“Nothing that is not useful can be beautiful”-this was the motto of the Viennese-born architect Otto Wagner. His pragmatism by no means stood in the way of his imagination, however, whether it was a question of a fine town house or stations on the Vienna urban railway system, his styles ranging from Renaissance revival to avant-garde Modernism.
When Otto Wagner took up his first commissions, he was still enthusiastic about revivalism; like many of his contemporaries, he borrowed from a number of architectural traditions. His preference was for the Renaissance era, as shown in the facade of the house at 23 Schottenring, which Wagner built in 1877 n the Ringstrasse in Vienna. But he and his clients were also capable of enthusiasm for Baroque forms. A mere three decades later, he had shelved the return to earlier traditions. Now he spoke of Vienna as the “birthplace of the art of our time.”
Vienna Becomes Modern
Wagner’s move from revivalism to Modernism did not take place in a vacuum. Vienna had become the fourth largest city in Europe, and many buildings were under construction: the new metropolis was being given a modern face. The Ringstrasse, which was being built at this time, was edged by some 850 impressive edifices, public and private palaces. And right in the middle of Viennese Modernism, as the two decades around 1900 were known. Otto Wagner built museums, academies, parliament buildings, and public monuments.
By the turn of the century, his greatest project was the design of the Vienna Stadtbahn, the urban rail network. From 1894, Wagner, a government building advisor and professor of architecture, showed himself to be open to new ideas. For his many designs for railway stations and bridges he placed iron, always lacquered in green, in prominent positions. Curving lines and ornamentation recalling foliage show his interest in Art Nouveau. In 1899, already 60 years old, he joined the Vienna Secessionists, a group of visual artists who rejected the revival of past times.
Modern Buildings for Modern Times
Thus no trace of revivalism was to be found in the Viennese Post Office Savings Bank, one of Wagner’s masterworks, built 1904-1906 in the center of Vienna. The exterior is clad in granite and marble panels, supported by aluminum bolts—a new material, like the reinforced concrete that was also used. The center of the building is the banking hall, above which is stretches a glass barrel vault.
The entire interior of the Savings Bank was also designed by Wagner in the same clear and rational way. His unprecedented designs were very influential, and among the successors of this architect, urban planner, furniture designer and theorist was, not least, Adolf Loos, who ultimately maintained that all decorative ornamentation was “a crime.”