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July 2003

Line Man

The perfectly proportioned works of Gottfried Semper

The phrase “form follows function,” coined by American architect Louis Henry Sullivan in 1896, was and often still is considered to be one of the defining statements made on architecture. Anyone who wishes to know where the parameters for this pithy one-liner, indeed for much of the theory and practice of modern architecture, were set should visit the exhibition “Gottfried Semper (1803–1879): Architektur und Wissenschaft” (Architecture and Science) currently showing at the Pinakothek der Moderne to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Gottfried Semper was born on November 29, 1803, in Hamburg, the son of a wealthy wool merchant. After completing his basic education, this fifth of eight children left home to study mathematics and archaeology at the University of Göttingen in 1823. Two years later Semper switched faculties and began a course in architecture, before enrolling in a private college in Paris run by the German architect Franz Christian Gau. From 1830 to 1833 Semper traveled extensively in Italy and Greece, visiting and learning about historical buildings and monuments in both countries. He was especially interested in painting and decoration on both buildings and statuary, and published a pamphlet on the subject in 1834, which created quite a stir.

In the same year and, astonishingly for us today, the would-be designer of buildings, who had not as yet a single construction to his name, was offered a professorship of architecture at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts on the recommendation of his former teacher Gau. Yet if any aspersions were cast on his professional competence at the time, in the years following his appointment, Semper proved not only to Dresden, but to the entire German-speaking world what he was capable of. A court theater was built to his design in the city, as was an art gallery and a synagogue along with numerous townhouses, with the result that Dresden’s architectural land-scape began to be redefined—a process that was continued by following generations of architects.

In May 1849 Semper, a republican by conviction, joined the composer Richard Wagner and other like-minded individuals in the Dresden barricades, which were part of a Germany-wide revolution. The uprising was put down within days and Semper, fearing for his life, fled via Paris to London, where he took part in the World Exhibition of 1851 and began working on his defining architectural treatise: The Style in the Technical and Structural Arts, or Practical Aesthetics.

In 1855 the architect moved to Zurich and took up the position of director at the newly founded Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in a building of his own design. In the 24 years between 1855 and his death in 1879, Semper consolidated his position as one of Europe’s leading architects with projects such as the Town Hall in Winterthur, an extension to the buildings on Vienna’s Ringstrasse and the reconstruction of the court theater in Dresden after his original design burnt down in 1869.

One of the central tenets of Semper’s architectural theory is the separation of a building into the skeletal and decorative elements. He pointed to the fact that for a primitive hut only the outer walls were essential and that the inside could be divided up freely using cloth or matting. Architects working on this principle were freed of all but the most elementary structural constraints and this theory followed through to its logical consequence would lead to the steel and glass architecture of the 20th century. For visitors looking at the models and drawings on display at this exhibition, however, Semper’s designs will appear less than revolutionary. His was the age of historicism, when the buildings of Classical Antiquity were thought to be the main reference points from which architects could learn and move forward. Wild experimentation was not Semper’s raison d’être. Instead he cultivated a holistic approach that considered every element of a building’s design and it is the harmony expressed in his work that makes looking at his architectural drawings such a satisfying experience, even for the layperson.

Those visiting the exhibition in search of a connection between Semper and Munich should look for his model of a theatre that was to have been called the Richard Wagner Festspielhaus and located in the Lehel district of the city. Sadly the plans for this building were never realized. Wagner, Semper’s friend, had fallen out of favor with the population of Munich for what was thought to have been his overly powerful and extravagant position in the court of Ludwig II. Wagner was forced to leave Munich and the plans to build a theatre, especially for his works, were abandoned. The beautiful and inspiring architecture that has been created in Munich is in no way diminished by contemplating the effect this colossal building would have had on the city’s appearance and its international standing.

The exhibtion runs through August 31.
The Pinakothek der Moderne is open
Tues.–Sun, 10 am–5 pm, Thurs. and Fri.
until 8 pm

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