May 26: Schinkel über alles
2012/05/26 § 5 Comments
On this night in 1821 the Schauspielhaus opened in Berlin.
It’s so hard to talk about its architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), since it’s so hard to know when to stop. Schinkel was the whole first half of the nineteenth century rolled into one guy: the new historical consciousness, the Industrial Revolution, shifting political sands. To complicate matters more, he engaged in all scales of design, from urban planning to military medals (most famously, the Iron Cross). He could do everything, and do it well; we would not be surprised at all to find out he invented the recipe for Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.
The great Schauspielhaus (1818-21) is one magnificent galaxy within the Schinkel universe. For the opera house he revolutionized theatre design functionally (tiered seating, auditorium shape), technically (use of fly tower, orchestra pit), and aesthetically (his particular brand of cool tectonic Classical precedent).
Let’s park there for a mo, shall we? It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like something about it; both trads and mods can get behind Schinkel. To wit: This is not your garden variety Greek Revival, that is Whammo Classicism, the invention of an architect who dug beneath the splendid beauties portrayed on the pages of Stuart and Revett to understand where the language comes from, but then return to the outward expressiveness and ephemeral poetry of the thing as well. Schinkel understood the skeleton, the skin, the garment, and the perfume. In this way he steered clear of the “arbitrary” application of what he called the “vast store of forms that had already come into being.” Yet for all the “tectonic clarity” of the building (especially considering the design of the wings in particular, with the fact of his travels to England to look at cotton warehouses in Manchester), that too would just be bare bones. Schinkel avoided the “error of pure arbitrary abstraction” based on construction, which would generate “something dry and rigid, and lacking in freedom.” Schinkel sought the clarity without throwing out “two essential elements: the historical and the poetical.”
Clear as it is in the design of the building, his embrace of the “historical and poetical” is even more evident in what he did inside. Schinkel was a scene designer for the opera, starting with twelve designs of backdrops for “The Magic Flute” and twenty-eight more operas. The design above shows Schinkel’s literally operatic side: the vault of heaven articulated with curved lines of stars giving a sublime sense of scale and drama. Other designs go even more out on a poetical limb: try to make sense of this spectacular image of . . . qu’est-ce que c’est? An Egyptian temple? With Gargoyle columns? In a cave???
Schinkel’s mission was to maintain the useful aspects of Industrial Age rationalism, while reviving the mystery and imagination that had been given a backseat by those architects who were falling under the spell of the iron frame. It is an unfortunate result of this break in architecture that our language forces us to speak separately about these two things that Schinkel brought together so brilliantly. Our language falls short where Schinkel so brilliantly succeeds.
Image: Schinkel’s design for a backdrop in “The Magic Flute” (from this source)