“It’s good to be the king”, I thought, as I stood before the pyramid in Potsdam’s Neue Garten (New Garden). Mel Brooks’ catchphrase came to me because the structure standing in the middle of the most European of parks seemed the sort of thing that could only result from the wanton whims of an 18th century monarch.
What’s more, the pyramid was actually a fridge.
The monarch in question was Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II and his structural choice might be more understandable by dint of his being a Freemason, specifically of the secretive mystical order of Rosicrucians.
Further manifestations of this belief system in said garden were a sphinx-adorned Egyptian gateway (entrance to the orangery), a partly-buried temple (the palace kitchen) and a two-level Gothic pavilion (the library).
[Friedrich Wilhelm’s architectural whims are of course, entirely eclipsed by the notable issuing during his time, of the Religious Edict of 1788, which guaranteed freedom of religion for the feuding Calvinists and Lutherans and which also gave security to Jews, among others.]
Back to the pyramid. It served to keep food fresh and in Winter, ice would be cut from the adjacent frozen Heiliger See and stored in the lowest level, which was 5 m deep.
Although I had read beforehand of its existence, it still stopped me in my tracks, squatting as it did in the midst of extensive green lawns, Autumnal vegetation and wetlands.
I examined the hieroglyphs keenly, the only section of the original that was retained. The current structure was actually one that had been rebuilt by Friedrich Wilhelm’s grandson three decades later.
The latter also had the Neue Garten updated by the great Prussian landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné.
Today, the Neuer Garten is part of a sprawling series of parks and palaces in Potsdam and West Berlin that were designed and built by eight Prussian kings and German emperors between 1730 and 1916. Spreading over 500 ha and comprising 150 buildings, they are now collectively recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site, one of Germany’s largest.
They are also testament to the various armies of architects, gardeners, builders and artisans who incorporated into their work undulating terrains and water bodies as well as the latest techniques and trends of their time.
These were obviously tailored to each monarch’s preferences and predilections, some of which showed that Friederich Wilhelm II was not singular.
The most celebrated assemblage is Friederich der Grosse’s Sanssouci, dubbed the Prussian Versailles. Completed in 1747, it is Unesco-inscribed for its association “with the monarchic concept of power within Europe”.
However, it was actually a departure from the Versailles model. Friederich designed it to be small and intimate and left his personal Rococo stamp all over the buildings as well as incorporated a ‘useful’ fruit and vegetable garden.
He also had a then-trendy Chinoiserie pavilion built in said flower and vegetable garden, complete with “Chinese” figures dressed in “fairytale-like” apparel. His waterworks north of the Sanssouci were decorated with fake ruins, including a pyramid.
Meanwhile, between 1829 and 1854, Friederich’s Italophile great-grandnephew, Friederich Wilhelm IV, drew heavily on medieval sacred architecture to build his Römischen Bäder (Roman Baths, an Italian villa ensemble) and Friedenskirche (Church of Peace).
In turn, his successor, Wilhelm I, had the neo-Gothic Schloss Babelsberg built in 1833, drawing from English Tudor architectural influences.
He also housed a then-state-of-the-art steam engine in a beautiful Moorish mosque Dampfmaschinenhaus (steam engine pump house) complete with arches and decorative tiles.
And the list goes on. In fact, the Unesco inscription commends how the whole landscape illustrates “opposing and reputedly irreconcilable styles without detracting from the harmony of a general composition that has been designed progressively over time”.
Considered a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete artistic work), it was actually Lenné, who in the mid-1800s, integrated many of the existing parks and buildings into an overall design, notably providing lines of sight to the landscape’s features. Lenné was at the time tasked with designing Potsdam.
As the decades passed, the parks and palaces became not just a popular but beloved destination for the public.
Then came WWII and thereafter, the Wall cut this landscape in half for 40 years. The only link between Potsdam and Berlin was the Glienicke Brücke, which was closed to everyone except high-ranking officials from the Eastern and Western Blocs.
Part of the outrage leveled against the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) by then West Berlin mayor Richard von Weizsäcker was the Wall’s denying West Berliners of these Potsdam hinterlands and Prussian cultural heritage.
This was pointed out by historian Beatrice de Graaf in her essay ‘Die Glienicker Brücke als “Gedächtnisort” in der historischen Erinnerung’ (‘The Glienicke Bridge as a “place of memory” in the historical memory’) [OST-WEST. Europäische Perspektiven, 2012].
So it was that a mere two months after the fall of the Wall, the area as a whole was designated a Unesco site, indicating its importance to the identity and heritage of a reunited Germany.
Since then, there has been continuous research-based renovation and restoration of the grounds and buildings that had fallen into disrepair through damage and neglect. Twice have new sites been added to the listing, securing yet more cultural and historical heritage.