Skip to content

Misfits’ Guide to VIENNA

Post date:

I didn’t go out of my way to look for Otto Wagner’s Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station. I just got off the train and there it was.

And I didn’t seek out Josef Maria Olbrich’s Secession Hall but there it was at the other end of Karsplatz.

A few days later I encountered Otto Wagner’s Schützenhaus (1904-1908), of which I was a fan, but mainly because of the paint job that made it look vaguely maritime but, given the photograph circa 1910, I now doubt it’s original. Shame.

Anyway, on my first morning I walked past the Opera House and towards the cathedral, admiring the buildings that were obviously and reassuringly older than their unintentionally retro neon signage. It all seemed very European.

And I’d never been a fan of Hans Hollein’s 1990 Haas Haus so it was a bit of a shock to see it so early in the day. I’m still not, although the street-level columns are nice and the rear elevation inoffensive. Unfortunately, the things I like least seem to be the overwrought and overthought design features. I understand that the curvy bit “responds” somehow to the cathedral opposite, but don’t see why it has to be curved or why mirror glass has to accentuate it. Vienna is not a curvy or shiny city.

The horizontalish canopy on top is jarring from any angle. Old towns don’t do cantilevers. But if I had to name my least favourite part of this building it would be the stepped diagonal where the stone facade changes into the glass one. I don’t mind the diagonals within that diagonal as it seems to be a preferred pattern for slates and facades in Vienna, not least of all on the cathedral opposite, as can be seen in the image above right.

A few days later I was at the AzW (Architekturzentrum Wien) and there was an exhibition devoted to the design and development of Haas Haus. It just goes to show that mass models might reveal something about Shape but can’t inform choices about Colour or Pattern. They’re proof of effort but not of comprehensiveness.

Hollein’s influence doesn’t permeate Vienna but I did think of his collage at left below when I saw this sculpture for a water fountain or similar. Both do the “cloud-rain” thing and have the same incongruity between shape and materiality.

[The former] Retti Candle Shop, 1965

Incongruities were Hollein’s thing and his Retti Candle Shop is a more successful example of sensational grandstanding of materials incongruities. Kohlmarkt is a very upmarket street leading to Michaelerplatz (which we will get to), but what can one say about Retti Candle Shop apart from it being a jewellery store now? It’s famous for having being famous in 1966. It was a staple in architecture books when I was at school but I can’t remember what I was supposed to think about it. Something about glimpses of an essentially closed interior? At the time, precision shaped metal probably meant The Future, as it still tends to. I peered through the windows but there wasn’t much to see. It makes more sense as the expensive jewellery shop it is now.

Goldman & Salatsch Building (a.k.a. Looshaus), 1909-1912

This building is located Kohlmarkt meets Michaelerplatz. It’s famous for its facade that was shockingly devoid of ornament for the time, so much so that the windowboxes were allegedly added to appease the city officials. Notice the pattern by which some windows on the main facade don’t have windowboxes and thus generate diagonals? [These are accentuated by the central not-a-dormer window that does not appear in historic photgographs.] As I mentioned, diagonals are a comfortingly Viennese thing to do on roofs and facades.

In the middle of the platz are some partially exposed Roman ruins dating from the year 1 or 2.

Unremarkable at the time, the bevelled glass panels and patterned stone appear decadently decorative now.

Loos American Bar, 1908

One of the world’s top 100 bars, Freud and Schiele were regulars. It looks wonderful inside but it was too early in the day. The umbrella hides a wonderful mosaic sign that, again, to modern eyes, appears extremely decorative.

Viennese buildings have a very casual relationship with applied ornament. They’re not afraid to make some unapologetic decorative flourish. There’s also a very relaxed attitude towards gold as a colour. Klimpt makes sense. Look at these railings on an otherwise unexceptional apartment building. They’re okay.

