18 Oct 2017

Dutch Modernism, De Stijl & Rotterdam Bling

Contrast & reflection

Of all our continental neighbours the Dutch seem most like the English, or at least what we thought the English were like until recent events. Countries on the periphery, the national identities of both were forged in opposition to Latin and Catholic Europe, and imperial Spain and France. From their seafaring traditions both developed formidable commerce and extensive maritime empires. Both evolved early bourgeois societies characterized by traditions of pragmatism, understatement and toleration; a bit stolid and dull.

Historical theme: the Dutch lead the way

There are big differences of course. The Netherlands is much smaller than Britain, although with a population of 17 million it has a larger economy than most Brits realize. There seems to be more of a sense of societal cohesion which may result from centuries fighting together to keep the sea at bay, much of the Netherlands being below sea level. The industrial revolution came late to Holland – a century after England, and so in the C20 its industrial structure was relatively modern.

Can we revive the Amsterdam school please? It's amazing. No questions necessary.
De Bijenkorf store, Den Haag

But for urbanists the most obvious difference between the two countries is that in Holland the tradition of modernism is everywhere predominant. Britain was notoriously backward between the wars in every aspect of modernism. Even today outside city centres most new housing is attempted cosy nostalgia. The Dutch too toyed with garden city ideas and in the early C20 the Amsterdam School of Michael de Klerk, Piet Kramer and others produced the most marvellous terraces of workers’ housing. This drew on the traditional Dutch excellence in brickwork and the design invention of the housing fronting its many canals. It was inspired by Jugendstil and the Arts and Crafts movement. But in the late C19 Berlage was already radically re-thinking space and form in architecture, drawing on an eclectic range of influences from Viollet-le-Duc to Frank Lloyd Wright. His most famous building is the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, a celebration of brick craftsmanship with its load bearing and explicitly bare walls. In London he built Holland House (1916) behind the Gherkin on Bury Street, here employing a steel frame and clad with greenish tiles above a black granite plinth – a truly stylish building.

Berlage discovers visual hierarchy and controls ornamentation

Gemeentemuseum, hmmm... not that impressed

Berlage’s last building was the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, completed after his death in 1934. It reflects new ideas about the purpose and accessibility of the art gallery and museum. It expresses itself as a series of low, modest, almost random cubes and lanterns and is clad in quite lurid yellow brick - the structure is concrete. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is very obvious. It is viewed across a reflecting lake and you enter the building via a long, low key corridor isthmus into the much more expansive reception hall which employs brightly coloured tiles, marble, bronze and oak paneling. The layout of the galleries is deliberately complex, intended to slow down visitors and help them ‘lose themselves in art’. This ethos may explain the hopeless signing today. The galleries are all naturally lit and arranged round a central courtyard, now glazed in a low key way. The Gemeentemuseum is a strange, unsettling, almost shocking building. It is arresting but its massing seems confused, no doubt reflecting Berlage’s focus on the interior dynamics rather than creating a sculptural composition. It is building which refuses to conform to expectation.

Local government is cool

An essay in visual language: form, proportion, movement, detail ... 

This cannot be said of Dudok’s magnificent Hilversum Town Hall, the ikon of Dutch modernism. His design was presented in 1924 but the city was not ready for such a radical project, and it was only because of pressure from Berlage and the architectural establishment that it was eventually approved and completed in 1930. The building is in a park like setting and its key south elevation is viewed across a lake. The monumentality and cubic form is awe inspiring - it looks as if could be a turbine hall rather than a Town Hall. The magnificent tower and other vertical emphasis is beautifully balanced by long vertical pavilions with strip windows and by covered walkways. The load bearing yellow brickwork is staggeringly crisp but its sobriety is leavened by beautiful detailing, especially the projecting flat roofs. Then there are carefully rationed glimpses of colour, mostly blue tiles and beds of red geraniums.

.... grid, angle, texture, rhythm ...

.... alignment, symmetry, material ...

