Friday 13 July 2018

In The Steps of Vienna's Modernists

Vienna 1900 saw a burst of artistic innovation and creativity that still influences us today. This included challenges to the established historicist architectural style in which much of the city was built, but which did not represent a growing modern metropolis. Several of the architects involved in this new movement were Jewish as were many of those who commissioned homes and commercial premises in the new styles.

This Jewish embracing of modernity may in part, have been an attempt to achieve greater acceptance and emancipation in a time of both opportunity and extreme anti-semitism. The arts presented fewer barriers to the participation of Jews than did other areas and even anti-semites had little objection to using Jewish patrons to fund them. Also during this time many Jews converted to Christianity, with varying degrees of conviction, or were completely secular and for some art and culture became a kind of religion.

The first major movement to challenge the artistic establishment, the Vienna Secession group, was established in 1897. A reaction to the conservative style of the established artists organisation, Vienna Kunstlerhaus, the  founding members included Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, in particular by Charles Rennie McIntosh, but developing the style we now know as Jugendstil or Art Nouveau.

The Secession building, Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897.
Architect Otto Wagner, although not a founding member, became a leading light in the group. In 1896 he had published his ideas on the role of architects, advocating the use of new materials and new forms to reflect changes in society. His influence on Viennese architecture of the early 1900's cannot be over emphasised. As Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts, his students included Hoffmann, Olbrich and others who would make major contributions to the city's landscape. He was also responsible for a range of iconic art nouveau buildings including the Postal Savings Bank, the Steinhof Church, the Karlsplatz Sation and the Majolica House. In the early part of his career he was engaged to design the Rumbach synagogue in Budapest, completed in 1872 and built in the Moorish style.

Majolica House, Otto Wagner, 1898-99
The Eighth Secession Exhibition took place in November 1900 and Hoffmann declared a desire to broaden its scope to include applied arts. He had been influenced by and wished to emulate Charles Roberts Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft workshops. By 1903, Hoffmann and Moser had managed to persuade the Jewish textile manufacturer and financier Fritz Waerndorfer and his artist wife, Lilly, to provide financial backing for such a project and the Wiener Werkstatte was established. Workshops were set up for metalwork, gold and silver work, bookbinding, leatherwork and carpentry together with architectural offices and an exhibition gallery. Hoffmann moved his office there and with Moser defined the principles of the Werkstatte as "...intimate contact between public, designer and produce good simple domestic requisites. We start from the purpose in hand and our strength has to lie in good proportions and materials well handled. We will seek to decorate but without any compulsion to do so...". The Werkstatte would go on to produce thousands of items including furniture, textiles, glass and metal objects. In 1905 a fashion department was added, producing men's and women's clothes and from 1907 until the beginning of the First World War the graphic design department produced almost 1000 postcards including several to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Many of the Werksatte's workforce were Jewish.

Hoffmann and Moser were prolific artists in their own right. Moser produced some of the most significant graphic work of the twentieth century including the much copied cover of the first edition of the Secessionist magazine, Ver Sacrum, the mosaics and stained glass windows in Wagner's Steinhof Church and countless posters, stamps, glass, textiles and ceramics. All of this was in addition to his large body of work as a painter and furniture designer.

Moser was not the only artist of the period who excelled across a range of disciplines. Hoffmann was similarly talented. Born in what is now the Czech Republic he studied under and then worked for Otto Wagner. He designed the spaces for several of the Secession exhibitions before quarrelling with its members over artistic vision and leaving in 1905. His association the Werkstatte was to last much longer, until the organisation closed in 1932. His chairs were particularly important and several are displayed in Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts.

Much of his architecture from this period appears to predict the modernist styles of the 1920's and 1930's. His Sanatorium Purkersdorf was ccommissioned by Jewish musicologist Viktor Zuckerkandl. Built in 1904 this weekend rest home with baths and physical therapy is devoid of decoration, with smooth lightly coloured walls, windows without frames or ledges and white furnishings denoting hygiene and cleanliness. Hoffmann's "total design" approach included the interior furnishings produced by Werkstatte artists. This concept was carried over into his most famous architectural work, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Work on the building commenced in 1906 and was not completed until 1911. Hoffmann was also responsible for the interior and designed furniture to complement the spaces. He engaged the help of the finest artists and craftsmen to work on the interior, including Gustav Klimt who designed a frieze for the dining hall. Hoffman took his concept to extremes, even designing a dress for Madame Stoclet as he felt her Paul Poiret creations  clashed with the decor.

He was later to become problematical, voting for the unification of Austria and Germany and accepting a commission to design a club for Wehrmacht officers during the Second World War. He survived the war years and died in 1956 aged 85.

Former Goldman and Salatsch store, Adolf Loos, 1909-1912 (known as the Loos Haus)
By 1907, the Secessionist style receded in favour of a less decorative, more functional approach. This movement was led by a number of architects including Adolf Loos. Born in Brno in 1870 he failed to complete his studies at Dresden University of Technology, but was to become one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Briefly associated with the Secession, he quickly broke with them, advocating a new approach with smooth, clear surfaces stripped of ornamentation and a utilitarian layout. In his 1913 essay "Ornament and Crime" he argued that cultural progress is dependent on the deletion of ornament from everyday objects, declaring it a crime for craftsmen to "waste time" on ornamentation as it hastens obsolescence. This did not however prevent him from designing sumptuous interiors making extensive use of stone, marble and wood, arguing that there is a distinction between organic and superfluous decoration.

