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Photo by Manfred Wegener
Photo by Manfred Wegener

An architectural work in progress

created by Hans-Christoph Zimmermann | |   art

A city in constant flux, Cologne is not really a place for idealistic architectural connoisseurs. Old buildings are constantly being torn down here, with new ones springing up in their place


Cologne architecture proves that destruction can be productive

Destruction can be productive. Cologne was destroyed not only during the Second World War, but also in its aftermath, albeit with perfectly good intentions. What the bombs had spared, the architects soon laid to waste: they wanted to create something new rather than reconstruct the old. In the 1960s, the ideology of the car-friendly city ensured even more destruction. So although its history reaches far back into the past, Cologne is certainly no architectural doll’s house with ancient aqueducts, medieval half-timbered houses and historic buildings. When it comes to architecture, the city is not for the squeamish, but rather heterogeneous, rough and ready. There is still plenty of demolishing and rebuilding going on here to this day. But it meanwhile offers a rich compendium of contemporary architecture by such illustrious names as Norman Foster, Sauerbruch Hutton, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, O.M. Ungers and even Peter Zumthor.Kolumba Museum | Photo: Manfred Wegener  His Kolumba Museum in the city centre is one of Cologne’s most impressive buildings. Zumthor was faced with a particular challenge: he had to integrate the monument of the ruined Church of St. Kolumba as well as an archaeological excavation site into the austere building. Above that, he had to create a varied array of spaces in which to house the Archbishop’s art collection in an appealing way. But the Swiss architect solved the task brilliantly: the mighty structure rests on the outer walls of St. Kolumba and responds to the old steeple with its twin-towered structure. The impact of this building is tempered by the radiant light brick façade, historical elements and the perforated grey brick wall that makes for a fascinating play of light inside. And the fact that the interior of the Diocesan museum also displays a luxurious minimalism makes the Kolumba Museum a real must-see.

Cologne’s history is closely interlinked with the Rhine. Thanks to this liaison, the city can boast the currently most impressive contemporary buildings around. Buildings in which no one lives and nothing is sold or produced and that only really come into their own in times of an emergency: the flood pumping stations, which leap into action only in the case of high water. Due to new measures to protect the city, several of them were built along the upper course of the Rhine in Cologne around the turn of the millennium. The results are true gems of functional architecture with the most beautiful one designed by architect Kaspar Kraemer. This two-storey pumping station on Schönhauser Strasse is embedded in a landscaped hill, which ironically bears more than a passing resemblance to a wave. Perched on its crest is a mighty cube, completely clad in a metal coat. Light-emitting diodes change colour according to the water level of the Rhine: from yellow at low tide, blue, green and orange to the dangerous flood warning red. Additional spotlights at the foot of the hill even give the appearance of the cube lifting off into the air at dusk. No Cologne building surfs on its wave as beautifully as this pumping station does.

Three of the most controversial buildings in the city are in the immediate vicinity of the pumping station and generated quite a lot of negative press, not because they were ugly, but because they are high-rises. Germany has a hard time with these types of building, but Cologne especially so because the Cathedral is the measure of all things here. Anyone who wants to build into the sky, within sight of the Cathedral, must surely be in league with the devil. But Soviet architect El Lissitzky had already envisioned the impossible for European high rises with his “Cloud Iron” idea in 1924: a vertical structure, lying on a horizontal bar. The three crane buildings in an inverted “L” shape, built between 2006 and 2010 in the Rheinauhafen harbour, recall not only the harbour’s past with their name, but are also a nod to El Lissitzky’s historical model from the 1920s. They stand at eleven floors high and stretch out towards the river like a powerful arm. While the two southern towers are used as office buildings, the northern one — recognisable by its balconies — is a residential tower. After 80 years, El Lissitzky’s skyscraper dream has been turned into a reality: not a bad half-life for a utopian idea.

