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German architecture: From role model to anti-hero

02 February 2009

Until 1830, the Netherlands was not very interested in German architecture. After that year, however, things changed fast – from about 1840 German architecture was all the rage and served as a role model and frame of reference for decades. PhD student Christian Bertram has investigated the role that Germany played in the nineteenth century in the development of Dutch architecture and has concluded that the Dutch attitude went through two complete reversals – from disinterest to admiration, and from admiration to a vilification that in its turn provided a direction for architecture to follow. Bertram will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 12 February 2009.

The 1830s: since the split with Belgium, the Netherlands had been searching for a new identity. The brand-new kingdom of Belgium was sparing no expense with regard to architecture. The Netherlands, too, considered it time for imposing constructions. The problem was, how could this be reconciled with traditional sobriety? The perfect role models were found in Germany. The decades-long interest in German architecture that followed was inevitably followed by a volte-face – Germany turned from a role model into an ‘anti-hero’.

Reinvention

In the search for architectural examples that took place after 1830, France and England soon dropped out of the running for the Netherlands – the buildings there were considered too pompous. Luckily the emerging German states provided new examples. ‘They had been considered as backward until the mid-eighteenth century’, according to Bertram, ‘but after that they were developing fast in a cultural sense. If they could reinvent themselves, then the Netherlands could too, was the idea.’ In addition, architects such as Schinkel and Von Klenze were designing buildings in a way that appealed to the Dutch – sober but grand. This ‘Stille Grösse’ [serene greatness] became the role model in the discussion of Dutch architecture.

Major role of government

After 1840, Germany became the number one role model for decades in the Dutch architecture discussion. And in various fields, explains Bertram: ‘Not only the serene greatness of the buildings designed by German architects acted as a role model, but also the major role played by the government in the stimulation and control of architecture and the reorganization of architectural teaching.’ For example, in 1864 Thorbecke hired the first Dutch architecture professor ‘new style’ from Bavaria, and he was followed by a whole series of German lecturers. The Germans were particularly prominent in church architecture, art teaching and architectural prizes.

Fear of German cultural annexation

 Around 1870, this German dominance came to be viewed in another light. ‘Prussian annexation politics and the founding of the German Empire created the suspicion that the Netherlands was the target of a creeping cultural annexation’, is how Bertram explains the changed attitude. The Netherlands was now actively trying to free itself from the German role model; the architects Kromhout, Van der Pek and Berlage went searching for ‘Stille Grösse’ at home. ‘The new Dutch architecture emerged to a significant extent from reactions against German influences. The post-1870 German “anti-hero” was just as important for the Dutch architectural discussion as the role models from before 1870’.

Curriculum Vitae

Christian Bertram (Germany, 1962) studied at the Freie Universität Berlin and at the VU University Amsterdam. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1995. Bertram will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen. His research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Bertram is the owner of an art-historical research bureau and is currently teaching at the Hogeschool Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam. 

Note for the press

Contact: Christian Bertram, e-mail: c.a.h.h.bertram@zonnet.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.

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