A selection from Schinkel’s vast output of drawings on display in Berlin reveal a consummate master of a changing form – and an oeuvre open to endless reinterpretation
It turns out that what Schinkel did, most of the time, is sit at his table, and draw. This shouldn’t surprise us given that anybody’s pantheon of great architectural innovators − let us say, Michelangelo, Palladio, Borromini before him, or Wright, Le Corbusier, Asplund since − were each just as boldly experimental in how they represented their buildings. You can be a great draughtsman and a rotten designer, but not so easily the other way round. Even Louis Kahn, always uncomfortable with his pencil, becomes an exception that might prove this rule; he does know that paper is the true medium of design, and it is the lack of finesse of the exploratory sketches that passes directly into the planar awkwardness of his great early buildings.
If drawing is the prerequisite for greatness, Schinkel was lucky as well to find himself coming of age in early 19th-century Berlin. The Napoleonic occupation of Prussia until 1812 meant that for 10 years there was very little opportunity for a young architect to practise but plenty for travel sketches, ‘illuminations’, dioramas and for major experiments in oil painting. We should not take these years as fallow, or even as an apprenticeship. Nor, certainly, did Schinkel and we learn here that throughout his career he returned often to painting for the theatre and on canvas. On the day before the heart attack from which he was never to recover, we find him strolling in the zoo with Dr Waagen − no less − and talking with enthusiasm of a plan for a 90-foot panorama, in which all the great buildings of civilisation could be represented to the public.
In these early years of not being an architect, experimental drawing became for Schinkel a sustained practice, the ingrained habit of imagination in which all the insights derived from the production of two-dimensional spectacle worked their way into his conception of architecture and of the modern city. This easy integration of thought, eye, hand, pen, paper, decorative conception and, finally, of built form, makes Schinkel close to unique. Only Scarpa comes close and even then, in front of the greatest sheets in this exhibition, you can sense something in Scarpa’s obsessive rituals that is mannerist, even performative.
Schinkel’s next lucky break was to find himself in a cultural and political world after 1815 in which there was plenty to build, and not a lot of money to build it. His royal patrons saw in the threat of a re-run of Napoleonism the urgent need to transform themselves, publicly at least, into a bourgeois institution. Schinkel was asked by the Wilhelmine monarchy to build not palaces but villas, outside Berlin and in Potsdam, in which every architectural expedient was employed to disguise scale, to break from the rhythm and historic language of the Baroque facade, and to introduce a studied accessibility. New churches in the city were allotted scrupulously between Catholic and Protestant congregations; the opera house and theatre were re-imagined as a resort for the middle class; the public museum became a fetish of nationalism, and of social interaction(Schinkel’s visit to London in 1826 was to see what Smirke was just completing in Bloomsbury); finally, an altogether new European building type, good for a hundred years, emerged in the Bauakademie. Everything conceived anew except, of course, a parliament building.
Schinkel the architect was the perfect subject for this model of patronage. There is just a whiff of Gilbert and Sullivan in the march of his official titles: Oberbauassessor in 1810, Geheimer Oberbaurat in 1815, Geheimer Oberbaudirektor in 1830, Oberlandesbaudirektor in 1838. It was a career that engendered an army of devoted students, assistants and followers. At his death he had commissions, or was supervising construction, throughout Prussia and beyond. The period of stability and expansion that came after it created a comfortable stylistic orthodoxy in which much of Schinkel’s thinking could be replayed and enlarged by other architects. Even Behrens and Mies, 70 years later, were his inheritors.
All this disparate responsibility meant that work at the drawing table, and the production of prints to disseminate it, became even more central both to practical execution, and to the gathering of stylistic momentum. The representation of buildings on paper moved during Schinkel’s career from being the deft product of sensibility and imagination to becoming the instruments of dissemination and power. For perfect exemplars of the fusion of the architect as at once both the visionary and the functionary, one needs to look at the raft of unexecuted schemes for immense palaces in exotic or imaginary places: for the Tsarina perched above the Black Sea, for King Otto on the Acropolis, for Friedrich Wilhelm IV dwarfing an ideal polis, and the reconstructions of the villas of Pliny. For such projects Schinkel was never to go’to site’, and perhaps that was the point; they are lovely and disturbing in their improbability. One senses that the architect has here retreated to the unconstrained comfort of working on paper, and in partnership with princes who were content to dream of power that was less fragile than at home. Neither party can have done more than imagine that these strange fairytales could ever be built.
The unrealised design for an immense castle at Orianda in the Crimea, 1838, displays Schinkel’s sustained power as a draughtsman which brought him into the employment of princes and tsars who sought solace in such fairytale proposals
In the exhibition there is a lovely moment in which we learn that the architect, in England, discovers that the steel nib is in commercial production. The next day, as it were, we find him on the hills outside Edinburgh trying one out in a sketchbook view of the Old Town. He liked always to refer to his drawings as ‘experiments in art and science’, and the exhibition carefully demonstrates that Schinkel was lucky in this also. Fully a quarter of the space in Berlin is devoted to the mechanics of drawing, through a long period of great technological advance in both the media and implements of draughtsmanship: of the transition from wove to laid paper, of the range and quality of coloured sheets, of the manufacture of trace, the introduction of erasers and steel rules. Schinkel gulps it all down, bending each development to building a better bridge between the visualisation of a building, in his own mind or his clients’, and its practical execution. This does, perhaps, suggest an answer to the greatest Schinkel conundrum, of how a mode of representation on paper that is often so flamboyant and theatrical comes to be transformed, somehow logically, into an architecture that we admire most for its austerity and for its economy of means.
If you want to see great buildings go and look at what still survives in Berlin. If you want to understand how great architecture can sometimes be made, then go to the exhibition. There is in fact a bit less there about the work in Schinkel’s career that is now most fashionably admired − less of the furniture, the proto-Biedermeier decorative schemes, or of the Charlottenburg pavilion. This is no bad thing, and it certainly feels more an exercise in rebalancing the reputation than in revisionism. Schinkel’s last great piece of luck was that his archive was bought by the King after his death and now lies in the uncomfortable, or at least very un-Schinkelian, purlieus of the Kulturforum. There his legacy can be meticulously, even lovingly, curated by scholars who really know their man, and re-offered to each generation without ever quite having to be the definitive account.
Schinkel in Berlin
Dates: Until 6 January 2013