I found the flues on this building very ornamental even though they don’t seem to present themselves as a design feature. Their added height probably improves their functionality, as with chimneys but, as with chimneys, we will never know and it’s probably not important that we do. For me, this was an example of the formalist device of “making strange” being used to (ever so softly) call attention to itself. [c.f. Making Strange]

A little bit further downriver …

Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts, 1998-2006

This is a classic case of a client commissioning the wrong architect for the wrong project on the wrong site. Spittelau Viaduct itself was designed by Otto Wagner project and unfortunately bisects the site. With its multiple inclined column and volumes coming apart/together, the ZHA project is presented as a stylistic development of her 1990-1994 Vitra Fire Station.

Press releases at the time described the project as social housing but the ZHA website currently describes the project as

“A landmark project completed as part of a waterside revitalisation project – our three part structure comprising apartments, offices and artist’s studios, woven through, around and over the arched bays of a disused railway viaduct, creating new exterior spaces and vistas.

Clearly, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority. When I was there in August, there was no evidence of any revitalising development ever having existed in the arched bays. The project seems to be abandoned after less than 15 years. Some of the problems may have been due to a condition that, being an historic structure, the viaduct itself could not be touched. The ground floors are slightly sunken, possibly due to an overall height restriction that would not have mattered had not the decision been made to span the viaduct multiple times to create a spatial promenade that goes somewhere else. Here’s that spatial promenade.

Originally from the ZHA website, this is closest to a layout we’re going to get. You could click on it and try to work out what’s going on. As I said, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority.

Two of the three buildings are entered from the riverside pathway and, for some reason, the first building is entered accessibly and unpleasantly from the street side next to the garbage skips. [Classy! Did nobody see this coming? In a residential development?] The link on the SEG sign led to a website under construction.

That glass balustrade wasn’t a clever call.

The construction leaves something to be desired. This is a building nobody wants. It’s a mystery why it exists, and why it ever existed. A must-see if ever you’re in Vienna. A must-see before it’s demolished. I give it five years.

Just around the corner is this block of apartments from Vienna’s 1918-1934 period of social democratic government. Despite being on a busy corner with a view of the Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, it remains a fully inhabited and functioning building.

Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1992

Even if the name doesn’t immediately spring to mind, you know a Friedensreich Hundertwasser building when you see one. This is Vienna’s Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant. The original was badly damaged by a fire in 1987 and Friedensreich Hundertwasser was asked to design its replacement for the same site. Each year it incinerates about 250,000 tonnes of household waste and produces approximately 120,000 MWh of electricity, 500,000 MWh of district heating (equivalent to heating 60,000 dwellings per year), 6,000 tonnes of scrap iron and 60,000 tonnes of leftover stuff such as clinker, ash and filter cake. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I did notice a lot of garbage trucks coming and going.

In 1958 Hundertwasser had said in a 1957 talk titled Mouldiness Manifesto (Against Rationalism in Architecture)

“A man in a block of flats must have the possibility of leaning out his window and – reaching as far as he can with his hands – scratching away at the wall. And he must be allowed to paint everything pink with a long brush – as far as he can stretch – so that from a distance, from the street one can see there lives a person who is different to his neighbours, the tamely allocated flock! And he must be allied to cut up the walls and make all kinds of changes, even if this destroys the architecturally harmonious appearance of a so-called architectural masterpiece, and he must be allowed to fill up his room with mud or Plasticene.”

The Spittelau re-design better represents this idea but my problem with it is that most of the windows aren’t real, and those that are, don’t represent private spaces. I’m glad it’s there and it is what it is, but it reinforces the mindset that waste incineration plants are inherently ugly. This one in Munich is still my favourite. An incinerator recycling plant for all seasons.

I can cope with Hundertwasser and much prefer Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant to the Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts despite both being jollied up by adding some colour.

Hundertwasserhaus, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1986

The approximately rectangular panels of colour on the facade of Hundertwasserhausjust might denote the building’s internal divisions but, artists being artists, I doubt it. Hundertwasser was putting trees into buildings before anyone else but, I suspect, more out of a sense of whimsy. Whimsical it is but should all buildings be like this? I think not.

Rufer House, Adolf Loos, 1922

This is for people who like their plans raum. There’s not much to be seen on the outside but the pattern of windows implies a complex internal layout of many interconnected levels.