The Cathedral has long stood in the way of high-rise construction

When it came to religion, the Cathedral was also the measure of all things in Cologne for many years. Which is why the city had a hard time making space for representative buildings from other religions. Although the Muslim population of Cologne is estimated at around 10 percent, believers had to say their prayers in backyard mosques for a long time.DiTiB Central Mosque | Photo: Manfred Wegener In 2008 — accompanied by a lot of angry conflict — building work started on the DiTib Central Mosque at the entrance to the multicultural district of Ehrenfeld. It was designed by Cologne architect Paul Böhm. A mighty yet airy dome arches over the prayer rooms. Rather than solid brick walls, the architect opted for several concrete shells, which lie like protective hands around the centre. They have bands of glass running through them, creating a fascinating play of light inside. While the dome-like mosque, which is 36.5 metres high, serves as an inter-religious architectural symbol, the two flanking minarets, which were met with fierce hostility, are a reference to Muslim architecture. The prayer rooms are flanked by library and seminar rooms, as well as youth and sports facilities. Although the architecture is fantastic, the organisation behind it, the DiTib association, has been suspected of spying for the Islamic government in Turkey.

The Weltstadthaus | Photo: Manfred WegenerRight next to the mosque is a supermarket, another old Cologne tradition: the Schildergasse and Hohe Strasse, Germany’s busiest shopping streets, also end or begin at the Cathedral. Belief and business are no contradictions for Cologne locals. The Schildergasse is home to two consumer temples with architecture that could not be more different. On the one hand, the headstrong, free-standing structure, indifferent to its environment, but stripped bare. And directly opposite, the austere neo-classical façade of a flagship store that willingly integrates into the neighbouring store fronts. While most brands adapted the existing premises to their needs, that wasn’t good enough for department store chain Peek & Cloppenburg. They created their very own building with the help of architect Renzo Piano. The city motorway underpass was bridged with a concrete cover, with the sweeping five-storey Weltstadthaus (Global City Building) rising above it. Its reinforced concrete skeleton has a ribbed construction on the outside, which is covered in a shell of glass. That is probably why some Cologne locals dubbed it the “beached whale”. However, the building radiates an amazing lightness and transparency despite its monumentality. The Fielmann flagship store | Photo: Manfred WegenerDirectly opposite is the flagship store of the optician’s chain Fielmann, which is far from playful when it comes to its design. Architect Christoph Mäckler designed a strict façade that is symmetrical and structured in the traditional tripartite way. The two floors of the store form the base, with an imposing entrance. Above this, the midsection is a classic punctuated façade with five large windows. The top of the façade is recessed with delicate pillars. Together with the fluted panels, the overall impression is of an austere sense of style in the midst of a world of flux and ostentatious consumption.

Last but not least, it is important to mention Cologne’s most famous architect O.M. Ungers, who has immortalised himself with several buildings in his hometown. These include the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in the Old Town with its uncompromising cubage and the exquisite façade and adjoining ruins of the Church of St. Alban.Wallraf-Richartz Museum | Photo: Manfred Wegener But above all the two private homes of Ungers in the suburb of Müngersdorf are fascinating masterpieces and historical documents: the house which is now in use as the Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft (Ungers Archive for Architectural Theory) on Belvederestrasse, but above all the Haus ohne Eigenschaften (House With No Qualities) built in 1996 on Kämpchensweg. The two-storey building is pure form and proportion without any concessions to function. There is no base, no roof and no window frames. It truly is a house with no qualities. Or in the words of O.M. Ungers, “There is nothing concealed, everything that is meant to be is visible and shown directly.” Nowhere is Cologne less Kölsch than in this building.

Kolumba Museum

Kolumbastrasse 4, 50667 Cologne

Schönhauser Strasse pumping station

Gustav-Heinemann Ufer / Schönhauser Str., 50968 Cologne

Crane buildings in the Rheinauhafen harbour

Im Zollhafen, 50678 Cologne

Cologne Central Mosque

Venloer Str. 160, 50823 Cologne


Schildergasse 65–67, 50667 Cologne

Fielmann store

Schildergasse 78–82, 50667 Cologne

Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Obenmarspforten 40, 50667 Cologne

Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft

Belvederestrasse 60, 50933 Cologne

Haus ohne Eigenschaften

Kämpchensweg 58, 50933 Cologne

(by Hans-Christoph Zimmermann)