As a German industrial and commercial center in the Prussian Rhine province,
Düsseldorf expanded rapidly in the last quarter of the 19th century, serving as the
banking and trading center for the heavily industrialized Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr Valley) to the east.
Industrialization and continuous development as a trade-fair center shaped the city and its
architecture along the Rhine River. Noteworthy commercial and administrative structures
were built in the first half of the 20th century, but during World War II much of the city
was destroyed by Allied bombing raids. Although some prewar buildings were
undamaged or restored, a great deal of construction in the 1950s and 1960s transformed
the cityscape, with many notable achievements. In 1946, the Allied occupation
designated Düsseldorf the capital of the new state of Northrhine-Westphalia, and, as a
result, prominent new structures associated with state capital status have enhanced the
city’s architectural character.
Düsseldorf has long been a center for art and architectural study. Under the German
Empire, the city had two art institutions: an Academy of Art (Kunstakademie) and a
School for Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule). Both offered courses in architecture
and design. The Kunstakademie continues to be a leading center for study. However, the
Kunstgewerbeschule closed in 1918, torn between the reformist and conservative
tendencies of the 20th century. The Kunstgewerbeschule was an important center for
aesthetic reform under Peter Behrens’ directorship (1903–07). A number of innovative
designers were attracted to the school, including Rudolf Bosselt, Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke,
and J.L.M.Lauweriks. Behrens was followed by Wilhelm Kreis, an architect with much
more conservative views. Kreis purged the school of Behrens’ appointees and ultimately
presided over the institution’s dissolution in 1918, an approach to the rivalry between art
academies and schools of applied arts mockingly referred to as the “Düsseldorf solution.”
Kreis continued to teach architecture at the Kunstakademie, where he had held a joint
appointment since 1913. Relatively unknown today, Kreis enjoyed fame and success in a
career spanning four German regimes: the Second Empire, the Weimar Republic, the
Third Reich, and West Germany. Through his teaching and commissions, Kreis strongly
affected Düsseldorf’s s architectural heritage.
Düsseldorf has a wealth of innovative buildings. German architecture between 1900
and 1914 was typified by bourgeois monumentalism, a stylized architecture that melded
Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) with historicism, serving as a bridge between 19th-century
historicism and the 20th-century search for new forms and ideas. One of the most
important Wilhelmine buildings is the Tietz Department Store (now Kaufhof), built in
1907–09 to designs by J.M.Olbrich on a given floor plan. Together with Alfred Messel
and Wilhelm Kreis, Olbrich was one of the most influential architects of German
department stores. Olbrich used the colonnade and shop window front made famous by
Messel’s Wertheim store but added new sculptural interest to the roofline. Buttresses and
columns covering the steel frame served to unify the monumental exterior. Olbrich’s
four-part windows, running the height of the building, became a basic motif of German
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department stores. The interiors and light courts were not restored after World War II
Despite teaching for years in Düsseldorf, Peter Behrens designed only one building
there, the Mannesmann Building; it was built in 1911–12 after he left the city. Here,
Behrens sought to combine his interest in innovative design with the need for display
inherent in a corporate headquarters. Behrens’ building was inspired by Italian palazzi. On a
steel frame, he used rusticated stone for the foundation, dressed stone for the upper
levels, and a steeply pitched roof. The fenestration, geometric harmony, and horizontal
emphasis are typical of Behrens’ classical tendencies and were widely imitated. The
interior incorporated innovative engineering based on a system of pillars using a normal
module that allowed organizational flexibility. The module was a “normal office”: a sixperson
desk with heater and office furniture. Even in the executive offices, all office
walls were movable partitions. The free treatment of the interior and the exterior
emphasis on blocky, objective forms were design landmarks in German corporate
Poured-concrete construction and innovative brick Expressionist
architecture dominated the interwar period. Düsseldorf also became home
to Germany’s first skyscraper, the Wilhelm Marx House (1922–24) by
Kreis. The building included a stock exchange, shops, and administrative
offices. Concrete and elaborate brick designs alternate on the exterior,
culminating in geometric brick tracery crowning the tower and lending a
distinctive silhouette to the building. Another brick Expressionist building,
the Stumm Concern Headquarters (1922–24), was the work of Paul
Bonatz, the architect of Stuttgart’s Central Train Station.
The Stumm building drew on American examples to create a concrete frame decoratively
clad in bricks.
