Old Outside, New Inside: Architecture of Historicism

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What can we learn from historicism?

In historicism, the architectural styles of bygone eras were revisited, leaving a lot of space for personal interpretation. This created a mix of different forms of architecture that still attract attention today. What can we learn from historicism for our modern construction industry?

The phase of classicism slowly faded away as the 19th century progressed. However, the idea of taking up the past and implementing it in a new way remained. So while the preceding architectural period was concerned with a return to antiquity, from 1830/1840 to beyond the turn of the century, various styles of the past were imitated: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo. Historicism had come into existence.

The reasons for this lie in the social circumstances of that time. Due to the Industrial Revolution, there was a population explosion and a real building boom. There was a lack of resources and time to develop their own style, so they turned to models from the past. Due to colonialism, non-European architectural styles also reached Europe and historicism flourished.

Features of Historicism

In contrast to the previous eras, historicist buildings feature a pure facade design. For the rest of the buildings, modern materials and construction technology were used. In this period, differentiation arose between the professions of architect and engineer. The architects were responsible for the facade, the engineers for everything behind it.

So from the outside, the facade designs can mostly be assigned to one of the earlier major architectural styles, while there is far more modern masonry inside. In Germany, for example, we know this new style as Gründerzeit buildings, among others.

More important than the rule-compliant execution of an earlier architectural style was that the facades brought times past to mind and looked as decorative as possible. Various styles were often simply mixed together without regard to their respective heritage. Or it was assumed that only these modern influences could complete the style that was reverted to. Therefore, this form of architecture also met with some criticism.

Examples of Historicism

To look for examples of historicism, you don't need to travel long distances. Many people who live in old towns have such buildings on their doorstep, so to speak, or live in them themselves. So let's take a closer look at some historicist buildings.

New Town Hall in Leipzig

Leipzig, Germany

Due to the growing population, the old town hall gradually became too small. So a new one was needed! The city acquired the historical building of Pleissenburg from the Kingdom of Saxony in 1895. In its tower, there used to be an observatory of the Leipzig University. Although it had already been relocated due to the dense development of the surrounding area, the tower silhouette of the Pleissenburg was so well-known as a landmark of the city that it should be easily recognizable even after the reconstruction. The original style was to be adopted and given a modern makeover.

After six years of construction, the New Town Hall was dedicated in 1905 and the building extension was opened in 1912. Both buildings are connected by the "Beamtenlaufbahn", a two-story building bridge. Like many buildings in Germany, the New Town Hall was a victim of bombing in World War II. However, speedy renovation work soon restored the building and its interiors to their former glory.

The entire building complex was made of light gray, Main-Franconian shell limestone and the tower is located directly on the base of the old Pleissenburg tower. Especially interesting is the clock of the town hall, which shimmers blue at night and bears the Latin words mors verta, hora incerta (death is certain, the hour uncertain). Furthermore, it is home to one of the last publicly accessible paternoster lifts of Germany, which still works.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Füssen, Germany

From the mid- to late 19th century, then-King Ludwig II wished to have his robber baron castle rebuilt with Late Gothic details into a monumental Romanesque castle. Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, in particular, was supposed to serve as a model here. The reconstruction began in 1869 and was mostly completed in 1884.

The realization of this project succeeded so well that Neuschwanstein has become the epitome of a medieval castle for many people today. In fact, however, it is a historicist masterpiece, a stylistic neologism that emerged from the architecture of Wartburg Castle and depictions of castles in medieval book illustration.

It was to be a castle in old Romanesque style without having to forgo technological innovations. After its completion, the Romanesque Neuschwanstein Castle therefore had what was at the time a state-of-the-art kitchen, warm-air heating, and large, tightly closing steel frame windows from the industrial sector.

Predominant influences came from the Romanesque period, with its simple geometric figures, such as ashlars and round arches. Gothic features can also be found here; for example, soaring lines, slender towers, filigree architectural decoration. The decoration of the throne room, on the other hand, was realized in the style of Byzantine art. Even today, Neuschwanstein Castle is a famous and popular destination for excursions, which has been the setting for many well-known movies.

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin, Germany

With the foundation of the German Confederation as a nation state after the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation", a representative Protestant church was to take the place of the old classicist Berlin Cathedral. They wanted to be able to compete with other world churches. So the former building was demolished to make way for a church in the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque style.

From 1894 to 1905, work was done on the stylistic recomposition. While the four-story east side is reminiscent of Baroque palace architecture, the numerous columns and triangular pediments, especially at the entrances, reveal the Renaissance features. However, electric lines were already being laid at the same time, and by 1905, the cathedral had an electric elevator.

