Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Portrait von Franz Krüger (Kupferstich), Leipzig, um 1840
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Schinkel (1781–1841) was a man of many talents – not just as an architect, building officer, monument curator and city planner but also as a painter, illustrator, stage designer and designer. Above all though, his many buildings are what shape Berlin to this day. Be it New Guardhouse, Berlin Theatre, Palace Bridge or Friedrichswerder Church: his work marks the transition from classicism to historicism.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel was born in Neuruppin on 13th March 1781 as the second of five children to Dorothea and Johann Cuno Christian Schinkel, an administrative employee of the Protestant Church. Following his father’s premature death, his mother had to take care of the children on her own. Her relocation with the family to Berlin in 1794 enabled Karl Friedrich to attend the grammar school zum Grauen Kloster. When, in 1798, during the exhibition of the Prussian Academy of Arts, the seven-year-old saw the design by architect Friedrich Gilly (1772–1800) for a monument commemorating Frederick the Great, he decided to become an architect.

Teufel mit Ziege und Kirche, Federzeichnung aus dem Skizzenbuch von Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Berlin, 1797-1799
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Reproduktion: Oliver Ziebe, Berlin
In the same year, he began attending the Lehranstalt zum Unterricht junger Leute in der Baukunst. It was run by Friedrich Gilly himself and his father David (1748–1808), a prestigious Prussian architect and building officer, in whose home Karl Friedrich also lived with other young prospective architects.

During the apprenticeship, it was the instruction he received from Friedrich, a leading exponent of classicism in Germany, that influenced him most of all and the two soon became friends. In 1799, Schinkel entered the Berlin Building Academy, where, alongside the two Gillys, the architects Carl Gotthard Langhans and Heinrich Gentz ranked amongst his tutors.

Stuhl mit geschnitzter Lehnenfüllung (geflügelter Merkurstab als Symbol des Gottes der Kaufleute mit Schlangen als Symbol für Äskulap, Gott der Heilkunst), Entwurf: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Berlin, 1833
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Reproduktion: Michael Setzpfandt
After the death of his mother and venerated friend Friedrich Gilly in 1800, Schinkel broke off his studies to focus his attentions on Gilly’s unfinished buildings. Several of his own designs for architecture came about at this time which for the most part remained unrealised, as well as designs for furniture and china. A formative study trip took Schinkel to Italy in 1803 from where he returned to Berlin via France in 1805. Whilst travelling, he produced numerous landscape drawings and watercolours and purely architectural renderings; ultimately, however, in Schinkel’s work, painting and architecture are very hard to clearly distinguish from one another.

Professional breakthrough

For the Berlin Palace, Schinkel was responsible for designing the interior decoration of the rooms of Queen Luise. In March 1813, he was commissioned to design the Iron Cross, an award for bravery in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleonic rule. In 1815, he was appointed Geheimer Oberbaurat [Secret Government Building Officer] and finally able to devote himself to his actual profession: architecture.

Eisernes Kreuz 2. Klasse, Berlin, 1813
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Reproduktion: Michael Setzpfandt

In his new role he was responsible for transforming Berlin into a prestigious capital city. He also realised projects in the Prussian provinces, from the Rhineland to East Prussia. The tight national budget on account of the war meant that affordable solutions were sought for the countless construction projects. The classical, unadorned Greek style predominated initially. Examples in Berlin include Schinkel’s Neue Wache (built between 1816–1818) Unter den Linden, Schauspielhaus (1818–1821, now Concert house) on Gendarmenmarkt and the Altes Museum (1825–1830) am Lustgarten – all principal works of classicism in Prussia.

Increasingly, Schinkel worked as a building surveyor. This work involved frequent trips: during one such trip in 1816, for example, he became familiar with the only just partially completed but already crumbling Cologne Cathedral. He enthusiastically committed to maintaining and continuing the building work. In this regard, he became a co-founder of monument conservation in Prussia.

Creative network

With his numerous contacts to artistic and intellectual greats, including poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, there arose a creative network with whom Schinkel exchanged ideas on artistic and aesthetic matters. Together with official and politician Christian Peter Wilhelm Beuth, from 1822 to 1837, he published Vorbilder für Fabrikanten und Handwerker. These and similar publications depicted predominantly antique forms and patterns, with extensive collections of large-scale copperplate engravings. As an aesthetic guide for industrial schools and manufacturing, they served to aid in creating both useful and beautiful designs for everyday objects and facilitate the early days of Prussia’s industrialisation.

Diese bisher unveröffentlichte Zeichnung von Andreas Kraska aus dem Jahr 1905 zeigt das selten dargestellte, in den 1870er Jahren umgebaute Treppenhaus in Schinkels Berliner Bauakademie.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
Amongst other places, Schinkel travelled with Beuth to England and Scotland in order to get acquainted with the architecture and sophisticated engineering in those nations. Impressions gathered from this trip flowed into the design for the “Bauakademie” (Building Academy, erected between 1832–1836, demolished in 1962) opposite the Berlin Palace, likely the architect’s most pioneering structure in terms of its construction and design. In the earlier constructed Friedrichswerder Church (1824–1830) middle age-romantic forms combine with English details.

The “Schinkel style” gains acceptance

On 16th December 1830, Schinkel was promoted to Geheimer Oberbaudirektor and leader in charge of the Oberbaudeputation [State Construction Commission]. This body gave an expert opinion on all planning in the Prussian Kingdom with a contract value over 500 thaler, in terms of the economics, functionality and aesthetics. Schinkel reserved the right to revise all designs personally, whereby official buildings throughout Prussia were stylistically honed. This enabled a widespread Schinkel style to become commonplace. In 1838, Schinkel was finally made Oberlandesbaudirektor [State Director of Buildings] and King’s Architect. With this, he had reached the highpoint in his career as an architect.

Die Portraitbüste aus Marmor, eine um 1900 entstandene Kopie nach dem Original (1819) von Christian Friedrich Tieck, zeigt den selbstbewussten Architekten in einer idealisierten Haltung.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Ravaged by poor health since the 1830’s, Schinkel had attempted to find relief during his stays in several rehabilitation spas. The tremendous workload – culminating in the entire public building departments for Prussia – had increasingly overwhelmed him. After several strokes and a year of ailments and afflictions, Karl Friedrich Schinkel died on 9th October 1841. He was buried on 12 October at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery on the Chausseestraße. His final resting place, and also designed by him, is now a grave of honor of the State of Berlin.

Discover Schinkel

The collections of the Stadtmuseum Berlin include many surviving artefacts belonging to Karl Friedrich Schinkel, most of which can be viewed online in the Online Collection. Anyone wanting to delve into Schinkel’s era on the historic site can do so in the Museum Knoblauchhaus, which guides visitors, authentically and using original objects, into the era of the architect and his younger colleague Eduard Knoblauch.