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Month: September, 2018


Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.

There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.


After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs:
Nettle rash:
Running though nettles:
Nettle eating championship:
Nettle soup:
Flogging with nettles:
Bronze Age textile from Denmark:
Member of the Vieille Garde:
German soldier WWI:
Nettle wrap:
Nettle man’s vest:
Field of nettles:
Stinging nettle sign:


Vienna, 23 September 2018

My wife and I have spent much of the summer crisscrossing the Wiener Wald, that mantle of woods draped over the hills to the north and west of Vienna, sampling the myriad paths that meander through the cool green of its beech and oak trees.

But one place I’ve tended to avoid if at all possible in our wanderings is Kahlenberg. For those of my readers who are not familiar with Vienna, this is a spot on the northern ridge of the hills where you get a magnificent view over Vienna.

But precisely because of that, and because it is easy to access by car, Kahlenberg is often very crowded with urbanites who can’t be assed to walk (here speaks the militant walker) as well as with tourists brought there by the busload to gawp at the view. If that weren’t enough, the place is imbued with a rather nasty form of nationalism, due to its role in the Battle of Vienna, fought on 12 September 1683. In this battle, a combined force of Austrians, Germans and Poles, under the overall command of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, comprehensively trounced the Ottoman army which was besieging Vienna. In these days of anti-Islamic feeling in Europe, the place has become a magnet for far-right groups extolling the virtues of a Europe in which Islam pointedly does not have a place. Here, for instance, is a picture of a march by a group calling itself the Identitarian Movement, which took place last year on Kahlenberg a few days before the battle’s anniversary date.
Given the role which the Poles played in the battle, and the fact that Sobieski, a national hero in Poland, had overall command, Kahlenberg is also the setting for a specifically Polish form of nationalism. The Polishness of the place was given a big boost in 1983, when on the 300th anniversary of the battle the Polish Pope John Paul II met there with what were then exiles from Communist Poland. In that same year, a plaque was unveiled on the side of the church at Kahlenberg to commemorate Sobieski. Although modest in size and design, the plaque contains inflammatory words: “To the commander-in-chief of the allied army on the 300th anniversary of the relief of Vienna for the salvation of Christendom, his grateful compatriots with the congregation of the Resurrectionists” [the latter own the church]. Salvation of Christendom … big words!
It seems that this was not enough, so at the instigation of the Poles the Vienna Municipal Council decided some years ago that a more glorious monument to Sobieski should be placed on Kahlenberg. The monument, designed and executed by a Polish sculptor, would have looked like this.

It was meant to have been unveiled this September on the anniversary of the battle.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the project was cancelled at the last minute, leaving just the base. But of course this led to much gnashing of teeth in the far-right media, especially the electronic media. In this time of European history, I must say that I find this xenophobic nationalism, which we see everywhere in Europe but is the official government line in Poland, really distasteful.

So, for all these reasons, I have, as I said, been avoiding Kahlenberg on our walks. Nevertheless, it just so happened that we were walking through it on 11 September, on a walk towards Klosterneuberg. When I noticed that we there the day before the battle’s anniversary date, I began to be intrigued by this battle, about which, it must be said, I knew very little, other than its outcome and what seemed to me the strange claim that the relief forces came down from Kahlenberg to give battle. I say strange because what has always struck me at Kahlenberg is how steep the drop is down towards Vienna and how far the old city seems to be. I simply could not imagine troops careering down the hill and catching the Ottoman troops unawares. There was nothing for it, I decided; I was going to have to do some reading. Now, after a few weeks of desultory consultation of whatever I could find online. I am ready to report back (in passing, I should note that I am particularly indebted to Ludwig H. Dyck’s article on the topic which I suggest battle buffs read if they want to know more).

Vienna had been under siege since July, and by September the situation was looking increasingly desperate for the defenders. This painting gives a rather fanciful view of the besieging forces, with Vienna in the distance. Readers will note some camels in the foreground.

