The Drostei Building

Jörg Schilling

Buildings provide shelter from the chaos and forces of nature. This realisation was a prerequisite for the development of architectural detachment and structure. A culture of regulated distance developed, with the result that architecture always also constitutes a painfully-felt alienation from nature.

Vitrines are architectural entities, which create distance from the things and themes organised and exhibited within them. Vitrines are a subject in the works of Anna Guðjónsdóttir.

In the exhibition “Greensleeves” we see, among other things, paintings of vitrines. They are empty. The vitrines are positioned in front of, and encroached upon by, nature-like structures. They are identical: each of them consists of three parts, and they are designed with strict vanishing points. The vitrines serve as “viewing aids”. In another location, they seem to protrude three-dimensionally from the painting, separating from one another in the process. They have been installed in the space as frames, or broken down into individual sculptural segments. They are perceived in relationship to the interior design, which has a clear structure—regular, symmetrical room sequences, areas and lines, which in other areas are punctuated or covered with a mantle of plant-like, curved stucco forms. This softens the rigidity of the rooms—as if nature were reclaiming something from the building.


Each of the three floors of the Drostei building, with its rectangular floor plan, is comprised of three sections of equal size, arranged between nine window bays. The main rooms are located in the triaxial middle section. The entrance hall is on the first floor and behind it the hall is adjacent to the garden, with the cabinet rooms on each side. A side stairway leads to the upper stories. A large continuous room (a concert hall) is located above the entrance hall, on the second floor. Adjacent to this, to the right and to the left on the garden-facing sides of this main room, are the cabinet rooms and side chambers. Located on the left around the stairwell, they provide a circular route through the exhibition area on the second floor. Above the large hall, along the central axis of the third storey, is a further exhibition space with a cabinet room at the side. The west section of the building has an additional spiral staircase. All the other rooms on the three floors of the building serve administrative and archival purposes. There is now a restaurant in the basement.

The representative halls have retained most of the original fittings: wooden panels, stucco ceilings and alcoves for ovens. Like the doors, the wooden panels are also structured in raised, coloured rectangular sections. Their tripartite alignment is a reference to the axis system on the outer façade. There are cornices, fluting and framing sectional strips where the walls meet the ceiling. Here, there are rococo cartouches in the corners—c-curved stucco frames in embellished, shell-like ornamental forms. Their extensions break the continuity of the borders and entwine around the lines. This playful element is repeated in the centre of the ceiling panels. In some sections, plants sprout from the embellishments. In the centre of the ceilings there are also curved ornamental frames, extending like ribbons out to the sides. The ornamentation is relaxed and playful. It has a light-hearted and cheerful appearance. It contains no tension, thereby forming a contrast to the symmetry of the building and the strict division of the rooms. Oven alcoves, located in the centre of the main room and the corners of the side cabinet rooms, are also decorated with stucco ornamentation. The three-dimensional nature of the protruding alcoves, some of which contain narrow, round ovens, are framed by pilasters which form volutes below and are completed by semi-circular arches above. Vases or curved fixtures with blasted cornices reach up as far as the ceiling with its cartouches.


The three-storey brick building, which, with its elevated subbasement, appears almost four storeys high, has a strictly symmetrical structure. It is covered by a tiled, hipped curb roof with roof dormers on each of the longer sides. Along the front façade with its nine window bays there is a three-storey central protruding risalit comprising three window bays, ending in a triangular gable in which there is a horizontal oval window with cambered soffits. A gently curved stone stairway leading up to the entrance arch—sandstone  with a profiled arched lintel—is surrounded by plant-like ornamentation. Above it there is a central cartouche with a coat of arms and cambered cornice. The surfaces of the protruding risalit and building corners are divided into oblong sections and have a rustic, pilaster-like appearance. The design of the front and rear sides is almost the same. There are no protruding risalits or corner pilasters on the narrow sides. The symmetry of the window bays is maintained with false windows. On the east side there is a dormer which incorporates the design of the long façades with three windows and triangular gables. This principle has not been applied to the west façade. Bands dividing the stories soften the vertical structure on all sides of the building. Lines break up the stringency of the façades, which contain upright transom windows and are completed towards the top with segmental arches. These can be opened outwards.


The Drostei building was constructed between 1765 and 1767—in the final phase of the baroque or rococo period—as the residency of the secret advisory council (Geheime Konferenzrat) of Hans von Ahlefeldt-Seestermühle, who had come to Pinneberg as a so-called Landrost, the term for a royal Danish civil servant. Later, after he had served his term, his house also served as the administrative seat of the so-called Drostens, civil servants who represented the territorial ruler, and was hence given the name Drostei. 