I looked for Loos’ Steiner House that was supposed to be nearby. I hope this wasn’t it. [Maps’ locational accuracy in Vienna is not great. Perhaps it has something to do with the strength of cellular signals. I don’t recall seeing a single transmitter mast and don’t know where or how they’re concealed.]

Accommodating the present

Apart from Haas Haus, Vienna survived Post Modernism relatively unscathed. Most Western cities will have a building like the one below, but with less justification. Post modernism called too much attention to itself to be a valid contextual approach.

Accommodating the present and respecting “what’s already there” is always tricky. These next two examples try but don’t quite succeed. Both seem to think “the present” involves self-conscious over-articulation. You can see their architects tried. The problem is how easily we notice they tried, and how easily they were satisfied with showing they tried.

Here’s a better example of streetscape-knitting. It obviously owes a lot to Asnago Vender’s office building on the corner of Via Albricci in Milan. And good on it! The shuffly windows pull themselves together towards the corner and the larger bays at roof level make a cornice of sorts. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender]

A smaller building under construction adjacent attempts to repeat the same trick and knit the street together without resorting to over-rated techniques such as ‘lining-through’.

This is a more low-key example of the same thing. It’s not trying to be clever.

I don’t know what if anything this rooftop extension replaced, but it looks like exactly what it needs to be and not in an ostentatious way such as Foster’s Reichstag. Whatever it is meant to do, this is not the cheapest way to do it. I’m pleased somebody thought it worth doing.

Speaking of roof extensions, I found the Coop Himmelb(l)au one but there wasn’t much to see from the ground. Not that there ever was.

Vienna isn’t a new city but there’s a healthy attitude to oldness. You don’t find stylistic invention around every corner but you will see developments such as this next that builds a mixed use development around a former theatre.

Another way of functionally accommodating a building to present circumstances is through a prosthetic addition and that’s fine too. The building is not trying to look new.

Apart from the post-modern commercial building that began this segment, I saw no pastiche. However I did wonder about several buildings I saw like this next one. All were this colour and all had the same facade with paired windows on each side, with arched ones on their third floors. It’s some kind of generic infill building I understood as reconstructions of buildings destroyed or demolished. A dentist would understand them as “bridges”.

The best way to accommodate the present is to build better buildings in the past. This is an impossible task given our current knowledge of technology, industry, science, and space-time physics. The best we can do is aspire to build buildings that, as far construction is concerned will exist long enough to have a future and that, when they do, will be sufficiently socially and aesthetically durable to be a part of that future.

Karl Marx Hof, Karl Ehn, 1926-1930

“Ehn apprenticed under Otto Wagner, began working for the Vienna City Administration in 1908, and as City Architect of Vienna was responsible for many (public housing projects) of the 1920s and 1930s. It is estimated that Ehn designed a total of 2,716 apartments during his career.”

• • •

Dankeschön to Traudel and to Niklaus. And Phillipp.


A list for next time:
the buildings of Harry Glück
Hochhaus in der Herrengasse
Haus Wittgenstein


  • Thank you Graham for the interesting tour, as expected !
    did you know that Hundertwasser made almost a similar design of the Incineration center in Japan? The Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka (2001)
    and just for the anecdote, when I walked near by for the first time, not knowing what it is, nor dad I ever heard of Hundertwasser, my Japanese Friend walking with me said: “it’s like a futuristic India”