Readers should also note two other things in this picture: the hills to the left, and the small river passing to the right of Vienna, the Vienna River. These will play an important role in the upcoming drama.

Luckily for Vienna, help was on the way. On 6th September, the Polish forces under Sobieski crossed the Danube at Tulln, some 35 km upstream of Vienna, and linked up with the Austrian and German contingents. To give readers an idea of the multinationalism of this army, the Austrians, naturally enough, made up the largest contingent, with 20,000 men, under the command of Duke Charles V of Lorraine. The Poles came a close second, with 18,000 men, the great majority of whom were cavalry. Then came troops from a number of the German states: 11,000 Bavarians, under the command of their Elector Max Emanuel, 9,000 Saxons, under the command of their Elector John George III, and finally 8,000 Franconians and Swabians, under the command of Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck. With a sprinkling of other troops from here and there, the relief force was composed of close to 70,000 men. What I want to emphasize here is that the Poles were by no means in the majority on the battlefield despite their modern proclamations that it was they who saved Vienna.

The army commanders’ first order of business was deciding who should have overall command. With all these aristocratic primadonnas around, one could imagine that reaching agreement on this would have been an almost impossible task. But the Duke of Lorraine managed, through tact, diplomacy, and a certain amount of abnegation (he was well qualified to do the job himself and he was commanding the Austrians, after all), to get everyone to agree to Sobieski being given overall command. Being a King, he could pull rank on everyone else, he had charisma, and he had beaten the Ottomans in battle ten years earlier. I throw in here a Polish painting of Sobieski, which I would say falls into the realm of propaganda, painted in the days when Poland no longer existed and Poles dreamed of having a country once more.

In truth, Sobieski was well past his physical prime by this time; he was so fat that he couldn’t get into his saddle without help. But luckily his mind was still sharp. This painting from an earlier era probably gives a more faithful rendering of what he looked like, although I doubt his horses did much prancing.

In order to soothe any ruffled aristocratic feathers, it was agreed that each Prince, Elector and Duke would nevertheless lead their own men while respecting the overall battle plan. A potential recipe for disaster, I would have thought, but one which in the circumstances actually worked.

Where was the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, readers might wonder? Should he not have been leading the army on its way to relieve his capital?

Well, at the first sign of danger he had scarpered from Vienna, along with his whole court, to the safety of Passau far in the west of Austria and a long way from the Ottoman forces. Which was probably just as well, because he was a useless soldier and had an aptitude for quarreling with all and sundry, as we shall see. Since the Duke of Lorraine played such an important role in the planning and execution of the upcoming battle, I feel it is only fair to also throw in a picture of him.

Now that the issue of command structure had been sorted out, agreement was needed on the plan of battle. The Duke of Lorraine had come up with a plan, which can be understood from this old map below.

Lorraine’s idea was to have the relief force appear on the ridge of hills to the north of Vienna (to the right of this map) and give battle on the plain below, forcing the Ottomans to have at their back the Vienna River (that rather weedy stream passing to the south (left) of Vienna), the city of Vienna itself, and the Danube beyond that: caught in a vice, as it were. It was a good plan, and in the end all agreed to it. But it carried a big risk. As this next map shows, the roads from Tulln (just off to the left of this map) to Vienna all pass through the hilly country that lies to the north-west of Vienna.

This meant that the army, all 70,000, plus all the horses of the cavalry as well as the lumbering cannons of the artillery and the baggage trains, had to cross heavily wooded, steeply hilly country intersected by numerous gullies and stream beds, along roads that were probably little more than forest roads. During walks which my wife and I have done behind Kahlenberg over the last week or so, after I had mugged up on the battle a little, I have kept marveling that the relief force had made it through this rough and rugged terrain. Here are some photos which might help readers appreciate its ruggedness.

I don’t want to pass for an armchair general but I also find it incredible that the commander of the Ottoman forces, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, didn’t take any steps to block their passage. He knew the Poles had crossed the Danube at Tulln and had linked up with the Austrians and Germans (I use this as a shorthand for all those troops from the German states). His scouts would surely have told him which way the relief forces were heading. It would have been easy enough to block the few roads which they would have had to take. A few well-placed cannon would have kept the relief force at bay for a considerable time. But no, no significant moves were made on the Ottoman side to bar their passage. One book I read suggests that Ottoman commanders had no experience of laying siege to a city while having a relief force threatening their rear. Well, let’s accept that. But this inactivity on the part of the Ottomans was strange indeed and was one of the factors which cost them the battle.

In any event, the relief force did make it through, although it does seem that a fair amount of muskets, cannons, and other baggage were abandoned along the way and that a good number of stragglers only managed to rejoin their regiments a few hours before the battle started.

And so it was that on 11 September, as their troops were still struggling up the flanks of the final range of hills to reach the ridge, Sobieski and his army commanders congregated on Kahlenberg to review the battlefield below them and make final arrangements. I suppose that is why Kahlenberg is host to memorials to the battle. That, plus the fact that the first inkling which the Viennese had that help was on the way was bonfires lit on Kahlenberg by an advance party.

It would be nice to think that the assembled commanders soberly reviewed plans and calmly agreed to next steps. But actually, Sobieski got into a terrible snit because he saw that the terrain below the ridge was much rougher and steeper than he had been led to believe from the rather crappy maps he had been given. He wanted to put off the attack to have more time to get his troops in position. In the event, the other commanders persuaded him to keep to the plan of attacking the next day, although at the cost of their agreeing to transfer a certain number of German regiments to his wing to screen his cavalry as they picked their way down the hill.

So it was that on 12 September the Austro-German-Polish army gave battle. I do not plan to go into excruciating detail about what happened. A brief summary will suffice, and this map should help in general understanding.

The forces under the Duke of Lorraine kicked things off on the left wing (GLW on the map) with an attack at sunrise on the village of Nussdorf, a village which I have had cause to write about in an earlier post concerning a walk we did in the Wiener Wald. The Germans in the centre (GRW) followed suit. An eyewitness on the Ottoman side, describing the soldiers coming down from the ridge, wrote that it seemed “as if an all-consuming flood of black pitch was flowing down the hills.” An arresting simile I find. This painting of the battle, while somewhat confused, does at least show this human flood down the hills (to the left).

The Ottomans fought hard and the battle went back and forth, but by noon the Turkish right wing was destroyed. Meanwhile the Poles (PLW, PC, PRW on the map) were still struggling to get down from the ridge and out of the forest. They only got in line on the right wing by about 4 in the afternoon.

By this time,the Austro-Germans were well rested from their morning exertions and eager to advance on the centre of the Ottoman line. Specifically, they wanted to capture the Ottomans’ Holy Banner, which was flying on what is now called the Türkenschanz (and where we lived for a number of years on a street called, appropriately enough, Waldeckgasse). At more or less the same time, after a few initial cavalry skirmishes, Sobieski, his armour covered by a blue, luxurious semi-oriental garb, personally led his whole cavalry in what was one of the biggest cavalry charges in history: some 14,000 cavalrymen were involved. Here’s a modern take on what the leading line of these Polish cavalrymen looked like. Readers will note those strange wing-like attachments on the riders. They were the so-called winged hussars, and were the elite of the Polish cavalry.

The Polish cavalry charge on one side and the renewed attacks by the Austro-Germans on the other side, broke the Ottoman forces, who took to their heels. The usual cutting down of fleeing soldiers took place. There was also wanton butchery. Before fleeing, the Ottomans had massacred hundreds of their captives. In retaliation, the commander of what remained of the Vienna garrison burned alive 3,000 sick and wounded Ottoman soldiers found in the Ottoman camp.

One would think that after such a great victory, all would be sweetness and light between the victors. Not a bit of it! By happenstance, the Poles stopped their advance right in the middle of the Ottoman encampment. An orgy of looting followed, the lion’s share of which went to Sobieski himself. The other commanders didn’t object to the looting per se – that was acceptable behaviour in those days – but they were really pissed off that the Poles hadn’t given them a chance to take part in the looting. After all, as far as they were concerned they had been as responsible as the Poles for the victory, and I can’t say I disagree with that. Then on the next day, on 13 September, Sobieski decided on holding a triumphal entry into Vienna, casting himself in the role of savior of the city. We have here a take on this event by a Polish artist from the late 1890s: another romanticized view with strong propaganda overtones.

I doubt it was quite as joyous an affair, because Sobieski once more seriously pissed off all the Austrian and German grandees. They felt – quite rightly – that they had been as much saviors of Vienna as Sobieski, and should have had a strong presence in the entry into Vienna. The Austrians were also angered by what they saw as an insulting breach of protocol. In their view, it should have been Leopold I as Emperor to have headed such a triumphal entry. And the Duke of Lorraine was highly irritated that Sobieski had preferred this display of narcissism to the more sensible military objective of pursuing the demoralized Ottoman forces (to be fair, Sobieski did eventually get around to going after the Ottomans, and some two weeks later he and the Duke of Lorraine annihilated an Ottoman corps).

The next day, 14 September, Leopold I arrived back from his hiding place in Passau. He was furious when he heard about Sobieski’s triumphal entry into Vienna. He was so agitated about it that he refused to pay attention to the Duke of Lorraine’s pressing problems of how to provision the relief force. He also brushed aside the Elector of Saxony, who as a devout Protestant wanted to discuss the matter of Leopold’s treatment of Protestant Hungarians. Fed up, the Elector marched his troops back to Saxony. As Protestants, they hadn’t been well treated well anyway by the other, Catholic troops.

Then, on 15 September Leopold finally got around to visiting Sobieski in his camp. The meeting did not go well. Leopold ignored the presence of Jakob, Sobieski’s son, whom Sobieski had hoped to marry off to Leopold’s daughter. Sobieski, egged on by his Francophile aristocrats (France and the Hapsburg Empire were perennially at loggerheads), took umbrage to such a degree that his relations with Leopold were strained for evermore.

So a great victory, though less because of tactical brilliance on the part of the relief force than because of stupid mistakes on the part of the Ottoman commander. I’ve already mentioned his inaction in blocking the routes through the Wiener Wald. There was also his decision to leave 15,000 crack Janissary troops in the trenches around Vienna to continue the siege. And a victory, whatever Polish propagandists might proclaim, that was due as much to the Austrian and German troops as it was to the Polish troops.

In retrospect, the battle of Vienna was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, although I doubt any observers of the time saw it that way. A great victory over the Turk for sure, the greatest since Lepanto a hundred years before. But the end of the Turk? The immediate aftermath instead showed up glaringly the fissures between Catholics and Protestants, fissures which would only really heal when most of Europe simply dechristianized last century. And contrary to what one might expect, relations between Poland and the Holy Roman Empire actually got worse rather than better, just because of the childishness of the rulers involved.

So I don’t think chest-thumping memorials on Kahlenberg are really what we need. The Municipality of Vienna have in my opinion struck the right tone by having inscribed on the pediment which was meant to hold the triumphalist monument to Sobieski the following words:

“The battle of Vienna at Kahlenberg Mountain on 12 September 1683 was the culmination and turning point of the struggle between two Empires, the Ottoman Empire striving to expand to the west, and the Hapsburg Empire forced onto the defensive. A coalition army formed to protect Cracow and Vienna, led by John III Sobieski, King of Poland, came to Vienna’s aid.

More than 50,000 men from many nations lost their lives in the battles fought to break the siege.

May this historical event be a reminder for the people of Europe to live together peacefully!”


view of the woods: our pic
View from Kahlenberg:
Far-right march on Kahlenberg:’actualit%C3%A9/some-250-members-of-the-far-right-identitarian-photo-dactualit%C3%A9/844970164#some-250-members-of-the-farright-identitarian-movement-attend-a-on-picture-id844970164
Plaque to Sobieski:
Planned memorial to Sobieski:,_Kahlenberg_01.jpg
Siege of Vienna:
Jan III Sobieski on his horse:
Jan III Sobieski:
Leopold I:
Charles Duke of Lorraine:
Old map of Vienna and surroundings:
View of the woods: our pics
Battle plan:
Battle of Vienna:
Polish cavalry charge:
Sobieski entering Vienna:


Vienna, 2 September 2018

There is an Austrian architect who is spoken about in reverent tones by his compatriots: Otto Wagner, who lived from 1841 to 1918.

The Austrians claim he was a precursor of all modern architecture, his motto being that form should follow function. Now, I’m not an architect so it’s a little difficult for me to evaluate this claim, although my gut tells me it’s an exaggeration. But I’m not here to delve into the roots of modernism in architecture. I’m just interested in the buildings that Wagner designed, because as readers will see in a minute he did design some rather striking ones. Luckily, he didn’t build all that much and most of what he built is here in Vienna. So, a few weeks ago, armed with a slim book listing Wagner’s buildings and accompanied by my long-suffering wife, I crisscrossed Vienna, determined to inspect as many of his surviving buildings as possible.

What follows is an album of Wagner’s buildings. Since, apart from one exception, we were not able to visit them inside, the focus is on their exterior. As a consequence, the external decorations play a large part in my commentary. I have ordered the photos chronologically because it’s interesting to see how Wagner’s style developed over time.

This building, an apartment building close to the town hall, was finished in 1882. I suppose apartment buildings were exciting commissions to get, these being the new palaces of the up-and-coming Viennese bourgeoisie.

I can’t say the building excites me much. It looks very similar to countless stodgy buildings that litter the city centre, for instance this one which stands on the same street.

The same is true of this building, constructed in the same years (1882-84), originally as a bank and now, I think, owned by the Ministry of Finance.

If anything, this building is even stodgier than the last, but I suppose bankers were not interested in architectural virtuosity. Something sensible, solid, and conservative was what they were after.

I have to think that these last two buildings did not reflect Wagner’s inner self, but the need to make money meant that he bowed to the desires of his clients. I say this because two years later, in 1886, he built a house for himself. This surely must reflect what he really wanted to build, and what we see here is a rather florid take on an ancient temple of some sort.

I suspect that the house may not originally have looked quite so florid as it does now. Some 45 years ago, when the house was half ruined, the prominent Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs bought the property and turned it into a museum to himself. It’s full of paintings like this.

I rather suspect, therefore, that Fuchs went overboard on his coloring scheme for the house, Wagner’s palette having been somewhat more sober.

A year later Wagner was putting up another apartment building. Although it is still quite traditional-looking, it seems to be not quite as stodgy as the first one. For one thing, he’s eliminated the heavy-looking window sills and generally made the decorations “flatter” and less obtrusive.

We have to wait another seven years, to 1894, for the next building, yet another apartment block, but this time with a swank shop on the ground floor (currently a Nespresso shop). At least this was now in the chicest part of town, a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Perhaps it’s my imagination but I rather fancy that the building has further lightened up from his previous attempts in the genre. Certainly, the windows on the facade take up more of the total space than before, and the attic-like structure on the roof adds yet more glass to the whole. But all in all, same-old, same-old.

From 1894 to 1900, Wagner was busy on various stations for railway lines that were later to become part of Vienna’s subway system. These are much chattered about here, although I can’t say that I find them particularly elegant to look at. They don’t hold a candle to Hector Guimard’s Metro stops in Paris, for instance. One station in particular, actually a waiting room for the Imperial family when they were on their way to Schonbrunn palace, gets a lot of press.

So does the pavilion at Karlsplatz, where the Art Nouveau style that was coming to the fore at the time bursts forth – I rather feel that I’m in fin-de-siecle Paris or Brussels when I see this little building.

But I also want to insert here a picture of one of his other stations made for mere mortals like me.

These stations are squat and rather bare, I have to say. The dull green paint which has been used on the metalwork doesn’t help.

Thereafter, things begin to look up, at least from my perspective. In 1898, Wagner completed two buildings, apartment buildings again, side by side, on the quays of the river Wien which on this stretch had been covered over. On one side, we have the so-called Majolica House. As its name suggests, the facade of the building is covered by large ceramic tiles, depicting a floral pattern in the form of a vast flowering tree. I suppose we could say that this design connects to the William Morris school.

Next door, Wagner opted for what I would say is a more typical example of Vienna’s form of Jugendstil, the German world’s version of Art Nouveau: more sober floral decoration but a more extensive use of gold leaf (this style always leaves me with a slight sense of decadence, I find).

In the previous year, the most famous building in the Jugendstil style, the Secession Building, had burst onto the Viennese scene, creating much brouhaha among the chattering classes.

Over the next decade or so, Wagner was very busy. Following the style of his last building, between 1902 and 1907 he built the Church of St. Leopold high on a hill overlooking Vienna.

The references to the Jugendstil are strong in Wagner’s church. Not so with the Imperial and Royal Postal Savings Bank, which he built between 1903 and 1912.

Here, he cut out the curvaceous and glittering side of Jugendstil, opting for rigorously straight lines, a white-light grey colour combination, and minimal decoration.

I suppose to avoid monotony in the building’s facades he stamped every facing stone with a circle in low relief (an idea which readers can see, going back to the previous photos, he also used, although with less intensity, on the exterior surfaces of St. Leopold’s church).

The overall effect of all this is quite striking, particularly when you contemplate the facade and then turn round and look at the Ministry of War building, constructed during the same period.

The overly decorated facade of that building jars after the stripped down decoration of Wagner’s building.

While working on his church and postal savings bank, Wagner was also commissioned to build various elements of the Vienna canal system. The most interesting of these is what was originally a bathhouse and is now a restaurant, built in 1906 or thereabouts.

It is here that we first see what I consider Wagner’s signature design: straight lines with an accent on the vertical, minimal decoration but what there is of it of an abstract nature and colored of dark blue.

The effect is really quite lovely, although here it is rather overshadowed by the nondescript buildings behind it and the overpowering graffiti that covers many of the surrounding walls.

A few years later, in 1908, Wagner built a pavilion for sufferers of Lupus disease in the grounds of the Wilhelminen Hospital (it seems that Vienna was then at the forefront of research into this disease).

I have first shown a photo from the time because when my wife and I went to have a look we found a building which seems rather down on its luck.

Lord knows what it is now used for. The fact that its original name has been clumsily covered over suggests that it is no longer used for Lupus sufferers. I have to hope that the signs of construction works around the building herald a renovation. It would be sad to lose this building. Here again we see the use of minimal decoration dominated by blue on white, or at least on pale.

Wagner returned to the apartment-building theme in 1909-11, when he again built two apartment buildings next to each other. The building that most immediately seizes the attention sits on the main road

While following the design principles of his last couple of buildings, this time Wagner opted for black on white. To my mind, the contrast is too strong. Something on the grey side would have been better. The building behind it, on the side road, is more faithful to the blue on white design but is plainer, no doubt as befits a building tucked away from view.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the two buildings is the garage door, a great nail-studded steel affair.

And finally we come to the last building Wagner built, in 1912-13, so a few years before his death. It was another villa for himself and his family, built right next to the first. I see in it the distillation of his latest style and is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing he built.

I would gladly live in it. Someone does – it’s still a private residence. But not visitable, as we were informed, when I tried my luck and asked someone coming out of the front door.


Photos: all mine, except for the following:

Otto Wagner photo:
Ernst Fuchs painting:
Court Pavilion Heitzing:
Karlsplatz pavilion:
Secession building:
St Leopold Interior:
Postal Savings Bank: