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JOSEPH MARIA OLBRICH
 
 
 
 
  Name Joseph Maria Olbrich
     
  Born December 22, 1867
     
  Died August 8, 1908
     
  Nationality Austria
     
  School  
     
  Official website  
     
 
BIOGRAPHY
 

Joseph Maria Olbrich was among the foremost representatives
of the small group of turn-of-the century reformers in Central
Europe who sought to forge a new style liberated from the con-
straints of late 19th-century historic revivalism. During the early
years of the century, his works in Austria and Germany won
wide acclaim from contemporary critics, and later historians have
generally regarded him as one of the early pioneers of modern
architecture and design. Yet, despite the seminal role he played
in the architectural experiments of the early years of the century,
Olbrich’s position with regard to both the uses of past forms
and the formation of a new, modern architectonic language is
complex and ambiguous.

Upon graduating from Vienna Staatsgewerbeschule (State
Trades School), Olbrich returned to Troppau to work fora local
builder, but in 1890 he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in
Vienna, where he was a student of Carl von Hasenauer, one
of the preeminent architects of the city’s famed Ringstrasse. A
brilliant draftsman, Olbrich won numerous prizes, including the
school’s prestigious Rome Prize, which allowed him to undertake
an extended trip through Italy and North Africa. In 1894, after
completing his studies, he was offered a position in the office
of Otto Wagner, who had succeeded von Hasenauer at the acad-
emy. He soon became Wagner's chief assistant, working princi-
pally on the Stadtbahn (city railway) project, and by 1896 his
work for Wagner began to manifest the transition from late
historicism to the new florid Jugendstil language.

Olbrich’s attempt to find an alternative to historicism, how-
ever, is most strikingly evident is his first independent work, an
exhibition hall for the Vienna Secession (1897—98). The design,
inspired partly by a sketch by Gustav Klimt, featured a large
perforated dome of gilded metal laurel leaves set on four squat

pylons and high battered stucco walls with incised vegetal forms
framing the entrance and the corners. The building's unconven-
tional exterior, however, concealed the innovative character of
its interior that centered on a large, flexible exhibition gallery.
Lighted by four skylights and three north windows, the entire
space had only six permanent stanchions; secondary walls could
be positioned or removed at will, allowing the gallery to be
reconfigured for each new show.

Although the Secession provoked a storm of indignation from
the Viennese public, who mockingly referred to it as the
“Mahdi’s Tomb” and the “Golden Cabbage,” it brought Olbrich
international accolades and an invitation, in 1899, from Ernst
Ludwig, the grand duke of Hesse, to join the artists’ colony he
was establishing in Mathildenhéhe Park in Darmstadt. Olbrich
found kindred spirits among the new colony’s painters, sculp-
tors, and designers (which included Peter Behrens), and Lud-

wig’s patronage provided him the freedom to pursue his ideas;
eventually, except for Behrens’s house, he would design all the
buildings at the colony, including the artists’ residences and
studios, and a variety of permanent and temporary exhibition
buildings.

Olbrich’s early designs on the Mathildenhihe represented a
continuation of the free mixing of historical forms—often from
quite disparate epochs—and Jugendstil decorative elements that
had been a hallmark of his later Viennese works. The Ernst
Ludwig Haus (1899-1901), designed to be a communal studio
and exhibition hall for the colony's first public exhibition, “Ein
Dokument deutscher Kunst? (“A Document of German Art”), in
1901, offered an eclectic blending of stripped classicism and
geometric ornament, suggesting an updating of Wagner's own
formal inflections. However, for many of the colony's houses,
including his own house of 1901, Olbrich employed traditional
German folk elements and picturesque massing and composi-
tion, to which he added Jugendstil accents. This style, although
widely influential at the time, drew strong condemnation for its
expensive, overabundant ornamentation and its seeming detach-
ment from everyday life.

Olbrich’s arrogance and his privileged position with Ludwig
aroused resentment among the other artists, and a number left
the colony after 1901. Undeterred by the criticisms and defec-
tions, Olbrich continued to experiment with a welter of new
ideas, but his later works show a gradual shift toward an emphasis
on simple rectilinear forms and a pared-down classicism. This
new attitude is discernible already in the Hochzeitsturm (Wed-
ding Tower, 1905-08), designed to commemorate the grand

duke’s marriage, which became the dominant motif of the assem-
blage of buildings crowning the Mathildenhéhe and an often-
reproduced icon of the early Modern movement. Olbrich’s move
toward classicism, however, became even more conspicuous in
a series of buildings he designed outside Darmstadt after 1906,
including the Villa Feinhals (1909) in Cologne and his last
project, the Tietz Department Store (1906-09) in Diisseldorf.

After his death, Olbrich was lauded as one of the leaders
of the effort to create a modern architecture in Germany, and
although he was later sometimes criticized for his “overconcen-
tration on decorative aims” (Giedion, 1967), he has nonetheless
found a secure place in the modernist pantheon. However, al-
though Olbrich investigated the possibilities of a new architec-
tonic language, he never wholly abandoned the idea that history
could provide useful and meaningful forms and ideas. Indeed,
much like Wagner, Olbrich sought to reconcile the new and
old, to shape a contemporary style while still maintaining a link
to the past. In that sense, Olbrich’s approach was profoundly
different from the later radical functionalists, who attempted to
devise an architecture devoid of historical precedent and aes-
thetic aspiration.

CuristorpHER LONG

 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE
 
Born in Troppau, Silesia (now Opava, Czech Republic), 22 De-
cember 1867. Studied in the building department under Camillo
Sitte, Staatsgewerbeschule, Vienna 1881-86; apprentice to a
builder, Troppau 1886-90; attended the Akademie der Bilden-
den Kiinste, Vienna 1890-93; traveled to Italy and North Africa
1893-94. Assistant to Otto Wagner, Vienna 1894-98. In pri-
vate practice, Vienna from 1898. Founding member, Vienna
Secession 1897. Died in Diisseldorf, 8 August 1908.
 
 
 
 
 
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