Despite enduring the disruption of two world wars and decades of political, social, and economic turmoil, Austria has been among the most fertile centers of 20th-century architecture. From Otto Wagner at the beginning of the century to Co-op Himmelb(l)au at its end, Austrian architects have often been at the forefront of the struggle to confront the rapidly changing dictates of the modern age. Those efforts have been marked less by technical innovation than in many other countries—until recently Austria’s building industries lagged behind those of most other European nations—but rather by a remarkable openness to new forms and ideas. On the one hand, modern Austrian architecture has been characterized by a strong inclination to embrace novelty, to originate and develop innovative expressions. But Austrian architects have also exhibited exceptional skill in manipulating and re-using elements from the past, engaging, in the process, in a sophisticated dialogue with history. In the works of many of the best Austrian architects, these two tendencies have been combined to yield designs of unusual power and expressiveness. Often the results have been quite distinctive: the works of figures like Adolf Loos or Gustav Peichl remain uniquely individual and parochial, even while they have drawn worldwide attention. And when Austrian architects have followed wider tendencies, their works nonetheless frequently show original adaptations to culture and place.
The origins of 20th-century Austrian architecture stem in great part from Otto Wagner. In his roles as practitioner, revolutionary, and teacher, Wagner inaugurated the headlong search for the new. His call for an architecture suited to “modern life” and “new materials and the demands of the present” proved decisive in shaping the distinctive look of the Viennese Moderne at the beginning of the century. Yet Wagner, like many of those who came after him, never fully abandoned the past; even his most spare works are redolent of Austria’s rich building history, especially its legacy from the Renaissance and the Baroque. Early on, Wagner developed a new form language that mixed freely the curvilinear lines of the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) with classical features, compositional strategies, and planning. By 1904, however, he had begun to pursue a more rectilinear, abstract style that brought together elements of the old and new. The resulting fusion of the classical and the modern characterized his most famous works, including the Postal Savings Bank (1904–05) and the Church am Steinhof (1902–07).
Wagner’s many protégés and followers, although often tracing their own special paths, continued to investigate the possibilities of innovation and historical revivalism. Joseph Maria Olbrich, who worked in Wagner’s atelier around the turn of the century, sought a new architectonic ideal in the florid lines and patterning of the Jugendstil. But Olbrich was simultaneously drawn to archaic, Asian, and Near Eastern motifs, resulting in a discernible note of exoticism in his designs, a tendency that has reappeared in the works of many later Austrian architects. Josef Hoffmann, another of the architects who was influenced by Wagner, sought to foster a new idiom from the language of rectilinear geometry: the Quatratstil—the square style—that Hoffmann pioneered along with the graphic artist and designer Koloman Moser, became the most widely admired—and imitated—images of early Austrian modernism. Yet Hoffmann, after his brief flirtation with a geometric purism, returned to employing elements from former times, experimenting at various times with the Biedermeier, Baroque, Rococo, folk art, and Anglo-American traditions. Many of Wagner’s former students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, among them Hubert Gessner, Franz Gesser, Karl Ehn, and Rudolf Perco, adopted this same approach in the 1920s and 1930s, combining features of Wagner’s modernized classicism and other historical imagery.
A parallel, but equally important strain of Viennese modernism is descended from Adolf Loos. During the early years of the 20th century, Loos formulated an alternative vision of modern architecture based on his own idiosyncratic ideas of culture and form. He rejected the Jugendstil as contrived and inappropriate, calling instead for an architecture that would reflect honestly the inherent modernity he found in contemporary urban life. This approach led Loos toward a new architecture of complexity and pluralism most brilliantly expressed in his Goldman and Salatsch store on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna (1910–11). Loos’s renunciation of the notion of a universal modern style was also embraced by a number of Vienna’s younger generation of modernists, most notably Oskar Strnad and Josef Frank, who in the years prior to 1914 developed their own progressive critique of the Viennese Moderne.