Dudok insisted on designing everything in the building including the furniture, typography and upholstery; it is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. The integration of natural and electric lighting is a brilliant touch. One of the very few things he did not design himself is the symbolic chairs in the Wedding Room, which are by Mackintosh. A touching aspect of the scheme is the extent to which this was seen as a ‘citizens’ building, with many groups across social classes donating gifts to the Town Hall; Dudok of course insisted on designing these himself. How different from the suspicious and parsimonious attitude towards local government today.

... contrast, light and colour ... 

... have we forgotten the joy of looking?

Hilversum Town Hall had a huge international impact, even in Britain, and was the inspiration for town halls like Hornsey and Greenwich, amongst others. The bastardised influence of its bricky simplicity can also be noted in the ubiquitous ‘Odeon’ style found across Britain. Dudok became the city architect of Hilversum and built many schools and other civic buildings, as well as residential areas on garden city lines. His major department store in Rotterdam was destroyed in the war, although a later office building survives, now the Café Dudok. The ingenuity of Dutch architecture between the wars can be seen in the city centre of Den Haag, most extraordinarily in the multistory car park designed in 1928 by Jan Greve on Torenstraat, one of the main streets, based around elliptical ramps providing five floors of parking circling a wedge shaped light. The De Bijenkorf department store, designed in 1923, is a Piet Kramer masterpiece with a façade of curved bricks and faceted strips of glass. But perhaps the most interesting is the De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927, designed by Buijs and Lürsen. This has a five storey reinforced concrete skeleton covered in black granite, aluminium edged frosted glass and prism black tiles. The light boxes on the façades were designed for advertising, transforming the building into a luminous billboard at night. The design is heavily influenced by Cubism, Russian Constructivism and of course De Stijl.

The De Volharding Socialist Co-operative store of 1927

The joy of looking is endemic in Dutch culture

The De Stijl movement, founded in Holland one hundred years ago, involved architects and artists (including Mondrian). Heavily influenced by Cubism it advocated the abstraction of design to the universal elements of form and colour. Naturalistic forms were eschewed for straight horizontal or vertical lines. Planes were separated so that each element is seen independently. Colour was restricted to black, white, grey and primary colours.

Nearly 100 years old

The De Stijl movement had an influence way beyond the relatively few works it produced. Indeed the only building which fully illustrates the principles of the movement is the famous Rietveld Schröder house in Utrecht. Rietveld was a furniture and interior designer but was commissioned by Mrs Schröder to design a house for herself and her children. She was very closely involved in the evolution of the concept and detail of its design. The tiny house is at the end of a conventional terrace and overlooked open polders (until a motorway and urban expansion in the 60s). The exterior is composed of horizontal and vertical lines and planes in black, white and grey with a few bars of primary colour and it looks jewel-like. The inside is more magical yet. Everything is carefully designed to maximize space and flexibility. This is best seen on the upper floor where the living room and bedrooms all have sliding or revolving doors allowing the space to be fully opened up or divided into private space as required. The space has a strong sense of the Japanese. The lack of division between inside and out is emphasized by an ingenious fully opening corner window. Rietveld’s skill as a cabinet maker is shown in the clever built in furniture, and also his famous chair.

Dear big British house builders, you are all morons 

Although a one-off, the Rietveld Schröder house had a huge influence on housing design in the Netherlands, which is apparent from any train journey across this densely built up country. There seems to be an inherent sense of order and design expressed in Modernism but also reflecting older societal and architectural traditions. (Of course there is another side to the Dutch character too – hedonism and vulgarity, which we explored in our blog on self build in the Netherlands.)

See caption above

In the port area of Rotterdam you find an early modernist estate for the working class designed by Oud, a key architect of the De Stijl movement, in 1925. The Kiefhoek estate plan is long rows of two storey terraces rendered in white with a base of yellow bricks, red doors and grey ground floor window frames with a continuous band of yellow window frames at the first floor. The tiny front gardens have yellow walls and blue steel railings. The houses were meant for big families but seem small, still lacking bathrooms or running hot water – tenants carried this from a special boiler house. But there was a church, playgrounds and two shops strikingly at the angle where terraces join. The original estate was demolished in the 90s because of poor foundations, but meticulously rebuilt. The De Stijl principles continue to inform Dutch housing design, like the estate of low rise terraces at Ringvaartplas Rotterdam, designed by Mecanoo in 1989. The value of long term planning is clearly seen here too with the Metro which efficiently links this peripheral estate to the city centre.

