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Published: 13.11.2003, 06:00
Modified: 12.11.2003, 16:06
Celebrating Gottfried Semper's 200th anniversary
"The 19th century's Michelangelo"

Gottfried Semper, first ETH professor of architecture and creator of ETH's main building, was born 200 years ago this month. In commemoration of this anniversary the Museum of Design Zurich is putting on a special exhibition of his work. The ETH Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, gta (1) has published a comprehensive omnibus on Semper's works in co-operation with the architecture museum of TUM (the Technical University of Munich) (2).

By Michael Breu

"Soulless skeleton buildings of old art" were not what Gottfried Semper wanted to build, as Classicism was repugnant to him. Architecture and stylistics seeks "the components of form, which are not themselves form, are ideas, strength, material and means; as it were the pre-component parts and basic stipulations of form," he wrote in 1860 in his most famous and influential work on "The Style".

Whether ideas, strength, material and means – Semper's work was in fact always influenced by classic Greek culture. The Aula, the great hall, of ETH Zurich bears witness to this even today. The ceiling depicts the symbolical and allegorical expression, modelled on the legendary circle around Pallas Athene. "The central point of all relationships is represented by the circular sphere in the centre of the ceiling," writes Martin Fröhlich, lecturer at the College of Technology and Architecture in Berne, in the Swiss Art Guide "We see an illustration of the birth of Athene from the head of Zeus". Further Greek gods are portrayed; Minerva, Hermes, Eros. It is not only ETH Zurich that testifies to Semper's veneration for Greek culture, it is manifest in his other buildings – above all in those he created in Dresden.

From mathematics to architecture

"Already his contemporaries considered Semper to be the greatest living German architect, and he greatly influenced architecture in the 20th century." This praise for the work of the "19th century's Michelangelo" comes from Winfried Nerdinger, architecture museum of TUM , Werner Oechslin, ETH Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, as well as Hans-Peter Schwarz and Christian Brändle from the Museum of Design Zurich (3). 2003 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. The Museum of Design Zurich is devoting a special exhibition to Semper's work to run until 25th January 2004 (4). The exhibition, for which gta and Prestel Munich published the catalogue, has been a success at TUM’s architecture museum.

"Gottfried Semper was born on 29th November 1803 into a wealthy manufacturer family in Altona," writes Martin Fröhlich in the cultural magazine "Du" (March issue 1999). At the time Altona belonged to Schleswig-Holstein, then part of the Danish kingdom. "The comfortable circumstances of the family allowed for a good education and leisurely choice of profession," as Fröhlich goes on to say. It seems justifiable to call this period of finding a profession leisurely, as it was anything but straightforward. At first Semper was interested in classical languages and mathematics. With a recommendation from Hamburg's Johanneum he enrolled at the University of Göttingen in mathematics, but also attended lectures in history.

Gottfried Semper, 1871 portrait by William Unger. Archives: TU München large


The Polytechnikum around 1859; perspective from the southwest. Archives: ETH Zurich large

"Initially he thought about working in the area of the military sciences, but soon became interested in applied hydraulics," writes the architectural expert, Heidrun Laudel from Dresden. "Armed with a letter of recommendation, Semper's efforts to find a place as a trainee at Düsseldorf’s Harbour Works and Hydraulic Structures were unsuccessful." His failure to find a job brought him to Munich where, in 1825, he enrolled as a student in the department of architecture. Two years later he abandoned plans to sit hydraulic engineering examinations and set off on his travels. "The years he spent travelling through Italy and Greece provided him with a broad-based and direct knowledge of famous buildings and monuments from antiquity to the Renaissance," writes Winfried Nerdinger. In 1833, by way of Munich and Berlin, Semper returned to Altona.

Just a year later he executed his first building, the the “Donnersches Privatmuseum” and published his first paper entitled "The Polychromy of the Greeks". In the same year, Semper was appointed – "against all possible odds" – to the board of directors of the School of Architecture at the Royal Art Academy in Dresden. In the following years, in the same city he built the monumental "Hoftheater" (which burned down in 1869), the art academy, the Materni hospital and other splendid edifices. "His participation in the revolt against the king in 1849, side by side with Richard Wagner and Wilhelm Röckel, forced him into exile in London," writes Martin Fröhlich. "There he hardly managed to make a living and attracted little attention, but he did write his first important books." Later, in Paris, he considered emigrating to the United States but rejected the plan a little later. On 14th August 1854, Richard Wagner called his attention to the fact that the newly founded Polytechnikum in Zurich (its name was changed to ETH, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in 1905) was announcing the appointment of a professor of architecture. Semper applied and on 7th February 1855 he was confirmed by the Federal Council as the first Professor of Architecture with life tenure. He was granted an annual salary of 5,000 Swiss francs – a princely sum, as even a Federal Councillor received only 6,000 Swiss francs at the time. Here, at last, Semper was able to re-unite his family, whom he had had to leave behind on his flight from Dresden; wife Bertha and their six children Elisabeth, Manfred, Konrad, Anna, Hans and Emanuel.

The big one in 1858: the Federal Polytechnikum

In Zurich he worked on plans for a number of buildings including a bazaar and living complex in Tiefenhof, a theatre in Rio de Janeiro and a communal building in Zurich's Kratz district – to not much avail, as hardly a project was realised. Then, in 1858, he hit the jackpot with his plans for the new building of the Federal Polytechnikum . The building was erected according to Semper's plans between 1859 and 1868. "For fear that the building – as so often with Semper's buildings – would be too expensive, Johann Caspar Wolff, the city's master builder took over the actual operative management of the construction. Semper hardly had more than an advisory voice," writes Fröhlich in the catalogue. Spending was capped at one million Swiss francs. "Parsimony born of fear meant that the extensive university was so shoddily built that only the reconstruction and renovation work carried out from 1915 to 1924 saved the building from ruin." Reconstruction was entrusted to the architect Gustav Gull, who had made a name for himself with the construction of the National Museum in Zurich. Under his guidance, the large auditories , the rotund library, the east wing and the dome were added.

Four further Semper works in Switzerland

"Semper's time in Zurich, which lasted from 1855 until 1871, is the longest stage in the unsedentary professional life of the architect," comments art historian Andreas Hauser. Apart from the Polytechnikum Semper also built the tower of the Evangelical Church in Affoltern am Albis in 1861, the Federal Observatory in Zurich (1861-1864), the recently submerged "laundry ship" Treichler (1862-1864), the Villa Garbald in Castasegna (1863) and the City Hall in Winterthur (1865-1870). Semper left ETH Zurich in 1871, of his own will, for Frankfurt am Main (to build the theatre), Darmstadt and Vienna. Following a severe attack of asthma in 1877 he abandoned his final work on the Hoftheater in Vienna and left to take a cure at Bad Reichenhall. He died in Rome on 15th May 1879.

The first Semper museum was opened in Zurich within a year of his demise and dedicated memorials were erected in the main hall of the Federal Polytechnikum in 1887 and in the Art Academy Dresden in 1892.

(1) Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture ETH Zürich:
(2) Architecture museum of TUM in Munich:
(3) Winfried Nerdinger, Werner Oechslin (Hrsg.): „Gottfried Semper 1803-1879. Architektur und Wissenschaft“, gta-/Prestel-Verlag, Zürich/München 2003:
(4) Museum of Design Zurich:

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