Düsseldorf – seven centuries of urban development

Düsseldorf – seven centuries of urban development

From fishing village to metropolis

Dusseldorp, a small village on the Düssel estuary which was granted its town charter in 1288, has developed over more than seven centuries into a cosmopolitan metropolis: Düsseldorf on the Rhine.

State capital of the most populous federal state North Rhine-Westphalia since 1946, Düsseldorf presents itself with attractive urban architecture, and with its famous old town, it stands for the Rhenish attitude to life. The shopping promenade, the Königsallee – or “Kö” is equally popular. The town’s grand boulevard with its prestigious fashion and shopping strip and is famous throughout the world as a symbol for Düsseldorf.

The state capital is an international trade and service centre: today’s sixth largest city in Germany is a top location for many well-known sectors and a leading trade fair location for the world of industry. The convenient transport link to the centre of the Rhine-Ruhr-Region, due not least to the international airport, ensures the city’s significance in Europe. Culturally too, Düsseldorf plays a leading national role with opera, theatre and a diverse landscape of museums.

This sides present the main stages of thedevelopment of the city.

History: 1288 – 1969

A fixed place on the Rhine and the Düssel

In medieval times, larger territorial estates formed on the Lower Rhine. There were repeated confrontations between the Archbishopof Cologne, who was also the largest territorial lord in this region, and emerging secular rulers - like the Counts of Berg. On June 5 1288, two armies met on the Worringer heath between Cologne and Düsseldorf in armed conflict. The battle isconsidered one of the bloodiest of the Middle Ages. The opponents of the Archbishop, including Count Adolf von Berg, prevailed. Count Adolf made use of the Archbishop’s defeat to form a small settlement on the Düssel estuary to the town. It was the 14 August 1288.

1288 | Battle of Worringen
Monumental painting by
Peter Janssen, 1893.
1288 | Battle of Worringen Monumental painting by Peter Janssen, 1893.

This Dusseldorp, as the settlement is named in the earliest sources, started out as a modest fishing village. Situated on the right bank of the Rhine, the town was intended as acounter weight to the expansion aspirations of the Archbishop on the left bank of the Rhine. The town was subsequently secured by moats and embankments. Around 1350, a first boundary wall enclosed the approximately four hectares of the town. At the Düssel estuary, a castle of the Counts of Berg was built at this time, which was then expanded in the 15th century into a mighty palace.

The bergisch capital and ducal seat

In 1380 the county of Berg became a duchy. The first duke, Wilhelm II von Berg, had Düsseldorf greatly extended. He therefore also counts as the second founder of the city. With around 1,800 inhabitants, the town was the largest in the new duchy of Berg.

Around 1550, the position of Düsseldorf as the capital and ducal seat of the united duchies Jülich-Cleves-Berg became firmly established. During this time, the castle was extended to form a palace complex in the Renaissance style. The city fortifications were also strengthened.

The rank of a capital also manifested itself from an economic point of view: the Rhine just outside the gates was the most important trade and transport route of its time. Goods were moved on it from the Netherlands to the Alps. Around 1570 a first port was built near the Citadel as a transhipment point for goods to the bergisch lands.

1573 | New town hall
1573 | New town hall

In 1573, a new town hall was built in the direct proximity of the palace complex. The construction originating from the period between late Gothic and Renaissance replaced the town hall in Ratinger Straße 6. Around 150 years later the building was somewhat redesigned in baroque style and since then, it has essentially shown the face we know today.

Düsseldorf’s leaders have been influential personalities throughout the centuries. Their terms of office can be historically documented almost without any gaps since 1303.

Baroque rulers enhance Düsseldorf’s splendour

With the death of the last prince of the Dukes of Cleves in the year 1609, a division of the significant mass of lands on the Lower Rhine was imminent. Ultimately the Counts Palatine of Palatinate-Neuburg took over the Jülich lands and developed Düsseldorf into a significant residence in this region.

