The Scale of Schloss Luisium in the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm

Looking at Montacute through the autumn leaves I was reminded of Schloss Luisium near Wörlitz. I have always like the way this little vertical building is tucked away in the woods. It struck me as a delightful miniature building, and miniature buildings are the best. It struck contemporaries similarly: Professor Karl Morgenstern in 1801 wrote ‘as the princess’s country seat is on so small a scale that even a private man of average means could have something similar built, I noted down the elevation in a few rough lines.’ In fact I imagined it as not much bigger than Montacute. I went back to it in a book which stated that the floor area was 144 square metres.* Surely this can’t be right, I thought: since the main floors form a square, this gives 6 metres per floor, which seems excessive. If the figure of 144 referred to two floors that makes it 8.5 metres wide rather than 12, which seems better. Beside, the photos of the interiors in the book showed some very small rooms. I dug out my own photos. Only exterior views, which means they wouldn’t let me photograph the interiors. I hate that. Even if you buy all the books they sell, you get only a couple of interior views. I don’t know why these public places are obsessed with this. The National Trust is a pain in the neck in this regard. A few houses now permit it, but in those that don’t they often tell you that it is because of some loan works. Well, if you don’t want people taking pictures of something don’t lend it to a public or quasi-public body. So I only have memories of the Luisium interiors, and those memories have faded.

But to return to the dimensions. I found a far away telephoto photo that I had taken that had a woman in it, who I scaled to 165 cm, and, guess what: it is indeed a square plan 12 metres a side, and, yes, there are 6 metres available to each floor (not counting floor thicknesses)! In fact, it is quite a big building! And when you look at the photos this is obvious. It is only the woodland context and the fact that all these buildings are big makes it seem small in memory. I have become used to what looks big on a quarter-acre block! And the rooms did seem small. But the verticality of the building, and the fact that, on this elevation, there are only three bays (on the side elevations there are two pairs of two windows, displaced towards the corners) makes it look small. But I guess ‘a private man of average means’ meant something else then than it does now.

Guessing the floor levels from the interior photos, we get a much more reasonable figure of 4.2 m and 3.8 m for the two main floors, with 2.5 m still available for the attic.

Having designed Montacute from the outside in, I am appreciative of the problems of getting the interior to work functionally within a symmetrical exterior. This is why the Villa Patrizi had blind windows on every side. Some of Ermansdorff’s solutions seem a little clunky. The interior of the Pompeian room on the second floor (I am not sure where, not having a plan) has a rather awkward arrangement of a false wall which creates a symmetrical internal elevation centred on a narrow arched opening forming a window alcove. This archway is hard against the external window, but through this opening you see only the left bottom corner (two panes, plus a bit above) of the sash window. Transferring this to the elevation, guessing the dimensions, it seems odd: I think is must be on one of the side facades where the windows are closer to the corners.

That said Schloss Luisium has the usual strengths and weakness of early Neoclassicism: richly intriguing, delicate interior decorations combined with dull elevations. It is the unusual verticality that is the principal interest of the elevations (as well as the little house on top, which must be a guardarobba rather that a place for the noble inhabitant: the detailing is dull. The main roof on the ground floor was criticised at the time for the crude imitations verde antico pilasters and their placement, which are indeed heavy handed.

Luisium_Dimensioned

  • *Infinitely Beautiful. The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, Berlin: Nicolai, 2005. This is the most useful general book in English I have found.
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