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Examining Berlin's World Heritage Sites
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Examining Berlin's World Heritage Sites

Picture of Ellyn Matta
Updated: 24 April 2017
Take a closer look at Berlin’s three unique World Heritage Sites, including the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin, Museum Island and the Berlin Modernism Housing Estates. These remarkable buildings and picturesque landscapes serve as testimonies to Germany’s fascinating history, architectural development and social changes and have been recognized for their global influence in terms of architecture and landscape design—making them part of our universal cultural heritage.
Potsdam Palace | © Roger W/Flickr
Potsdam Palace | © Roger W/Flickr

Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin

Berlin and the neighboring city of Potsdam boast a vast ensemble of architectural treasures that represent Germany’s Prussian history and reflect Europe’s evolution of architectural styles, ranging from the 18th to 20th century. In 1990 this magnificent cultural landscape, which developed throughout the course of nearly 200 years, was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The site, which encompasses about 2,000 hectares, narrates Germany’s Prussian past through an eclectic mix of palaces, gardens, parks and other buildings created by prominent architects and designers such as Karl-Friedrich Schinkel and Peter Josef Lenné. Although Potsdam was first mentioned in historical records in 993, it was not until the 17th century that the city began to thrive as a royal residence when Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, established his second royal seat there. In the years to follow, Potsdam served an important military function and began to flourish as Frederich William I came into power and encouraged immigrants from all over Europe to settle there.

Sansoucci Palace | @Wolfgang Staudt
Sansoucci Palace | @Wolfgang Staudt

Over the course of three centuries, the royal city’s prominence grew with the construction of several palaces and stunning gardens. The post-Ice Age hilly landscape of Potsdam, characterized by its forests, rivers and lakes, would soon become one of the world’s greatest cultural landscapes under the rule of Friedrich II, also known as Friedrich the Great (1712-1786). He was responsible for Potsdam’s most renowned architectural wonder, the Palace of Sanssouci. The Prussian Versailles overlooks a magnificent terraced garden that was used to cultivate a myriad of gastronomic pleasures including figs, plums and wine. The summer residence served as a place of quiet refuge and reflected the King’s desire for simplicity (sans souci means ‘without worries’ or ‘carefree’ in French). Yet, the palace presents itself in a lavish rococo style, adorned with rich ornamentation and gilding. It was designed by the architect, Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff. The building manifests itself as a culmination of numerous architectural influences from Italy, England, Paris and Dresden. During his reign, Friedrich the Great also commissioned an eclectic and romantic ensemble of gardens and buildings including the Chinese Tea House, the Picture Gallery, the Neptune Grotto, the Antique Temple and the stunning New Palace.

The Chinese Tea House | @Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr
The Chinese Tea House | @Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr

The succeeding king, Friedrich Wilhelm II, left his mark on Potsdam’s lakeside shores through the construction of the English style New Garden, the Marble Palace and the curious Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), an island located in the Havel River where the King built a romantic castle for his mistress. Today you can take a short ferry to the island and wander the peaceful sanctuary where peacocks roam freely. By the 19th century, the Baroque gardens came out of fashion. Under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s rule, many of the parks and gardens were redesigned following the period of Romanticism. The architect and designer, Peter Josef Lenné, transformed the land in the style of a landscape park, which unified the city and the royal residence through utilizing Potsdam’s unique topography. Additionally, Karl-Friedrich Schinkel contributed to Potsdam’s architectural evolution through his design of the neoclassic Charlottenhof Palace.

Among the last of the royal commissions in Potsdam is the Cecilienhof Palace. The English style palace was constructed in 1916 in the New Garden under the rule of Wilhelm II shortly before his abdication. In 1945, Churchill, Truman and Stalin met in the Palace after the war and decided how to partition Germany during what is now known as the Potsdam Conference.

Castle on Pfaueninsel | @ RThiele/Wikipedia
Castle on Pfaueninsel | @ RThiele/Wikipedia

While exploring the landscape of Potsdam, be sure not to miss the intriguing settlement of Alexandrowka (1826-27), which has also been inscribed as part of the World Heritage Site. Alexandrowka is a small colony that consists of thirteen wooden houses built in the traditional Russian style. Friedrich Wilhelm III built the colony in memory of his deceased friend, Czar Alexander I. The colony was first a home to the Russian singers of the First Prussian Regiment of the Guards and later became an artist’s village. Lenné designed a landscape that would provide the singers and artists with a special environment for music and leisure. Only a few descendants of the colonies’ original residents are still living in Alexandrowka today.

The Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin have been recognized as masterpieces of outstanding universal value since 1990. They have continued to inspire and delight locals and visitors from all over the world. This World Heritage Site can easily be explored by bike and makes for a wonderful day trip out of the bustling city.

Sanssouci Palace, Maulbeerallee, Potsdam, Germany +49 0331 9694200

Pfaueninsel, Nikolskoer Weg, Wannsee, Berlin, Germany +49 30 80586830

Charlottenhof Palace, Geschwister-Scholl-Straße, Potsdam, Germany +49 331 9694200

Cecilienhof Palace, Im Neuen Garten 1, Potsdam, Germany +49 331-9694200

Russische Kolonie Alexandrowk 2 Potsdam, Germany +49 331 8170203

Museum Island

Located in the heart of the capital city is one of Berlin’s top attractions, Museum Island. This site earned its place on the World Heritage List not only for its highly renowned cultural institutions, which are architectural masterpieces themselves, but because the island is seen as a remarkable visionary project originating from the Age of Enlightenment that continues to inspire and educate today. The importance of the museums’ collections and its architectural splendor dubbed Berlin the ‘Athens on the Spree’ and in 1999, Museum Island was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It has been recognized as a complex of buildings of outstanding significance, which serves as evidence of the change of human values and the shifting roles of the art museum throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Museum Island, previously known as Spreeinsel (Spree Island), was developed in the 16th century to serve as a pleasure garden for the City Palace (which is now being reconstructed in its original site across from the island). The idea for a complex that serves solely museological purposes emerged in the beginning of the 19th century as publicly accessible institutions became representations of the ‘bourgeoisie’s ideal of freedom’. The island’s impressive institutions present the evolution of the art museum starting from the beginning of the 19th century until the 20th century. This development can be seen in each of the island’s five museums: the Altes Museum, the Neues Museum, the Nationalgalerie, the Bodemuseum, and the Pergamonmuseum.

Bode Museum | @Wolfgang Staudt
Bode Museum | @Wolfgang Staudt

Each of the museums’ designs compliment the collections that are housed within them and provide us with insight as to how the art museum, which started as a tool to educate the middle-class, became a reflection of national identity and power. The Altes Museum, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1825, is a quintessential example of the museum as a ‘temple of ideas’. It is the oldest of the museums on the island and was one of the first buildings in Europe to be designed specifically as a museum. The museum’s classical and open design, which features colonnades and a grand staircase, reflected the King’s desire to create an ‘open middle-class culture’ where the royal collection could be viewed openly by the public for the first time. According to Schinkel, the Altes Museum was to serve an ‘exalted purpose’ to ‘awaken and develop an appreciation of art’, and was used as a place to educate the middle-class through the study of classical antiquities. In fact, the attic facing the gardens bears the inscription: FRIDERICUS GUILELMUS III STUDIO ANTIQUITATIS OMNIGENIAE ET ARTIUM LIBERALIUM MUSEUM CONSTITUIT MDCCCXXVIII (‘Friedrich Wilhelm III dedicated this museum to the study of all antiquity and liberal arts in 1828’). Today, visitors can still enjoy its amazing collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

Over the course of the century, Museum Island developed through the ideas of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. It was the king’s intention to turn the whole Spree-Insel into ‘a sanctuary for art and learning.’ The architect, Friedrich August Stüler, was responsible for translating the king’s concepts in his design for the Neues Museum. The development of the Neues Museum marked the king’s desire to create a national collection that would represent a more concrete display of history where its objects were selected more for their educational purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure. Today, the museum boasts an astonishing array of Egyptian art and antiquities as well as pre- and early history and classical antiquities.

Interior of Neues Museum | @ René Spitz/Flickr
Interior of Neues Museum | @ René Spitz/Flickr

In the years that followed, Museum Island would become a symbol of Prussian identity after the Napoleonic Wars. This display of national identity was made apparent through the establishment of the Alte Nationalgalerie, which would signify Prussia’s role in the German unification process. The exaltation of Prussian identity can be clearly seen in Alte Nationalgalerie, which was also designed by Friedrich August Stüler. This national pride is seen in the friezes along the staircase walls, showcasing German cultural history, and an equestrian statue of the museum’s founder, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, which stands prominently outside the museum doors. Today, Germany’s national collections are housed not only at the Alte Nationalgalerie, but also at the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, Museum Berggruen and the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg.

