What is Expressionism and Neo-expressionism in Architecture

In the context of art-making, words ending with” -ism” can be pretty baffling. These pretentious words often describe a particular style or artistic movement, and at times, their meanings tend to overlap and confusing.

You are not the only one, though. Many struggle to grasp what each of these “isms” is and how different they are from one another. If you are an aspiring artist, a student of architecture, or just a fan of everything that is art, you may have come across these terms. Do “Expressionism” and “Neo-expressionism” ring a bell? What are they anyway?

Expressionism and neo-expressionism are just two examples out of tons of artistic movements and styles. Simply put, expressionism is an art form that emphasizes emotional content. Neo-expressionism, on the other hand, is an exploration of the same ideas of expressionism. This leads us to the question, “how can emotion be depicted in architecture? 

This article will discuss Expressionism and Neo-expressionism in architecture and the distinct characteristics that set them apart from the rest.


Expressionism in architecture, or Expressionist Architecture, is an architectural movement that originated in Europe during the late 19th to the early 20th century, in the onset of its visual and performing arts counterparts. The architectural movement, which dominated most of Germany, was the German’s response to the “fin de siecle,” a phrase which, in French, means “end of the century.” 

The artistic response to the phenomenon created a refreshing perspective and opportunity for artists and designers to express themselves in a way that has never been done before, at least generally – the expression of one’s inner thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and emotions like anger, anxiety, and fear of ‘the unknown. These subjects are expressed in ways that violently deviate from the ‘normal’ and accurate representation of the world like most artists used to do since the Renaissance. 

An example of this expression is the Het Schip (“The Ship”), an apartment building in the Spaarndammerbuurt in Amsterdam designed by Michel de Klerk. The structure resembles an outline of a ship, which is pretty unconventionally looking at that time. In addition, it features bricks as the primary building material, making it an indispensable example of Brick Expressionism, a particular variant of Expressionist architecture.

In a way, the Expressionist movement became a process of ‘owning’ one’s self, using art. Consequently, it created changes in the purpose and standard of developing all forms of art, which eventually went down to history.


In the modern-day, expressionism in architecture can refer to any form of architecture, regardless of place and time. However, the structure must exhibit the fundamental qualities of expressionism like distortion, fragmentation, or the superimposition of intense or overstressed emotions. It is one of the three most dominant modern architecture styles, alongside International Style and Constructivist Style.

It is hard to encapsulate what expressionist architecture is. But, there are a few recurring main points that one may notice in the works of every expressionist architect. These characteristics may manifest to some degree in the architecture’s features. 

  1. dramatic distortion 
  2. deviance from realism
  3. novelty, never-before-seen design or form, and materials
  4. themes that feature natural romantic phenomena like mountains, high seas, natural boulders
  5. promising creative potential
  6. resemblance to Gothic, Rococo, and Romanesque architectures
  7. draws creative inspiration from eastern art and architecture, namely Moorish, Islamic, Egyptian, and Indian
  8. monolithic structure


Neo-expressionist architecture emerged in the middle of the 20th century. It is a progeny of expressionist architecture; hence, it, too, heavily tends to a deviant, more novel design that didn’t rely on usual architectural styles in the past. And, just like its predecessor, neo-expressionism in architecture is a ‘breaking free from the constraints of the traditional architectural expectations.

In contrast with intellectualism, neo-expressionism explores more subjective thoughts and emotions. It reflects it in architecture through a strict nonconformity in different aspects such as shape, angle, structure, color, and concept, to name a few. It, therefore, rejects the idea of stark, geometric structures and minimalism and tries to depict dramatic distortions as needed. In neo-expressionist architecture, dramatic, asymmetrical shapes and arches are common. 

Architects take advantage of the different materials emerging from the continuous technological advancement of the modern-day. An architecture inspired by this movement tends to evoke an apparent, sculpture-like, and theatrical vibe as if the structure itself is moving.