The most important interwar project was the Ehrenhof (1925–26), a group of buildings
designed by Wilhelm Kreis as part of the “GESOLEI” (Gesundheits pfl ege, soziale Fürs orge und Leibesübungen) exposition, an event
combining elements of design show, amusement park, trade fair, and education fair. The
Ehrenhof itself was a group of four stylistically unified permanent buildings arranged
around a plaza: Planetarium (a multipurpose meeting hall), Economics Museum, Art
Museum, and Rhine Restaurant. The complex was intended to combine contemporary
architecture, sculpture, and landscaping ideas in an urban plaza that would serve as a
cultural center for social interaction and give closure and balance to the Rhinefront as
part of the city plan. On the whole, the Ehrenhof exemplifies Weimar design at its best
but also presages the monumental classicism of the 1930s (particularly during the Third
Reich) at which Kreis excelled. Flat roofs and horizontal lines dominate the museum
buildings, where stone foundations contrast with decorative use of brick and sculpture.
The Planetarium is a striking, circular building with brick arcades and a low dome
reminiscent of Near Eastern forms. Gutted by fire in World War II, the Planetarium was
restored in the 1970s as a concert hall.
Postwar Düsseldorf became a center for innovative architecture, and recent
developments sealed Düsseldorf’s s reputation as an architectural mecca. In 1960,
Düsseldorf received a new symbol in the Thyssen Tower, popularly known as the
“Dreischeibenhaus” (Three-Slab House), built in 1957–60 to designs by the firm Helmuth
Hentrich and Hubert Petschnigg. The nickname refers to its geometric conception as
three tall, narrow slabs. At a height of 95 meters with 25 floors, its steel-frame and glass/
aluminum-curtain-wall construction was a milestone for German corporate architecture.
Although its height and starkness were controversial, the tower was celebrated as an
emblem of German economic recovery.
Another subject of debate as a symbol was the State Parliament (Landtag),
completed in 1988 following a 1979 competition won by the firm of Eller,
Maier, Moser, Walter and Partner. The parliament features a circular
plenary hall surrounded by two multilevel wings and an interplay of
convex and concave rounded forms intended to symbolize the complex but
open nature of democracy. Nonetheless, the building’s monumentality has
been criticized for embodying a sort of economic hubris. Although a state
parliament, the building is larger and more imposing than the Federal
Parliament built in Bonn in the same era.
Düsseldorf continues to be a center for arts innovation. Museum Insel Hombroich is
an art environment, an innovative approach to museum conception located on an island
15 kilometers south of Düsseldorf in Neuss. The complex was begun in 1982 by Karl-
Heinrich Müller, a real estate tycoon, and has been open to the public since 1986. There
is no single museum building. Instead, the island is conceived as a space for art in a
landscape shaped by Bernhard Korte. An art collection is housed in pavilions, or “walk-in
sculptures,” designed by Erwin Heerich. By 1997, there were 11 pavilions in a large park.
The concept behind the complex was to blend art and nature and to juxtapose ancient
Chinese, Persian, and Khmer art with contemporary works, allowing their merits to speak
to the viewer directly, without any signs or labels to identify the artworks. Heerich’s
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pavilions also include ateliers and studios for artists in residence. The collection includes
work ranging from Rembrandt through Matisse to Alexander Calder.
The redevelopment of Düsseldorf’s s Rhinefront in the 1990s has also recently
attracted critical attention. Between 1993 and 1995, a major thoroughfare along the Rhine
River was rerouted into a tunnel. The goal was to reincorporate the river into the life of
the city by making space for terraces, parks, and cafes above the tunnel. The resulting
Rhine Promenade has been critically admired and popularly successful. The Promenade
combines paths with seating spaces and pools running roughly north to south from the
State Parliament to the Ehrenhof.
In a second project, the Rhine Harbor is being redeveloped to transform most of the
harbor area into office spaces, especially for multimedia firms. The “Media Harbor,” or
“Creative Mile,” combines retention of the 1896 harbor as a technological landmark with
experimental architecture by international leading architects, including Frank O.Gehry,
Steven Holl, David Chip perfield, and many others. It is frequently described as a
permanent architecture exhibit. In particular, Gehry’s Neue Zollhof office tower complex
(1999) broke new ground by making deconstructionist architecture potentially
economical. Gehry’s free-form shapes were adapted to mass-production methods via
computer simulation and poured forms in order to meet the builder’s engineering
demands. The harbor project promises to attract attention for several years to come.

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