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Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841)

From the Altes Museum to Berlin as Schinkelzeit, Schinkel’s prolific legacy as ‘the Universal man’ lived on in the work of the Modernists

Schinkell

Schinkell

Illustration by Jonathan Farr

When he was six (1787), fire engulfed Karl Friedrich’s hometown, apparently the most Prussian of all towns, Neuruppin. This killed his father, an archdeacon, and consumed the family home. Young Schinkel watched the town’s reconstruction, enraptured, from a home for the widows of clergy. In 1791 his mother moved him to Berlin and into the apartments of David Gilly and his son Friedrich. The young Gilly assumed the role of friend and much-loved mentor, but both mother and Friedrich died in 1800. David at least remained in the patronage of King Friedrich Wilhelm III and his wife, Queen Louisa; ‘first mother’ or ‘Prussian Madonna’. 

If the King had been as good at war as he was cautious for peace, Napoleon might not have marched into Berlin when Schinkel was 24, reducing him to painting, stage design and a trip to Italy, an interregnum fraught with the realisation he was not as accomplished a painter as compatriot Caspar David Friedrich. For Schinkel, it was the rooftop panorama, not the emotional abyss, that charmed, and such a piece of theatre so impressed Queen Louisa on her return from exile in 1809 that she commissioned him to remodel her bedchamber. Schinkel bet he could create a perpetual dawn (in peach wallpaper and white mousseline) for this most famous and winsome of royalty. But the next year she died aged 34. That’s a lot of death.

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H 00092885 crop

‘The Hall of Stars of the Queen of the Night’ by Schinkel, c1815: a draft stage set for ‘The Magic Flute’. Source: BPK / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P Anders

Robert Hughes thought his energies ‘vaporised the boundaries between the classic and Romantic sensibilities’, but in the Gothic paintings, we shiver at the brooding cathedrals (rainbows the only relief), while in those more Classical, it’s gliding boatmen in the sunset, children paddling and frolicking, and semi-naked temple builders hardly breaking sweat. 

The latter ideal became bricks and stucco with Napoleon finally disposed of; the Princes’ eventually relaxing with their gardeners in the Römische Bäder (1829-40) and the King rejecting his gilded Charlottenburg cowshed for Schinkel’s perfect Neue Pavilion (1824-25) next door. Appointed to head Prussia’s supreme building authority, there followed so many dutiful achievements – buildings of all types, styles and sizes (my guide shows 118 surviving buildings and monuments), even city planning (Berlin as Schinkelzeit) – we wonder at Schinkel’s capacity for authorship. Especially considering this workaholic government official of fastidiousness bordering on the manic – he once noted the position of every antique sculpture in the Louvre – is also on record as being a doting father (making toys for his kids), loving husband and man of ‘Raphaelian friendliness’. There is more to Schinkel than flesh and blood; there is Schinkel myth. 

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F835cbf2a9ffec891d334654bf0a7602 2

‘Der Neue Pavilion’, 1835, by Leopold Zielcke

Michael Snodin, in his catalogue of the exhibition at the V&A in 1991, has him as Universal Man, and this is true not just in his application to myriad creation or his mastery of both Gothic and Classical style (even though he never went to Greece). His 200th anniversary in 1981 saw two exhibitions, one each side of the Berlin Wall, with rather different perspectives. And whether he represents the timeless or the timely, whether we attempt to get under his skin or reserve our preoccupations to the purely ‘architectural’, and whether he leads us somewhere else or just back to the same, depends. 

For the Modernists, Schinkel has performed a function much as Prussia might to Germany, something that anticipated something else; part of the historical march. By the 1920s, he was a clear precedent for Mies, who appeared simultaneously to evoke both Gothic and Classical under the rubric of the machine age, or at least the interests of the industrialist haute bourgeoisie. Schinkel’s late speculation on Pliny’s Tuscan villa, with bits lopped off, became Mies’s equally unrealised Kröller-Müller House (1912) and he maintains some ghostly presence within the Tugendhat House (1929-30). But Schinkel’s major resurrection came with Mies’s triumphant return home, the Neue Nationalgalerie (1969) in West Berlin, which was immediately and routinely appreciated in relation to Schinkel’s Altes Museum (1822-30), by then marooned in the East. 

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Schinkel 8 1024x494

Window sill reliefs of the now destroyed Bauakademie in Berlin. Source: BPK / Nationalgalerie, SMB / Andres Kilger

It helped that Schinkel was enthusiastic for modern technology: sketching the cotton mills of Manchester in 1826, berating their lack of planning, and bringing more than a whiff of them to his Bauakademie in Berlin (1831-36, now destroyed), which also served as his Berlin residence. This was followed by a startling design for the Royal Library, demonstrating fresh conviction that ‘in architecture all must be true, any masking, concealing of the structure, is an error’.  Meanwhile the plan of the Altes Museum was long held to derive from the appropriately sterile pattern books of Durand, that is until you actually looked closely, when it really didn’t look so sterile at all. Cheekily, Colin Rowe pointed out, in his addendum to The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa (1973), that it might be fruitful to compare the Altes Museum to Corb’s Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh instead. 

Observing such detail, Postmodernists see continuity, a more circuitous dance to the music of time, even if Schinkel was driven by a sense of duty to the historical moment, held deeply utopian aspirations for Prussia and was occasionally inclined to the megalomaniac. But it’s easy to see why, looking at his painting Antike Stadt an einem Berg (1805), it’s quite possible to hallucinate Poussin and Corot and Michael Graves. 

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H 00108228 crop

Plan of the Altes Museum in Berlin, 1830. Source: BPK / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB

Reading Oswald Matthias Ungers’ Architecture as Theme (1982), we find an altogether softer appreciation of Schinkel germinating in the West Germany from the early ’60s. Using the remarkably unassuming Glienickeschlosspark outside Potsdam as example, Ungers found in Schinkel (and his pupil Persius), illustration of perennial architectural themes (transition and assemblage in particular) to criticise his mainstream, production orientated, offensively matter of fact, contemporaries. Schinkel was suddenly talisman for light relief once again. 

And this is likely to be the way we experience Schinkel today, especially at Glienickeschlosspark. If it wasn’t for the two golden lions at the gate, it would be hard to spot. It comprises a charming assemblage in the Royal horticultural vernacular, excepting the ‘Casino’, one of its set pieces, pretty as a picture, accommodating a study for each of the four princes around a central salon, with colonnaded arms embracing the bank of the lake.  The stables now house an excellent restaurant, all the better to absorb the general atmosphere of polite conviviality. 

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18777

Schloss Orianda, Crimea, 1838. 

But its modest charm may have stemmed from the King’s hold on the purse strings; he wasn’t the type to give his sons or their architect free rein. Originally Schinkel’s plans were far more bombastic, and less the contribution of others. And such haughtiness was hardly unusual; when Louisa’s daughter Charlotte, married to Czar Nicholas I, got around to planning a palace in the Crimea, Schinkel presented her with his gargantuan Orianda (1838). It may have been one of his great late projects, but she was aghast at the scale. 

So Schinkel was not always master of events (as his early death, put down to overwork, proves) and couldn’t have predicted just how poignant his exhaustive legacy would become. Back in 1814, in a burst of fervent patriotism, he contrived a Cathedral to the Wars of Liberation (1814). This grandiose project came to nothing more than a modest monument comprising just the top of its spire in cast iron, and a prophetic medal, also designed by Schinkel: the Iron Cross.