Karl Friedrich Schinkel
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2024
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0057
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2024
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0057
Karl Friedrich Schinkel (b. Neuruppin, 1781–d. Berlin, 1841) was a celebrated Prussian architect, theatre set designer, artist, furniture and object designer, urban planner, and civil servant. Born into modest yet respectable circumstances as the son of a deacon, Schinkel, by virtue of his talent and work ethic, rose in his own lifetime to become one of Prussia’s most celebrated cultural figures and its chief royal architect. He worked mostly in Berlin and its surrounding territories, including in some areas that are now part of Poland. His built works suffered heavy destruction during the Second World War, but important examples still survive or have been reconstructed, including the Altes Museum, the Friedrich-Werder Church, the Theatre (Schauspielhaus), and the New Guardhouse in Berlin, as well as the Charlottenhof and Glienicke Palaces in nearby Potsdam. His paintings, drawings, and personal archives can be found mostly in collections in and around Berlin, including at various departments of the Berlin State Museums. Recent debates have surrounded the potential reconstruction of Schinkel’s celebrated masterpiece, the Berlin Bauakademie (which was demolished in 1962), bringing a consciousness of Schinkel’s legacy to the fore in German public life once again. Despite his fame in Germany and his noted status as a reference-point for German avant-garde modernism, Schinkel’s work has remained under-explored in the English language (with some notable exceptions) due to difficulties accessing both his buildings and his archives in the years between the Second World War and German reunification. Since the 1990s, however, Schinkel’s international reputation has been steadily restored due to the efforts of a number of scholars and curators who have sought to disseminate his work more widely than ever before. Schinkel’s oeuvre is as eclectic as the tools and media he employed to realize it are versatile. They reveal traces of neoclassicism and the neogothic, French Enlightenment formalism, German Romanticism and Idealism, and 19th-century historicism. But at the same time, his work resists absolute categorization, by virtue of the fact that he lived and worked suspended between two epochs: he was born too late to be immersed in the worldview of the 18th-century Enlightenment and French Revolution, but nor did he live to see Germany’s development as a fully industrialized and unified nation. Occupying this ambiguous historical moment has given Schinkel’s work a versatility, a freedom, and an inquiring rigor that has assured its originality and enduring value.
Since the late 20th century, with the reunification of Germany making Schinkel’s buildings and archives more accessible than ever to wider audiences, there has been a tide of scholarly publications on Schinkel’s output. Nonetheless, there are to date only two major English-language monographs on Schinkel, and both fortunately provide an excellent overview of his life and work: Bergdoll 1994 (also published simultaneously in German) follows all the major points of his career and explains his output in the context of the intellectual life of early-19th-century Prussia, while Forster 2018 takes a nontraditional, nonlinear, and interdisciplinary approach to the architect’s archive, featuring a combination of scholarly essays on archival material and lyrical speculations on episodes from the architect’s life. Pundt 1972 is the only other English-language full-length publication on Schinkel; however, it is more topical, less broad, and heavily skewed toward establishing Schinkel as an early-19th-century urban and environmental designer. In addition to these three book-length studies, Watkin and Mellinghoff 1987 is a broader examination of German classical art and architecture, containing large sections on Schinkel useful for placing him in the context of his time and in relation to his contemporaries. Journal articles on Schinkel in English are more numerous than book-length studies and include Forster 1983, which, like Pundt 1972, is also concerned with Schinkel as an urban designer, but focuses on his creation of panoramic images of the city, both in reproductions and in reality. Another article, the short yet informative Pevsner 1952, was the first to introduce the work of Schinkel to English-speaking audiences, while Jones 2016 is another introduction to Schinkel through how his techniques of image production reflect the the uses of illusion in his work. Within the extremely large pool of German-language monographs on Schinkel written in the latter part of the 20th century, Forssman 1981 and Zadow 2003 are reliable and succinct general overviews of Schinkel’s life and work, seeking to provide, along with a description of his projects, an outline of the keys to his architectural thinking. However, they reflect the tendency of German printed sources on Schinkel to be less critical or analytical and more adulatory of their subject. Haus 2001, on the other hand, counters this trend by providing a meticulously detailed study of Schinkel’s lifelong output as an artist, and employing a method of close-reading of Schinkel’s images to explain their meaning and cultural significance. Steffens and Roche 2016 is a monograph appearing simultaneously in French and German, richly illustrated and published by Taschen. It is informative at a general level but less critical of Schinkel’s output from a specialist point of view, and the display of images tends to take center stage.
