Before he decided to study mathematics, Gottfried Semper chose a career as a professional army officer. Even when he finally attended the Munich academy of architecture, his enthusiasm for it was still muted. Yet he was to have a profound impact on German architecture.
Born in Hamburg, Semper was initially drawn to foreign parts. In Paris he again took up the study of architecture, and this time it clearly took hold of him In southern Europe he traveled to the classical temples and studied their coloration. Fascinated by the interplay of the arts of architecture, painting and sculpture, Semper presented his findings from Italy and Greece in book form.
Renaissance Revival on the Elbe
As soon as this project was completed, the 31-year-old was appointed to a professorship in architecture, and in 1834 he began teaching at the Dresden Academy. With his approach of linking theory and practice, Semper was striking out on new paths. At the same time, the teacher and author was given his first major project: his design for the Dresden Court Theater had been approved, and he began work in 1838. Having a semicircular form, and being integrated into the existing Baroque backdrop of buildings, the theater caused a sensation. Semper now began to receive commissions from all over Germany: his adoption of the Renaissance style had immediately found admirers.
Theory and Practice
Semper sympathized with revolutionary ideas, and so after the uprisings of 1848 had been put down he fled to Paris. Over the decades that followed, one move succeeded another; failing as a German to get a foothold in France, he moved on to London. There too he had hardly any opportunity to make his mark as an architect, and so he resumed his work as a professor. Now aged 52, in the hope of supplementing his teaching work with building commissions, he took advantage of an offer from Switzerland.
He had to remain patient for a little longer, but in 1860 he was finally able to go ahead with the building of the Polytechnikum in Zurich. Further commissions, and not only from Switzerland, followed. At the same time. Semper consolidated his reputation as an architectural theorist with his influential publication Style. A further success involved yet another move: Semper’s designs for the Kaiserforum on the Ringstrasse in Vienna were accepted. The master builder now settled in Vienna and began work on the great building complex of museums and Burg-theater, which however was subjected to wide-ranging alterations after his death.