Rebel Modernists : In Conversation with Liane Lefaivre

In our latest ‘In Conversation’ piece, Liane Lefaivre, author of Rebel Modernists: Viennese Architecture Since Otto Wagnertalks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the architectural rebels who redefined Viennese architecture and shaped a city that is renowned not only for innovative design but for high 'liveability' and outstanding social housing.

MRG: Rebel Modernists opens with a prologue which sweeps the reader along in a first-hand historic tour of Vienna… What was the original impetus behind your book? 

LL: Strolling through the first district of Vienna is a rare pleasure for a dreamy flaneur. But, on the other hand, it is hard not to get carried away by the number of buildings one encounters that are so historically expressive. Walk in any direction for ten minutes and you are bound to come across a dozen. It is crammed with Gothic, baroque, and twentieth century monuments. There is nothing like it anywhere. Vienna is like a book you can’t put down.


Otto Wagner, entrance to the dispatch office of the journal Die Zeit. 
Reconstruction by Adolf Krischanitz and Otto Kapfinger, 1985. Vienna Museum. Reproduced in Rebel Modernists.

MRG: The subtitle to your book, ‘Viennese Architecture since Otto Wagner,’ positions Wagner as a key figure in the development of Viennese architecture. Wagner’s own views and style underwent many changes: how does Wagner’s work represent a turning point in Viennese architecture?

LL: Otto Wagner is generally remembered as the great master of the Viennese Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, architecture. And he was a great designer, and not only in the Art Nouveau register. Once he broke out of the stranglehold of historicist mediocrity with his incendiary manifesto against Vienna’s ultra-conservative establishment, called Modern Architecture in 1891 -- something he would never be forgiven for by the old guard but which earned him the adulation of the young generation -- there was no stopping his creative impulses. He was unusually agile and chameleonic, and kept evolving in relation to what he felt was the spirit of the time.

Otto Wagner was also extraordinarily multi-faceted in other ways. On a small scale, his transparent all-glass bathtub of 1900, designed for his new wife to bathe in, has become a design classic. But he also had great ambitions as an urbanist. As opposed to other architects with big visions around the same time, like Tony Garnier, Le Corbusier or Hilberseimer, he not only theorized about cities, but was involved in a hands-on way and managed over twenty five years to finally direct on one of the biggest urban renewal projects of the time, comparable to Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris; this was the Stadtbahn: the public rail transportation system of Vienna. By the way, this didn’t keep him from being a wily entrepreneur. He put together the consortium of financiers that included Salomon Albert Rothschild, which finally underwrote the building, by Wagner himself, of this very Stadtbahn. He was also pretty unique in another way: in a city known for its anti-Semitism, his calling card listed “synagogues” among the different building types in which he was an expert (he was the designer of the Rumbach Street synagogue in Budapest).

Pages from Rebel Modernists, featuring Otto Wagner's church at Steinhof © Thomas Ledl

MRG: I was struck by the anecdote about Richard Neutra’s reaction to Wagner’s ‘modern public spaces’ (deciding to become an architect when, aged eight, he rode the city’s famous subway, and encountered the stations designed by Otto Wagner). What do you think it is that makes Wagner’s designs particularly inspiring and striking? 

LL: Yes, Richard Neutra, who lived in the underprivileged working-class neighbourhood of the second district, writes that the ride he took on the Stadtbahn when he was 8 years old turned Otto Wagner into a hero for him, second only to Buffalo Bill. Otto Wagner’s public transportation system was infused with a distinctive social vision. The thirty or so lovingly decorated pavilions he built as railway stations, each one different, each one decorated by some of the finest sculptors of Vienna, were intended as public places. This is true even of the bridges he planned, and the banks along the waterway and the sluices he built. They were meant as platforms where one could marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of his own civil engineering wonders.

