As Berlin’s reconstructed Royal Palace prepares to open this year, Paul Sullivan rounds up some of the city’s best Prussian architecture and sights…
The opening of the newly constructed Royal Palace this year has some locals asking: what did the Prussians ever do for us? The answer is: quite a lot actually, since it was largely the Hohenzollerns—who ruled from the inauguration of Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg from 1415, until the abdication of William II at the end of the First World War in 1918—that transformed Berlin from a relatively unknown (and unlucky) backwater to a powerful and cosmopolitan European capital.
True, they infused the city, and surrounding Prussia, with a severe military reputation along the way; and there were certainly periods of repression and plenty of good old-fashioned absolutism throughout. But along the way, especially throughout the 17th-19th centuries, they also invested in architecture, infrastructure and cultural institutions that the city remains proud of today.
The period of Hohenzollern rule overlapped with many of the major European architectural styles, most notably renaissance, baroque, rococo and neoclassical, examples of which can be found around the city. Well, only just, in the case of renaissance buildings, since only one is still standing: the Ribbeck-Haus on Breite Straße, which was commissioned in 1624 by Privy Counsellor Hans Georg von Ribbeck, and has been modified several times.
The 17th century was when the city started to enlarge in earnest, initially under Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, who got the city back on its feet after it was decimated by plagues, fires, robber baron raids, and the Thirty Years’ War. He created the Unter den Linden and Tiergarten in their proto forms, and the new districts of Dorotheenstadt, Friedrichswerder, and Friedrichstadt, which together became the “Royal Capital and Residence City of Berlin“. (The last extant baroque remnant in what used to be Friedrichstadt, is the former Collegienhaus, now the entrance to the Jewish Museum Berlin).
In 1709, Friedrich Wilhelm built the Schloss Charlottenburg as a summer palace for his wife Sophie Charlotte. His son, Elector Friedrich III, who became Frederick I the first King of Prussia from 1701, continued the mission to build a royal capital—now befitting a Prussian capital—hiring court architects and sculptors like Andreas Schluter, Johann Arnold Nering and Martin Grünberg. Schluter’s most famous baroque-influenced work was the Royal Palace, but he was also responsible for the equestrian statue of Frederick I that today fronts the Schloss Charlottenburg, and the sculptural decorations for the Zeughaus.
The Zeughaus, best known for housing the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum), was designed by Schluter, Nering, Grünberg, and Jean de Bodt. Built between 1695 and 1729, it’s the oldest building on Unter den Linden. Another grand example of baroque can be found of course at Sansoucci in Potsdam, which was built a little later (between 1755-1764) as a summer residence for Frederick The Great.
It was the flute-playing Francophile Frederick the Great, a great believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, who kick-started the city’s cultural side in earnest with his Forum Fridericianum, now known as Bebelplatz, which was conceived by architect Hans Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, and eventually boasted the Opera House, Royal Library, Humboldt University, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (among other buildings), all of which still stand.
The city’s most iconic landmark, the Brandenburger Tor, was commissioned by King Frederick William I as a sign of peace, and completed by Carl Gotthard Langhans in 1791, while the early-mid 1800s belonged chiefly to Berlin’s most prominent architect (he was also a stage designer, painter and interior designer), Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose neoclassical buildings still largely define the cityscape.
His buildings include the Konzerthaus (formerly Schauspielhaus) on the Gerndarmenmarkt, built between 1819-1821, the Neue Wache guardhouse (1816-1818) and the Altes Museum (1823-1830)—the first building on the Museum Island. He also designed the nearby Bauakademie, which is allegedly going to be rebuilt sometime in the future, which completely broke the neoclassical mould and preceded modernist movements such as Bauhaus.
Other prominent architects added to the Museum Island over time. Friedrich August Stüler designed the Neues Museum, built between 1841 and 1859 (and renovated in 1997 by David Chipperfield Architects), as well as the Alte Nationalgalerie, which was based on sketches by Friedrich Wilhelm IV; the Bode Museum, built between 1898 and 1904, was by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne; the Pergamon came much later, in 1930, and was designed by Alfred Messel.
The late 1800s following unification are known as the Grunderzeit, and produced grandiose (some might say pompous) neo-rennaisance buildings like the Rotes Rathaus designed by Hermann Friedrich Waesemann and built between 1861-1869), Paul Wallot’s Reichstag, which opened in 1894 and whose transparent dome was added in 1999 by Sir Norman Foster. The Berlin Cathedral, whose current iteration, which replaced its baroque predecessor, was finished in 1905 and designed by father and son team Julius and Otto Raschdorff.
Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.