Reinventing the Classics: Architectural Networks and Idea Exchange in Germany and Greece (1833-1862)

by Ana-Teodora Kurkina (University of Regensburg)

“The face of a nation”

The development of the 19th century German Neoclassical architecture, which is mainly studied from the point of view of its artistic, cultural and ideological value, has rarely been linked to similar advances in the national revival in the newly established kingdom of Greece. The Greek-German connections, given a new stimuli after the ascension to the throne of the Bavarian prince Otto in 1832, present a complicated picture of interdependence. These interdependencies can only be fully assessed when one pays attention to the “adjusting” aspect of those artistic networks that are usually understood as part of the general European Philhellenic movement. The current essay offers a wider view on the German-Greek social and cultural networks by addressing the problem of reconciliation between the German and Greek nation-building propaganda strategies. Both countries had multi-layered and non-homogeneous pasts that were reconciled through neoclassical architecture.

Regarding architecture as a tool of molding the face of a nation and putting real and imagined legacies into its service, the analysis follows the transition of memory from the concept of culture to that of the political.1 Thus, architecture can be viewed as a political manifestation of a cultural ideal, which, in the case of Germany and Greece at the beginning of the 19th century, was expressed through a general fascination with Hellenic Antiquity. This was largely due to newly crowned King Otto’s personal attitudes. “Too good a patriot and too devoted to the ideal of Greater Greece,”2 the king and his circle of German and Greek artists can be regarded as ardent promoters of what they believed to be the true spirit of antiquity.

Hoping for a new Hellenic revival,3 the Bavarian administration in Greece began emphasizing the direct and unbroken connections between the modern and the ancient, choosing Athens as the new capital of the Greek state. The city was seen as a place that was required to link the heroic past and the hopeful present through the bonds of classical and neoclassical architecture. The new state enthusiastically focused its nation-building strategies around classical antiquity, introducing its symbols in all spheres of public life, including education and city planning.4 Surprisingly, at the time, Germany also followed a similar pattern of development and faced a similar dilemma. Charmed by the image of classical antiquity, both Greek and German public actors attempted to form their ideology in such a way that it did not stir up the great contradiction between what they had imagined to be their “enlightened dream of a nation”5 (inspired by Fichte’s and Herder’s ideas) and the reality of the Byzantine, the Ottoman or multiple German legacies they had to address.


Reconciling the pasts

Attitudes towards Greece and its cultural heritage have fed the political imaginations of individuals in both Germany and in Greece itself. For example, Winckelmann and Wilhelm von Humboldt, saw themselves as “die Griechen der Neuzeit”—that is, as the heirs of the “free, creative genius of classical Greece, as distinct both from the later Greece of the Macedonians and from Imperial Rome.”6 The major problem following the bloom of the German-Greek cultural exchange during the reign of Otto I and in the later period, lies in the efforts to resolve the contradiction between the classical heritage of Ancient Greece, its presence in Greece and its absence in Germany, the Byzantine legacy and the Germanic past. The choice of a universal language of architecture as a way in which to solve this dilemma managed to reconcile the legacies that, in reality, were much less compatible. Architecture allowed for this by facilitating ideological transfers flowing from Germany to Greece and back.

Greek aspirations of turning a newly-created political entity into a nation-state with a culturally homogenized population, were to a great extend supported by urban design and civic architecture in Athens.7 Young German-trained architects Stamatios Kleanthes and Eduard Schaubert were chosen to design a new plan for the capital “equal with ancient fame and glory”.8 They performed a primarily political duty that bound together the ideas that both the German and Greek 18th and 19th centuries shared and exchanged. Truly international neoclassical architecture, exemplified in Karl Schinkel’s creations, was meant to serve both Greek and German nation-building strategies which were then skillfully employed by his successors. A Prussian architect, Schinkel turned away from the inspiration of Imperial Roman architecture due to his strong dislike of the Napoleonic Empire, where the style was prominently presented and cherished.9 By addressing both Gothic and Hellenic designs, he created a blend of what was to become a Herderian nation-state through architecture. What Schinkel expressed in his building strategies was reflected to a great extent in the philosophy of the European and, particularly, the Greek Enlightenment. This system of thought relied on Montesquieu’s ideas and a vision of an enlightened Greek state based on the Romantic perception of classical antiquity.10

