The Drama of Gottfried Semper

Since the onset of modernism, there has been a tendency to depreciate the art of the previous age, Hermann Muthesius in 1902 going so far as to dismiss the whole of the nineteenth century as “the inartistic century.” Nineteenth-century architecture in particular has been the object of criticism, and it has often been described as being stuck in a historicism that stifled design, and whose practitioners, without any ideological preconceptions, simply copied the structures and styles of the past according to the whims of the market and contemporary taste.

For the most part, such assumptions have rested upon ignorance of the actual work of the nineteenth century’s greatest architects, who, living in an age of tumultuous change that seemed to threaten the very existence of art, believed that it was their responsibility to educate the new middle class in its cultural heritage. They turned to the past, then, not because they lacked imagination, but because this seemed to be the best way of finding representational forms that would be appropriate in style and decoration for the relatively new building types of public museums, libraries, theaters, and opera houses, and would advance their wider ends. This didactic purpose was strong in the creations of the great Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, notably in the frescoes in the Old Museum in Berlin, which were intended as illustrations of cultural continuity. Schinkel, indeed, in the view of Harry Francis Mallgrave, had a vision of architecture as a kind of urban theater, and this was even stronger in Gottfried Semper, who contemporaries agreed was Schinkel’s most brilliant successor.

Harry Mallgrave has written a fascinating and richly illustrated study of the life and work of this sometime political revolutionary, friend of Richard Wagner and Gottfried Keller, builder of the two court theaters and the art museum in Dresden as well as the museum complex on the Ringstrasse in Vienna and the dominant architectural theorist of his time. Mallgrave advances the view that a sense of theatricality was the salient characteristic of Semper’s work, which was rooted, he writes, in his conviction that the birth of monumental architecture was linked to the ancient temple’s function as the “stage upon which the first communal rituals were enacted.” Semper held to this idea throughout his career, and sought always to find suitable forms for this primitive artistic instinct. In his architectural designs, this impulse is to be seen in the dramatic effects used to startle the viewer and subvert his normal sense of reality, and in the complex detailing of his buildings, often in exaggerated proportions. It is present as well in the iconography and allegorical illustrations, and, not least important, in the skill he displayed in situating his buildings for their greatest urban effect. These techniques are so successful that even today anyone who buys a ticket for a performance of Aida in Semper’s recently restored opera house in Dresden is caught, even as he approaches the building, in an excitement …

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