Match of the Day: Van Nelle v Boots

The train from Schiphol to Rotterdam speeds past the Van Nelle factory on the city’s northern outskirts. This is one of the most thrilling examples of modernist industrial architecture, designed by Van der Vlugt in 1925 and completed in 1931. Le Corbusier said ‘the visit to this factory has been one of the most beautiful days of my life’. It was clearly the inspiration for Owen Williams’ awe inspiring Boots D10 factory in Nottingham, built in 1932. The Van Nelle complex was designed for optimum functioning and the completely integrated flow of production from the arrival of raw materials to the dispatch of finished product. It was also intended to provide much improved working conditions for employees.

Concrete mushroom columns: 1 - 1

The building has concrete floor slabs with mushroom columns, leaving the façade free for continuous metal framed windows, so the building is flooded with light. With commendable pragmatism the architect specified cheap standard glazing used extensively in Holland for greenhouses. The structure is divided into main three sections; eight floors for tobacco, five with a double height mezzanine for coffee and three for tea. These are linked to storage and dispatch areas by exquisitely angled glazed bridges making the complex look like something out of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. This was in fact a happy accident; the introduction of larger canal barges and development of road transport meant the original plan for delivering raw materials had to be changed. Freestanding offices at the entrance follow the curve of the road.

Curtain walling: 2 - 2

Overhead walkways: 3 - 2, Van Nelle wins in extra time!

The nature of the work required high standards of cleanliness and facilities for the staff were outstanding for the time including the first sick pay in Holland. Men and women were however segregated into different jobs – the women left when they got married. The workers’ entrance leads to a double staircase, one for each sex, leading to showers and other facilities. The Van Nelle company excelled at advertising and promotion and were particularly good at brand recognition with distinctive typography and design. The Van Nelle signs on the roof are iconic. Closed as a factory in 1995, it has been refurbished as space for exhibitions and conferences and offices for architects.

A sanatorium designed for TB patients 

Now visited by suffering design enthusiasts from Britain

Sanatorium Zonnestraal (by Duiker and Bijvoet 1926-31) is another seminal Dutch modernist building. It was part of an idealistic social programme rather than a statement of style and was commissioned by the General Union of Dutch Diamond Workers. The sanatorium was intended as a temporary expedient awaiting the development of a cure for tuberculosis, which was (rightly) expected within 30 years, and this pushed economy in construction. The buildings are located in extensive woodland and were designed around principles of maximum access to sunshine and fresh air, and with complex separate circulation systems to avoid cross infection. Patients arrived beneath the main block by car and were symbolically led up into a light filled upper floor social centre and restaurant with sun terrace. There were flanking pavilions for the wards and medical facilities. The buildings have concrete frames and columns but the walls are plaster on a wire mesh with an outer layer of (originally unpainted) cement. Fenestration is maximized. The 3 metre module was for cheapness and speed of production. Zonnestraal was very much admired and strongly influenced Aalto in his later and possibly more famous Paimio Sanatorium. Zonnestraal became neglected and unused but the main building was restored in 2001 and the other blocks are also being restored.

Rational and creative – Delft station

Rotterdam, with a population of about 650,000, is only slightly smaller than Amsterdam. Den Haag, the seat of the Dutch government is almost part of the urban area and is linked to Rotterdam’s Metro system. Rotterdam is also the largest port in Europe, its docks occupying a vast area along the Maas to the North Sea. So Rotterdam is very much a rival to Amsterdam but its character and function is entirely different. It is a much harder place. Rotterdam was insignificant compared to nearby towns like Delft until the industrial port was developed in the C19. In 1940 the city was bombed in a devastating Blitzkrieg which took only 15 minutes to flatten the city centre. The ‘fire line’ of total destruction can be followed today in a thin red line in the pavements, devised by Adriaan Geuze in 2010. The monument to the Destroyed City by Zadkine, unveiled in 1953, is a figure without a heart. It is at least arguable that the ‘Basic Plan’ for rebuilding, drawn up by the City Architect van Traa, created a city without a heart.

