July 13: Otto Wagner Is The Money

2016/07/13 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1841 Otto Wagner was born.

Vienna has had surprisingly few great architects bubble to the top of history’s cream like the whip on an einspänner, considering its role as capital of the Hapsburg Empire and epicenter of pastry innovation and other such wonderfulness.  Basically there’s Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), Richard Neutra (1892-1970) and today’s crush, Otto Wagner (d. 1918), who rises to the peak between the two.  Truly he is a go-between twixt the worlds represented by the others: ornamented, monumental Classicism and slick, taut Modernism.

Wagner’s theory of architecture was based in his concept of the “art-form:” style as drawn from building technology and use.  Basically that explains all architecture at all time, but Wagner couched his ideas (in his great 1896 book, Moderne Architektur, which you probably don’t need babelfish to translate) in a discussion of urban challenges, professional particulars, functional requirements and technological innovations specific to fin de siècle Vienna.

In the twentieth century architects would diverge in their practice, split over their attitude toward engineering.  On the one side, architects who wanted to be artists and depend on someone else to do the hard thinking of structural calculations; on the other, architects who poo-pooed the idea that beauty had any relevance and looked to the products of engineering like steam ships as models for architecture.  Wager took a middle and better approach, with advice for both sides:

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 architect’s mode of expression will remain unintelligible if in the creation of the art-form he does not start from construction.

That is the core of the thinking manifest in his many achievements, among them the MajolikahausKarlsplatz Metro Station,  Kirche am Steinhof and Postsparkasse.  Really, he could do no wrong, and probably should be credited with others of Vienna’s great contributions to civilization as well as those fancy horses, too.

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