The dome, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, was destroyed during World War II and, with the height of 98 m (322 ft), it was not rebuilt to its full height, but despite everything, it is still an impressive sight. The Berlin Cathedral can thus be classified in the historicist movements Renaissance Revival and Baroque Revival. Even today, it is the largest Protestant church' in Germany and one of the most important dynastic burial places in Europe.

Yenidze Cigarette Factory

Dresden, Germany

At the beginning of the 20th century, the cigarette industry was flourishing. Hugo Ziets, an entrepreneur who owned the Oriental Tobacco and Cigarette Factory Yenidze, planned the construction of a new factory building in Dresden. His purchased ground was conveniently located from a traffic point of view, but no factory buildings were allowed to be erected in this area. This was because the city of Dresden held sacred its view of the Baroque buildings of the city center.

Therefore, it was not allowed to look like a typical factory. It was a pleasant coincidence that Ziets wanted a building in Oriental style anyway. So he had the new factory designed with a rather imaginative Oriental-inspired appearance. Neither the client nor his architect had any real understanding of Oriental architecture.

A colored glazed dome and chimney disguised as a minaret made the building look like a mosque from the outside. Hence, the colloquial name tobacco mosque. The tomb mosque of Emir Khair Bak in Cairo is said to have served as a model for it.

A new building in the style of a culture that was foreign and barely known at the time? This met with bewilderment and rejection in a historic city like Dresden. The factory building, which does not look like factory, has certainly fulfilled its advertising purpose. For today, it is still a building that magically attracts glances.

Austrian Parliament Building

Vienna, Austria

The current location of the Parliament is a former parade ground, an area in the middle of Vienna's city center that was neither greened nor allowed to be built upon. First, in the middle of the 19th century, it was approved for development in the course of the new urban planning. Three central state buildings were planned: the city hall, an imperial council building, and the university. The construction began in 1874 and dragged on for several decades until the Imperial Council Building, today's parliament, was fully equipped.

There were originally two buildings planned for the Imperial Council Building, one for the mansion and one for the deputies. The dual monarchy eventually ensured that the architectural elements of both building plans were combined.

Architect Theophil von Hansen's main goal was to include as many allusions and references to active democracy as possible in the building. He borrowed the columnar building form and symbolism from ancient Greek , which was evident in sculptures such as the Athena Fountain. Because that is where democracy originated and had its home.

During World War II, the building fabric was severely damaged by bombing. The reconstruction lasted until 1956, and much of the interior design could not be restored or could only be restored in a very unadorned way.

Conclusion Historicism

The various movements of historicism often have a formative effect on our architecture today. Especially in the inner cities, like Vienna, whole streets were built in historicist style. The construction of buildings was supposed to be fast, look decoratively historic outside, and be modern inside.

The architectural styles of past periods were taken up again by architects, but the rules of these styles were relaxed so much that there was a lot of room for their own interpretations. This resulted in a mix of different architectural styles, which particularly attract attention. Anyway, what can we learn from historicism for our modern construction?

What can we learn from historicism?

Historicism was not about developing something new, but about reworking old proven concepts and adapting them to modern times. This resulted in a wide range of different modernized styles. We don't necessarily have to strive to invent completely new abstract forms to create buildings worth seeing. Why not develop creative solutions based on past styles and reinterpret them?

To create historicist buildings, architects and engineers worked closely together. Aesthetics and functionality were planned together. This resulted in a modern building with a decorative historical facade. Nowadays, each professional group, whether architect or engineer, usually works in its own field. In the process, opportunities for truly unique buildings are often lost. In our modern construction industry, more interdisciplinary projects would be really desirable.

Historicism combined modern building materials, such as cast iron and steel, with the architecture of historically appealing buildings. We could do the same. Instead of relying on classic glass buildings or concrete ashlars, integrating our structural past would mean that not all new buildings look the same. A little individualism would do the inner cities, in particular, quite a bit of good in residential buildings.

We could create a visual connection to the past' in the construction industry and meet modern requirements at the same time. So why don't we just dare to make something old, new? It doesn't always have to be a typical replica of old building styles – the feature palette of architectural art has so many possibilities for us. All we have to do is to grab it.


Luisa Ruthe, B.A.

Luisa Ruthe, B.A.


As a copywriter in marketing, Ms. Ruthe is responsible for creating creative texts and gripping headlines.


Building History Historicism Architecture

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  • Updated 01/26/2024

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