Prussian Heritage: The Brandenburg Gate

Under Frederick William II, Prussia established a reputation as a country where the arts flourished. The king acquired the services of three major architects - Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff, Carl Gotthard Langhans, and Carl von Gontard - and appointed the young Johann Gottfried Schadow his court sculptor. He revived the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste), which had been in existence since 1696, and in the Minister of State whom he appointed its curator, Friedrich Anton, Baron von Heinitz, he found a skillful reformer who in addition bridged the gulf between the arts and industry, since he was President of the Royal Porcelain Manufacturing Commission. In 1790, new regulations made it possible to build up a collection of models and found a school of draftsmanship for craftsmen. The royal collections were open to members of the Academy and their pupils, and methods of architectural training were updated. From 1786, the Academy held its regular exhibitions in Berlin, providing a survey of the state of artistic development in Prussia and at the same time stimulating artistic activity throughout Germany.

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin (Germany)




The exhibition of 1789 was dominated by architecture, in particular by the work of Carl Gotthard Langhans, who had come from the provinces a year earlier to be appointed director of the new Supreme Royal Planning and Building Department. He had made his name with the work he carried out for Prince Henry in Rheinsberg in the 1760s, and Erdmannsdorff, who thought highly of him, had probably given Langhans financial support on the study tour that took him from Anhalt (State of the Holy Roman Empire) to England, France, and Holland in 1775. Until his appointment to Berlin, however, Langhans' activities were confined to the provinces, in Silesia, and in Greater Poland. He presented himself to the public at the Academy exhibition with plans and also with three models for the pioneering buildings of the new Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate, the tower of the Marienkirche, and the Veterinary School.

It was already obvious at the time of this exhibition that the Brandenburg Gate would "mark the beginning of a new epoch in the history of style." Langhans' design of 1788 for the first monumental gate in the new style was undoubtedly suggested by the plans of Claude Nicolas Ledoux for the saltworks town of Chaux. The main gate of that town, completed by Ledoux in 1776, is a structure in the rustic manner, consisting of a low, round-arched portal, a Doric colonnade of six smooth columns and two corner columns beneath a frieze, which is shared by both parts of the building, and an upright, self-contained attic story. Each group of three columns and one corner column stands on a base that consists of two steps shared by both groups, with a broad access road to the round-arched gate in the middle. Although Ledoux and Langhans both cite the Propylaea in Athens as their model, their buildings could not be more different. Ledoux gives his entrance gate for the model town of Chaux the forbidding character of a fortress. The Brandenburg Gate designed by Langhans, on the other hand, opens the city up to the country around it. It is a magnificent structure, standing at the end of Unter den Linden and giving a view of the Zoological Gardens beyond. Langhans' reference to his classical model could be called merely the citing of authority in justification, as might be expected when something in such a new style was being built in such a prominent place.

The "Hellenic" Brandenburg Gate is matched by the tower of the Marienkirche (St. Mary Church) in the New Town on the other side of the Spree island, for which Langhans provided a "Gothic" superstructure built in 1789-1790. Constructed on two levels (the lower consisting of columns in the style of classical antiquity, curving walls, and windows with pointed arches, the upper level of free Gothic forms) it meets the requirements both of classical proportions as well as the Gothic theories of its period. The two poles represented by the Brandenburg Gate and the Marienkirche tower are comparable to the contrast between the Marble Palace and the Gothic Library in the New Garden, or between the place and Gothic house in the park at Wörlitz. The typical contrast between classical and picturesque elements immanent in the new style is illustrated in the very center of Berlin. It was a contrast that could equally well represent south and north, classical antiquity and the present, the Neo-classical and the Gothic, cosmopolitanism, and patriotism, discipline and liberty.

Nowadays, it is quite obvious that the Brandenburg Gate has become a truly German icon, perhaps the most famous monument in Germany and one of the most popular works of Neo-classical architecture. It also symbolizes perfectly the values of freedom and unity since the end of the Cold War, when Germany was again unified into a single state and it has witnessed important historical events such as the Napoleonic Invasion in 1806 or the rise of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (the Nazis.) Millions of tourists now visit Berlin every year to contemplate the grandeur of such a beautiful and important architectonic work in Germany and Europe's history.

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