1740 - 2010

Staatsoper Unter den Linden – Architectural History

Berlin State Opera

The Forum Fridericianum
While he was still the crown prince and living in the Rheinsberg Palace in Brandenburg, the later Prussian king Frederick II (Frederick the Great) together with his architect Knobelsdorff conceived the ideas for the "Forum Fridericianum" with a new royal palace on the north side of the street, Unter den Linden. To the south of Unter den Linden a large square was planned, flanked by an opera house and a building for the Academy of Sciences. However, after the opera house was built, royal attention shifted to the construction of the palace of Sanssouci in nearby Potsdam. It was also for financial reasons that the "Forum Fridericianum" was built only in a reduced version. Instead of the royal palace on Unter den Linden, the city residence of his younger brother Prince Henry was built between 1748 and 1765. On the west side of the opera square, construction of the Royal Library took place between 1775 and 1780, and behind the opera house, St. Hedwig's Catholic Cathedral was built between 1747 and 1773. After World War II only 16 buildings out of 64 remained and some of the historic buildings, among them the Crown Prince's Palace and the Princesses' Palace, were completely rebuilt.
"Perfection within two months" – The Opera House of Frederick II
Shortly after his accession to power in 1740 the Prussian king Frederick II ordered his architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff to build an opera house and demanded of him "perfection within two months". However, just one year later, on December 7th 1742, the unfinished house was opened prematurely at Frederick's insistence. Knobelsdorff designed the building with the gabled monumental portico as a temple-like building for civic purposes. The opera house was modeled on English country estates built in the early 18th century, following the example of Andrea Palladio's works. This large-scale new building allowed the Prussian king to present himself as a generous and liberal patron of the arts. However, the opera house didn’t just express the passion Frederick the Great felt for music. It was the first building of the "Forum Fridericianum" on the east edge of Unter den Linden. With its civic buildings, the Prussian monarch intended to transform Berlin, which up to that time had been rather military in character, into a metropolis of European importance. This building sets standards: In the history of theater building in Europe, the Berlin opera house takes a prominent position; particularly the use of the portico as a "mark of distinction" became the characteristic of a type of building in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff
Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699 - 1753) was born in Kuckädel Manor near Crossen on the Oder (today Kuladło, Poland). He abandoned his career as a military officer in 1729 and switched to studying architecture and painting. In 1732 he became acquainted with the crown prince and later king Frederick II. His first work as an architect was an Apollo temple in the palace grounds of Neuruppin with designs taken from an ancient example. He went on an extended study tour throughout Italy, and afterwards was occupied until 1793 rebuilding Rheinsberg palace. After his coronation as the king of Prussia, in 1740 Frederick II appointed Knobelsdorff as the Superior Director of all royal palaces, gardens and grounds. Knobelsdorff's buildings combine elements of English classicism with those of Italian and French Baroque and Rococo, thus molding the style of "Frederician Rococo". After the construction of the opera house Unter den Linden (1741 - 1743) he enlarged Charlottenburg Palace (1742 - 1746) by adding a wing and also designed Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam coordinating closely with the king. However, in 1746 he was dismissed by the king after a quarrel.
1788 – Reconstruction by Carl Gotthard Langhans (snr)
Just a few years after its completion, Knobelsdorff's opera house proved to be inadequate. The stage and the side stages were too small for complex scenery sets and the view to the stage from most of the boxes was unsatisfactory. Therefore Frederick William II, the nephew and successor of Frederick II, decided to have the building reconstructed shortly after his accession to power in 1786. He commissioned the architect Carl Gotthard Langhans (snr, 1732 - 1808) with this work. Instead of the festival rooms located one behind the other (the Theater Room and Corinthian Room), Langhans preferred to site the auditorium and the stage opposite each other. He made the stage opening wider, shortened the partition walls between the boxes and aligned them concentrically to the centre line of the stage, thus ensuring a better view from all seats. In addition to permanently fitted seats (formerly the majority of the audience had stood during performances) a royal box in the centre of the first tier of seats was added.
1843 – "... a vast column of fire" The opera house fire and other reconstructions by Carl Ferdinand Langhans jnr
The architect Carl Ferdinand Langhans (jnr, 1782 - 1869), son of Langhans snr., had devised an extensive project for the reconstruction of the opera house when on August 18th 1843, during the night, a fire broke out and the building burned down, leaving only the outer walls. Only three days after the fire, on August 21st 1843, Frederick William IV ordered rebuilding to commence following a design by Langhans jnr and insisting that the external appearance of the opera house should remain unchanged. Langhans jnr re-designed the interior of the house in the style of late Neoclassicism. The cheerful and bright Rococo ornaments by Knobelsdorff were replaced by an opulent and heavy scheme in white and gold with red textiles. The Langhans conversion brought about a large number of technical improvements. A newly installed oil gas lighting system replaced the candle-lighting, usual at this time. It was only in 1867 that an extension designed by Langhans was added on the south side (towards the St. Hedwig's Cathedral) - which was torn down again in 1926 - to provide more space in the stage area. Later technical innovations were the iron curtain (1881) and the installation of electric lighting (1887). In 1910 a fly tower was built for the first time in order that large backdrops could be used.
1926 - 1928 – Reconstruction by Eduard Fürstenau
