June 06: Architecture of Invention

2016/06/06 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1903 commissioners to select the best of the competition entries for the new Österreichische Postsparkasse in Vienna met.

The function for this building–a postal savings bank–was new, and by all accounting, its directors meant for it to look like a fresh, modern function that would improve contemporary life by opening the possibility of a savings account to all.  Yet as a bank, and a bank in the imperial Capital of the Habsburgs, it was required to have a certain decorum drawn from the long traditions of Classical architecture.

By mid-July the commissioners agreed on the submission of Otto Wagner (1841-1918), already popularly known for such projects as the private Majolikahaus apartments and state-run metro system stations.  He had also published the book Modern Architecture, which sets down his theories of design and construction–interrelated ideas upon which style was dependent.  Unlike other moderns of his and later days, Wagner did not dismiss the concept of style, but warned architects from depending on a predetermined aesthetic as a “hobbyhorse.”  Wagner believed that new styles emerged as a response to innovations in construction, materials, and “human tasks and viewpoints.”  Rather than details and ornament and connections, he spoke in terms of an “art-form” that conjoined the concepts of construction and design into one ideal (something the German language can do better than English, the Muse regrets).

Wagner’s ideas stand out in the midst of turn-of-the-century theory that spikes under Sant’Elia and culminates in Le Corbusier’s claims (which he did not follow) to overturn stagnant traditions of architectural design in favor of the rationality of engineering.  If ever did theorists throw the baby out with the bath water, it was then.  Modernists have hijacked Wagner (and others, like Voysey, who at least lived long enough to condemn their efforts) to justify their notions, but a careful reading of Wagner’s book reveal his skilful travels in both worlds:

The engineer who does not consider the nascent art-form but only the structural calculation and the expense will therefore speak a language unsympathetic to man, while on the other hand, the architects’ mode of expression will remain unintelligible if in the creation of the art-form he does not start from construction.  Both are great errors. . . .

The Postsparkasse is one of Wagner’s great manifestations  of his theory (and it is worth noting that rare is the architect who builds and writes as well or as often as he did).  Partially, the huge multi-story banking headquarters is dependent on its time; it also draws from deep tradition in its general atrium scheme while inserting a kind of basilica (roofed in a highly industrial manner and floored with glass block that allows light to penetrate to the basement), in the open center for the most public business, preceded by a grand flight of stairs.  It utilizes new construction techniques of panels tacked on to a frame and joins old and new materials, marble and aluminum.  It expresses its structural system and embraces millennia-old traditions of ornament for its frieze and attic (most of it by his frequent collaborator, Othmar Schimkowitz).  It thus draws from vernaculars of unknown parentage, Imperial Roman-by-way-of-Austrian Classicism, industry, and even more than a dash of the Arts and Crafts in Wagner’s work with new functions and technologies to design every last bit of furnishings and finishes inside.  With the equally magnificent Kirche am Steinhof of about the same time, the Postsparkasse is the crowning monument of the Jugendstil or Wagnerstil or whatever you like to call it, this particular version of the wonderfulness that swept across Europe just before the bottom fell out.

Image: looking up–the cornice (Clio’s)

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You are currently reading June 06: Architecture of Invention at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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