Schinkel: the architect who changed the face of Berlin

German reunification has made possible the first major exhibition,at the Victoria and Albert Museum, of all aspects of Schinkel’s work



One positive consequence among many of the unification of Germany has been that politically-controlled non-cooperation between museums in East and West Berlin is now a thing of the past. The forthcoming exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Karl Friedrich Schinkel: a universal man” (opening 31 July and continuing until 27 October) is the first major exhibition to come to Britain from a united Germany. The organisers had originally envisaged a British-East German exchange of paintings and drawings but the opportunity to borrow from West Berlin has been seized to create the most complete Schinkel exhibition since World War II. David Watkin, the Cambridge architectural historian, talked to Michael Snodin who has organised the exhibition on the great German classical architect of the nineteenth century.

Let me begin by asking you about the genesis of the exhibition. Whose idea was it?

Michael Snodin: The original idea came from David Bindman in 1984, when he was working with Gottfried Riemann, who looks after the Schinkel drawings in the Altes Museum in Berlin, on the new German edition of Schinkel’s diary of his tour in Britain in 1826. This was published in East Germany in 1986 (the English edition is currently being worked on). At that stage, what was suggested by David Bindman was a quite small show based on the Schinkel drawings in the Altes Museum, and then in return—and this is a very important part of the genesis of it—the Altes Museum would have an exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum of English watercolours. It was essential to have this sort of exchange. However, we immediately said that we wanted something much more rounded, something that told you about the whole of Schinkel and not just Schinkel as an architect. We also wanted to present Schinkel as a painter, stage designer, a designer of interiors, an industrial designer and the leader of design education. Obviously we’re very interested in his tour of Britain in 1826 but that isn’t the whole story. We had a very good reaction from East Berlin and they said, more or less, you can have what you like. There were however long gaps when there was no communication, things being what they were then. Things were greatly speeded up when Peter Betthausen, a great anglophile, became Director at the Nationalgalerie in East Berlin in 1986 or 87. From that point on we actually began working on a proper exchange and the Victoria and Albert devised an exhibition called “The Poetry of Earth”, English watercolours from the romantic period which did in fact go to East Germany with the aid of the British Council. But of course the interesting, and for us very exciting, part of it all was that we were overtaken by political events. There was always a gap in the Schinkel exhibition caused by the impossibility of cooperation between the East and West Berlin museums: the Schinkel collections were divided by the Wall and the great Schinkel collection (Nachlass) of drawings was in East Berlin while the oil paintings were all in West Berlin. The opening date finally settled on for the opening was 1991, which happens to be the 150th anniversary of Schinkel’s death. We then had to move very quickly indeed on the paintings side but the authorities in West Berlin were immensely helpful. They have, at very short notice, agreed to lend some very major things. So from the Nationalgalerie we have been able to borrow the “Medieval city by the water”, a great Schinkel painting. That’s the only Schinkel oil painting we’re borrowing. We have managed to have something like seventeen oil paintings. Twelve of those are small views by Carl Daniel Freydanck, a veduta painter for the Berlin Royal porcelain manufactory , which show Schinkel’s buildings in context. They fill an absolutely key gap, which is how to show what Berlin actually looked like in the 1830s and 40s. Schinkel’s own views tend to be slightly unreal and there is something very difficult about an exhibition which is full of beautiful drawings alone. We also have the Catel portrait of Schinkel in Naples in 1824, which is the great image of Schinkel and Italy, and the Gaertner painting of the Bauakademie in 1868, which is very important because the Bauakademie was the one really tragic loss of Schinkel’s buildings, the one that could have been avoided (see p. 1).

There can be a difficulty with architectural exhibitions because, unless a great deal of money is spent on them, they become rather dry displays of drawings. Do you think you have overcome that?

I think we have overcome it because Schinkel is such an immensely diverse character. For example, we have early sections on travels in Italy, Romanticism, and Patriotism, which are not mainly to do with buildings but to do with paintings and the whole Romantic argument. There are 161 items in the exhibition, of which 127 are drawings and prints and all the rest are either paintings or 3D objects. Unlike other Schinkel exhibitions which have separated the architecture of each building from the interiors, we have deliberately kept them together so that when you look at each section you first get photographs of the actual building, then drawings, then furniture: without photographs the buildings somehow don’t look real. We have been lucky enough to get some large examples from glass negatives of the buildings before 1940, for example the Bauakademie and also some of the palace interiors—nice, big, very sharp photos. There is a separate applied arts section involving Schinkel’s efforts in reforming industrial design, and design education.

Have you had any outside sponsorship?

Yes, from BMW GB Ltd which enables the exhibition to look better and helps us a great deal in the marketing but does not affect its fundamental concept. The German government has played a very important role, especially because after unification there was a moment of doubt, naturally, whether the cultural exchange agreements, which were between the UK and the DDR, would be honoured by a reunited Germany. Fortunately that moment was very short indeed and the London Embassy and the Berlin museum authorities have supported us very strongly since, which is excellent.

Schinkel appears to me to have been very successful in doing what he set out to do, which was to train a generation of architects and change the face of Berlin. He was, in that respect, unlike architects like Soane and Lutyens, who really had no influence. I wonder how far the exhibition is able to show the work of his followers, the Schinkel Schule, and of his twentieth-century admirers like Behrens and Speer.

The Schinkel Schule was in our original exhibition plans, but in the end it wasn’t included, largely because of the space available. We are acknowledging his influence in the symposium which is at the very end of the exhibition on 25 and 26 October. That is actually going to be in two parts, Schinkel then and Schinkel now. I think there are positive as well as negative reasons for not embarking on the story of Schinkel’s followers, and that is that this is the first exhibition on Schinkel in any English-speaking country. What it aims to do is to provide in a sense an introduction to the man’s work. It tries to tell the story in a simple but exciting way, and be of interest to the public.

Have you been able to make his role as a stage designer clear?

Yes, we have a section with about five or six stage set designs. You could of course have a whole exhibition of his stage set designs, just as you could have a whole exhibition of his paintings.

You mentioned the symposium; can you say a word about the catalogue?

The book of the exhibition is published by Yale University Press. It’s written by twenty-five scholars, mostly German. The aim of the book is to act not as a profound mould-breaking document in Schinkel scholarship but to be a good general introduction to the subject of Schinkel in English and also to show him in an exciting way because it is full of specially commissioned colour photographs. If one can somehow convey how wonderful Schinkel’s buildings are one has done something, and if one can persuade people not only to go to Berlin but also to go to Potsdam, the exhibition will more than have fulfilled its purpose.