Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin

The legendary German architect, painter and designer has had a lasting impact on the country's capital that lasts well beyond two centuries after his death.

On a much-delayed July flight to Berlin, I unfolded Rory Maclean’s “Berlin: Imagine a City.” One chapter in it would lead to an unexpected exploration of a legendary architect who shaped and influenced the city right up to today — and beyond.

For years I have a habit of bringing a book about my tour destination to pass time on the journey. For Berlin I chose this British historian’s book and randomly read a chapter on German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841.)

I’d heard little of the architect before this study trip on cultural preservation hosted by the German government’s Visitors Program. I joined 11 other conservation officers and journalists from four continents for the weeklong tour, the first three days of which focused on the German capital.

The chapter aroused my interest in the architect whose career in some ways reminded me of a European architect active in old Shanghai — Park Hotel designer Laszlo Hudec.

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

A huge profile of Schinkel is hung on the facade of Academy of Architecture, which is now under renovation. In front of the building stands a statue of Schinkel looking intently into the distance.

 Museum Island

The afternoon I arrived in Berlin, I decided to explore its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Museumsinsel (Museum Island). It was impossible to visit all five museums on this “island,” so I picked Alte Nationalgalerie first, which was built in the 1860s and exhibits artworks of the 19th century.

The German paintings and sculptures were inspiring, but what attracted my attention was a room of paintings depicting breathtakingly beautiful nature with architecture in it. I was astonished to find that most paintings were by Schinkel, whose story had just impressed me on the flight.

Through art historian Martin Steffens’ book “Schinkel” which I bought in the museum shop, I came to know more about the architect who made his name also as an urban planner, a painter and a designer of both furniture and stage sets.

Admired by King Frederich William III, Schinkel was state architect of Prussia for almost his entire career and created major landmarks in Berlin, including the Altes Museum, the oldest on the island.

His student Friedrich August Stuler designed or planned two others, Neues Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie.

So I immediately headed to Schinkel’s signature Altes Museum only steps away. Regarded as an important example of classicist architecture, the building is renowned for its monumental facade — a configuration of 18 columns that was designed to be overwhelming in its simplicity.

It was so simple and so powerful.

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Martin Steffen's book "Schinkel"

The facade of the Altes Museum features 18 Ionic columns, simple and powerful.

Other striking features include the sweeping staircase, the huge expanse of the atrium and the large rotunda which Schinkel modeled on the Roman Pantheon.

In the following days, Schinkel and the Museumsinsel had a great impact on me and were frequently talked about in our meetings with Berlin scholars and conservation officials.

“Schinkel was an important architect in the first half of the 19th century, absolutely in Berlin,” says Dr Ralf Nitschke, head of Construction Planning at the General Directorate of the National Museums in Berlin. “He was quite a modern architect at that time, who liked new techniques and tried to use steel in his architecture. He was passionate about his work and had a lot of different disciplines. He only slept about four hours.”

Dr Nitschke also introduced a master plan for Museum Island which will be developed into a modern museum complex by 2040. The plan views the ensemble of five historical buildings as a thematic whole, while at the same time respecting the architectural autonomy of each separate museum. 

The Museumsinsel planning group formed in 1998 is composed of architectural firms under the general coordination of David Chipperfield Architects.

Once completed, the Archaologische Promenade will interlink four of the five museum buildings at their lower-ground level: starting in the Altes Museum, passing through the Neues Museum, the Pergamonmuseum and on to the Bode-Museum. The James-Simon-Galerie which is under construction will form the main entrance to all the museums.

“You have to imagine that the Altes Museum was opened in 1830 and the Pergamon Museum was opened in 1930. It’s 100 years of growing and developing. That is the same nowadays,” Nitschke adds.

“We have another 100 years (from then) until the master plan of the museum island is finished and realized around 2040. So we have nearly 200 years for the whole Museum Island. In the 19th century Museum Island was a project for generations and nowadays it’s also a project for generations,” he chuckles.

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

The dome of the rotunda of Schinkel's signature work, the Altes Museum.

Schinkel Square

On the way to a dinner appointment through Berlin’s boulevard Unter den Linden after Nitschke’s talk, I came across a huge profile of Schinkel hanging on a gigantic red-brick structure under restoration.

The structure turned out to be the Bauakademie (Academy of Architecture), the last building in the center of Berlin that Schinkel designed.

Completed between 1832 and 1836, the four-story building was regarded as his most important and most radical work, featuring patterned brickwork, uniform window axes, and door and window frames richly decorated with industrially produced terracotta tiles.

More surprisingly, Schinkel’s statue stood in a square named after him fronting the north facade of this brick building.

The square was originally laid out as Bauakademic Square in 1837 but renamed as Schinkel Square when the monument of Schinkel was erected in 1869.

As the explanatory board notes, the statue of Schinkel is “looking intently into the distance with a pencil and the plan of the Altes Museum in his hands. Four caryatids (draped female figures) originally adorned the chamfered corners of the pedestal, representing history and the arts practiced by Schinkel: architecture, painting and sculpture.”

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

A view of the neighboring Berliner Dom from the Altes Museum

The introduction also recalls the uneasy restoration of the square, which was in a desolate state at the end of World War II with the Academy of Architecture burned down and Schinkel’s monument badly damaged. 

It wasn’t until 2007-08 that the reconstruction of the square was carried out that revived the fountain, the semicircular stone bench of granite and other key aspects. The square for memorializing an architect also recalls the Hudec Memorial Hall in Shanghai, in his former residence.

Only a stone’s throw away from the statue and the square, the future Museum Island Metro station is under construction. The project is well explained on big boards with photos and vivid drawings.

One of the boards says: “Karl-Friedrich Schinkel would have been proud. As the architect of many buildings on Museum Island, his work has inspired this new underground station. A deep blue starry sky with over 7,200 lights borrowed from Schinkel’s stage-set designs adorns the ceiling. From here there is a direct connection to the Berlin Cathedral, the Humboldt Forum, the German historical museum and all other museums of the island.”

Professor Leo Schmidt, another German scholar who specializes in conservation, notes Schinkel is also an important man in the development of heritage conservation as a public idea in the country.

“He said we should look at our historical buildings and write about them from ancient times, the medieval times,” says the professor.

Schinkel’s devoted working style and his impact on Berlin’s urban and architectural scene that still shapes the city today resemble Hudec, who designed many of Shanghai’s signature buildings, changed the city skyline and had a lasting influence on Shanghhai's urban conservation and redevelopment.

More than 80 percent of Hudec’s buildings survived the test of time and underwent sympathetic renovation to suit modern-day use.

“We feel in Berlin that heritage protection is not only a profession of conserving and restoring pieces of art and history, it’s also part of urban development,” says Dr Jorg Haspel, director of Berlin Conservation Authority.

“Our task and aim is to make sure pieces of the past will become part of the future by adapting them to contemporary needs.”

Well, in that way, Shanghai mirrors Berlin, just as Hudec mirrors Schinkel.

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

The Altes Museum's staircases represent one of Schinkel's most impressive designs, through which the boundaries between inside and outside are blurred.

Schinkel: the man whose vision still shapes Berlin
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

Schinkel's 1813 painting "Gothic Cathedral by the Water" is exhibited at the Altes Nationalgalerie.

Special Reports