Around 1900, the Staatsoper was considered too small for the quickly growing mega city of Berlin. The lack of space in the auditorium and on the stage was also a safety hazard. Various plans which involved partial renovation or even complete rebuilding were laid aside until after World War I. In the 1920s the decision was taken to reconstruct the Staatsoper building. New building regulations required, among other things, an expansion of the side stages in order to prevent the exits from being blocked by stage sets. At the same time it was decided to remove the fire escape stair buildings on the facades, which were aesthetically unpleasing. The planning of the reconstruction was awarded to Eduard Fürst (1862 - 1938), government administrative and building officer and head of the engineering department of the Ministry for Public Works. The redesign between 1926 and 1928 was mainly confined to the stage area and its decades-old technical equipment. For this purpose the rear part of the opera house was torn down for the most part and only the fly tower from 1910 weighing 3,000 tons remained unchanged - supported by a complex steel construction. In order to install stage mechanics of the day with a revolving stage, the basement was excavated down to a depth of 14 meters below street level. The enlargement of the side stages considerably changed the appearance of the opera house. Thus, the original character of the Knobelsdorff building - a longhouse on a rectangular ground plot, was lost forever.
First destruction by war and then reconstruction in World War II
The Staatsoper was the first Berlin theater to be destroyed during the night April 9th/10th 1941 during an air raid. On Hitler's command, reconstruction was taken up soon afterwards. Going ahead in war time, the building project was to reassure the residents of Berlin of a quick and victorious end to hostilities. The building was rebuilt under the direction of Head of Division Erich Effort from the engineering department of the Prussian Ministry of Finance. On December 12th 1942 the building was consecrated again with a staging of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, shortly after the 200th anniversary of the original opening of the opera house. During the 1941/1942 reconstruction the opera house was restored to its pre-war appearance. The auditorium was reconstructed using a simplified design based on Langhans snr's ideas. The fourth tier was retained but the other rooms were completely redesigned in a revivalist style. The main source of inspiration was the Frederician Rococo, the ornaments of which were used for murals, among others. In the vestibule to the centre box of the first tier, the so-called "Führer box", a style typical of the time was used; its heavy wood paneling being similar to the so-called style of the Reich Chancellery. However, the politically tight time frame and the supply difficulties for construction material during the war exacted rather simple fittings for most of the rooms. Despite these restrictions the building showed a homogeneous appearance. Only specialists were able to recognize the room equipment as freely devised and revivalist. The architect stated that the idea of the redesign was - apart from the elimination of functional defects - a reconstruction of the building "in terms of its atmosphere". A return to its pre-WWII appearance was never intended.
1945 – Second destruction by war
The reconstructed opera house had stood for just 26 months when it was destroyed in an air raid for the second time on February 3rd 1945. The stage building was directly hit by three bombs which destroyed not only the roof, but also part of the foundation walls. All combustible components and furniture in the auditorium fell a prey to the flames. Only the north part of the building facing Unter den Linden was damaged to a lesser extent. Most of the portico and the Apollo hall with the components built in 1941/42 were left unscathed by war damage.
1952 - 1955 – "Risen from the ruins ..."
In 1951 architect Richard Paulick was commissioned to oversee the rebuilding which was politically encouraged by the famous conductor and former musical director Erich Kleiber. He worked with the German Academy of Architecture on the plans for the reconstruction of the (East) Berlin city centre and now assumed the task of designing one of the most prominent buildings in this planning area. The foundation stone was laid on June 17th 1952. On the exterior Paulick changed, among other things, the staircase facing Unter den Linden and modified the fly tower. Furthermore he created a new design for the interior, including a modified layout of the circulation areas for the audience. The operagoers' entrance was relocated into the semi-basement of the front facing Unter den Linden. The number of tiers in the auditorium was reduced from four to three in order to allow for better visibility. In the design of the opera house Paulick reverted to historical shapes. The Auditorium ceiling is based on the cupola of the Marble Hall in Sanssouci Palace (1745 - 1747). However, Paulick did not like the exuberant Rococo decorations which are characteristic of the interior of many of Knobelsdorff's buildings and which were in contrast to their austere exterior.
Richard Paulick – the architect of reconstruction
Richard Paulick was born on November 7th 1903 in Roßlau near Dessau and after his studies from 1927 to 1930 he worked with Walter Gropius. From 1930 he worked as a self-employed architect and in 1933 he emigrated to Shanghai. After his return to Germany, Paulick, who was a communist, deliberately chose the German Democratic Republic as his new base. In 1950 he started work in Berlin as a department head in the Institute for Architecture and Construction. Parallel to his work reconstructing the Staatsoper, he was involved in the most prestigious architectural project of the GDR, the building of the Stalinallee (today Karl-Marx-Allee) in Berlin-Friedrichshain. During his working life, Richard Paulick went through several style phases. He evolved from the "New Objectivity" of the 1920s to the revivalism of "national traditions" which were the architectural concepts in the early GDR. In addition to Hermann Henselmann, Paulick was one of the most important and most influential architects in the GDR whose urban development designs had a formative influence on the townscape of Berlin. Richard Paulick died in Berlin on March 4th 1979.