  • For maybe the first time, I have to say I’m a little disappointed. That’s because I know Vienna, having lived there for about three years not too long ago. I guess you would feel the same if I I were to write about Perth or some other city you know well, so maybe it’s natural.
    It’s not even that I don’t agree with what you’re writing, it’s more that I miss so much. I’ve been meaning to write to you for a long time, and now I very much regret not doing so, about Harry Glück’s Alterlaa housing estate ( all his other amazing work in Vienna, like Heinz-Nittel-Hof for example( If you’d seen this, you’d probably have realized that, no, Hundertwasser (you might want to correct the name) was not at all the first to put trees on buildings. In fact, Hundertwasser isn’t even an architect. The architect who constructed the so-called Hundertwasserhaus is called Josef Krawina (here’s a picture of how the building would have looked without Hundertwasser ornaments: Putting trees, or at least shrubbery, on buildings was quite a commonplace thing in early 70s architecture, at least in Vienna, Krawina did it and Glück, who I feel you should consider as a Misfit, very much did it.
    About the “bridge” buildings you mention, I guess the very simply secret is that it looked just like the buildings to the left and right until, in the 1950s or 1960s, someone thought to, well, modernize it by taking away all the stucco ornament. It’s quite a typical thing, in German cities even more than in Vienna. It’s also interesting to see how boringly similar to Loos’ Michaelerplatz building that looks.
    Coming to Loos again, you’re definitely on to something with many parts of his buildings looking very ornamental to us. That’s because they are. A large part of his success apparently was knowing the right people (just like any successful architect, of course) and creating lucrative scandals like the one at Michaelerplatz. Modern-day architectural historians write about that scandal but completely fail to mention how incomprehensible it is a hundred years on. A shame, too, that you didn’t mention the Hochhaus in der Herrengasse (Herrengasse high-rise building) just next door which really was something, mildly, radical for Vienna in 1931 and, unlikely Loos’ building, still has something to tell us today (
    Well, I’m sorry if that has gotten a little long and I do hope it’s not too much of a rant. It’s just that, as I said, I know Vienna quite intimately, and I frankly don’t think you did it justice. But there’s always time for more and I love your blog anyway.

    • Dear Phillipp, just a quick note of thanks. You’ve given me much to think about and I shall get back to you. (I’ve corrected Hundertwasser – a separate thanks.). Graham.

    • Dear Phillipp, I know what you mean because I felt it too and Vienna is not to blame. I knew I wasn’t even going to be able to scratch the surface after I saw the permanent exhibition at AzW. Today, I’ve been thinking back at the other Misfits’ guides posts and one thing that was different this time there was no architectural friend to show me around or guide me as there was with New York, Brussels and Hong Kong. But it’s not just that, as I was alone for Venice and Milan. With Venice the Bienalle was on but, despite that, I found myself get interested in Carlo Scarpa while I was there, and there were also the other 20th century architects, such as Ignazio Gardella, Also Rossi and Gino Valle who built in Venice. In Milan I was on a mission to track down every Asnago Vender building and as much Gio Ponti as I could, along with many of the other early Rationalists. In Munich I managed to cover a lot of ground but then I was there for two weeks. I also had my laptop with me. (I’ll never again travel without it.)
      I will investigate those housing estates you mentioned as you know I like buildings like that. I’ll also try to find out more about Karl Ehn. Wikipedia says 3,000 apartments which might be anywhere between 30 and 60 buildings which is considerable. Wikipedia also had an image of the 1930 Bebelhof development.

      There’s definitely something there, and there probably is in the others too. A probable misfit.

      Wandering around, I noticed that so much of Vienna is simply very good. My observations on ornament, decoration and the colour gold aren’t that important compared to the unselfconscious ease with which the city accommodates the present. It’s a much saner attitude than the “living with the past” we hear more often. If I had to pick a single word to summarise Vienna as an environment, I would choose “sane”. I wish I had cause to live there. I’ll be back.

    • I think you’re right about Harry Glück. And yes, Hochhaus in der Herrengasse is special. I’d like to think that if by chance I’d walked down that street I’d have noticed it and included it. I’m still wondering why I never knew of it.

  • been following your blog for a long time now and it’s interesting to see a building from the office I been working at for the last 3 years has been posted. I agree how the building doesn’t fully succeed, and it could have been much different (with different sized square windows if I remember correctly. if the first iteration was built.

  • “Just around the corner is this block of apartments from Vienna’s 1918-1934 period of communist government.”

    I just wanted to point out that the period of Red Vienna wasn’t communist but social democratic, there’s a crucial difference between these terms.