Born in Neuruppin (Brandenburg), he lost his father at the age of six in Neuruppin's disastrous fire. He became a student of Friedrich Gilly (1772-1800) (the two became close friends) and his father, David Gilly, in Berlin. After studying in Italy, he returned to Berlin in 1805, which by then had been occupied by the troops of Napoleon I of France. After France's defeat, Schinkel oversaw the Prussian Building Commission. In this position, he was not only reponsible for reshaping the (still relatively unspectacular) Berlin into a representative capital for Prussia, but also oversaw projects in the Prussian territories spanning from the Rhine lands in the West to Königsberg in the East.
Schinkel, however, is noted as much for his theoretical work and his architectual drafts as for the relatively few buildings that were actually executed. Maybe his merits are best shown in his unexecuted plans for the transformation of the Acropolis into a royal palace and for the erection of the Orianda Palace in the Crimea. These and other designs may be studied in his Sammlung architektonischer Entwürfe (1820-1837) and his Werke der höheren Baukunst (1840-1842; 1845-1846).
It has been speculated, however, that due to the difficult political circumstances – French occupation and later the dependency on less-than-capable Prussian kings – and his relatively early death, which prevented him from seeing the explosive German industrialization in the second half of the 19th century, he did not even live up to his true potential exhibited by his sketches.