Our day yesterday is a fine example of the joys of actually living in a place for a while. We first decided that we would walk from our apartment on Sigmundsgasse across the Volksgarten and down to the Winterpalais on Himmelpfortgasse in the middle of the inner city to see an exhibition of Renaissance artworks from Dresden. Just as we arrived at the Palais, a huge busload of quite elderly people started scrunching through the doorway to the exhibition, and we knew this would mean a long time of dithering and listening to their tour guide trying to get them interested in seeing the artworks. So we bailed, deciding instead to walk further down into the eastern side of town near the Ring, ending up at the masterpiece of Vienna’s most significant modern architect, Otto Wagner.
As one can see from the photo above, the building of the Postsparkasse was, for 1904 in Vienna, revolutionary in every way. First consider the building’s purpose: as the informative little display in the building explains, the idea of a ”postal savings bank”, designed for the ”kleiner Mann”–the little man on the street–was the result of the innovative implementation in the 1880s of similar banking ideas in other European countries by Austrian George Coch (1842-1890). The democratic concept of letting people of limited means invest small amounts of money through the post office was an immediate and stupendous success; within two years, the Postsparkasse had over 200,000 members, and was having to use makeshift quarters to meet the needs of the populace.
Otto Wagner (1841-1918) had already established himself as a forward-thinking architect with grand ideas for transforming the rather stodgy historicist streetscape of Vienna. This building is his most successful realization of his uncluttered, functional, style. Just compare the facade (above) with the enormous government building it faces across the Ring:
Or better yet, look at the ornamentation on both buildings: Wagner’s simplified allegorical figures at the top, created as an integral part of the facade–
while the enormous imperial eagle plastered across the front of the government building feels top-heavy and overwhelming.
Wagner was completely aware of these comparisons as he designed his building.
But the truly magnificent aspect of Wagner’s work is the holistic design of the interiors, with all elements designed to be aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time.
One enters through the checkerbox-gridded doors–a design element carried throughout the interior design, appearing in comparison to the historicist, highly ornamented buildings around it as if it were unfinished. It’s no wonder that Wagner was immensely influential to Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, Walter Burley Griffin, and all other modern architects of the era following Louis Sullivan’s dictum, ”form follows function.”
Just imagine how overwhelmingly new this enormous glass-arcaded space would have appeared in the early 1900s! Ludwig Hevesi, the leading art critic of the Sezession period, enthused about the liberating sense of space and the lack of unnecessary ornamentation; he said that ”the visitor is greeted by a clock and a calendar on the wall where other buildings install paintings that are never very good.” All of the fixtures and furnishings were also designed by Wagner, as integral to the building.And what features they are! The beautiful metal pillars, which to the clients of the day must have seemed like unfinished plumbing pieces, have been the inspiration for many functionalist architects and designers.. Renzo Piano has nothing on Otto Wagner.
The small exhibition, focussing on both the idea of the bank (the simplification of bank forms was an important part of the bank’s success) and on Wagner’s conceptual brilliance, is displayed in the smaller bank room, where the black-and-white tiled designs so beloved by Austrian Jugendstil artists, is carried through the complete interior appearance.
The displays include gorgeous examples of Wagner’s draughtsmanship, as well as samples of the original glass flooring and tileworks. Seeing these detailed illustrations, with meticulous details, one understands why the great architectural draughtsmen of the 20th century, including the brilliant Marion Mahoney Griffin, looked to Wagner’s designs as inspiration.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably in conservative and small-minded Vienna, Wagner was rarely ever allowed to complete his most most innovative ideas. As the wall labels in the exhibition pointedly describe, the architect ”experienced the typical Austrian fate” of being seen as too modern and too progressive by jealous colleagues and competitors alike. As Adolf Loos, the famously disgruntled and notoriously blunt author of ”Ornament as Crime” and Wagner’s staunchest supporter, wrote, ”I could scream in frustration at the petty people who thwarted and denied Wagner his due. Mediocrity reigns in Vienna.” While Wagner did go on to create many more buildings, including the much-admired stations of Vienna’s first electric train system, his insightful ideas about urban planning for Vienna were never adopted (although his writings appear as early as 1913 in Australia’s Building magazine). He died in 1918, the same year that the Spanish flu took Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and the Wiener Werkstätte artist Koloman Moser.
Finally, the walls of the Postsparkasse’s exhibition include quotations from Coch, Wagner, and–oddly posted in the washroom–one from Robert Musil, which could be a motto for the artists and architects of this time:
All in all, a delightful alternative to a day in the Winterpalais–with the added benefit of another walk through the inner city’s oldest streets. Be sure to come with good walking shoes if you really want to see the best aspects of this ancient city.