Sunday, February 27, 2011

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, A King's Mentor

As my readers know, I love Neoclassic architecture, and I've posted on two of my favorite practitioners, Thomas Jefferson and Sir John Soane. But no study of Neoclassicism is complete without a good look at Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). In my opinion, he is the greatest of Neoclassic architects.

Schinkel quickly came to the attention of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, who was himself an amateur architect. The king, who ruled from 1797 to 1840, had big plans to rebuild Berlin and came up with many designs himself. He looked upon Schinkel as both a collaborator and a design mentor, and the two became close friends.

From 1815 until his death in 1841, Karl Friedrich Schinkel transformed Berlin to such a degree that the period is sometimes referred to by his name — Schinkelzeit.

While Schinkel was rendering his architectural services to the state, he was also designing seemingly every aspect of the daily life of Friedrich Wilhelm III and Queen Louise.

Rather than show you images of Schinkel's many architectural monuments, I thought it would be more exciting to show you the scope of his designing. And mind you, this is just a tiny sampling!

Architectural drawings — this is Schinkel's view of the Staircase Hall in the Altes Museum
Paintings — Schinkel's work was reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings
Fabric design
Stage set design — this is a set for The Magic Flute
Pen and ink drawings — Schinkel was a great observer of nature
Schinkel designed the Iron Cross in 1813
* A bronze and gilt balustrade *

* The king's toilet set — note the neat insets *

* Entrance to the court gardener's home *
* Vase design *

Furniture — for this chair design, Schinkel was influenced by the Regency style

* Furniture — a buffet table *

* Interior design — a detail from the king's study *

* Interior design — this was a royal guest room, which Schinkel himself would use *

It seems as though there was nothing that Karl Friedrich Schinkel couldn't and didn't design, and it was all beautiful. He had an amazing drive and produced large- and small-scale designs at a rapid pace. He finally had a stroke, and spent the better part of his last two years in bed.

When Schinkel died in 1841, he was remembered not only for his brilliance, but also as one who was engaging, considerate and humble. Thousands attended his funeral, and the king (by then Wilhelm I) decreed that the state buy Schinkel's entire estate.

.  .  .

The image of the Iron Cross comes from
Orders and Decorations  |  Vaclav Mericka  |  Paul Hamlyn Ltd., London
Photograph by Josef Fiala

All other photographs come from these two superb books. The first is Karl Friedrich Schinkel, A Universal Man, by Michael Snodin, Yale University Press in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London...

...and the second is Karl Friedrich Schinkel, An Architecture for Prussia, Barry Bergdoll, photographs by Erich Lessing, Rizzoli, New York.

Those images with asterisked captions are from the second book. All the other images are from the first book.

Both books have beautiful photography, and because Schinkel's design work was so extensive, these books do not duplicate each other, but are instead perfect companion pieces.



  1. Thanks for the interesting post about Schinkel. I didn’t know he was that versatile. I’ve seen a few of his buildings in Germany, but they don’t stand out so much because there is so much great architecture there. Some of his pavilions and villas are very simple, really just windows, stucco and cornice, and are elegant and enduring because of their perfect balance, proportions, and the beautiful symmetry.

    I believe some of his outdoor metal garden chairs are still in production. They are outside some of the buildings in Germany.

    I didn’t know he was also a painter. When I saw the architectural rendering I was surprised that it isn’t so different from 20th century modern ones. I am amazed at all the detail in his designs, and how it contrasts with the minimalism of modern architecture today. Imagine that in Schinkel’s work, basically every stone detail and block is individually designed, carved, fitted, and accounted for, and all in the days before computers, electric tools, etcetera. Sometimes we are hindered by modern inventions. And I’ll take Schinkel over Gehry any day.

    That garden detail, with the flat fish fountainhead is incredible. What a fantastic talent and individual.

  2. Thank you for this post. I am an ardent fan of Herr Schinkel, who I consider to be, like you, one of the greatest in the pantheon of architecture and design. I am itching to go to Berlin to visit Museum Island, where I intend to wallow in everything Schinkel.

  3. I am a huge fan of K F Schinkel and appreciate your presentation of his many talents. Often his remarkable use of color is overlooked, so I am particularly happy to see you touched on that as well.

  4. Thank you Terry, Reggie and Devoted!

    Terry, it's interesting that you mention the garden benches because I almost included one of several that are featured in these fine books. It was hard to draw the line — I could have included beds, chairs with his needlepoint designs, desks, and on and on!

    Reggie, I would also love to experience everything Schinkel first-hand, and I imagine that that alone would merit a trip to Berlin.

    Devoted Classicist, Schinkel was indeed a great colorist. Perhaps you know the story of the bet he had with another artist. Schinkel designed Queen Louise's bedroom with the intention that she would feel as though she was always awaking in dawn light. His friend doubted that Schinkel could pull that off. So Schinkel painted the room peach and then hung sheer white curtains over all the walls. And one can see in today's photographs that he did successfully create the illusion of early morning light.

  5. ADORE this post!!! Another Schinkel fan here of course - but mostly of his paintings and architecture! Must admit that I was not fully aware of the extent of his most prodigious talent!! Schinkelzeit - you have to love it! And am ordering the Yale edition immediately - I love their books!!

  6. Dear Quintessence, you will not be disappointed. Either book is sumptuous and full of inspiration.

  7. Well with a name like that, he had to be an overachiever!
    I am amazed at his versatility. Thank you for introducing him to me Mark.

  8. Oh. Theresa, you would find that Schinkel's work is great reference for some of your projects!

  9. While familiar with his architectural work, I wasn't as familiar with his other design work -fascinating! Even before I knew who he was (when a german exchange student in HS), all of my favorite buildings in and around Berlin were by him!

  10. This is wonderful work. I only regret that Schinkel hadn't been alive and still a force when Berlin was newly laid out after the fall of the wall. I don't admire the new Berlin, though it's a great city of impressive energy. What it lacks in its new state is the classic harmony that makes a city truly grand!

  11. Dear Stefan and Paul, thanks for your comments. I envy you both for having seen Schinkel's work first-hand! Visiting his creations is certainly on my bucket list!

    I read something that might be a surprise to you both. Ironically, while Karl Friedrich Schinkel is remembered as a primary Neoclassic architect, he actually preferred Gothic architecture.