Gottfried Semper (1803–1879)

Professor of Architecture at the Federal Polytechnic School

Gottfried Semper was born into a well-to-do family in Hamburg-Altona on 29 November 1803. He studied mathematics in Göttingen and enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich for an architecture degree in 1825.

Study tours

The following year, he travelled to Paris, where he worked on and off for the architect Franz Christian Gau. After the July Revolution of 1830, which Semper supported, he embarked on a three-year study tour to Italy and Greece.

Results of his travels

He published the results of his travels in his book "Vorläufige Bemerkungen über bemalte Architektur und Plastik bei den Alten" (Preliminary Observations on Polychrome Architecture and Sculpture in Antiquity) in 1834. The view he advocates in the work that buildings and sculptures in antiquity were not marble white (as previously assumed), but rather coloured fuelled the ongoing debate on the colourfulness of ancient architecture. The Paris Academy Dispute eventually decided on a new vision of antiquity. 

Escape from Dresden and appointment at the newly founded Polytechnic School in Zurich

The same year, Saxony's Ministry of the Interior appointed Semper as a professor of architecture and Dean of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. The rudiments of his extensive theoretical work began to emerge in the context of his teaching activities. Above all, however, his work was practical. Following his active involvement in the May Uprising of 1849 in Dresden, he was forced to flee – initially to Paris, then London, where he completed the manuscript of "The Four Elements of Architecture" (external link). In 1852, he was given a permanent position as a lecturer at the Department of Practical Art, where he received a letter from Richard Wagner describing a potential post for Semper at the newly founded Polytechnic School in Zurich.

Architectural work

On 7 February 1855, the Swiss Federal Council granted Semper a lifelong professorship. He moved to Zurich and took up his position as Director of the Building School. His buildings included the Polytechnic's main building and the observatory in Zurich, and the town hall in Winterthur. While in Zurich, he also penned his most important theoretical work "Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, or, Practical Aesthetics". He designed the Richard Wagner Festival Theatre in Munich and received assignments in Vienna and Dresden. When his presence during the construction of the Court Museums in Vienna became unavoidable in 1871, the Swiss Federal Council released him from his teaching duties at the Polytechnic in Zurich. 

Vienna and Rome

Semper moved to Vienna, where he and Carl Hasenauer were put in charge of the construction of the Hofburg and Hofburg Theatre. Disagreements between the two architects and ill health, however, prompted Semper to step down as project supervisor. He left Vienna in 1877 and moved to Rome, where he died on 15 May 1879.   


Brief Gottfried Sempers vom 5. März 1857 an den ersten Direktor des Polytechnikums, Josef Wolfgang Deschwanden

Hochschularchiv der ETH Zürich, Hs 1231: 569



  • Erstes Hoftheater in Dresden (1838–41, 1869 burnt down, 1871–78 rebuilt, 1945 destroyed, 1985 reconstructed)
  • Synagoge Dresden (1838–40)
  • Villa Rosa Dresden (1839–46)
  • Gemäldegalerie Dresden (1847–55)
  • Polytechnikum Zürich (1859–68)
  • Sternwarte Zürich (1861–64)
  • Stadthaus Winterthur (1865–70)
  • Neubau des zweiten Dresdner Hoftheaters (1871–78), heute bekannt als "Semper-Oper"
  • Hofmuseen Wien (mit Carl Hasenauer, 1871–91)
  • Hofburgtheater Wien (1874–88)



The Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (external link) (gta) at ETH Zurich preserves the estate of Gottfried Semper.

Further documents can be found in ETH Library's collections and archives. The Rare Book collection has original editions of the writings of Gottfried Sempers. These can be researched and reserved in ETH Library's Search Portal (external link).

In ETH Zurich University Archives one finds manuscripts and correspondence. A directory (external link) can be viewed online. Furthermore, the ETH Zurich University Archives publishes in his biographica collection a dossier with newspaper and magazine articles on his life and work.

In ETH Library's Image Archive you can find portraits as well as views of buildings of Sempers in Switzerland. All documents of the collections and archives can be consulted in the Reading Room Collections and Archives.