The implications of Loos’s ideas extended beyond traditional concepts of style. Inspired by the linguistic and ethical writings of his friend Karl Kraus, Loos sought to establish a modern architectonic language that would articulate his notions of propriety and civility without sacrificing older conventions of material comfort. In his Goldman and Salatsch Building, Loos also began to investigate a new spatial idea, the Raumplan, or spaceplan, a system of interlocking rooms on multiple levels. In a series of later designs, most notably the Moeller (1927–28) and Müller (1929–30) houses, he raised the Raumplan concept to a high art, creating some of the most extraordinary spatial assemblages of the modern era. Both of these notions—the concept of linguistic “appropriateness” and the idea of intricate spatial play—exerted a strong influence on Loos’s followers and later Austrian architects, including the philosopher-builder Ludwig Wittgenstein, Josef Frank, and Hermann Czech.
World War I marked a caesura in the development of Austrian architecture. After 1918 the prosperity and stability of the prewar years gave way to a long period of economic hardship and political uncertainty that ended only after 1945. Vienna, which before the war had been the capital of an empire of 60 million inhabitants, was reduced to a provincial city in a country of barely 6 million. The centerpiece of Austrian building activity in the interwar years was a massive program launched by the Social Democratic municipal government in Vienna to combat the city’s severe postwar housing shortage. In contrast to similar housing programs in Germany and the Netherlands, however, the Viennese experimented little with new construction technologies, relying instead on conventional, labor-intensive building practices as a means of ensuring employment for as many workers as possible.
With few exceptions, the Austrians of the interwar years also showed a decided aversion to the modernist purism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. The vast majority of the Vienna communal housing projects were the work of the former Wagner students, and their buildings, like Karl Ehn’s massive Karl-Marx-Hof (1926–30), reflected older, traditional ideas of massing and composition. Even those architects like Ernst Lichtblau and Walter Sobotka who subscribed to the general ideas of the Modern movement exhibited a notable tendency in the 1920s and early 1930s to introduce historical forms and complex patterning into their designs.
Among the few Austrians of the interwar period who conformed to tenets of the socalled International Style were Ernst Plischke, Lois Welzenbacher, and Richard Neutra. Plischke’s Liesing Labor Office in Vienna (1930–32) and Welzenbacher’s Turmhotel Seeber in Solbad Hall (1930–31) both brilliantly encapsulated the best features of the functionalist idiom, but neither architect was able to realize more than a handful of works. Far more successful was the young Neutra, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s and settled in California where he practiced for a time with Rudolph M. Schindler, another Viennese-trained modernist. Together with Frederick Kiesler, who moved to New York in the mid-1920s, the three architects would have a decisive impact on American modern design, but their work exerted little, if any, influence in their homeland.
The period between 1933 and 1938 formed the second major break in the history of 20th-century Austrian architecture. With the rise of the conservative Austrian clerical party and the later German annexation of Austria, many of the country’s leading architects were forced to flee. Josef Frank moved to Sweden and Clemens Holzmeister to Turkey, but the majority of Austrian exiles—among them Felix Augenfeld, Victor Gruen, Ernst Lichtblau, and Bernard Rudofsky—sought refuge in the United States. Very few of these exiles returned to Austria after 1945, depriving the country of some of its best architectural talent.
The arduous task of rebuilding Austria after World War II fell to a small group of mostly middle-aged architects who had been trained in the 1920s and 1930s. The most significant of these figures were Holzmeister, who promoted an older, traditional, and popular approach; Oswald Haerdtl, Hoffmann’s former assistant, whose buildings and interiors carried on the tradition of a distinctive Austrian modernism; and Roland Rainer, who developed a rational, decidedly antihistoricist architectural idiom. But it was a new generation, most of whom had been students of Holzmeister at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, including Friedrich Achleitner, Johann Gsteu, Hans Hollein, Wilhelm Holzbauer, Friedrich Kurrent, Josef Lackner, Gustav Peichl, Anton Schweighofer, and Johannes Spalt, who took the lead in shaping the direction of Austrian architecture after the late 1950s. Gsteu, Holzbauer, Peichl, and the others sought to reestablish the links with Austria’s prewar modernist tradition while at the same time responding to contemporary trends abroad. The result was a more resolutely modernist and constructivist architecture, one that for the first time began to explore fully the possibilities of the newest construction methods. Also important in this development was Karl Schwanzer, whose Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (1959–62) and Philips Building (1962–64) were widely admired.