1708 | Princely pair
Jan Wellem and Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. Painting by Jan Frans van Douven.
(c wikipedia)
1708 | Princely pair Jan Wellem and Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. Painting by Jan Frans van Douven. (c wikipedia)

Above all the duke Johann Wilhelm von Jülich-Berg (1658 – 1716), later more popularly known as Jan Wellem – since 1690 also Elector Palatinate – lastingly shaped the town and its reputation. With his second wife Anna Maria Luisa from the house of Medici he held a glamourous court at Düsseldorf and promoted the arts: he had the first opera house built and gathered a very high quality collection of paintings.

His successor, Elector Carl Theodor (1724 – 1799) may never have lived permanently in Düsseldorf, however, we owe him a new district – known as Carlstadt. With Schloss Benrath in the south of the town (built 1756 – 1768), Carl Theodor gave Düsseldorf an architectural masterpiece of late Rococo.

Düsseldorf turns green and Prussian

The razing of the walls, bastions and ramparts in 1801 freed the city from the corset of military installations. This condition for the withdrawal of the French revolutionary troops after the Peace of Luneville was a stroke of luck for Düsseldorf's further urban development.

From 1802, the architect Caspar Anton Huschberger and the landscape gardener Maximilian Friedrich Weyhe transformed the former eastern defence area of the city into today’s Königsallee. A little later, Weyhe tackled the area which is now the city’s green lung, the Hofgarten.

1811 | The entry of Napoleon
Watercolour by Johann Petersen.
1811 | The entry of Napoleon Watercolour by Johann Petersen.

Together with the prominent boulevard and the parks with the lakes Kaiserteich and Schwanenspiegel, they form a green belt around the old town for which Düsseldorf is rightly envied by many other cities.

Under Napoleon I the Grand Duchy of Berg emerged, with Düsseldorf as its capital. On the occasion of his visit in November 1811, which went on for several days, a wooden triumphal arch was set up for the emperor, who resided in Schloss Jägerhof.

After the Napoleonic era, as a result of the Vienna Congress, the Rhineland – and Düsseldorf with it – fell to the Prussians in 1815. But the Düsseldorfers never really warmed to their far off sovereigns in Berlin. This was also apparent in 1848, when the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV travelled to Düsseldorf in the midst of the revolutionary turmoil. On Kastanienallee he was – so tradition has it – pelted with horse droppings, and never visited the town again. As a token of apology for the disrespect shown, the magistrate renamed this particularly beautiful street Königsallee.

Expansion for industry, trade and transport

Rid of its fortifications, Düsseldorf was free to expand. A great locational advantage – especially as against the fortress city of Cologne. Thus, during the industrialisation from around 1850 on, the emerging business and trading companies were able to find sufficient space for expansion outside of Düsseldorf’s former city gates. Here, extensive plants were set up, a first rail connection laid, and new harbour installations built along the river Rhine.

around 1880 | Königsallee
Overlooking the Bergisch-Märkischen railway station of 1838 at today’s Graf-Adolf-Platz.
around 1880 | Königsallee Overlooking the Bergisch-Märkischen railway station of 1838 at today’s Graf-Adolf-Platz.

Between 1880 and 1920 the city grew particularly rapidly and the development of the infrastructure along with it: starting in 1885, the first central station was built at its current location, and in 1898 a permanent bridge connection was finally constructed to the Oberkassel bank of the Rhine.

Also, large manufacturing companies from the neighbouring Ruhr region chose the town for their headquarters, thus earning Düsseldorf the nickname “desk of the Ruhr area”. Its increasing importance was also reflected in the seat of the district government and the provincial diet of the Rhineland. Düsseldorf thus became an administrative centre. This traditional administrative function ultimately proved an advantage for the town after 1945.