Het Steiger Church 

Coventry Cathedral vibes

The city’s rebuilding was as radical, symbolic and celebrated as that of Coventry but there was no emblematic building like Coventry Cathedral, unless it is the Euromast of 1958, but that was erected for fun, not commemoration. Some churches were restored or rebuilt, like the impressively austere Het Steiger Church (1959 by Kraaijvanger Architects). Here in a side chapel the Virgin Mary shelters the City of Rotterdam beneath her cloak, an odd icon in the circumstances.

Van Traa abandoned the idea of reconstructing the old centre and instead designed a completely new spatial layout with radical separation of functions. The new centre was dominated by commercial buildings and shopping. Housing was mostly, but not entirely, pushed to the outskirts in a radical shift in the city’s structure. The dominant feature of the new city centre is its massively wide new roads which, now mostly flanked by tall buildings, create Rotterdam’s reputation as ‘the windy city’.

Lijnbaan, twinned with Coventry & Stevenage

Rotterdam Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987)

The architecture of the post war rebuilding seems very familiar from British experience. It is mostly decent, modest and cheaply done. The set pieces like Lijnbaan, the first pedestrian shopping precinct in Europe designed by Van den Broek and Bakema in 1951, still impress. There are attractive flats and gardens behind. The Huf Shoe Store by the same architects (1952) represented modernity but the Bijenkorf Department Store of 1955 by Marcel Breuer, an almost sealed box with a honeycomb cladding of hexagonal travertine panels with only narrow slit windows predicted our retail futures. Many of the offices of the 50s and 60s were traditional brick buildings with careful detailing, that provide a foil and visual relief to the very many shouty new buildings of today. And such has been the scale of development in the last decades that Rotterdam does not really seem like a post war city but a very modern one. Whereas Amsterdam is like a sunflower, as our waiter explained, with a compact centre and the suburbs spreading out like petals, Rotterdam is more like a constellation. It has many of the right components but they are disjointed. There are lovely parks and a whole district of excellent museums like Boijmans van Beuningen, completed in 1935 and designed by the municipal architect in the Scandinavian style. Nearby is the Kunsthal (Rem Koolhas 1987), a bit lost fronting a busy dual carriageway. It is deceptively simple, divided off centre by a ramp down to the Museumpark. He jokily employs expensive travertine next to corrugated plastic.

Didn't see that coming

An imaginative cityscape 

Rotterdam is often eccentric. Oud’s de Stijl façade for the Café de Unie, which enraged opinion in 1925 and was destroyed in 1940 was reconstructed in 1986 although in a different place. Next to the neo-renaissance City Hall and in front of the main Post Office on Coolsingel, both imposing from the early C20 and which survived the Blitz, a ‘pavilion’ for MacDonald has recently been rebuilt to make the street 'more convivial'. Piet Blom’s yellow cube houses from 1984 form an intended ‘Ponte Vecchio’ bridge across a dual carriageway to link the market area to Oudehaven and, if not functional, have become a tourist attraction. The strange stubby 'pencil' tower is also part of the scheme. The spectacular new Markthal by MVRDV has only recently opened. It is a horseshoe structure with great glazed ends. It includes 200 apartments within the skin of the horseshoe structure and all have a view of the market hall. The great hall is filled with stalls, often with cafes above where you can admire the vast artwork ‘Horn of Plenty’ covering the entire roof.

