Reviewed by Matthew Jefferies (School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, University of Manchester)
Published on H-German (January, 2005)
As an architect, theorist, and educator, Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) certainly deserves his place in histories of nineteenth-century German culture. He is best remembered for designing the royal court theatre in Dresden (nowadays universally known as the "Semper Oper"), the Picture Galleries of the Zwinger Palace, and an impressive ensemble of buildings in Vienna, including the Burgtheater, two major museums, and even an extension to the Hofburg Palace itself (a curious commission for a man who had once built and commanded barricades in Dresden's Waisenhausstrasse during the revolutionary days of May 1849). Yet Semper was also a formidable arts educator. He became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in Dresden at just thirty-one, made a major contribution to British arts and crafts education in the early years of the South Kensington (later Victoria and Albert) Museum in London, and then performed a similar role at the famous polytechnic in Zurich. His rather itinerant life, which also took him to Paris, Munich, Vienna, Venice, and Rome, was largely a consequence of his fourteen-year exile from Saxony in the wake of the 1849 revolution's failure, although a restless temperament also played its part: Semper was no stranger to duels, drink, and debauchery.
The revolutionary architect's turbulent life and times, however, barely feature in Mari Hvattum's tightly focused study, which deals solely with Semper the theoretician. Hvattum, a senior lecturer at the Oslo School of Architecture in Norway, does not seek to compete with her mentor Harry Mallgrave's authoritative biography Gottfried Semper: Architect of the Nineteenth Century. Instead she concentrates on the intellectual heritage and practical implications of Semper's theoretical work, which culminated in an influential but unfinished treatise on "style in the technical and tectonic arts" (Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten, 1860-1863). Unfortunately, Semper was a notoriously opaque writer; his vague and tortuous sentences lend themselves to many different interpretations and have always defied simple explanation. A century after Semper's death another exiled German architectural commentator, Nikolaus Pevsner, would describe his Marlborough House lectures of 1853-1854 as "profound rather than clear and just a little cranky" (p. 14). Even Hvattum admits that Semper's "theory of formal beauty" is "deeply ambiguous and at times desperately tedious" (p. 88). The author's task here, therefore, is a difficult one, and is not made any easier by her own tendency to write in a rather pretentious, jargon-laden style, heavy with neologisms and awkward translations such as "purposiveness" and "immanentisation."
Nevertheless, Hvattum's book is coherent in its structure and refreshingly concise (less than two hundred pages if one ignores the extensive footnotes), and is enlivened by fifty attractive, well-chosen illustrations. It falls into three main parts: the first examines the intellectual roots and context of Semper's theories, particularly with regard to the ancient origins of art; the second maps the theoretical framework that underpinned his practical aesthetics; and the third looks at how he believed this framework could affect contemporary architectural practice. The latter section might usefully have been extended, since critics have often highlighted the apparent disparity between the seemingly radical proto-functionalism of his writings, which frequently attacked the stylistic licentiousness of the nineteenth century, and the neo-Renaissance fripperies of the structures he actually built. Even so, Hvattum's explanation for this apparent contradiction is convincing. Semper believed that the "failure of contemporary architects consisted not so much in their borrowing from the past as in their lack of understanding of the present: their inability to see that a true style must grow out of the actual forces in contemporary society" (p. 156). He therefore argued that "the solution to the contemporary crisis lay neither in the invention of a new style nor in the uncritical adaption of past styles, but rather in the modification of traditional motifs according to forces active in the present." Only in this way could art and architecture become "our own flesh and blood," rather than someone else's borrowed clothes (p. 159). Thus Semper's endorsement of the Renaissance style was not a capricious choice from the pattern books of history, but a reflection of specific cultural and material conditions. Arguably it was this recognition of the connection between style and social conditions (or "the spirit of the age") that was his principal achievement as a theorist.
In her introduction, Hvattum quotes Mallgrave's statement that "[n]o theorist in modern architectural history has had his doctrine judged more mundane, nor more enigmatic" than Gottfried Semper (pp. 7-9). Certainly, his historical reputation is decidedly mixed, although this judgment is perhaps inevitable given that in both his buildings and writings he "personified the blend of innovation and tradition which characterized nineteenth-century architectural theory and practice." This same blend was, of course, evident in another restless and talented individual who desperately sought recognition as a theorist as well as an artist, Semper's friend and fellow Dresden revolutionary Richard Wagner (for whom Semper once designed a special conductor's baton). Wagner's notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk appears in Semper's work too, where it denoted the "all-embracing artistic whole that would express the highest stage reached by man in his moral and political development" (p. 160). One cannot help feeling, however, that both men would have been better served by sticking to what they did best.
 Harry Francis Mallgrave, Gottfried Semper: Architect of the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
 James J. Sheehan, Museums in the German Art World. From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 128.
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Matthew Jefferies. Review of Hvattum, Mari, Gottfried Semper and the Problem of Historicism.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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