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date: 18 October 2019

Schinkel, Karl Friedrich

A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture

James Stevens Curl,

Susan Wilson

Schinkel, Karl Friedrich (1781–1841) Prussian architect, 

the greatest in Germany in the first decades of C19. He was not only an architect of genius, but a civil servant, intellectual, painter, stage-designer, producer of panoramas, and gifted draughtsman. His output was prodigious, and his stylistically eclectic work lyrical and logical. He designed many buildings that became paradigms of excellence in the period during which he served his country and King as Prussian State Architect, and he established standards that influenced generations of architects throughout Germany.

Friedrich Gilly’s Graeco-Roman-Egyptian design for a monument to King Friedrich II (‘the Great’—r.1740–86), exhibited (1797) in Berlin, fuelled the young Schinkel’s ambition to become an architect, and he entered (1798) the studio and household of Gilly’s father, David Gilly, enrolling at the Bauakademie, where he received a rigorous training in practical matters as well as absorbing the theoretical bases of Classicism as expounded by Aloys Hirt (1759–1837). Other teachers included Gentz and Langhans, and the ethos of the Bauakademie included much derived from the teachings of Blondel and the École Polytechnique in Paris, so the young Schinkel absorbed the elements of a rational approach to architecture from which Franco-Prussian Neo-Classicism evolved.

During his tour of Italy and France (1803–5) he studied vernacular and medieval architecture and was particularly interested in the structural principles of apartment-blocks in Naples and the Gothic vaults of Milan Cathedral. He was less enthusiastic about Antique remains than about their Picturesque qualities, and studied Romanesque and other structures as well as brick buildings (esp. those in Bologna). On his return to Berlin he found lean times, and with the defeat of Prussia by the French (1806) and the occupation of the capital there were no prospects of architectural commissions, so Schinkel occupied himself by producing panoramas and dioramas as well as numerous idealized landscapes and other pictures: these made him well known, and attracted the attention of Queen Luise (r.1797–1810), recently returned (1809) from exile in Königsberg, who commissioned him to redecorate several palace-interiors in Berlin and Charlottenburg. He was appointed (1810) to a post in the Department of Public Works (partly through the influence of (Karl) Wilhelm, Freiherr von Humboldt (1767–1835—Minister of Public Instruction and Education)) with responsibility of assessing the aesthetic content of all buildings erected or owned by the State, and began his meteoric rise through the bureaucracy that would later enable him to create architecture to ennoble all human relationships and to express Prussia’s aspirations. The death of the greatly loved Queen (1810) focused patriotic sentiments, and Schinkel, with Gentz and King Friedrich Wilhelm III (r.1797–1840), designed the Queen’s Greek-Doric mausoleum at Charlottenburg. He also exhibited an alternative (and enchantingly Romantic) Gothic design in which the supposed ‘natural’ origins of Gothic were alluded to in the palm-fronds on the ribs of the vaults, like a canopy of peace over the dead Queen, and at that time began to see Gothic as an embodiment of the Germanic soul. It was his synthesis of the Classical and Gothic that gave much of his later work an especial interest. He designed (1811) the cast-iron Gothic memorial at Gransee on the spot where the Queen’s coffin had rested on its way to Charlottenburg, a concept suggested by the medieval ‘Eleanor crosses’ in C13 England. A series of Sublime paintings followed in which were depicted vast Gothic cathedrals, bathed in light, comparable with aspects of works by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) exhibited (1810) in Berlin.

With the galvanizing of the national spirit, the King’s proclamation to his people, the collection of gold jewellery for the Freiheitskrieg, and Schinkel’s design of the Eiserneskreuz military decoration (1813), the idea of the Prussian State became associated with economy, fortitude, and self-sacrifice. For the rest of his life Schinkel was to use iron with sensitivity, and indeed his attitudes to new technologies and industrialization were judicious. Napoléon’s eventual defeat encouraged a great upsurge of Prussian national pride, partly to be expressed in architecture. Schinkel was promoted (1815) as Geheimer Baurat (Privy Building Officer) with special powers to plan Berlin and oversee all State and Royal building-commissions. He also initiated an influential report on the preservation of national monuments that led to State protection of historic buildings throughout Prussia. Among his more important concerns at the time was the commencement of the restoration of Cologne Cathedral (1816) and his investigation of the Marienburg fortress (1309–98), once the seat of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order: his recommendations for the latter complex (now Malbork, Poland) were realized after 1845, and the programme he set in motion continued well into C20. His work as a painter and creator of dioramas and panoramas inevitably brought commissions to design for the theatre, and his scenes for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1815–16) were among the finest conceived, with their Egyptian-Revival architecture, derived partly from Napoléonic publications, and exotic Meso-American-tropical landscapes inspired by Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769–1859) travels to South America and México (1799–1804), published 1807.

Schinkel’s major buildings were designed from 1816, starting with the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden, Berlin (1816–18), with a free Greek Doric for the portico (there are no triglyphs and there is a continuous row of guttae-like elements under the frieze) set against a plain fortress-like block. This was followed by the monument to the dead of the Napoléonic Wars, Spandau (1816), the Gothic monument (1818–21) on what is now the Kreuzberg, and the pinnacle-monument in the churchyard at Grossbeeren (1817), all of cast iron. A master-plan for Berlin and series of splendid buildings came next. After the destruction of Langhans’s Nationaltheater, Schinkel replaced it with the Schauspielhaus (1818–21), a brilliant design with an Ionic portico and a mullion-and-trabeated system derived from the Ancient Greek Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, Athens, and the square columns of Ancient-Egyptian temples. This theatre, with the twin churches in the Gendarmenmarkt, forms one of the noblest urban ensembles in Berlin. He prepared comprehensive proposals for the Lustgarten in front of the Royal Palace, including the reorganization of the waterways, the remodelling of the Cathedral, the construction of various buildings, and the creation of a new bridge linking the Lustgarten and Unter den Linden. As part of the scheme he worked on the idea of building a new museum, accepted by the King in 1823. This, his masterpiece (very badly damaged in the 1939–45 war, and indifferently treated thereafter), was part of the high-minded programme to raise the tone of society, and consists of a long Ionic colonnade like a Hellenistic stoa behind which a double staircase leads to an open gallery-landing from which views may be enjoyed. Influenced by French theorists such as Durand, the plan had a clarity and purity worthy of the high ideals of its creator, but in the reconstructed building those qualities are barely discernible. Behind the stair and entrance is a Pantheon-like rotunda inside a cubic form.

Meanwhile, he had also built two other great buildings: Humboldt’s Schloss Tegel (1820–4—west of Berlin, in which he mingled the mullion-and-trabeated style of the Schauspielhaus, themes from the Villa Trissino near Vicenza, elements from English Palladianism, and allusions to Antiquity); and the hunting-lodge of Antonin (for Prince Anton Heinrich Radziwiłł (1775–1833—Governor of the Prussian Province of Posen)), Ostrow, near Poznań, Poland (1822–4—a five-storey timber-framed and timber-clad octagon with four square wings, the central area galleried and with a huge Doric column rising in the centre containing the fireplaces and chimney). He also designed the tomb-marker of General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst (1755–1813) in the Invaliden-Friedhof, Berlin (1820–4).

During the building of the Lustgarten Museum (1824–30) Schinkel obtained approval for his Neo-Gothic Friedrich-Werderschekirche, Berlin (1824–30), an important example of his work in the Gothic style, after which he set out on a tour of Germany, France, England, Scotland, and Wales, accompanied by Peter Christian Wilhelm Beuth (1781–1853), Prussian civil servant. His diaries describe his impressions, notably his interest in English industrial architecture (e.g. London Docks, building-construction, the Staffordshire Potteries, gas-works, etc.). On his return to Berlin he incorporated aspects of fire-resistant construction he had seen at Smirke’s British Museum, and he was instrumental in getting gaslight installed by an English firm in Berlin (1826–7). Then followed an essay in Gothic with the Town Hall of Kolberg (Kołobrzeg), built 1827–32, and the exquisite series of buildings in the park at Potsdam: Charlottenhof (1826–7), the Court-Gardener’s House (1829–33—evocative of vernacular architecture in Tuscany), and the ‘Roman Baths’ (1830). The last three buildings, beautifully integrated with the gardens, drew on ideas of asymmetrical Picturesque composition pioneered in England, notably by Nash and Papworth. With the Nikolaikirche, Potsdam (1830–7), Schinkel realized the ideals of stereometrical purity advocated by C18 French theorists with a great cube surmounted by a drum and dome, an apsidal chancel, and an Antique portico. It demonstrates its designer’s complete mastery of Greek, Roman, Italianate, and Neo-Classical languages.