Alte Nationalgalerie  |  @ Manfred Brückels/Wikipedia
Alte Nationalgalerie | @ Manfred Brückels/Wikipedia

During Museum Island’s last major construction phase, the art museum’s purpose aimed to demonstrate and reflect the Prussian Empire’s power through displaying art and antiquities collections that would rival those of any other European capitals. The collections of the Bodemuseum and the Pergamonmuseum would come to represent the Prussian empire’s imperial ambitions. The Prussian Empire’s grand power is easily discerned in the Pergamonmuseum, where impressive archaeological objects fill entire rooms. In addition to the prominent Pergamon Altar, the museum has become renowned for the impressive Market Gate of Miletus, the blue-tiled Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon, and the Mshatta Facade.

Pergamon Altar |  @ Gryffindor/Wikimedia
Pergamon Altar | @ Gryffindor/Wikimedia

The Bode Museum, initially named after Emperor Friedrich III, opened in 1904. The museum was designed by Eberhard von Ihne and designed to resemble a Renaissance church. The layout of the collection was innovative at the time. Based on the ideas of Wilhelm von Bode, the art works were arranged together according to their time period and style to create ‘epoch rooms.’ Today the Bode Museum houses a unique sculpture and coin collection and Byzantine art.

Remarkably, Museum Island has survived even the severe bombings during World War II. Many of the museums were quickly restored after the war, yet the Neues Museum laid in ruin well into the end of the 20th century until David Chipperfield Architects, in collaboration with restoration architect Julian Harrap, were appointed to restore the museum in 1997-98. The restoration would take nearly eleven years to complete and the museum reopened in 2009. The incredible transformation of the Neues Museum allows visitors to realize and admire the beauty of its timeworn and damaged frescoes, façade and other architectural elements, which are complimented and enhanced by wonderful modern architectural interventions. Each building on Museum Island, although carried out in a different style, comes together to form a harmonious architectural composition. This incredible ensemble of historic, cultural, architectural and artistic masterpieces has not only become an important part of Berlin’s urban landscape, but is of great relevance on a global scale. Museum Island continues to delight and educate the public through its extraordinary art and antiquities collections, splendid gardens, columned walkways and its well-preserved historic buildings

Altes Museum, Am Lustgarten, Berlin, Germany, +49 30 266424242

Neues Museum, Bodestraße 1-3, Berlin, Germany +49 30 266424242

Alte Nationalgalerie, Bodestraße 1-3, Berlin, Germany +49 30 266424242

Pergamonmuseum, Bodestraße 1-3, Berlin, Germany +49 30 266424242

Bode Museum, Am Kupfergruben, Berlin, Germany +49 30 266424242

Berlin Modernism Housing Estates

Berlin’s third World Heritage Site testifies the advancement of social housing solutions and urban planning in which modern aesthetic and social commitment merged together. Light, air, green spaces and affordability were key to their modern, clean and minimalistic designs. The World Heritage Site includes six modernist housing estates that are scattered throughout Berlin. They were developed between 1913 and 1934 during a time when Berlin became a renowned center for ‘political, social, technical and cultural progressiveness’, and served to influence architecture and urban planning around the world throughout the 20th century. The estates represent the remarkable advancement of social housing between the two World Wars and were constructed mostly in the period following the end of the Prussian Empire during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933).

“The Horseshoe” | @ Sebastian Trommer/Wikimedia
“The Horseshoe” | @ Sebastian Trommer/Wikimedia

The right to decent housing was guaranteed in the Weimar Constitution of 1919. The strict construction rules set in place during this period ensured that Berlin residents would have separate bathrooms and kitchens, as well as a balcony (one of the many perks Berliners continue to enjoy today). The plans for these complexes were designed so that residents from all incomes could enjoy light, air and sunshine. This was considered a major improvement in the early decades of the 20th century, whereas in previous times, those not belonging to the elite class were hidden away in dangerous, dark and often disease ridden tenement buildings. Before World War I, 90 percent of Berlin’s population lived in unsafe tenements that were four or five stories high, most of which were located in dark spaces and lacked bathrooms. The housing reform movement greatly helped the people of Berlin and changed urban lifestyle through improving the social and service infrastructure. In addition, many of the buildings’ standardized forms allowed for easy and more economic construction.

The Schillerpark Housing Estate in Berlin-Wedding | @ Marbot/Wikimedia
The Schillerpark Housing Estate in Berlin-Wedding | @ Marbot/Wikimedia

Although only six of the estates are included on the World Heritage List, Berlin implemented several hundred social housing projects that greatly benefited the public and influenced architecture, urban planning schemes and the advancement of social science on an international level. During Berlin’s Golden Age in the 1920s, the capital attracted Europe’s creative elite and became an important hub for artists, international fairs and modern media institutions. Germany was becoming widely recognized for its practical modernist architecture and design products as seen through the development of the Bauhaus School, which followed the notion that architecture could be used to build a better society. The housing estates built during this short period were designed by both local and international architects and appeared in several architectural publications as ‘exemplary achievements of modernist architecture and urban development.’