Düsseldorf grows and expands

Between 1880 and 1900 the population of Düsseldorf doubled to 200,000 people – also through immigration from home and abroad. Many neighbouring villages and small towns – including Benrath, Gerresheim and Kaiserswerth and Heerdt and Oberkassel on the left bank – virtually became suburbs of Düsseldorf. Amalgamation was thus literally unavoidable. In 1908/09 and again in 1929 the city expanded into the countryside; its area trippled. Around 100,000 new Düsseldorfers were added, making a total of 477,000 inhabitants in 1929. In 1975 a third amalgamation was to follow.

around 1905 | Rhine promenade
In the background, the first permanent Rhine bridge of
around 1905 | Rhine promenade In the background, the first permanent Rhine bridge of 1898.

In terms of town planning, at the beginning of the 20th century Düsseldorf was even preparing to accommodate over a million inhabitants. Although this never came about, Düsseldorf nonetheless enjoys the cultural life of a great city: opera, plays, cabaret, private theatres, museums, art galleries and other cultural events make the city a vibrant, rewarding destination for excursions and entertainment.

Hand in hand with the economic rise, the city also flourished in the artistic and architectural field. Examples include the department store Tietz (today “Kaufhof”) of Joseph Maria Olbrich (1907-09), an icon of Art Nouveau architecture, Peter Behrens’ Mannesmann building (1911-12), a dominant feature of the Rhine front, and the Wilhelm-Marx-Haus (1922-24), one of the first skyscrapers in the German Reich.

With the artists’ association “Das Junge Rheinland”, expressionism also continued to blaze its trail in the Rhineland after 1919. Moreover, both before and after the First World War, Düsseldorf was able to establish itself as one of the most important trade fair cities in the west of the country.

National Socialism and World War II

During National Socialism, Düsseldorf was also a city of exclusion and persecution. After Berlin, the Gestapo office in Düsseldorf was the second largest in the Third Reich. Jewish citizens were dispossessed, exiled, deported and murdered. Of the roughly 5,500 inhabitants of the Jewish community prior to 1933, barely 60 were left in Düsseldorf in 1945. The persecution of other population groups on racial, religious, political and other grounds also claimed many victims.

American troops enter the district of
Flingern along Flurstraße.
American troops enter the district of Flingern along Flurstraße.

On 17 April 1945 the war in Düsseldorf came to an end, because a small group of resistance fighters managed to surrender the city to the American troops without a fight. Their endeavours were revealed on the evening before, and several members of the group known as “Aktion Rheinland” were then murdered for high treason. Thanks to them, the imminent bombing and thus wide-scale destruction of the city was averted.

The city was a scene of devastation at the end of the war. Ten million cubic metres of rubble lay on the streets, many buildings were completely destroyed. Evacuated Düsseldorfers returned and many refugees also thronged into the town. The destitution was great, but the reconstruction work got underway.

Fresh start and change: appointed state capital

Due to the administrative function which had developed over the centuries and the existing buildings, Düsseldorf – although heavily damaged – presented itself as a political administrative headquarters for the British Protecting Power.

On 21 June 1945, Düsseldorf became part of the British occupation zone. A year later, the new state North Rhine-Westphalia was formed from the northern part of the Rhine Province and Westphalia. The former Free State of Lippe was added later.

1946 | The first state parliament
On October 2 1946, the new parliament formed for the first
time at the Opera House - still under the flag of the protecting
1946 | The first state parliament On October 2 1946, the new parliament formed for the first time at the Opera House - still under the flag of the protecting power.

The Operation Marriage was initiated on 1 August 1946 with the sentence “Its capital will be Dusseldorf” and formally completed with a decree on 23 August 1946. In the coming decades, Düsseldorf became the heart of “Rhineland capitalism” in the young Federal Republic of Germany. In terms of urban development, within the context of a restructuring plan, the focus was initially on traffic planning. Numerous streets were widened, others were created from scratch, especially Berliner Allee.

It was not long before innovative buildings such as the “Dreischeibenhaus” (1957-60) and the theatre (1965-69) opposite started to emerge. Later, the state parliament building right on the Rhine and the “Stadttor” (city gate) with the seat of the state chancellery followed. Also companies and organisations, politics, administration and culture wanted to have representative buildings in the capital.