In the midst of this fascination with technology and tectonics, Hollein, in his Retti Candle Shop (1964–65) and subsequent works, demonstrated a renewed interest in aestheticism, one that pointed firmly in the direction of Postmodernism. Like Holzmeister before him, Hollein probed the potential of symbolism and representation, articulated not only in formal terms, but also through materials and space. Other Austrian architects of the 1960s, among them Haus-Rucker-Co (Laurids Ortner, Manfred Ortner, and Günther Zamp), Co-op Himmelb(l)au (Wolf D.Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky), and Missing Link (Adolf Krischanitz, Angela Heiterer, and Otto Kapfinger), rebelled against the avantgarde of the previous decade, seeking to substitute a new architecture—visionary, dynamic, and socially responsive—in the place of the dominant modernist monumentalism of the time.
By the 1970s, the works of both the old and the new avantgarde began to attract worldwide attention. Many of the old avant-garde—including Gsteu, Hollein, Kurrent, Lackner, Peichl, and Spalt—received academic appointments, and both groups found increasing numbers of commissions in Austria and abroad. Their position was challenged in the mid-1970s by two new movements that arose outside Vienna, the Vorarlberger Baukünstler (Vorarlberg architect-builders) and the Grazer Schule (Graz School). The former, concentrated in Bregenz near the border with Switzerland and represented by Carlo Baumschlager, Dietmar Eberle, Roland Gnaiger, and Hermann Kaufmann, stressed structural refinement and clear tectonic expression; the Graz School, led by Günther Domenig, Volker Giencke, and Klaus Kada, took an almost diametrically opposite approach, emphasizing the organic and expressive aspects of building.
The designs of the Vorarlberger Baukünstler, in spite of their use of regional, Alpine elements, followed the broader development of late modernism. The work of the Graz School, on the other hand, suggested a much more radical reinterpretation of 20th-century architecture, at once nervous, irrational, complex, and sometimes even disturbing. Forged at a moment when the faith in modernism had been broken, the architects of the Graz School and their counterparts in Vienna, including Coop Himmelb(l)au and Helmut Richter, challenged conventional notions of functionality, compositional form, and spatial enclosure. Domenig’s Zentralsparkasse branch bank in the Favoriten section of Vienna (1975–79), perhaps the most significant example of the early phase of the Graz School, proffered a trembling assemblage of forms, evoking allusions to biomorphism. The more recent works of Giencke, Kada, and the others evince this same interest in visual dynamism, but add to it a greater formal and geometric complexity. Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Falkenstrasse Roof Construction Project in Vienna (1983–88), among the most celebrated Austrian designs of the last two decades, introduced not only a potent construction-based aesthetic, but also a novel kind of space that is both challenging and inspiring.
Austria in the 1990s presented an unusually rich and diverse architectural scene. At one extreme were the buildings of Rob Krier, Heinz Tesar, and Hans Hollein, which sought to reintroduce historical concepts and forms into the contemporary discourse about urbanism and place. Hollein’s Haas House in Vienna (1985–90), among the most controversial buildings of the era, demonstrated the long-standing Austrian attitude toward combining and blending varied elements of the past and present. Hermann Czech and Gustav Peichl, by contrast, made more specific allusions to the past, drawing in particular from the early Austrian Moderne. Others, like Wilhelm Holzbauer, Adolf Krischanitz, and Boris Podrecca, worked more or less within the codes of late modernism, albeit also with occasional backward glances. Younger architects, such as Florian Riegler and Roger Riewe, designers of the Graz Airport (1992–94), sought to frame a new austerity within the wrappings of technology. At the same time, Ortner & Ortner, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Völker Giencke, Klaus Kada, Helmut Richter, and their followers continued to challenge the old orthodoxies, even while their buildings had become firmly positioned within the mainstream.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
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