative building techniques using materials like brick, steel, and glass.

Examples of Expressionist Architecture

Many prominent architects of the time, including Walter Gropius and Bruno Taut, designed Expressionist buildings. Unfortunately, many of the structures were never built and exist only on paper. Of those that were built, some were temporary and others did not survive into the present, but you can still find several striking examples of Expressionist architecture, especially in Germany.

Einstein Tower

The Einstein Tower, designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn, was built between 1919 and 1921. Located in Potsdam, Germany in a science park, it's surrounded by grassy lawn and trees.

The Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany
Einstein Tower

The building, a solar observatory, is made of brick covered with cement. It's all curving edges and undulating forms and seems almost to emerge from the ground below it like some kind of organic or scientific organism. And that's not an accident because it was made to reflect Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which changed the way people thought about time and space. The Einstein Tower looks strikingly modern for a building that's almost one hundred years old.

Chilehaus

In contrast, here's another Expressionist structure. The Chilehaus is an office building and landmark structure in Hamburg, Germany. Designed by architect Fritz Höger, it was built between 1922 and 1924 and constructed of reinforced concrete and brick. The towering structure thrusts violently skyward and seems to resemble the elongated bow of a tall ship.

The Chilehaus in Hamburg, Germany
Chilehaus

Comparing these two structures gives you a good idea of what is so striking about Expressionist architecture. Each is a singular statement. The Einstein Tower looks nothing like the Chilehaus, yet they are both Expressionist structures. Neither takes a standard boxy form and both are unique statements by their creators.

Legacy of Expressionist Architecture

Expressionism changed the way people thought about architecture because its practitioners demonstrated that buildings did not always have to echo past styles or be chained to certain design standards and expectations. In fact, beginning in the 1950s, a movement called Neo-Expressionism developed that revived the rejection of box shapes and traditional lines.

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