Besides being a great civil engineer, he was a master draftsman: you only have to look at his own drawings of these Stadtbahn pavilions, of his bridges, of his quays. As opposed to Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse or Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle where one would be hard pressed to find a human being, they are filled with a mix of real people. And remember, Wagner didn’t plan the transportation for the elite Ringstrasse. Whereas Haussmann’s Paris was explicitly intended for the bourgeois elite, physically cut off from the working-class periphery, Wagner planned for what he called “the masses.” His Stadtbahn was not for the elite Ringstrasse. It followed a second line of fortification, further afield than the first line of fortification, on whose ruins the Ringstrasse was built. This was the Gurtel. His Stadtbahn may have included a grand pavilion for the emperor to take to his palace in Schoenbrunn but basically it was meant to serve the outlying areas populated by working-class and trades people. Towards the end of his career, in 1911, he wrote a second tract for the reformist Architectural Record in New York, called The Development of a Great City, which sums up his increasingly progressive views and his condemnation of what he referred to as the “vultures of real estate speculation.”

Pages from Rebel Modernists featuring designs by Otto Wagner, including Otto Wagner's Postsparkasse, Vienna. © Liane Lefaivre

MRG: The story of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s house for his sister is truly fascinating, and it is a building which recurs within the book. Why do you think that this building fell out of public knowledge until it was proven to be Wittgenstein’s creation by the publication of documents in the Austrian magazine, Bau?

LL: Wittgenstein’s great achievement is to have revolutionised the way we look at language. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that when given the chance to design his sister’s house in 1927, he also proceeded to radically transform architectural language. The house is far more radical than any architect achieved, including in particular Adolf Loos, who is celebrated by Le Corbusier and Gropius for having declared “ornament is a crime.” Turf goes a long way in explaining why architects were so late in recognising the building: Wittgenstein wasn’t an architect! As for Wittgenstein’s philosopher colleagues, they have never looked at the house as anything more than an eccentric diversion from his serious work. The experience of designing the house was of great importance to Wittgenstein’s philosophy. It provoked his break with his previous work, the derivative Tractatus, and provided the spark that lead to his revolutionary Philosophical Investigations.

Then there is the profound amnesia about pre-war Viennese modern culture that took hold of Vienna following World War II. The house was just saved in the nick of time: the wrecking ball had been installed to demolish it. The team around BAU magazine, under the direction of Hans Hollein, (which included future Harvard professor Eduard Sekler and a few other architectural historians), did recognise the extraordinary quality of the building and published the police records which established the architect had indeed been Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still, no one in Vienna would buy the house. It was finally sold for a pittance to the Bulgarian foreign ministry, which turned it into the much-visited Bulgarian cultural institute. I was fortunate to be able to stay there off and on for four years when I first arrived in Vienna in the early 2000s. It got to observe every detail: the door hinges, the iron windows on the ground floor, the elevator designed from scratch by Wittgenstein, and rereading the Investigations with the marvellous light—what he called Klarheit—pouring in in situ.

Page from Rebel Modernists featuring Wittgenstein House, façade.

Photo Margherita Spiluttini © Architekturzentrum Wien Collection

MRG: Can you explain what was so groundbreaking and unusual about Hollein’s 1968 issue of Bau: Everything is Architecture?

LL: Hans Hollein is regularly seen as the quintessential postmodern architect. But, again, as with Otto Wagner, this received view falls short of reality. Everything is Architecture was the title of a 1968 issue of Bau magazine that a very rebellious young Hollein used as his personal manifesto. It came out at about the same time as various manifestos: by Archigram in London, by Archizoom and Superstudio in Italy, and Ant Farm in the US. Hollein’s stood out, however. These others stuck to architecture in their utopian schemes. Hollein, who by then had steeped himself in the Gesamtkunstwerk accomplishments of the Wiener Werkstaette and who had also graduated as a student of Berkeley’s ground-breakingly multi-disciplinary School of Environmental Design under William Wurster, proposed something uncommonly vast. His manifesto reads like an encyclopedia of all the important issues of those tumultuous times. It was a call for architects to catch up with anti-war movements: with the movement of sexual liberation; with the new McLuhanesque media; and the new technology associated with space travel. It featured heroizing portraits of Che Guevara, Simon Wiesenthal, and Marilyn Monroe. It juxtaposed the sensual curves of Thonet chairs with blastoffs from cape Canaveral. It also included some of his most iconic collages, for instance the nuclear battleship Liberty in the rolling landscape of Lower Austria. Looking back, Hollein was much closer to the artists of the time than to the architects. Again, not surprisingly. Although educated as an architect, he began his career as a prominent artist, exhibited by Richard Feigen Gallery alongside Christo and Claes Oldenburg. I remember in 2002, when the blockbuster exhibition Les Années Pop at the Pompidou Centre featured Hollein and Andy Warhol more prominently than any others.

