Architect to the Emperor

There is a portrait of Otto Wagner (1841-1918) by Gottlieb Kempf-hartenkampf, conventionally painted in 1896, showing the famous architect in formal dress with an Imperial medal around his neck, indicating that he had been recently appointed an imperial professor of architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He is wearing formal evening clothes with a fur collared top coat hanging casually around his shoulders. Clearly privileged and a man of the upper classes, Wagner held in his crossed hands a pair of white gloves and a top hat. Regal and remote enlivened by long curling mustaches, he looked rather like the Czar of Russia or the King of England. In presence, demeanor and manner, Wagner seems to be a man of his time, carved in the nineteenth century, down to the imperial award so proudly displayed on his pristine white shirt front.

Otto Wager. Gottfried Theodor Kampf von Hartenkampf (1896)

And yet, in that same year, he published a shocking book, Modern Architecture that, according to Harry Francis Mallgrave, who also translated the book, “Otto Wagner’s Modern Architecture is one of a handful of books in literature of architecture whose appearance not only created a sensation but also presaged a revolution.” It was “the first modern writing to make a definitive break with the past, outlining an approach to design that has become synonymous with twentieth century practice.” Wagner seemed to think of himself as a “realist,” meaning in 1896 that he was opposed to architectural eclecticism, a shocking position for one so embedded in the establishment. Nevertheless, in the first edition in 1895, he proclaimed that “..the sole departure point for our artistic work can only be modern life.” And this statement was written in capital letters and must have looked ferocious in the old German script of Fraktur. In 1894 Wagner stated, “The realism of our time must pervade the developing work of art. It will not harm it, nor will any decline of art ensue as a consequence of it, rather it will breath a new and pulsating life into forms and in time conquer new fields that today are still devoid of art.”

Otto Wagner. Modern Architecture (1896)

Writing with the backdrop of the looming Ringstraße, Wagner advised his readers to visit Paris and London or Berlin to view a modern city. Wagner further asserted that the basis of modern architecture could not be the symbolism of the past but the imperatives of the time–construction and technology. With this dictate, he allied himself with the engineer and wrenched the architect out of his/her privileged and remote position in the beaux-arts. The architect could no longer languish in the comfort of history in the theoretical ivory towers but had to wade into the realities of modern life. The nineteenth century, regardless of nation, was haunted by the past and temped by the unknown future, which beckoned new paths carved out by alien machine technology. The natural and usual reaction had been a nostalgic retreat to a fantasy of a previous life: the widespread belief in fairies in heavily industrialized England, being an example. The widespread arts and crafts reform movements, common to European nations, were also backwards looking with their adherence to Medieval traditions. The argument over appropriating the past or history, rather than modernity, for architecture had been going on for decades before Wagner wrote Modern Architecture and would continue for decades after its publication. This book was at the end of what was a century long struggle over the proper language for all things modern. The architect himself had been advocating that “utility style” (Nutz-Stil) would be the style of the future.

Otto Wagner. Subway Pavilion, Karlsplatz (1898)

By 1896, it was becoming clear that the future had to be now. According to August Sarnitz in his article “Realism versus Verniedlichung: The Design of the Great City,” “Otto Wagner was a pioneer of modern architecture because he accepted, used, and specifically emphasized the notion of reality (Realität) in his architectural and urban program while rejecting any form of historicism, eclecticism, or cuteness (Verniedlichung). The acceptance of reality (Wirklichkeit) in architecture, that is to say, the socioeconomic and technological forces that decisively influence the architectural and technological forces that decisively influence the architectural work at the time of its creation..was fundamental to Wagner’s thinking.” Wagner’s contributions to the debate on modern architecture is often drowned out by a louder and later voice which presented a different argument. In those early years before the Great War began in 1914, Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was a lone voice, crying out against ornament, while Vienna’s foremost architect, the dean of the discipline in that elegant city, Otto Wagner, designed Art Nouveau styled pavilions for the city’s Stadtban or railroad stations that were beautiful and functional but, from the vantage point of Loos, very ornamental.

One has to but look at the portrait of Wagner to realize that his enveloping mustache mimicked that of the Emperor himself to realize that the architect worked at the pleasure of the Imperial throne. Although Wagner had very modern visions for Vienna with a plan to make it more like Haussmann’s Paris, he was determined to build a station jsut for the Emperor, the Hofpavillon. This one metro entrance is anything but modern–Franz Josef did not like modernity–but was a domed space, rather like a central plan church. In keeping with the rank of the Emperor, who used the subway only twice, Wagner provided an octagonal waiting room under the dome befitting the rank of its user. A glass portico protected the royal riders from rain or snow as they left their carriage for the very modern form of transportation that stretched out under the dome. The other subway pavilions were elaborate and, like Hector Grimard’s métro station entrances in Paris, bristled with decoration and were grounded in a style that did not follow or reflect the function of the mechanical and technological activity inside. In fact, as beautiful as they were, these Wagnerian entrances were regressive compared to the far older iron and glass railway sheds in Paris, which expressed their function in a direct and straightforward manner. But one must consider the context of Vienna, a city steeped in historicism to understand the challenges of the architect. 

The Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station (1898) was simply beautiful, ridiculously lovely for a subway station entrance. Its roof is curved, creating a semicircular composition over the entrance and an opportunity for floral motifs, sunflowers, to fan out above the archway while abstract designs marched across the inner curve of a projecting roof. The edges of the arch were ringed in gilt borders which were offset by green trim and softened by the white planes of the walls. A frieze of large sunflowers stretch out beneath the flat roof of the wings on either side of the entrance which is heralded by a set of tall green wrought iron doors.  Like Grimaud in Paris, Wagner was in step with the current style of Art Nouveau, which as has been argued was a cautious compromise between decoration and restraint. To be precise as to the architect’s brief, Wagner was under the control of the client and his designs for the Stadtbahn were conventional, using an expected but, one has to say, outmoded Renaissance styles. This building was an example of “Gründerzeit” or an architectural period of façades that evoked past times incongruously masking the fact of modernity in technology. According the Mallgrave, the transit commission insisted upon “a stucco coating” over the brick structure. It would be a few years before Wagner would have the client and opportunity to plunge directly into the modern. 

Otto Wagner. Majolikahaus (1898)

As has been pointed out, Wagner was also a Functionalist, who was perfectly capable of creating industrial design. Interestingly, he preferred to think of himself, not as a architect, but as a builder or Baukünstler or building-artist. One has the feeling that his rhetoric of Modern Architecture lagged a bit behind the development of a suitable language for modern architectural works. In the fin-de-siècle era there was, in Vienna, an odd expectation that a building be “clad,”and this term should be understood not just in terms of architectural “cladding” or covering of the underlying structure but also in terms of “dressing” or clothing. Ornamentation and decoration had served the purpose of preserving the “modesty” of a building, which must not be embarrassed by being exposed. According to Peter Haiko in his article “The Franz Josef-Stadtmuseum: The Attempt to Implement a Theory of Modern Architecture,” to be without ornament was to be faceless and lacking in individuality. A building without cladding was naked and indecent, a scandal. But to be modern, one had to eliminate the clothing and reveal the underlying structure and construction and here is where Wagner was very modern in his attempts to reform architecture. As he wrote, “For the late historicism, it was not the composition, and certainly not the construction, that invested a building with unmistakable individuality but rather the decoration covering it. What was concealing thus constituted the concealed. It was just the opposite with Wagner, in that the concealed was now naked or exposed and the second skin,  understood in a metaphorical sense, was identical with the first.”

The apartment building called the “Majolikahaus” because of its thin covering of  of 1899, of Majolican tiles. This building has a companion on its right, but, for the purposes of this discussion, the presence, use and design of these tiles serves as an example of a skin covering the otherwise plain building. The windows are simple: a bar in the center and a crossbar at the upper quarter. The roofline is straight with a simple and narrow overhand. The outer walls are the Art Nouveau aspect of an otherwise simple structure, free of historical crust. The motif of green vines and leaves and clusters of large pink flowers touched with bits of blue, lilies floating in water. Starting with the third story, the tiles swoop down in a semicircle from which the design of verdant nature running riot in the city rises and climbs. As the vegetation moves higher, like a growing vine, it becomes more dense. If one were making analogy of clothing, the tiles are like a dress with a ruffled hem and an elaborate frame around the shoulders and neck. The modernity of Majolikahaus lies in its lack of historicism and in its originality. Wagner seemed to have imagined a building overgrown, consumed by natural forces, clothed in a very thin veil of flat drawing. 

This building is a reminder of the rich and refined cross currents in Vienna: Wagner admired Gustav Klimt and the Mackintosh couple was celebrated in the city among Secession artists. In this context, the invaluable inspiration of the Wiener Werkstätte should not be forgotten, underscoring that the city of Vienna had one of the richest intellectual and artistic environments in Europe. In 1898, a year before this building was completed, Wagner revised his first version of Modern Architecture and wrote, “Almost everywhere the Modern Movement has marched in victorious. Its opponents thronged into came as deserters; the opposition’s best warriors faltered when they saw that the shield of eclecticism and ‘intimacy’ that they were holding up to the onslaught of the Modern Movement was only made of word and deed the Modern Movement has been celebrated. The success of the Union of Austrian Artists, the ‘Secession,’ convincingly demonstrates that even the public at large ahs rallied to this youthful cause..And victory–it is there!..As brilliant as a phoenix, art has arisen again from the ashes of “tradition” as the Modern Movement and has displayed its eternal creative power anew..Art could not drag itself along in the well-worn tracks of the copy; no, with proper feeling it had to attain for itself the expression of beauty befitting our century so inundated with intelligence.”  