The architect remains unknown—however, three names are mentioned in this context: Cay Dose (circa 1700-1768), Georg Greggenhofer (1719-1779) and Ernst Georg Sonnin (1713-1794). The latter is favoured in the most significant literature, which mainly refers to the architecture of the exterior of the Drostei building. Several design details indicate that Sonnin was involved in the construction, above all the consistently stringent structure and the rationalistic, reserved, simple character of the building. As he was also commissioned by a relative of the client it seems feasible that he also took on this contract. It seems strange, however, that although “the building would certainly be worthy of mention” (Heckmann 1977), it is not mentioned in any of Sonnin’s writings or in his early biography, although this may possibly have been due to the fact that Sonnin was at the same time involved in historically significant activities. He was one of the founders of the Patriotic Society of 1765 in Hamburg, which, in the context of the Enlightenment, advocated civil rights and the right to education. It was the motor for socially significant initiatives, for example the “school for artists and craftsmen” initiated by Sonnin in 1767. He understood the building trade as art in the service of public welfare for which, with the aid of reason, one could break with outdated traditions. However, Sonnin’s famous magnum opus, the tower of St Michael’s Church in Hamburg, was not built until between 1777 and 1786. With this building, Sonnin became a representative of the early classicist style. He lived in a time of social and cultural upheaval—also in relation to nature. The writings of the French philosopher and champion of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), marked the return to a “real” feel for nature. In this context, rococo can be understood as a transitional phenomenon. There was a playfully artistic emancipation from established norms, conventions, hierarchical systems and feudal structures. A cheerful send-off was given to a world in decline before the emergence of a new world, one with reason and its own order. This was also reflected in the discrepancies between the state of the interior and exterior—something that applied to both the building itself and the way it was incorporated into its surroundings. This is why the Drostei building was originally not solitary, but was instead set amongst auxiliary buildings as the centre of an arrangement more resembling a country house, or even a castle. This was further emphasised by the French baroque-style garden, designed and laid out as far back as 1736. The Drostei building was oriented towards the main axis of the representative garden, and the rather reserved building corresponded to its appearance. Perhaps there was even an educational intent here: a few years after the construction of the Drostei building, the influential work “Anmerkungen über die Landhäuser und die Gartenkunst”, (Comments on Country Houses and Garden Art) by Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld (1742-1792) was published, in which Hirschfeld condemned the unnaturally symmetrical design of the baroque-style garden that was characterised by the artificial trimming of shrubs, hedges and trees. The garden in Pinneberg did in fact undergo fundamental transformation around 1795. Behind the building, an English-style landscaped park evolved, which was periodically redesigned according to the prevailing contemporary perceptions of nature as a role model. The merchants from Hamburg and Altona set an example in their country residencies in the suburbs around the River Elbe. Closeness to nature was created with undulating paths, an absence of axes and the avoidance of regularity. The garden developed further to become a refuge from the pressing needs and chaos of civilisation. In the midst of these landscapes, the classicist-style country house embodied an ideal order, the temple of human reason and an analogy to nature. The Drostei building, with its clear and simple façade structure, fitting to the tastes of the bourgeoisie, corresponded well to this. It is therefore appropriate to see the Drostei building as a “visual aid” in negotiating the various contexts and correlations between the poles of alienation and appropriation.

After the building had served for a long time under the Danish flag as an administrative seat for the Drostei, the Prussians were stationed there in 1863. It continued to be a residence for district administrators. This phase ended after the First World War, as the living area exceeded the requirements of the new Social Democratic district administration. In 1929, the state land registry office moved into the building. Following this, changes were made to the interior, and the building was adapted to meet the needs of the office. In 1933 the Nazi Stormtrooper group (SA Standart) 365 took up residency in the upstairs rooms. The building was named Standartenhaus (standard house) and the swastika flag was flown there. The Drostei Park, which had been opened to the general public after 1918, was renamed Standartenpark. However, in 1938 the (by then disempowered) SA had to vacate the building as the land registry office required more space. The vaulted cellar was repurposed as an air-raid shelter. During the War, the district finance office and the local office for the regulation of expenditure by stationed forces were located here. In the 1950s, the building underwent further conversions and modifications. At the same time, the urban planning situation in the area around the Drostei building changed. As far back as the 19th century, a large part of the former garden facilities to the south of the building had been lost. From the mid-1950s onwards, the street Am Drosteipark was constructed along the eastern side of the estate. As a result the site became even smaller and lost its symmetrical relationship to the building. Most recently, the park was redesigned at the end of the 1980s, at the same time as the restoration of the Drostei building, but it is now an unattractive green area with limited recreational functionality. A similar situation applies to the area to the front of the building, where, during the conversion of the Drostei building into a cultural centre, a pedestrian zone was introduced which extends into an inhospitable area towards the north.

The land registry office remained in the Drostei building until 1984. After the office had moved out, the baroque-style building, which had become the property of the state of Schleswig-Holstein after the Second World War, was bequeathed to the district of Pinneberg as a deed of endowment. Prior to this, efforts had already been made to find an appropriate use for the building, one fitting its cultural-historical status. For this reason the Stiftung Landdrostei Pinneberg was founded in 1970. The building had already been awarded cultural heritage status in 1965. It was bequeathed under the condition that a cultural centre for the district of Pinneberg be set up in the Drostei building. The subsequent utilisation concept recognised in the “architectural dignity” of the building the possibility of opening the Drostei for representative events and receptions. The renovation and restoration of the building was a prerequisite. Although reference could not be made to the original building plans, the baroque-style room sequences and façade structures were reconstructed. The interiors, including panels, doors and windows, were refurbished or newly constructed. The building services were adapted to meet modern requirements.


The work was completed in 1991 and the Drostei building opened as a cultural centre. The programme followed the motto “Baroque and Modernism”. Since 2006, baroque festivals have been held there. This is also the case in 2017, with the Drostei building not only presenting itself as the cultural hub of the district cultural association of Schleswig-Holstein, but in addition celebrating its 250th birthday. However, for quite some time now the building has also served as an “identity anchor” for Pinneberg. The new city centre, selected in an urban planning competition in 2011, is to be developed here. Efforts are being made to revive baroque structures, not only in the pedestrian precincts but also in the park facilities. It could be questioned as to whether this would have been in the interest of the master builder in that era between feudalism and Enlightenment, in the field of tension between architecture and nature, between order and transformation, between distanced appropriation and playful alienation. As such, one would hope that there will also be in the future exhibitions in the Drostei building which use the building as a “visual aid”, or even make it their theme.


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  • Seehase, Peter: Die Restaurierung der Drostei (1987), in: Beig, Dieter: Kultur – ein langer Weg. Die Geschichte der Pinneberger Landdrostei, Neumünster 2007, p. 72–83.
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