Hans Hollein, cover of the Alles ist Architektur (‘Everything is Architecture’) issue of Bau magazine, 1968.
With kind permission of Hans Hollein. Reproduced in Rebel Modernists.

MRG: Is there an individual building that you could point to as particularly encapsulating the ‘rebel modernist’ spirit?

LL: I can’t choose one. There are too many of them-- by Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hans Hollein, not to mention the KarlMarxHof and the other social housing projects of Red Vienna. The Hundertwasser House certainly belongs to this category of rebel modernist works. Hundertwasser wrote so many furious manifestos -- some of which he read out screaming and in the nude -- against the flattening, deadening effects of standardized housing of the 1950s, and they had such great public appeal, that the Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, stepped in and ordered the city of Vienna to build this social housing according to his designs. It is among the most beloved buildings in the city, and by far the most visited.


MRG: The fact that 60% of Vienna’s population now lives in the most successful social housing in the world, is relatively unknown and probably surprising to many. What is it about the Viennese social housing project that means it has stood the test of time?

LL: So many prominent Viennese figures supported the social housing program of Red Vienna after World War I: Freud provided free therapy to the inhabitants; Adolf Loos gave free public architecture lessons; worker’s orchestras played Mahler. Even Ludwig Wittgenstein left the lofty halls of Cambridge University to teach peasant children in the countryside around Vienna for seven years. The list goes on and on. It is hard to say what prompted this much public spirit. But there is still among the Viennese a great attachment to this housing, and to the present social housing. By now, even more than the 60% of the Viennese that I mention in the book live in social housing. It is to the credit of successive municipal governments of Vienna since Red Vienna following World War I that have implemented policies that have created the most livable, one might even say luxurious, conditions for entirely public financed social housing (amenities often include swimming pools, spas, access to public transportation, medical care and shopping, social diversity, women- and senior-friendly units, etc.) and made it into an economically profitable enterprise. It’s called municipal Keynesianism.

Harry Glück, Alt-Erlaa. © Hertha Hernaus. 
Reproduced in Rebel Modernists


MRG: How does the postwar social housing compare to the Red Vienna social housing?

LL: The architects building the housing are still, as then, enlisted from among the best architects in the country. And the policies -- enhancing quality of life and the enhancement of community -- are the same, but the budgets are bigger, and the policies have been adapted to serve a more diverse population: no longer based on the traditional mono-cultural, nuclear family, but made up of multi-cultural groups with different sexual politics, different cultural preferences, different health concerns, different issues of accessibility, and adapted for people with health problems and even people with dementia. 

Pages from Rebel Modernists featuring designs by Hans Hollein and Coop Himmelb(l)au.

MRG: In the conclusion, you make the link between a feeling of ‘Vienneseness’ in the architecture of the last 120 years, and the echoes of Wagner’s style in recent projects. Do you also see the city’s excellent social housing and the high ‘liveability’ rating of the city as a consequence of Otto Wagner’s architectural philosophy?

LL: Yes. Otto Wagner public-mindedness is more like a red thread, sometimes very thin, sometimes much thicker, running throughout the course of Vienna’s history in the past 150 years. It set a precedent whose influence has been indirect, of course. Post-World War I Vienna, devastated by war and with its coffers empty, was put back on a solid economic footing by Julius Tandler, Robert Danneberg, and Hugo Breitner who gave up prominent careers in medicine, law and banking respectively to become civil servants. The area they focused on, was massive social housing. They conceived of it not only as a social good but as an economic engine -- a little the way Otto Wagner conceived of the Stadtbahn. And in a way that was uniquely ingenious and well-managed, they enacted policies that proved them right. This tradition became dormant under the Nazis, and remained weak immediately after the war, but was revived from the mid-1970s onwards. Right when the rest of the world was adopting Thatcherite austerity policies, Vienna redoubled its investments in public sector building. As a result, its Austro-Keynesian economy has flourished. It is not only consistently ranked as the most liveable city in the world, but its economy is through the roof.


Liane Lefaivre's fascinating study of Viennese architecture, Rebel Modernists, is available here.

Hardback • 336 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
159 B&W photo/halftones and 30 colour plates
ISBN: 9781848222052 • Publication: April 20, 2017



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