Otto Wagner. Postal Savings Bank (1904-016)

With his design for the Post Office Savings Bank in Vienna, Wagner turned industrial construction and its details into a form of dressing, while maintaining an astonishing degree of modernity. Ironically the Bank was built on the site of a former monastery of the Dominican Order and it has seldom been noted that the floor plan, that of a trapezoidal shaped basilica, may have been an homage to the site. The Bank was built in two stages. The first stage on the east side was completed by 1906 and the western face on the Dominikanerbastei was finished by 1912. The Post Office Savings Bank, especially in comparison to the metro stations, is a building so modern, so rooted in what would later be called the “machine aesthetic,” that the interior would be called “new,” even today. In his article, “Iron and Stone: The Architecture of the Großtadt,” Fritz Neumeyer discussed the Postsparkaße (1903-1912) and described its construction as having been inspired by a suspension bridge. In other words the bank was based on the idea of Industrie-Kultur. Neumeyer also alludes to the metaphor of clothing, or the theory of “dressing”(Bekleidung), so common in Viennese critical analysis: “Like the thin, floating garment that clothes the female body in ancient Greek sculpture, revealing as much beauty as it conceals, Wagner’s treatment of the of the structure and construction exploits a similar kind of delicate, sensuous play that was probably only evident to a connoisseur of a certain age and experience.” 

Otto Wagner. Postal Savings Bank (1904-016)

At first glance the exterior of the Post Office Savings Bank by Otto Wagner seems traditional in its Renaissance approach to its levels. As tradition dictated, the ground floor–cambered to accent the weight–was heavy and rusticated in appearance, and, as the structure elevated, each level lightened. The irony is that in 1899 Wagner himself wrote a volume on the “utility style,” Einige Scizzen, Projecte u. ausgeführte Bauwerke, in which he turned away from the classical style of Rome and towards modern urban centers as models for the contemporary architect. But the apparently historic façade of the Bank was covered in thin sections of Sterzing marble, which were studded with industrial aluminum bolts, which fixed the slim slabs to the structure. Even though these bolts were necessary only during the first three week of construction as the binding mortar was hardening, Wagner retained these punctuations that marked the process of building. But he manipulated them for visual purposes. For example, he gilded the caps at the center of the building’s front so it could be seen glittering from the vantage point of the Ringstraße, a block away. Peter Haiko called the device of turning an element of industrial building into a form of decoration “symbolic functionalism.” The massing of bolts reappears at the top of the building, like a Renaissance frieze, implying the representational aspect of the modern building–solidity, strength, dependability, with a nod to the Medici family of Florence. Conversely, the materials used in the Bank were novel and their deployment was unexpected: a suspended ceiling of glass plates, a glass roof protecting the main hall, translucent glass floors, aluminum was a decorative element, used on the 1700 bolts, on the eight hundred handles, lighting fixtures and heating grills and hot air radiators.

The famous and once fully functional blots, undisguised and assertive, reappeared in the trapezoid interior, where the three naves direct traffic as in a basilica. The walls are again covered with protective layers of white marble, also fastened by the silvered blots. The white and metal interior is flooded by light streaming through the frosted glass roof, a light which penetrates the glass block floor and illuminates the mail rooms below, where correspondence was sorted. Neumeyer discussed the interior in terms of “its quality of skinlike transparency.” He continued, “The glass veil is lifted up on iron stilts that carefully cut into the skin and gently disappear..” and then discussed the aluminum caps that cover the bolt heads on the façade that spread like “confetti.” “The cap,” he said, “signifies the suppressed presence of iron, screened by the garment of the building. But like the diaphanous garment, it reveals more than enough to prevent the iron from disappearing.” In the author’s opinion, Wagner thought of these capped rivets that dot and dance across the exterior and interior surfaces as representation of a “minimalist symbolic statement that no longer depends on mass. This was a victory over mass that was truly modern..”

Postal Savings Bank: Aluminum Pillars at the Pergola Entry

Plain and functional, stylish and self-confident, presided over by sentinels of hot air blowers, the Bank reflected the work of a decade by a seasoned architect who finally completed the project in 1912, on the eve of the War. Wagner was a gifted designer of decoration and ornamentation but, even in his functional designs, a question is raised about the tacking on of surface décor and about the wisdom of combining Renaissance architecture with industrial materials. It seemed that a certain generation of architects could resist neither ornamentation or history. It is possible that the real heirs of Wagner’s philosophy on Modern Architecture were his students, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Netura, who emigrated to America in 1914. In discussing style in his manifesto, Wagner wrote in capital letters: “Each new style gradually emerged from the earlier one when new methods of construction, new materials, new human tasks and viewpoints demanded a change or reconstitution of existing forms..” He continued in lower case: “Thus art and its so-called style was always the complete, apodictic expression of the ideal beauty of definite period of time. Artists in every age had the clearly defined task of shaping new forms from those given or handed down to them, which then represented the art-forms of their time..” And then he resumed the capital letters: “It may be accepted as proven that art and artists have always represented their epoch.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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