Gottfried Semper


Gottfried Semper : biography

November 29, 1803 – May 15, 1879

He was destined never to return to the city that would, ironically, become most associated with his architectural (and political) legacy. The Saxon government maintained a warrant for his arrest until 1863. When the Semper-designed Hoftheater burnt down in 1869, King John, on the urging of the citizenry, commissioned Semper to build a new one. Semper produced the plans, but left the actual construction to his son, Manfred.

Post-revolutionary period (1849 – 1855)

After stays in Zwickau, Hof, Karlsruhe and Strasbourg, Semper eventually ended up back in Paris, like many other disillusioned Republicans from the 1848 Revolutions (such as Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). In the fall of 1850, he travelled to London, England. But while he was able to pick up occasional contracts — including participation in the design of the funeral carriage for the Duke of Wellington and the designs of the Canadian, Danish, Swedish, and Ottoman sections of the 1851 Exhibition in the Crystal Palace — he found no steady employment. If his stay in London was disappointing professionally, however, it proved a fertile period for Semper’s theoretical, creative and academic development. He published Die vier Elemente der Baukunst (The Four Elements of Architecture) in 1851 and Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst (Science, Industry and Art) in 1852. These works would ultimately provide the groundwork for his most widely regarded publication, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder Praktische Ästhetik, which was published in two volumes in 1861 and 1863.

Zürich period (1855 – 1871)

Concurrently with the onset of the industrial revolution, the Swiss Federation planned to establish a polytechnical school. As the principal judge for the competition held to select a design for the new building, Semper deemed the submitted entries unsatisfactory and, ultimately, designed the building himself. Proudly situated (where fortified walls once stood), visible from all sides on a terrace overlooking the core of Zurich, the new school became a symbol of a new epoch. The building (1853–1864), which despite frequent remodeling continues to evoke Semper’s concept, was initially required to accommodate not only the new school (known today as the ETH Zurich), but the existing University of Zurich, as well.

In 1855 Semper became a professor of architecture at the new school and the success of many of his students who attained success and renown served to ensure his legacy. The Swiss architect Emil Schmid was one such student. With his income as a professor, Semper was able to reunite his family, bringing them to Zurich from Saxony. The City Hall in Winterthur is among other buildings designed by Semper in Switzerland.

Semper provided Bavaria’s King Ludwig II with a conceptual design for a theatre dedicated to the work of Richard Wagner to be built in Munich. The project, developed from 1864 to 1866, was never realized, although Wagner ‘borrowed’ many of its features for his own later theatre at Bayreuth.

Later life (from 1871)

To be completed The ‘Museum-question’ was discussed in Vienna during the 1860s. Works forming the imperial art collection were scattered among several buildings. Semper was assigned to submit a proposal for locating new buildings in conjunction with redevelopment of the Ringstrasse. In 1869 he designed a gigantic ‘Imperial Forum’ which was not realized. The National Museum of Art History and the National Museum of Natural History were erected, however, opposite the Palace according to his plan, as was the Burgtheater. In 1871 Semper moved to Vienna to undertake the projects. During construction, repeated disagreements with his appointed associate architect (Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer), led Semper to resign from the project in 1876. In the following year his health began to deteriorate. He died two years later while on a visit to Italy and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.


Semperdepot, Lehargasse, Vienna

Work (selected)

  • Dresden
    • Hoftheater – 1838-1841 (destroyed by fire in 1869)
    • Villa Rosa – 1839 (destroyed in the Second World War)
    • Semper Synagogue – 1839-1840 (destroyed on November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht)
    • Oppenheim-Palace – 1845-1848
    • Semper Gallery (Dresden Gemäldegalerie)– 1847-1855
    • Neues Hoftheater (Semperoper) – 1871-1878
  • Zürich
    • City Hall – 1858 (only concept for competition; not built)
    • Polytechnical School, (ETH Zurich) – 1858-1864
    • Observatory – 1861-1864
  • Winterthur
    • City Hall – 1865-1869
  • Vienna
    • Municipal Theater (Burgtheater) – 1873 – 1888
    • Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) (1872–1881, finished 1889)
    • Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) (1872–1881, finished 1891)