Despite his views being unpopular with many of his contemporaries he won a number of commissions from 1904 onwards including for shops and cafes. He is perhaps best known for what is now called the "Loos House" originally designed as a store for the Jewish tailoring company Goldman and Salatsch. The building drew severe criticism from many quarters including Emperor Franz Joseph I due to the absence of decoration on the facade leading to it being called "the house without eyebrows". This was despite Loos having placed four richly veined green Cipollino marble columns at the entrance as a response to the Michael Church portico opposite.

Knife Men's Outfitters, Adolf Loos, 1913
The interior is less austere and includes mahogany walls, mirrored panelling, brass wall lamps and staircase railings and a marble panelled stairway. Damaged during the Second World War the building  has twice undergone restoration and since 1989 it has been the main branch of the Raiffeissenbank. Loos was assisted in this project by a young Jewish civil engineer called Ernst Epstein who was to later design a number of buildings in the city. He committed suicide in 1938 following the Anchluss. Many of Loos' other buildings have survived until today. Three of them are within easy reach of the Loos Haus - the Knize menswear store (1909-1913), the famous American Bar on Karnterstrasse (1907-8) and the earlier Cafe Museum which dates from 1899.

Loos was not Jewish but many of his clients and associates were including philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, composer Arnold Schonberg and writers Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus. In addition to this, two of his three marriages were to Jewish women. He believed strongly that modern design could act as a vehicle for Jewish emancipation and referred to this as being part of his opposition to the Secessionist style which was heavily embraced by Jewish clients. He described secessionist interior furnishings as "nothing but disguised caftans" . The caftan would immediately identify an Orthodox Jew, steeped in tradition and at least in the minds of others, someone opposed to modernity hence his comparison of the garment to the Secessionist style. This despite the fact that the Secessionists themselves had rebelled against historicism.

In later life he suffered from a range of ailments including cancer, deafness, strokes and possibly dementia. He was also at the centre of a child sex scandal from which he was only partly exonerated. He died in 1933.

Josef Frank was perhaps Vienna's most accomplished Jewish architect of the period. He graduated from the relatively conservative Technical University of Vienna and by 1913 was drawing up plans for town houses including at 3 Wilbrandtgasse. Working with two other Jewish architects, Oskar Wlach and Oskar Strnad he designed the house for Doctor Emil and Agnes Scholl. It exemplifies Frank's ideas on architecture, with a simple facade, devoid of ornamentation but given character by the asymmetrical arrangement of portholes on the middle floor and windows at the upper level. It would be easy to take the building for a 1930's construction as similar to Hoffmann and Loos, Frank's approach predicts later modernist developments.

Werkbundseidlung, this building by Andre Lurcat, 1930-32
Werkbundseidlung, this building by Joseph Hoffman, 1930-32
Frank was critical to the modernist movement that developed more fully in the 1930's. He was the driving force behind the Werkbundsiedlung estate in Vienna's thirteenth district which he saw as a reaction to the monolithic housing estates built elsewhere during the period. His project included single and multi-family houses in a healthy environment, exploring different spatial and functional approaches. As well as designing one of the buildings himself he managed to recruit Loos, Hoffmann, Richard Neutra and the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld to work on the Werkbundsiedlung. Like Hoffmann, Frank was an accomplished interior designer, setting up the Haus and Garten company in 1925. He was to leave Austria for Stockholm in 1933, becoming a Swedish citizen in 1939. He spent the next three decades working for the Svensk Tenn company where his work remains in demand today.

Another Jewish architect Arthur Gruenberger designed two of the houses on the Werkbundsiedlung estate. He was also responsible for the Eitelbergrasse synagogue in the city's thirteenth district. Completed in 1926, it was a rare example of a modernist religious building. Photographs show an imposing rectangular form relieved with substantial glazing and discrete references to a more Levantine style on the entrance with arches on each flank. The synagogue was one of 93 destroyed on Kristalnacht in November 1938 leaving only the Stadttempel standing in the centre of the city and this only due to its being surrounded by non-Jewish owned properties. Dating from 1826, the Stadttempel is still active today. Gruenberger left for the United States in 1935 and went on to work as a Hollywood set designer.

Interior, Stadttempel, Joseph Kornhausel, 1824-26 
The First World War interrupted Vienna's golden years and then in 1918 a world wide flu epidemic claimed the lives of several of its leading artists including Gustav Klimt. The 1920's and 1930's were politically unstable decades that saw street battles between left and right wing groups and of course, in 1938, Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss. Many Jews and other opponents of the regime fled, some of them, such as Frank, establishing successful careers elsewhere. Others were less fortunate such as Frank's client Agnes Scholl who was murdered in Auschwitz whilst others also did not survive the war.

An edited version of this post appeared in Jewish Renaissance magazine in July 2018. 


  1. Excellent post. How amazing that the arts presented fewer barriers to the participation of Jews than did other areas. Yet I have to agree that in the early decades of the 20th century, even anti-Semites had little objection to using Jewish patrons to fund them.

    I recognised all the names you referred to, but did not know much about Josef Frank, perhaps one of Vienna's most accomplished Jewish architect back then. Even his pre-WW1 designs for the Scholl house, seemed to pre-empt Bauhaus and Deco by 10 or 20 years: a simple asymmetrical facade, in white and almost no ornamentation.

    Going back to your 2013 post on Josef Frank, which of the buildings were designed by him?

    1. Hello and thanks for your kind comments. Apologies for the slight delay in replying. The only Frank building from the 2013 post is the Haus Beer at Weinzgasse 12. Best wishes.

  2. Great post. Do you have any photos of the Eitelbergrasse synagogue you can post?

    1. Hello David, there is a picture of the synagogue on page 217 in the link below , which you might need to cut and paste. I'm afraid this is all I can find. Best wishes!