Baroque’s off: my mission to seek out Vienna’s modernist masterpieces
09.02.2024 - 11:26
The 20th century was unkind to Vienna. The capital of the Habsburg empire until 1918, it was, by early 1989, a bleak and battered outpost within touching distance of the iron curtain. Now that the city has undeniably recaptured its glory of old (symbolically, its population grew to two million last year, its pre-first world war imperial population), it might seem counterintuitive to visit it for its modernist architecture. But this is a highly rewarding endeavour, especially if one wishes to avoid an overdose of Sachertorte (chocolate cake), horse-drawn carriages, flamboyant churches and palaces, and imperial tat.
Viennese Modernism, or Die Wiener Moderne, began much earlier than its European counterparts. As early as 1895, the most prominent architect of the day, Otto Wagner, announced the end of historicist and romanticist architecture, which had dominated the previous decades – there was to be no more neoclassical, neo-baroque, neo-gothic or neo-Renaissance.
Two years later, the Vienna Secession emerged. An Austrian version of art nouveau, one of its main proponents was Wagner himself. It is still widely visible, in the form of the Vienna Stadtbahn stations (especially at Karlsplatz), or the colourful Linke Wienzeile Buildings (Nos 38 and 40). Later, in the 1900s, came the splendid Kirche am Steinhof, and the more starkly functional Österreichische Postsparkasse off the Ring. His second villa, Villa Wagner II (14th district), is a paragon of sobriety, built next to his previous, more extravagant, home, the predictably named Villa Wagner I. The first was erected in 1888 and the second in 1913, thus spanning the most important years of his career and offering a striking contrast between the pre-modern and modern eras.
Many of Wagner’s students and proteges became key architects of Vienna Modernism, most notably Joseph Maria Olbrich, the architect of the renowned Secession Building by Karlsplatz. Josef Hoffmann, another founder of the Secession who studied under Wagner, was a prolific architect who came to specialise in villas, which are still dotted around the Viennese landscape: aside from the Villa Skywa-Primavesi in the upmarket 13th district, he built several houses in the even more affluent 19th district, including the Haus Knips, and the Haus Eduard Ast. By the end of the 1920s and in the early 30s, he had turned his attention to social housing, and encouraged young architects such as Le Corbusier.
Max Fabiani was another student of Wagner’s who worked on the Stadtbahn and left an indelible mark on Vienna. Aside from the unmistakable Urania building by the Danube, his beautiful Artaria-Haus on the prestigious Kohlmarkt in the Old Town is a true outlier on the street, reminiscent of the “Slovene