Although many know expressionism for its evocative poetry and painting, expressionist architecture was also a subsect of the Modernist Movement. While coexisting with the minimalist rigor of the Bauhaus, this avant-garde style allowed designers to explore new, radical perspectives, gifting to the world some of the most dynamic, expressive architecture of the 20th century.
Origins of Expressionism
Expressionism originated in the late 1800s from a small group of artists based in Germany. The artists who founded the movement felt that 19th-century impressionism – which commanded the art world – was out of touch with the social climate of the times due to the various changes that came with the Industrial Revolution. This feeling of detachment helped inspire what would soon be known as expressionism.
Acclaimed painters like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon all contributed remarkable works of art throughout the movement, but artists who worked with other mediums also adopted the ideals that expressionists held close. Because of the vivid colors and distorted lines and angles associated with expressionism, German cinematography, in particular, took advantage of the moody standards.
After more than 30 years of commanding the art world itself, expressionists became banned from showing and selling their work in Germany, where the majority of the artists lived. The result left many artists suppressed, eventually leading to various radical movements, including Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art, Minimalism and in the late 20th century, Neo-Expressionism.
Expressionism in Architecture
Expressionist architecture took advantage of the many characteristics associated with the movement’s other works of art, including distortion of form, themes of romanticism, expression of inner experience and the conception of architecture as a work of art, among others. Much of the movement’s builds featured Gothic, Romanesque and Rococo affinities.
Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion is one of the earliest examples of expressionist architecture. The structure was built in 1914 as a feature of the Cologne Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition. Constructed using only concrete and glass, the exterior of the pavilion showcases a vibrantly colored prismatic dome and a grand staircase. The interior of the building featured a kaleidoscope of color from the crown above it and a seven-tiered cascading waterfall.
The Einstein Tower is another striking example of expressionist-style architecture. The observatory was built by German Architect Erich Mendelsohn from 1919 to 1921 and was envisioned to hold a solar telescope. Mendelsohn designed the building to reflect the radical theories formed by Einstein – specifically his theory of motion. The structure is built with brick but covered with stucco to give it its smooth, tidal-like exterior.
More recent examples of expressionist-style architecture include Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, the Lotus Temple designed by Fariborz Sahba in Delhi, and Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein.