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: https://www.pamono.it/designers/otto-wagner
Ernst Fuchs painting: http://benedante.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-surreal-madhouse-of-ernst-fuchs.html
Court Pavilion Heitzing: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/450148925226765989/?lp=true
Karlsplatz pavilion: https://vivent.at/orte/otto-wagner-pavillon-karlsplatz/
Secession building: https://www.dreamstime.com/vienna-austria-august-secession-building-exhibition-hall-built-joseph-maria-olbrich-as-architectural-manifesto-image103293489
St Leopold Interior: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_-_Otto_Wagner%27s_St_Leopold_Church_-_6854.jpg
Postal Savings Bank: https://arthive.com/artists/5998~Otto_Wagner/works/517471~The_front_faade_of_the_Austrian_Postal_Savings_Bank_sterreichische_Postsparkasse