The Master Builder

Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man 31–October 27, 1991

An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, July

Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man

Catalog of the exhibition, edited by Michael Snodin
Yale University Press in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 218 pp., $40.00

Karl Friedrich Schinkel

by Helmut Börsch-Supan
Bühnentwürfe Stage Designs, Ernst and Son, Vol. II, 32 plates pp., DM 360 the set

Collection of Architectural Designs, including designs which have been executed and objects whose execution was intended

by Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Princeton Architectural Press, 174 pp. of text 174 plates pp., $60.00

Reise nach England, Schottland und Paris im Jahre 1826

by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, edited with an introduction and notes by Gottfried Riemann, an essay by David Bindmann
C.H. Beck (out of print), 376 pp.

In an episode in Erwin Strittmatter’s Ole Bienkopp, one of the most interesting novels to appear during the lifetime of the German Democratic Republic, the Communist Party secretary of the Duchy of Ruppin in Mark Brandenburg becomes annoyed with the presence, in the marketplace of the town of Gransee, of a memorial to Queen Luise of Prussia. Erected by the townspeople in 1811, to commemorate the fact that the much-loved queen’s funeral cortege paused for a night in Gransee on its way to Berlin from Mecklenburg, where she died, the Luisendenkmal was a catafalque resting on a high stone pedestal, with a golden crown at its head. Over the coffin there was a Gothic baldachin of iron in the shape of a tabernacle, and the whole was enclosed by ornamental iron railings. The district secretary could see no reason why this melancholy edifice should still be casting a shadow over the marketplace and, reflecting that old iron is always useful, he sent some laborers to demolish it. As the first hammer hit the railings, however, a window flew up in the building across the square, and the town dentist shouted indignantly, “You are desecrating Schinkel!”

The monument to Queen Luise was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the greatest European architect of his time and one whose influence is still at work 150 years after his death. A patriot and humanist, he transformed the face of Berlin and made Potsdam one of the architectural delights of Germany, and he was the designer of such fully achieved, if markedly diverse, masterpieces as the Iron Cross and the Old Museum in Berlin. He was also a painter of great talent, a stage and industrial designer, and a leader in design education. The dentist in Gransee probably knew all that; the district secretary probably didn’t but was smart enough to sense that, while crowned heads were fair game for good Communists, cultural treasures were not. Like him, the Communist regime in East Germany, while gleefully destroying the Hohenzollern castle in Berlin and Bismarck’s estate at Schönhausen, and even pulling down the Schloss in Paretz, where Queen Luise had spent happy years as the young bride of King Frederick William III, and erecting in its place an institute for animal culture, walked gingerly around Schinkel’s creations. It is true that in 1961, despite a chorus of appeals to Walther Ulbricht from Western architects, it did demolish the war-damaged Bauakademie in Berlin to make room for a pompous new home for its Foreign Ministry, but it spared the Luisendenkmal in Gransee and most of Schinkel’s other works, and it actually restored his masterful State Theater in the Gendarmenmarkt just in time for it to play its part in the festivities attendant upon the proclamation of the new united Germany in October 1990.

The reunification has made the whole of Schinkel’s work easily accessible to Western travelers for the first time in forty-five years. Equally important, it has also …

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