Berlin’s State Opera House started life in the 1740s as Frederick the Great’s Court Theatre. It was special in the sense that it was the first European court theatre to have a standalone building that was not part of a royal palace. Frederick’s architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753) also made this building one of the first works of German Classicism: a neo-Palladian temple front on the Unter den Linden side, possibly inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotunda outside Vicenza, but also influenced by English Palladianism, and a “a radically new architecture consisting of load-bearing elements with all unnecessary elements eliminated” (Watkin/Mellinghoff 1987, p. 19).
The opera house has gone through a lot of reconstruction since then. Some of it was intended to improve it, such as the remodelling of the interior by Carl Friedrich Langhans (who also built the Brandenburg Gate) in the 1780s, or the controversial addition of a stage tower to handle large stage scenery in the 1920s. But just as many restoration efforts were required to repair the effects of fire, or of war. In the 1840s, Langhans Jr. rebuilt the opera house after a devastating fire, in 1941 it was one of the first Berlin victims of an aerial bombing raid, and it was reconstructed by none other than Nazi top architect Albert Speer, only to be bombed again in 1945.
This time, restoration efforts did not get underway until the 1950s, but Richard Paulick (1903-1979) decided to return, as much as possible, to Knobelsdorff’s original designs. The interior regained its original baroque atmosphere, but in a sparse, stripped manner. The only exception is the Apollo Hall, the room that Frederick planned as a dining room that sits right at the piano nobile of the building. Paulick remodelled this hall, in a mixture of classicist and baroque glory, based on the designs of the “Parole” room at Sans-Souci Palace in Potsdam, another Knobelsdorff job for Frederick. Another improvement that Paulick made in the 1950s was the addition of a huge complex of scenery building workshops, rehearsal halls and dressmaking ateliers, across the street behind the opera building itself.
In the current restoration, which started in 2010 and is due to finish in the summer of 2017, the baseline is Paulick’s work of the 1950s, just like Paulick himself went back to Knobelsdorff.
The public areas are faithfully restored and redecorated to Paulick’s designs, with one huge difference: the roof over the main opera hall and stage has been raised by about 2 metres. This means patrons on the third balcony level have more breathing space, and, more importantly, the acoustics will improve a lot.
Backstage, noone talks of restoration and monument preservation. Here, everything has been ripped out and replaced by the latest high tech stage technology.
But where star architects HG Merz, who also reconstructed the State Library, have really gone overboard is in the backstage building, Paulick’s project from the 1950s. Because an opera company usually needs to change stage backdrops several times a week, anything to make life easier for the technical staff is welcome. Here a James Bond-like subterranean empire has been created with a tunnel, wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, that links the opera house to the back stage building. This means whole opera sets can be exchanged using a system of huge lifts and trolleys in a matter of hours.
The back stage building has a complete duplicate of the stage in the opera house for rehearsals. There are also state of the art choir rehearsal rooms, orchestra rehearsal rooms, and ballet studios. It is an artists’ paradise, just like, in a sense, the whole of Germany is an artists’ paradise – here, the state is willing, as well as able, to invest in culture! The only regret that I have, is that by the time the opera will be open for business (concert hall rehearsals and final acoustic fine-tuning are now planned to start in July 2017) I will have left Berlin…
Most people who catch the S-Bahn for a day trip to Potsdam or Oranienburg are on their way to UNESCO-listed Sans-Souci, or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. But if you have a little more time, there is a strong Dutch influence in these erstwhile royal residences that dates over three centuries back, but is still, or rather again, very visible today. Sit down and relax for a story of Brandenburg’s relationship with Holland, and a quick history of the ruling Hohenzollerns thrown in.
The Thirty Years’ War
To get started, we need to dig up some 17th century history. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648), a rather complicated geo-political-religious fracas in which various German, Austrian, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Baltic forces were involved, ravaged most of modern-day Germany, but was especially hard on the Mark of Brandenburg. An area with no natural borders but lying at the crossroads between all the above countries, it was extremely hard to defend against competing bands of marauding soldiers, even if the Elector at the time, George William, had not been such a shilly-shallying procrastinator. But this Hohenzollern ruler was competent enough to realise that his son and successor, Frederick William (1620-1688), would not be safe from enemy soldiers and rampant disease in Brandenburg. The son, who would later be known as ‘The Great Elector’, was packed off to his relatives in the House of Orange in the relative safety of the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were then known.
Calvinist Holland at that moment was experiencing its Golden Age – despite being tied up in a religious and political revolt against Catholic Spain, which technically still owned it. This Golden Age, remembered today by the splendid paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen, impressed in those days by a maritime empire that spread from current New York, via the Carribean, bits of Brazil, Ghana, the Cape, Goa, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
There was also a less spectacular, but even more lucrative fleet trading wood, herring and grain with the Baltics. To top it all, Dutch military forces were well-trained, efficiently managed, and more or less well-behaved. Frederick William observed how his relative, Viceroy Frederick Henry of Orange, besieged the city of Breda in 1637 and eventually beat the Spanish troops occupying it. He attended Leyden University, which at the time was the leading centre of international law, featuring professors such as Hugo Grotius, who had a profound influence on his sense of legal propriety and the relationship between rulers and the governed. And, finally coming to the point of this story, in 1647 Frederick Wilhelm acquired a Dutch wife, Princess Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), daughter of Frederick Henry.
It is clear that when Frederick William ascended the throne of his ravaged country in 1640, his ideas on how to run it were very much influenced by what he had seen in the Netherlands. He set about creating a standing army, which steadily grew during his 48 year reign. Having his own army, he was not dependent, like his father, on a system of unreliable alliances but rather could steer his own course and choose his own coalition partners. The nascent military bureaucracy also served as the foundation of an efficient Prussian state, and helped curtail the power of the landed gentry. Frederick William put his army to good use when he chased the Swedes (who had continued pestering Northern Germany even after the Thirty Years’ War) away for good at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) – the feat which earned him the lasting epithet ‘The Great Elector’.
The first years of their marriage, with war still raging in Brandenburg, Frederick William and Louise Henriette spent in the comparative calm and civilisation of Cleves (a Hohenzollern possession near the Dutch border), but by 1648, when the Peace Treaty of Westphalia had been signed, the couple moved to Berlin. Frederick William presented his wife with a hunting lodge in the hamlet of Bötzow, and she soon set to work remodelling it into a palace. She called it Oranienburg, and the town was so pleased with the additional status that the palace conferred that they dropped the Bötzow name and adopted the name of the palace. Louise Henriette’s Dutch background showed in the paintings she brought to the palace, and the porcelain collection that she put on display there. She also made her mark by introducing Dutch methods of animal husbandry, brewing and brick manufacturing, which helped Brandenburg overcome the depressed state of its economy following the destruction of the Thirty Years’ War.
When Louise Henriette died in 1667, her son, Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I), continued embellishing and expanding Oranienburg in his mother’s honour, until, around 1700, it was said to be the most impressive Hohenzollern palace of all. But soon after, it was overtaken in grandeur by Schlüter’s Berlin City Palace, and when Frederick’s wife Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, he started using her former palace, renamed to Charlottenburg, as a summer retreat instead. You can see the white stucco of Oranienburg’s palace on the banks of the Havel river from far away, and it completely dominates the centre of the town – which otherwise still very much bears the mark of the GDR years. In the years since it lost importance as a royal residence, the palace has served all sorts of purposes, from housing a chemical factory (the fumes of which destroyed all the frescos on the ceilings), to military and police barracks for Imperial, Nazi, Russian and GDR troops. It was renovated and turned into a museum as recently as 2001 – and what a lovely place it has become. Besides the paintings and the porcelain, there is a good overview of the reign of the Great Elector, and the museum guides (the palace can only be visited by guided tour) are friendly and knowledgeable.
At the back of the palace, there is a rather innocent, even elegant looking extension – until you read that it was built in 1938 by Himmler as a training centre for SS officers. Oh well – German history is never entirely idyllic.
S1 to Oranienburg, then bus 824 or walk 1 km. Approx. 1 hour.
Potsdam – the Dutch Quarter
Moving on to Potsdam to visit its Dutch Quarter (Holländisches Viertel), we find ourselves in the period of one Hohenzollern ruler later – by this time, King Frederick William (called the “Soldier King”, for his military focus, simple tastes and parsimonious nature) had ascended the throne. Whereas his father’s lavish outlays on palaces, the arts, and especially his own crowning ceremony (1701) had put a severe financial burden on his territories, the Soldier King cut back spending on such non-essentials immediately and focused on the army and state bureaucracy.
Like his grandfather the Great Elector before him, Frederick William had visited the Netherlands. He went on a prolonged study trip to Amsterdam and the Hague in 1704/05, and came back impressed with the advanced state of its economy and the efficiency of its architecture. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Amsterdam carpenter Jan Bouman to build a neighbourhood of 136 Dutch-style houses in Potsdam, hoping this might attract Dutch artisans and merchants to Brandenburg. Bouman duly built the Dutch Quarter in the years from 1733 to 1740, but the hoped-for immigrants never arrived, and the houses were mainly used by French and Prussian merchants and artists.
The Dutch Quarter today looks brand new – after a long period of neglect during the GDR years, its restauration was finished in 2014. Princess Beatrix, the Dutch ex-queen, has been spotted shopping in its streets, and it is rumoured the House of Orange contributed to its restoration. The neighbourhood is laid out along a grid of two crossing streets, Mittel- and Benkertstrasse, creating four large blocks of houses. As Bouman came from Amsterdam, it is assumed he modelled the houses on those in the “Jordaan” neighbourhood. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, fashion, flower and souvenir shops, but make sure you don’t miss the little Bouman-Museum – this is one of the best kept houses, complete with period furniture, interesting displays on the history of the quarter, and with original outbuildings towards the back and a pretty little garden.
For people from Holland who are familiar with this kind of house in, let’s say, Leiden, Delft or Gouda, visiting the Bouman house is a strange experience – everything looks familiar, but also slightly foreign. It’s only after a little while that you realise that the houses are actually much bigger than they would have been in Holland – the street fronts are probably 50% wider than a typical Dutch workers’ house would be.
Frederick William, the Soldier King, died just before the Dutch Quarter was finished, but his son, Frederick II (who later became known as Frederick the Great, or ‘Alter Fritz’) made sure the original plans were carried out.
S7 or DB to Potsdam, then tram 92 or 96 to Nauener Tor, 1 hour approx.
Jan Bouman, one of the greatest architects you’ve probably never heard of, was then honoured with the task of supervising construction of Frederick the Great’s beloved Sans-Souci palace (the designs were drawn by Frederick himself, together with Georg Knobelsdorff). He created further works in Potsdam (Berlin Gate, City Hall), but soon moved to Berlin, where he built the predecessor of the current Berliner Dom, worked on St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and, most famously, built Prince Henry’s palace, more familiar today as the main building of the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden. His first son Michael Philipp, by then Germanized to the name of Boumann, continued the family tradition by building Schloss Bellevue (today the seat of Germany’s Federal President), while the second son, Georg Friedrich, built the Royal Library (now known to Berliners as the ‘Commode’), on August-Bebel-Platz. And so, after our day trips to Oranienburg and Potsdam, the Bouman(n) family has taken us back to central Berlin.