- Turning Munich into an internationally renowned city of the arts

by Claudine Hof

Most people know Königsplatz as a Subway stop or the site of Munich's Open Air Festival each summer. King Ludwig I of Bavaria, though, would have told you that it is the heart of ancient Athens during the golden age of Pericles. Pericles ransacked the Delian League's defense fund and instituted a thoroughgoing building program that produced the Acropolis. Munich's version of a Hellenic city-state does not command a hilltop over the Aegean, nor did its patron embezzle public funds to finance it. However, the history of Königsplatz is a 19th century tale of money, power and passion tied to the ambitions of Bavaria's royal family to put Munich on the cultural map of Europe.

konigsplatz.jpg (9977 bytes)Königsplatz— renowned today for the Glyptothek and Propyläen—was a no-man's land around 1800. Napoleon had just declared himself Emperor, and all of western civilization focused its attention on political and cultural events in Paris. While Napoleon devised increasingly audacious military schemes, his court architects richly refurbished Bourbon palaces for the imperial couple. They also grandly redesigned public areas in Paris as a testament to France's incontestable power. Napoleon was conquering the world in more ways than one, and he modeled his program of artistic propaganda on that of Augustus during the Roman Empire's heyday. The metaphor was not wasted on the nervous and divided German princes, who knew it presaged their imminent subjugation to an invading force, just as it did when Augustus's armies first established colonies on German soil in 15 B.C.

Without national unity, regional leaders like King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria had virtually no means of protecting their holdings. Napoleon mocked the German rulers and drove his influence deeper into German territory. Prince Ludwig resented Bavaria's humiliating political situation. He wanted to create a German national character to counter France's hegemony. Although this pursuit would not reach full blossom until German unification in the second half of the century, Ludwig developed an artistic and architectural program in Munich that made Bavaria an important player in the development of a national identity.

Ludwig had his work cut out for him. Sadly, Munich still wallowed in its crumbling medieval character, a virtual backwater of urban design. Ludwig commissioned landscape architect Friedrich Ludwig Sckell to develop a plan to reorganize the city; it was Sckell's 1790 layout of the English Garden that had liberated the city from some of its crowded, chaotic character. The resulting design, which called for a grid of streets aligned on the Residenzplatz, incorporated the chaotically developing northwestern suburb (today's Maxvorstadt) into a geometrically ordered urban fabric. Architect Karl von Fischer modified this plan somewhat, using existing monuments and thoroughfares to redesign the Schloß Nymphenburg's main avenue so it would grasp the city's rapidly developing periphery (using today's Briennerstrasse) and proceed to the Residenz.  Moving toward Nymphenburg, this new city axis comprised a series of monumental intersections, including Odeonsplatz and Karolinenplatz, which culminated at Königsplatz, the center of the developing Maxvorstadt.

Ludwig wanted Königsplatz to be the new city center, period. Sckell's and Fischer's work was a start, but the grid plan and main avenue were merely a slate upon which to build. The city still lacked monumental character. To surpass Napoleon's achievements, Ludwig had to find a German counterpart to Paris' imperial Roman trappings. Athens, to which the Bavarian court had dynastic connections, was the only city whose historical significance and architectural grandeur could present a worthy challenge.

Ludwig himself was an avid collector of antiquities, and had amassed a world-class collection of ancient artifacts during the Napoleonic wars. But he needed an architecture of truly German character to house Bavaria's treasures and to catapult the city onto the international cultural scene. At the very least, this building program would have to reflect a progressive outlook and emphasize the ruling family's connection to Greece. At the most, it would address Bavaria's political situation, which was that of all the disparate German states: a desire for a distinct national identity and cultural character comparable to that of other European nations.

Architect Leo von Klenze, educated in Berlin and at Napoleon's school of architecture in Paris, took the Crown Prince's ambitions and rendered them in stone. In 1816, Bavaria sent forth a cultural burst of energy when Ludwig chose Klenze's design for the Glyptothek, and laid the corner stone on the north side of Königsplatz. Completed in 1830, the Glyptothek became not only a showcase for Ludwig's exquisite sculpture collection, which included the famous Aegina marbles, but also a means of public education. Before the opening of the Louvre to the public at the turn of the century, important art collections were generally not accessible to the average person, especially not during evening hours convenient to the working class. Ludwig, by then the king, in his passionate pursuit of Bavarian cultural hegemony, recognized that improving Everyman's knowledge of the arts was a vital step in the process.

Klenze designed the Glyptothek in answer to the Crown Prince's educational and cultural objectives. But, other than the building's front portico, nothing else about the building is classical. The exact correspondence between the succession of small galleries on a square format and the rationally organized museum program gives the building its modern French flair. All space included is directly concerned with the business of exhibiting art in a logical fashion.

The Glyptothek accommodates both progressive ideas about public education and the Prince's official role in promoting Munich's international cultural status. Ludwig paid for his art collection, the Glyptothek, and, later, the Propyläen, with private funds and donated them to the city. Ludwig and Klenze's Athens on Briennerstrasse remains today a gift to the German people and an example of how 19th century German architects employed aspects of historical styles to develop a particularly national architecture. Königsplatz helped establish Munich as an internationally recognized cultural center, and persists as a monument to progressive ideas from a time when princes did not have to share their palazzi with the people.