Bergdoll, Barry. Karl Friedrich Schinkel: An Architecture for Prussia. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.
A comprehensive overview of Schinkel’s career and the social, economic, and philosophical contexts in which he operated, and the first broad monograph written in English. Features photographs of Schinkel’s buildings by Erich Lessing. An edition was published simultaneously in German.
Forssman, Erik. Karl Friedrich Schinkel: Bauwerke und Baugedanken. Munich: Verlag Schnell & Steiner, 1981.
A thorough account of Schinkel’s career in German, with reference to all his major projects and with a particular focus on his architectural output in relation to his philosophical and artistic background.
Forster, Kurt W. “Schinkel’s Panoramic Planning of Central Berlin.” Modulus 16 (1983): 62–77.
A concise summary of all of Schinkel’s major architectural projects for the center of Berlin, explaining how these projects viewed as a constellation were able to transform the image of the city.
Forster, Kurt W. Schinkel: A Meander through His Life and Work. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2018.
A book-length publication breaking from the traditional chronological monograph format, interspersing anecdotes from and musings on Schinkel’s life with more scholarly studies of his projects that take a broad interdisciplinary approach (e.g., incorporating histories of the natural sciences to offer new perspectives on otherwise well-known buildings and images).
Haus, Andreas. Schinkel als Künstler. Munich and Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2001.
A detailed study of Schinkel as an image-maker and artist, combining image analysis with an explanation of Schinkel’s artistic and intellectual precedents.
Jones, Emma Letizia. “The Wanderer.” AA Files 72 (2016): 152–160.
Article locating the origins of Schinkel’s pictorial imagination in his work for early-19th-century theatre design and temporary public entertainment décor, and defining its later expression in his architectural practice. Emphasis on Schinkel’s exploration of architectural illusion through drawing. Available online by subscription.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. “Schinkel.” Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 59 (January 1952): 86–96.
A broad article introducing Schinkel to English-speaking audiences, based on a talk initially given by Pevsner to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Also features a transcript of the audience discussion at the end of Pevsner’s talk, including questions and observations by British architectural historian John Summerson and other members of the RIBA.
Pundt, Hermann. Schinkel’s Berlin: A Study in Environmental Planning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
An account of Schinkel as an urban designer, which polemically recasts his architectural projects for Berlin as part of a holistic strategy of environmental design. A more abbreviated article on the same topic by the author is available online by subscription.
Steffens, Martin, and Geneviève Roche. Karl Friedrich Schinkel: 1781–1841: Un architecte au service de la beauté. Cologne: Taschen, 2016.
A well-illustrated Taschen publication offering a general overview, rather than an in-depth critical study, of Schinkel’s major projects, simultaneously published in French and German (French edition cited here). Focus is on Schinkel’s mastery of a variety of architectural styles, from neoclassic to neogothic to, in his later career, proto-functionalist.
Watkin, David, and Tilman Mellinghoff. German Architecture and the Classical Ideal. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
This broader study of German architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries contains an overview of Schinkel’s work in the context of his time and geography, and in relation to the production of his contemporaries.
Zadow, Mario Alexander. Karl Friedrich Schinkel: Leben und Werk. Berlin: A. Menges, 2003.
A general monograph of Schinkel’s life and work, in German. Focuses on the early years of Schinkel’s progressive education.
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