For Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the interrelationship of theater and architecture created an opportunity to utilize the concept of the proscenium stage in his drawings of buildings and opera sets. More often than not, Schinkel established a point of view that allowed him to depict an actual observer of building, landscape or spectacle before him. Schinkel’s control of the spatial relationship between viewers and the environment rendered in his drawings was influenced as much by principles of theater as by principles of architecture. Unfortunately, this important and engaging aspect of his work proved to be virtually impossible to employ in the large, half-oval racecourse of the architecture gallery at The Art Institute of Chicago. The very shape of the architecture gallery provides an interesting formal counterpoint to Schinkel’s theory of spatially planar determinism insofar as one is drawn constantly through the curved space towards a never quite perceivable end that is the perspectival counterpoint to Schinkel’s “thin red line” of the proscenium.
Given these restriction, the decision was made to incorporate into the design of the exhibition space other aspects of Schinkel’s architectural and artistic vocabulary, particularly as expressed in two of his most important, extant buildings. Thus, coming into the gallery down a flight of stairs and into an entrance hall, the visitor enters a space that is designed to evoke the Altes Museum in Berlin. One then moves transitionally into and through a series of chambers that recall the famous Schauspielhaus of 1818-21 and its concert hall. Finally, the visitor reaches two “Schinkel-after-Schinkel” chambers that suggest some of the enormous influence that Schinkel has had on architects after his death. The first of these rooms is modeled after a forced collaboration between the National Socialist architect Ernst Sagebiel and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for a 1936 textile industry exhibition, shortly before Mies decided to immigrate to the United States. The second space is a reminiscence of a small section of Albert Speer’s project for a new Reich Chancellor building.
Chronologically structured, the installation of the exhibition “Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1781–1841: The Drama of Architecture” represents an unbroken cycle of design that stretches from the Neoclassicism of the early nineteenth century until the advent of Postmodernism (which ironically coincided with the death of Mies van der Rohe) in the late Twentieth Century, when theatricality was reintroduced into building design after decades of the detached formalism of International Style Modernism. The dramatic quality of the exhibition’s installation — achieved through the use of flattened Classicism (in this case literally painted on the gallery walls) — separates the gallery setting from the present. It creates an appropriately theatrical milieu for Schinkel’s original drawings and opera-set renderings.
The theater of architecture and the drama of architecture, architecture as setting and architecture as event, are presented here as mutually self-fulfilling and continually regenerative.