Inspired by the ideologies promoted by Winckelman and Schinkel, their successors gained a chance to fulfill their aspirations due to the ardent Philhellenism of the Wittelsbach kings in Greece and Bavaria as well as similar attitudes of various German intellectual elites. While, “Winckelmannian Graecophilia had never really been a political platform, but was, rather, a movement devoted to cultural reform,” later Philhellenism turned into nation-state propaganda.11 This propaganda was based on a seemingly universal idea of European antiquity. Therefore, in designing a Hellenic architectural ensemble in Munich, Leo von Klenze, the celebrated architect of Ludwig I, was not simply following the guidelines of a fashionable all-European trend. Instead, he was attempting to create a certain bond with the antique legacy that was obviously not very prominent on German territory. As Gourgouris states in reference to the Humboldtian Bildung: “Hellenism is not Hellenic, philosophically speaking: it is a construction of the Hellenic, a conjuring. It is an Odyssean project, built on a series of idealizations of ultimately imaginary forms in order to institute a heteronomous configuration of power.”12


Greece-Germany-Greece. Ideological transfers in motion

One of the major aims of the neo-Hellenic creations scattered over Germany and Greece was to reconcile the contradicting legacies of the states in their quests for a nation-state. In doing so, they relied on the worldwide language of architecture. In the German case, it was a desire to add a universal value of Hellenic antiquity to their nation-building strategy; to adopt a heritage, largely absent in the German lands. In the case of Greece, it was a wish to address the flourishing ideas of German Romanticism regarding the issue of a culturally homogenous nation-state and to establish a connection with Greece’s new Bavarian king.

This ideological transfer occurred through “architectural networks”, strengthened by architects such as Schinkel, Weinbrenner and Klenze. Thus, one can assume that neoclassical architecture represented a national ideal that set a new Greek-German ideological transfer in motion, linking the categories of alien and autochthon in its attempts to address common memories and revive various national images.13 Koenigliche Bauakademie in Berlin, the first German school focused solely on architecture, had its curriculum devoted almost exclusively to “teaching historical styles” such as Greek and Gothic.14 The two styles had little in common, hence the tendency of reconciling real and imaginary past, somewhat uniting the “national revival” and the “national architectural forms” into one concept. Therefore, by erecting the Walhalla temple (a Hellenic construction named after Valhalla, the hall of god Odin) Klenze introduced a specific agenda related to German nation-building into the field of generally accepted classical antiquity: a Germanic name blended in with universal antiquity.

The Danish architect, Christian Hansen, and his German colleague, Schaubert, participated in the creation of a new city plan for Athens together with Kleanthis. Both Hansen and Schaubert had previously excavated and reconstructed the Nike temple at the Acropolis.15 Together, in a symbolic way, they bound the ancient and the new. A former student of Schinckel and a Greek revolutionary who had moved from the Danubian Principalities to Germany, Kleanthis himself embodied the notion of a cultural transfer. Working alongside Klenze and Schaubert, for a Catholic Bavarian king of Orthodox Greece, who was enthralled by Greek antiquity, Kleanthis can be seen as an exemplary representative of a complicated bond between a nation and its architecture: educated in Germany, yet, born and raised in the Ottoman Empire, holding onto a profoundly orthodox Byzantine heritage, yet, addressing both neo-classicism and romanticism in his works.16

A similar approach found its reflection in Heinrich Hubsch’s theoretical work “In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?” published in 1828.17 In it, the architect proposed a certain distancing from neoclassical architecture and argued that it should be understood and rethought together with Gothic forms of architecture. Apparently, while creating images of the “German” and the “Greek” through the language of Neo-Greek constructions, both sides tried to mold their realities and lifestyles to suit an imagined and idealized antiquity.


The “leftovers”

The attempts to create and recreate buildings inspired by Greek antiquity can be seen as a revealing interpretation of the past, rather than purely an invention. Philhellenism, under the patronage of King Otto and his brother Maximillian was not just a pro-Greek, but also a pro-national instrument of propaganda. While the 19th century Germans could be united through an architectural fascination with the Hellenic style, the actual political situation in the German lands was far from an idealized territorial nation-state. The Greeks, on the other hand, were “too poor, too Christian” and too well connected with their recent Ottoman past to fully respond to the aspirations of their Bavarian king and his circle.18 It was this group who carefully and successfully wove the interconnections that would later lead to the recreation of the landscapes of major Greek cities. This was done primarily by the German architect, Ernst Ziller, who was inspired by his philhellenic predecessors. Therefore, the universal language of architecture joined the universal language of Philhellenism to reconcile nation-building ideologies of a great number of European countries – Germany and Greece being arguably the most prominent. Obviously, the element of Ancient Greek democracy did not perfectly match the ideas of the monarchs in Greece and Bavaria. Therefore, architecture served state-building propaganda in a much subtler way, opening itself up to interpretation, while in a seemingly harmless manner uniting Byzantine motives (in the case of Kleanthes) with neoclassical forms or Gothic details (in the case of Hubsch).

