Weighted With History

Weighted With History

Schinkel-Pavilion in Charlottenburg (1824).
Gerrit Engel

Schinkel in Berlin und Potsdam
Gerrit Engel, with introductory essay by Barry Bergdoll and historic texts by Detlef Jessen-Klingenborg
Schirmer/Mosel Verlag Gmbh (bilingual edition), $68

This chronological and comprehensive photographic record of the surviving works of Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin and nearby Potsdam surely ranks as one of the most mournful ever published. It is a Baedeker of ensuing historical lament as well as architectural genius. And it succeeds therefore more as a compendium of personal reflection by a gifted artist than as design guidebook or biographical summary per se, accomplished more conventionally a decade ago in Taschen’s K.F. Schinkel: An Architect in the Service of Beauty, by Martin Steffens. Refreshingly straightforward descriptive essays complete the task with their frequent conclusions of late-war destruction and summaries of postwar reconstruction and often dubious preservation, just as Schinkel’s place in a design history was catapulted anew by the admiring embrace of modernist theory. The book in sum constitutes an invaluable addition to the Schinkel bibliography, treating architecture as muse instead of with journalistic objectivity. Such an approach helps the reader see through the borrowed eyes and distilled reality of works of art.

The book includes projects completed following the architect’s death at age 60, whether only partially realized in his lifetime or compromised by ensuing interventions that have dissuaded some from making a Schinkel attribution. Thanks to Engel, even those most discerning will discover works not generally assigned to the so-called father of Prussian classicism, whose name now speaks for an entire era of cultural history.


Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche in Potsdam (1829).

Engel summons to mind the fine-art example of his compatriot photographer collaborators Bernd and Hilla Becher, depicting as they did, from the 1960s through the 1990s, the typologies of industrial design. In initial years, their focus was on structures at obsolescing risk and later those of commonplace currency such as water tanks and storage silos. Like them, he does so by working unwaveringly under an overcast Prussian sky that precludes shadows and renders the buildings in sharp, even relief. Excepting four images with a car or two and two others with partial construction scaffold, these are point-blank images devoid of distraction or context, which as Bergdoll points out doesn’t resemble concurrent 19th-century accuracy in any case. Even at prominent public landmarks heavily in use like the Altes Museum or the Schinkel Pavillon, there is scarcely a soul in sight. This static gray palette is compounded by the bare trees of wintertime, although there are among the 78 plates (three for each of the 26 sites) a few with summer foliage forming the pictures’ outer edge, particularly when set in a garden where such placement was endemic to its formal purpose. Likewise there is generous acknowledgment by Jessen-Klingenborg, as well as Bergdoll, of Schinkel’s favored landscape colleague, Peter Joseph Lenné, perhaps as Engel’s subtle nod to the fact of this shared creation.

Whether taken on a direct frontal, symmetrical axis or in volume-revealing “three-quarter pose,” these portraits are architecture as pathetic fallacy or, as the introduction states repeatedly, as a “21st-century palimpsest” of German culture and its fulcrum of violence and recovery.

The essay (try reciting it; long sentences of Germanic circumlocution become clearer with the cadence of out-loud articulation. It has, one imagines, served well as a lecture for curator/scholar Bergdoll, who is today second to none as expert on Schinkel and his age and place), like much of the text, duly addresses Schinkel’s personal dialogue with history, echoed as it is by ongoing debate about his foremost place in this very history: proto-modernist nurtured by the revived romanticism of an emergent neo-Gothic style; proof of classicism’s constant capacity to innovative within the rules of an inherited vocabulary; or all that and more.

Ignoring the fact that much of the architect’s pared-down classicism devoid of ornament seems in part an inevitable result of the endless scrimping by cheapskate Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm III, his meddlesome lifelong patron as per Schinkel’s prestigious role as “state architect,” the results in any event prove his own conviction, that “historical does not mean just retaining or repeating what is old for that would destroy history. To act in an historical manner means to introduce something new that at the same time continues history.” In word like deed, there is this something-for-everyone insight into why his cherished example holds up to the beneficial scrutiny of practitioners of any applied style vocabulary, along with those who imagine themselves creating entirely new ones. Either way history is the crucible force.

The dilemma becomes manifest in Engel’s cheerless lapidary portraits of Berlin’s Bauakademie, where an advertisement-subsidized tarpaulin stretched across the severely damaged building imitates the original, as to do so in actuality continues to stir controversy of preservation-minded devotees versus those denouncing any such built simulation as false—as destroying history in just the way the architect admonished. Engel thus includes it in this unswerving record as apt metaphor for Schinkel and contemporary photography alike. This book renders the architect as an even greater contemporary force, who merits exactly this sort of innovative observation.