A truly modern architecture
“What is impractical can never be beautiful.” – Otto Wagner
In his 1896 manifesto Modern Architecture, Wagner expressed his ideal of practical and efficiently designed architecture. The purpose of beauty, he argued, was to give artistic expression to function. Extraneous ornament, therefore, was not only impractical and inefficient, it was also decidedly unmodern. In elucidating his theory, Wagner applied the metaphor of fashion to building design. The daily attire of the modern businessman or athlete provided a model for architecture in that they were stylish yet sleek, comfortable, well-made and practical for a wide range of uses. “A man in a modern traveling suit,” he noted, “fits very well with the waiting room of a train station with sleeping cars, with all our vehicles.” Such sportswear was an easy complement to the industrialized and rapidly growing society of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Austria, and by Wagner’s light, was categorically distinguished from the “costumes” of past generations. “It is simply an artistic absurdity,” he believed, for a man to spend his “life in interiors executed in the styles of past centuries.”
Polished marble, ebonized beech-wood, nickel-plated and aluminum detailing, and everywhere broad panels of curved and beveled glass. This is not what one immediately associates with “functionalist design,” yet, within Otto Wagner’s Austrian Postal Savings Bank, it is the very materiality of the finely crafted stone, concrete, glass, wood, and metal that makes the building decidedly “functional.”
Wagner’s approach to design was closely tied to that of the Secession—a progressive group of Austrian artists, architects and designers who pursued artistic rejuvenation in combining quality building processes with new materials and technologies, and expressive modernist forms. Secessionist architects, including Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, were drawn to the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—or the “total work of art”—in which all aesthetic elements are subordinated to the whole effect. In practice, this concept promoted artistic craftsmanship across a wide spectrum of disciplines and favored collaborative models of creation over individual authorship. In 1903, the craftsmen cooperative called the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) was developed by a group of Secessionists to facilitate this end. Bringing together designers of fashion, furniture and books, with architects, sculptors, painters, ceramists, and jewelers, the Werkstätte elevated the status of the craftsman while at the same time facilitating the unification of artistic endeavors in single fully-designed products.
The Postal Savings Bank might well be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk, and perfectly epitomizes Wagner’s comprehensive approach to building design. Rising seven-stories and occupying an entire city block, the Savings Bank is one of the many monumentally-scaled civic buildings erected in Vienna in the years 1880 – 1910, a period in which the historical city was transformed into a modern metropolis.
But it is the bank’s interior—and in particular, the central top-lit banking hall (image near top of page) and adjacent office spaces—that most deftly asserts Wagner’s functionalist approach to total building design. Framed by a riveted steel superstructure, the central banking hall takes the form of a glass atrium, and every surface—wall, counter, door, window or pillar—bears the trace of the craftsman. In laying out the interior spaces, Wagner’s sought to maximize efficiency and minimize the amount of daily cleaning and future repair. Wide hallways, elevator lifts, telephone lines, and a pneumatic tube system were installed to facilitate internal communication, and within the offices, adjustable partitions allowed bank employees to reform their workspaces according to desire and need.
Materials and furnishings
Materials were selected due to their durability, economy and functionality. For the flooring, glass-block, porcelain tile and linoleum was laid over asphalt to create insulated, easily cleaned and long lasting surfaces. In high traffic areas, marble wall paneling thwarts wear and prevents the need for repainting, and aluminum hot-air blowers are not only sleek and sanitary, but occupy minimal floor space.
The bank’s furniture and detailing were also under Wagner’s purview and he developed an entire catalogue of standard-design furnishings that allowed for maximum economic and functional flexibility, depending on the respective location and use of each piece. With the exception of the chief executive’s office—where brass, velour and mahogany was used in the furniture—light fixtures were made of aluminum, porcelain and nickel, and the wood used in desks, cabinets, counters and chairs was artfully-treated beech.
Thus, from its light fixtures to its systematic building plan, The Postal Savings Bank is both a manifestation of Otto Wagner’s ideal of modern “functionalist” architecture and an exemplary work of Secessionist design. In its austere lines, simple construction, and minimal use of materials, exemplifies Wagner’s belief that “The architect always has to develop the art-form out of construction.”
KennethFrampton, Modern Architecture. A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).
Nicholas Powell, The Sacred Spring. The Arts in Vienna 1898 – 1918 (London: Studio Vista, 1974).
Otto Wagner, Modern Architecture, trans. Harry F. Mallgrave *Santa Monica: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1988).
Mark Wigley, “White-out: Fashioning the Modern (Part 2),” Assemblage 22 (1993), pp. 6-49.
Christian Witt-Dörring, ed. Vienna Art and Design: Klimt, Schiele, Hoffmann, Loos (Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria, 2011).