The analysis of architecture as a language of networking allows for the assessment of successful as well as unsuccessful propaganda strategies, avoiding generalizations. As Peter Green explains, “Dealing with the legacy of foreign Philhellenism, we see, is not a simple matter. Old idealizing fantasies are matched with a new ideological dogma, and it becomes hard to pick our way between them. Romance and contempt make bad extremities.”19 Neoclassical architecture, serving as a powerful link to the ancient ideals in Greece as well as in Germany, played a significant role in the establishment of new social networks and the adoption of nation-building propaganda strategies. This was seen not only in the development of art. In the case of Greece, and the German lands in the middle of the 19th century, one may follow two different myths which were explained using similar languages of architectural networking through well-established interconnections.


  1.  Maria Todorova, Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory, New York 2004, 5.
  2.  Robert Seton-Watson, The Rise of Nationality in the Balkans, New York 1966, 55.
  3.  Suzanne Marchand, What the Greek model can, and cannot do for the modern state: the German perspective, in: Roderick Beaton, ed, The Making of Modern Greece Nationalism, Romanticism, & the Uses of the past (1797-1896), Farnham 2009, 33-40.
  4. Christina Koulouri, Dimensions idéologiques de l’historicité en Grèce (1834-1914). Les manuels scolaires d’histoire et de géographie, Frankfurt 1991, 301-352.
  5.  For further examples of the transformations and destinies of  German Romantic nationalism, especially Schiller’s “aesthetic state”, see David Aram Kaiser, Romanticism, Aesthetics, and Nationalism, Cambridge 1999, 53-58.
  6. Lionel Gossman, Imperial Icon: The Pergamon Altar in Wilhelminian Germany, The Journal of Modern History, 78, No. 3 (September 2006), 552.
  7.  Eleni Bastea, Chapter 2. Athens, in: Emily Gunzburger Makas / Tanja Damljanovic, eds, Capital Cities in the Aftermath of Empires: Planning in Central and Southeastern Europe, London 2010, 29-32.
  8. Emily Gunzburger Makas / Tanja Damljanovic, eds, Capital Cities in the Aftermath of Empires. Bastea, 31.
  9.  For further details on Schinkel’s ideas, Jorg Trempler, Schinkels Motive, Berlin 2007.
  10.  Olga Augustinos, Philhellenic Promises and Hellenic visions: Korais and the discourses of the Enlightenment, in: Katerina Zacharia, ed, Hellenisms: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity, Aldershot 2008, 169-200.
  11.  Roderick Beaton, ed, The Making of Modern Greece Nationalism, Romanticism, & the Uses of the past (1797-1896). Marchand, 35.
  12.  Stathis Gourgouris, Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece, Stanford 1996, 152.
  13. Maria Todorova, Learning memory, remembering identity, in: Maria Todorova, ed, Balkan identities: nation and memory, London 2004, 14-17.
  14.  Ekkehard Mai, Die deutschen Kunstakademien im 19. Jahrhundert: Künstlerausbildung zwischen Tradition und Avant-garde, Wien 2010, 121-156.
  15.  Ira S. Mark, The Sanctuary of Athena Nike in Athens: Architectural Stages and Chronology, Princeton 1993, 72-76.
  16.  Robert Shannan Peckham. National Histories, Natural States: Nationalism and the Politics of Place in Greece, London 2001, 34-37.
  17.  Heinrich Hubsch / Rudolf Wiegmann / Carl Rosenthal et. al, In what style should we build? The German debate on architectural style. Texts and documents, Santa Monica 1992.
  18.  Ludmilla Kostova, Degeneration, Regeneration, and the Moral Parameters of Greekness in Thomas Hope’s Anastasius, or Memoirs of a Greek, Comparative Critical Studies 4, No. 2 (2007), 177.
  19. Peter Green, Myth, Tradition, and Ideology in the Greek Literary Revival: The Paradoxical Case of Yannis Ritsos, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 4, No. 2 (Fall, 1996), 89.