An interest in terracotta and brick, fuelled perhaps by his visit to England, was realized (1828) in the structural polychrome treatment of the house for Tobias Christoph Feilner (1773–1839), a forward-looking design anticipating the ideas of Hittorff and others. This also led to the Bauakademie, Berlin (1831–6), a polychrome brick-and-terracotta structure informed by Classical rigour, Gothic systems of piers and buttresses, and English industrial architecture. The Bauakademie housed the School of Architecture, Schinkel’s living-quarters, and the Oberbaudeputation. Until its wholly unwarranted destruction by the Communist authorities (1961), it remained one of his finest creations. Other masterly works in the Classical style by Schinkel include the exquisite New Pavilion, Schloss Charlottenburg (1824–5), the Casino, Schloss Glienicke (1824–5), Schloss Glienecke itself (1824–32), the Hauptwache, Dresden, Saxony (1831–3), and the Grosse Neugierde (Great Curiosity), Schloss Glienicke (1835–7), the last in a Greek-Revival style of enchanting beauty, quoting elements of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens (334 bc).

Schloss Babelsberg, near the Havel (1832–49), was conceived in a Romantic castellated style, based on English exemplars, as was the little-known but charming Schloss Kurnik (now Kórnik, Poland), a remodelling of an earlier building (1830s), but Schinkel’s other great Picturesque Romantic-Classical dream-palaces were never built. These were Schloss Orianda, Crimea, Russia (1838—in which the spirit of Pliny is detectable), and a palace on the Athenian Acropolis (1834): both are among his most imaginative and beautiful designs. With the Bauakademie they represent the last phase of Schinkel’s career in which eclecticism, mature Classicism, syncretism, and influences from many countries, styles, and periods coalesced. As Oberbaudirektor (1831–7), he was placed in charge of all State building-schemes in Prussia, and advised on the conservation of historic monuments, and he became (1838) Geheimer Oberlandesbaudirektor, the top post within the State bureaucracy.

Schinkel’s funeral (1841) was a national event: he was buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer-Friedhof, Berlin, his grave marked by a Greek stele modelled on his own design (1833) for the scientist Sigmund Friedrich Hermbstaedt’s (1760–1833) memorial. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (r.1840–61) decreed (1842) that all his works should be purchased by the State. Called the ‘last great architect’ by Loos, his publications included Sammlung Architektonischer Entwürfe (1819–40), Werke der höheren Baukunst für die Ausführung entworfen (1840–8), and (with Beuth) Vorbilder für Fabrikanten und Handwerker (1821–7). His most gifted pupils included Persius, Strack, and Stüler, and he was a key figure in the evolution of the Rundbogenstil.


AJ, cxciii/25 (19 June 1991), 5, 30–49, and cxciv/4, 5 (24 & 31 July 1991), 22–39; Bergdoll (1994); B-H (1977); B & R (1993); B-S et al. (2003); B-S & Grisebach (eds) (1981); CoE (1972); J.Curl (2001, 2005, 2011); Forssmann (1981); U.Harten (ed.) (2000); Ibbeken et al. (2001); P (1982); Peik (ed.) (2001); Philipp (2000); Riemann (ed.) (1981); Schinkel (1989); Schönemann (1997); Snodin (ed.) (1991); Stemshorn (2002); Wa & M (1987); Zadow (2001); Zu (ed.) (1994a)