Aesthetical Pleasures – Humboldt University Main Building

by Karolina Pärnänen

When still in high school, I remember always dreaming of studying in a classical looking, majestic university such as the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Since high school my architectural taste has evolved more into a less naivistic and romantic taste of architecture, but I was still pleased when I got my exchange study results and did a quick image search on how the building looks like from the outside.

hauptgebäude humboldt-universität zu berlin

humboldt-universität zu berlin, hauptgebäude, unter den linden 6 10099 berlin foto: heike zappe 10.9.2006

Arriving in Berlin, the building turned out to be even more majestic and grand than I had thought from the images. It was still warm and sunny, so the great trees surrounding the main building and its courtyard were still green. I remember walking through the central grass area on my first day and feeling super excited of studying here. Somehow the whole surrounding of the university in a way almost reminded me of a cliché university movie dated somewhere in the early 20th century.

It was easy to spot the architectural features that created the image of a classical, prestigious and authoritative institution. Not being a specialist in architecture, the pillars on the main entrance and the statues on the ceiling and at the main gate reminded me of classical Roman or Greek buildings and art. Walking into the building, the consistent image was preserved by a grand hallway with a majestic staircase that meets the visitor right after stepping inside. The space is high and relatively hollow. The one thing that attracts the viewer’s eye is the opposing marble wall with a quote by Karl Marx written in golden letters: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.”, which in English would be: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, but it is important to change it.” The main building hosts the facilities of university management, the student service center, the department of philosophy, the department of English and American studies, the department of Classical Archaeology, the Hermann von Helmholtz ­Centre for Cultural Techniques and the Classical Archaeology Library.

The building itself was built between 1748 and 1766 as the prince’s palace and was granted to the university at the time of its foundation in 1810. The main building was designed

by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, who was a renowned architect of that time. The building is located in Unter den Linden 6 in Mitte, around other prestigious buildings, such as the museums at Museuminsel and the Staatsoper. There are not many people who live in this area since it’s mostly full of government ­owned institutions, and one can always see big groups of tourists strolling around the main building at Unter den Linden.

In a way the excitement of studying in a very classically prestigious and beautiful university stayed, but as time went by, I also realized how impractical the university building is for actual studying, especially compared to the Aalto University in Helsinki. Especially during the first weeks of my studies I used to wonder around the main building of Humboldt a lot because I admired its architecture. I especially loved to stroll around the deserted hallways during the evenings when there were no people around. The high ceilings, the lonely sculptures and the symmetrical and simplistic hanging light bulbs almost created an eery feeling to the building, especially when no other people were around and no voices were to be heard. From a clinical empty hallway you could suddenly wonder into a great open space with big sculptures, murals, bright red walls or beautiful window paintings. Even though very clinical, the building somehow always managed to keep surprising me by these small fascinating details.

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Along my studies I realized that I had unconsciously moved to do my schoolwork in the small, 1­2 person workspaces located on the 1­3 floors of the main building rather than the main library. These workspaces are located under big windows that opened a view to the main yard and Unter den Linden. During fall, I could observe how the great tree in the front yard changed its coloring from green to orange to brown and finally nothing at all. One of the main reasons why I liked to work there rather than the library was the peace and harmony of the empty hallways, the natural light shedding through the windows, the view outside and the fact that you can wear your jacket, eat, drink and move about much more freely than in the Grimm Zentrum library.

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Even though not that practical for studying purposes, I think that the main building of Humboldt offers surprising aesthetical pleasures that go beyond of what’s expected from the almost pompous outlook of the building. The insides offer an unexpected atmosphere of harmony and tranquility, that is surprisingly spiced with a hint of eeriness and desertedness that in my opinion makes the space even more interesting.

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All images by the author (unless otherwise noted)

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