In the beginning of the 1920s, the capital, which had incorporated several villages and towns, was the third largest city in the world in terms of population. ‘Greater Berlin’, which was at the time undeveloped, was used to experiment with the development of modern social housing complexes. Martin Wagner, who served as the capital’s director of municipal construction, led the way to a great increase in housing construction through his promotion of housing and building legislation and his management skills. 140,000 apartments were constructed within a few years through just one of the city’s housing construction program.

Berlin-Britz Hufeisensiedlung | @ Fridolin freudenfett/Wikimedia
Berlin-Britz Hufeisensiedlung | @ Fridolin freudenfett/Wikimedia

The architects designed these outstanding estates with the intention to promote healthy living and family life. Some of the estates include Aussenwohnräume (exterior living spaces), which were meant to invite residents outside to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight (this was particularly important during this time due to the constant battle against tuberculosis). A fine example of one of these outdoor living spaces can be seen in the center of the Hufeisensiedlung (also known as The Horseshoe Estate) built by Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner. Each of the six estates’ concepts focus on light and air, yet they all offer diverse designs.

The first of the estates constructed was Bruno Taut’s Gartenstadt Falkenberg (1913-1916), which drew inspiration from the English architect Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City design. This estate is most noted for its bright colored houses. The use of color, as applied by Taut, served to replace the previous era’s ornamentation while serving to emphasize the buildings’ architectural and urban composition and to instill a positive psychological response. The Schillerpark Settlement (1924-30) was the first urban housing project to be developed during the Weimar Republic. The buildings’ brick facades and design are reminiscent of modern Dutch architecture. The Hufeisensiedlung Britz (1925-30), perhaps the most recognized site, is a large estate that houses 5,000 people and was constructed in the shape of a horseshoe through which the apartments surround a large green area with a glacial pond.

Gartenstadt Falkenberg "Tuschkastensiedlung" | @ Mangan2002/Wikimedia
Gartenstadt Falkenberg “Tuschkastensiedlung” | @ Mangan2002/Wikimedia

Meanwhile, due to its location in the city center where property prices were much higher compared to the other estates located in the capital’s peripheries, the Carl Legien Housing Estate (1928-30) was designed to accommodate a larger population within a smaller space by creating four-to five-story houses. This estate sets itself apart from the densely designed and populated surrounding buildings from the Wilhelminian era (1892-1917) through its emphasis on light, air and green spaces. The Großsiedlung Siemensstadt (1929-34) includes several rows of houses surrounded by old trees to emphasize its countryside character. This estate has been nicknamed, the Ring Estate after the architects’ association which most of the estate’s architects were part of. Lastly, the Weiße Stadt (White City) (1929-31) is a twin project of the Ring Estate. It features an open-plan internal structure with rows of houses that are interwoven by green spaces. This development was unique in that it incorporated new facilities such as shops, a children’s home, laundry facilities and a medical practice.

Carl Legien Housing Estate | @Doris Antony/Wikimedia
Carl Legien Housing Estate | @Doris Antony/Wikimedia

The housing estates have been well preserved and remain important monuments of architecture and design, while still serving their main purpose of providing high quality living. The inclusion of these modern housing estates on the World Heritage List boosts the recognition of man’s more recent contributions to society, which helped to improve urban life for all. Perhaps the estates are not as grand or as aesthetically beautiful as other sites, yet they serve as great examples in urban planning and architecture, which have influenced the world. The architectural reform movement between the two World Wars has helped transform Berlin’s residences into attractive and comfortable homes, which have been passed down through generations and are still coveted today. Those seeking to explore the estates can join an organized tour or simply admire the grounds and facades at their leisure. In addition, you have a chance to stay overnight at one of Bruno Taut’s houses at the Hufeisensiedlung Britz. The ‘rentable museum’, which received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage, has been fully restored both inside and out to give you a taste of the lifestyle during this exciting period.

Gartenstadt Falkenberg, Akazienhof 1, Berlin, Germany

Schillerpark Housing Estate, Bristolstraße 1-5, Berlin, Germany

Hufeisensiedlung, Fritz-Reuter-Allee 44, Berlin, Germany +49 30 420 269 612

Wohnstadt Carl Legien, Erich-Weinert-Straße, Berlin, Germany

Großsiedlung Siemensstadt, Goebelstraße 100, Berlin, Germany +49 30 901393000

Weiße Stadt, Schillerring 15, Berlin, Germany

Tautes Heim, Hufeisensiedlung, Berlin, Germany +49 30 60107193