Düsseldorf City of Culture – Between tradition and avant-garde

1875-79 | Art Academy A breeding ground for young artists to the present day. (c Jörn Wiegels)

Düsseldorf City of Culture – Between tradition and avant-garde

Düsseldorf is a city of short distances. This is especially true for the arts. Around the old town, surrounded by baroque churches, trendy boutiques, galleries of international renown and rustic bars, a cosmos of art unfolds which leaves practically nothing to be desired. Almost all of these creative addresses are within a short walk of each other – a paradise for citizens and tourists which is hardly matched by any other city. Since the Elector “Jan Wellem” founded Düsseldorf’s reputation as a city of art in the 17th century, the town on the Düssel has always remained true to its cultural heritage.

This comes across most strongly at the sotermed Kunstachse (Art Axis): there – from Ehrenhof via the old town to the Ständehaus park – temples of the muses are hung like pearls on a string: the Museum Kunstpalast, which runs the gamut from Jan Wellem’s picture gallery to the modern age, the Tonhalle in the former planetarium, where music has its most beautiful setting, the opera house of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the Art Academy, where artists such as Klee, Beuys, Richter, Becher and Gursky have worked, and which is still one of the most important breeding grounds for the artists of tomorrow.

Düsseldorf keeps on reinventing itself

The “Kö-Bogen” At the historical site close to the waters of the Landskrone, Düsseldorf’s new urban centre started to form in 2009.

Düsseldorf keeps on reinventing itself

Urban development is a dynamic process. The rapid reconstruction in the post-war years was followed by stages of urban redevelopment that were mainly oriented towards the major infrastructure projects such as the construction of the underground in the 1980s, and most recently the Wehrhahn line. This particularly characterises the recent architectural history of the city.

With the establishment of the new state parliament on the filled-in basin of the Berger harbour, the transformation of a large part of the harbour area started in the mid-1980s. In particular, renowned architects created a new service centre along the ancient trading port with new and rebuilt buildings: the MedienHafen.

A convincing location, economically successful

Messe Düsseldorf In 1971, a new exhibition centre was developed in the north of the city. It has expanded to currently 305,000 square metres.

A convincing location, economically successful

At the latest in the years of the economic miracle, Düsseldorf continuously developed into an important business location in Europe. The key factors for this were the central location in the Rhine-Ruhr region, Düsseldorf Airport – the third largest airport in Germany – and the Düsseldorf trade fair.

A first commercial exhibition was held in Düsseldorf in 1811. In 1926 the GeSoLei (large Düsseldorf exhibition for health care, social welfare and physical exercise) attracted 7.5 million visitors. In 1949 IGEDO (interest group for women’s clothing) organised the first sales week in Düsseldorf and thus laid the foundation for the international fashion fair CPD Collection Première Düsseldorf. Today around 50 trade fairs are held in Düsseldorf per year, including 24 leading international fairs.

Cosmopolitan Düsseldorf, friendly, international

Japan Day A special symbol of friendship between Dusseldorf and Japan: the annual Japan Day, with around 750,000 visitors.

Cosmopolitan Düsseldorf, friendly, international

Around 40 consular offices and more than 30 foreign chambers of commerce and foreign trade organisations facilitate business contacts in Düsseldorf and promote the business climate. Among the countries concerned, Japan has a special status and, with 480 Japanese companies, the economic area of Düsseldorf has been the country’s most important location in Europe for many years. The number of Chinese companies is developing rapidly, 340 are currently located in Düsseldorf.

In addition, the broad range of studies and an attractive employment market draw many people from around the world. Düsseldorf’s international character is also reflected in its city partnerships: in cooperation with seven international twin towns and numerous city friendships, the state capital of Düsseldorf supports projects in all social areas.

In addition, Dusseldorf is actively involved in a variety of European and multinational networks. This commitment provides for vibrant and diverse international exchange, promotes the visibility of European and international topics in Düsseldorf and positions the state capital as a multicultural, cosmopolitan metropolis in the heart of Europe.