"A victory of peace, a human triumph" - the opening on September 4th 1955
After three years of construction the Staatsoper opened again on September 4th 1955. The ceremony began at 11:00 in the morning with a ceremonial act of the GDR government in the presence of President Wilhelm Pieck. In addition to well-known representatives of political and cultural life, 250 "Heroes of Labor" were invited. In his speech the Minister of Culture Johannes R. Becher called the reconstruction a "victory of peace, a human triumph". At 17:30 the gala performance of Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" began (staging: Max Burghardt, musical director: Franz Konwitschny). Afterwards the Theater Manager Max Burghardt held a reception in the Apollo hall of the Staatsoper inviting a large number of guests of honor. Among them were Wilhelm Pieck, the Deputy Prime Minister Walter Ulbricht, the President of the People's Chamber Johannes Dieckmann as well as the members of the Diplomatic Corps and many others.

Richard Wagner »Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg« - Ouvertüre
Apollo Hall
The Apollo hall, designed by Frederick II as a festival room, was first used as a foyer and concert hall back in the 19th century. Today it is a venue for concerts and exhibitions, but also provides the festive setting for lectures and social functions. In its present design the Apollo hall is a new creation by architect Richard Paulick built between 1952 and 1955. It is only the dimensions of the hall which are identical to the former festival room of the opera house built for Frederick II. During the reconstruction after the fire of 1843, the architect Langhans jnr changed the design and character of the hall considerably. The original Frederician Rococo was replaced by an exuberant interior in the style of late Neoclassicism with lesenes and coffering. Mirrors, wood paneling and cut-glass chandeliers lent the appearance of quality and distinction to the hall. For reconstruction after World War II Richard Paulick had the opera house more or less completely gutted. His design of the Apollo hall in 1952 was based on the interior design of the Sanssouci Palace by Knobelsdorff.
1742 - 2010 – The structural changes
In the course of its more than 250 years of history, the Staatsoper has suffered severe damage several times due to fires or bombs, and the building has been comprehensively reconstructed five times. Each of the reconstructions adapted the opera house to the increased requirements demanded by stage technology, acoustics and audience comfort. Even if the exterior of the original Knobelsdorff building has only been modified out of necessity, hardly anything of the structures of the original opera house built for Frederick II remains today. Only the portico of the main facade, the gable relief on the rear and the reliefs on the lateral avant-corps exist today. A sequence of the floor plans of the first tier depicts the change of the opera house from its consecration in 1742 until today.
Since 2010
The autumn of 2010 marked the start of the most complex and costly redevelopment measure in the history of the Staatsoper. The entire building was in need of a general reconstruction. In the future the renovated opera house will facilitate up-to-date performances and provide a better view and improved acoustics for the audience.
Credits: Story

Kleine Baugeschichte der Staatsoper Unter den Linden - Frank Schmitz

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