Art. Life. Building.

I like to drive cabs. Sometimes I get a chatty chauffeur. In a chat I mentioned that I have something to do with art. That’s why the taxi driver felt compelled to contribute a story.

Two guests wanted to go to the “Wagner House”. Despite his ten years of professional experience, the taxi driver called his head office to have the desired destination “between the State Opera and Linz” more precise. It turned out, then, that the wanted thing was right next to the Kettenbrückengasse, in front of the taxi stand there. He had been raised and asked how often he had probably already stood there. The driver told me that it had been at least 500 times and laughed.

The object is an ensemble of a total of three residential and commercial buildings (Linke Wienzeile 38, 40 and Köstlergasse 3), whose “originality of the facades” was praised by contemporary critics as “striking”. Today, however, this ingenuity seems to blur in the hectic pace of urban life.

Much more striking is the Secession building, which was conceived and realized by a student of Wagner. Joseph Maria Olbrich was responsible for the construction. The Vienna Secession, a separation from the Association of Fine Artists of the Vienna Künstlerhaus, stands in front of the back of the venerable Academy of Fine Arts. Its façade is cheeky and white against that of the hostile Künstlerhaus. In the meantime, the former line of sight between the objects has been obstructed by the Project Space on Karlsplatz.

The aim of the Secessionists was the renewal of art through a radical departure from historicism. The inscriptions “VER SACRUM” (Holy Spring) express this hope for a new flowering of art. The floral dome that sprouts from the block can also be read as a realization of this guiding idea, supported by the hope of a new art flower. The laurel depicted, in keeping with its antique significance, probably also refers to the expected triumph.

The function of the building is determined by its symbolic radicalism towards the outside and the inside. As an exhibition building announcing the start of a new era, it presents itself as a trend-setting concept. The Secession is the first White Cube. Art is presented here in front of a neutral white wall. However, these innovations were hardly taken into account in the contemporary debate about the building. Contemporary sources describe a shocked audience. In particular, the market operators and market visitors to the site where the Naschmarkt is now located were out of their minds. There was nothing comparable. The criticism was raging. The building was insulted as a “temple for tree frogs” and as a “crematorium”, which the academy was sacking.


“We must build a city, an entire city! Everything else is nothing! The government should give us a field and then we want to create a world. That doesn’t mean anything if someone just builds a house. How can it be nice if there is an ugly one next to it? What good are three, five, ten houses if the street is not a beautiful one? What use is the most beautiful street with beautiful houses if the armchairs in it are not beautiful, or the parts are not beautiful”, Olbrich called out to his colleagues after the opening of the Secession.


And one day it came to pass that a patron of the arts and patron of modern art travelled to Vienna and brought the scandalous architect to Darmstadt. Ernst Ludwig Grand Duke of Hesse and near the Rhine initiated the artist colony Mathildenhöhe with Olbrich as a kind of mastermind.

It is the time of artist circles, associations, secessions and attempts to short-circuit art and life. At Monte Verità, alternative forms of life were tested, coupled with political utopian visions.

Wedding Tower

The Darmstädter Anlage offered Olbrich the opportunity to realize his holistic ideas in a monumental way. Not just a house, but expression “in the whole complex, and down to the last detail, everything dominated by the same spirit, the streets and the gardens and the palaces and the huts and the tables and the armchairs and the candlesticks and the spoons expression of the same feeling, but in the middle a temple in a holy grove, a house of work, at the same time studio of the artists and workshop of the craftsmen…”

During my visit to Mathildenhöhe I was surprised on the one hand by the ornamental proximity to Viennese works of Art Nouveau. On the other hand, the effect, with nature as background foil, is quite different. If the vegetabile ornament in Vienna contrasts not only with the cubic forms of architecture and the surroundings, in Darmstadt it becomes blurred with the natural forms. What is relatively isolated here is embedded in a constantly expanding urban environment.

House Olbrich

The ambitious projects on those magic mountains of the turn of the century all failed after about ten to twenty years. The Darmstadt colony was followed by the Darmstadt Secession. In 1919 a group of radicals, among them none other than Max Beckmann, wanted to “clean up the bourgeois pollution that had long been necessary”. A rich, revitalizing exhibition activity in the years after 1945 led to the exhibition “Das Menschenbild unserer Zeit” (“The Image of Man of our Time”) from 1950. In the conversation accompanying the exhibition, Theodor Adorno and Willi Baumeister clashed with Hans Sedlmayr, who was trained in Viennese sharp-edged conflict culture.

On the Mathildenhöhe as well as in the building of the Vienna Secession, the heritage is cultivated through the ongoing exhibition activities. Despite their age, both objects have a radical radiance. Something of the utopian claim still seems to characterise their resistant aura. Her primary task is to convey a message. They are architecture parlante or “semantic architecture” (Klaus Wolkert). The building task is owed to freedom; it does not want, or must not primarily subordinate itself to functionality. Thus it can be explained that Wagner’s residential and commercial buildings, which are characterised solely by the ornamental façade connecting the areas or by the corner solution, are optically integrated into today’s Wienzeilen architecture in such a way that they are not noticed by a layman.