What's going on? – Markthal

Better than flats overlooking a Tesco (see Gateshead, Woolwich)

Rotterdam is today known for its adventurous new architecture like the Markthal. The skyline too has been transformed and whilst many of the new buildings seem to be trying too hard, desperate to stand out with silly motifs and lurid materials, there is overall a sense of confidence which is infectious. A good example is the ‘Red Apple’ apartments towering above the inner harbour at Wijnbrugstraat. The fenestration looks crazy at first, but there is a clear logic. Office buildings cantilever for no obvious reason but look cool, especially ‘The Bridge’ seen across the harbour hovering over a Unilever factory.

The Red Apple, image by Przemysław Turlej (Creative Commons)

The Harbour 

In a sense the harbour is the heart of the city, its raison d’être and most dramatic feature. A ferry trip in the grey light of dusk is extraordinarily evocative with its skyline of cranes, bridges, silos, towers and vast hulks of shipping. The scale of the dock operation is amazing, and we saw only the inner docks, not Europoort. The cluster of tall buildings around the waterside is impressive even if some are pretty ordinary in themselves. In the old red light district of Katendrecht, Maccreanor Lavington have added two elegant blocks of flats alongside the water. A walk to the old dock workers area through the streamlined Maas tunnel is highly recommended. It was completed in 1940 (separate tunnels for cars, cycles and pedestrians). In the working class district of Charlois there are interesting examples of ‘homesteading’ in the run down terraced streets, like the ‘Black Pearl’ on Pompstraat.

More appealing than their essays

The absolute star of the waterside is OMA’s De Rotterdam, a mixed use 'vertical city' designed in the late 90s but not completed until 2013.  Above a massive plinth three interconnected towers rise, but about half way up they are displaced in different directions. This excitingly articulates the building mass. Otherwise the building is very serious and restrained, beautifully detailed and entirely satisfying. What is so brilliant about it is the relationship to the Erasmus Bridge (Van Berkel and Boss 1996) with its diagonal stays and expressively angled pylon.

Bit like Birmingham Station, but less shallow and more thorough

The scale of new infrastructure in Rotterdam astounds. New road bridges and railway tunnels span the Maas. A vast new Centraal Station was completed in 2013. The concourse is a triangular structure with a dramatically cantilevered and angled roof – and it is not entirely given over to shops and eateries either. Other new stations like Blaak stagger in their scale and style. Rotterdam has 5 Metro lines and innumerable tram lines. This in a city with a smaller population than Leeds, a telling- really quite horrifying - comparison.

Integrated design thinking: how the parts relate to the whole

Where design education is integral  – Delft Technical University

This being in the Netherlands cycles, cycle lanes and stacked up cycle parks are everywhere. However there is still a sense that traffic is far too dominant. This is the legacy of the Basic Plan with its network of dual carriageways which traffic engineers made into expressways. Pedestrians are fourth class citizens after trams, cars and cycles, all with their segregated tracks and traffic lights. So walking about the city centre is a bit of a pain, waiting endlessly for the green man to let you cross the road. The pavements often seem quite empty with little street life. It is sometimes difficult to find even a cup of coffee or a sandwich as neither the post war rebuilding or the big new new developments cater much for small shops..

Rotterdam is impressive, lively, dynamic, confident. It is a great city but one which needs more fine grain, human scale attention. Maybe it needs to emulate Hamburg, its nearest rival as a port, with an ambitious new green agenda. This could start by redesigning its city centre expressways as green boulevards.

This blog is largely based on the C20 Society guided tour ‘100 Years of De Stijl’ led by Susannah Charlton. I have relied heavily on her expositions and quote from her notes. Check out the website https://c20society.org.uk for forthcoming trips.

‘Rotterdam Architecture City’ by Paul Groenendijk et al and recently published is an indispensible guide to recent architecture in the city.

23 Oct 2016

Red Vienna (and the rest too)

Vienna loves council housing

You may be surprised that Vienna, one of the greatest of European cities, is of a similar size to the Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow conurbations. Of course it is the capital of a small country, but the huge difference is that Vienna was capital of a vast multi-national empire which endured for centuries until its collapse in 1918. The legacy of the Habsburgs still shapes the city today.

Vienna loves art & architecture

It is tempting to draw comparison between the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s and the United Kingdom today. There are great differences but many similarities too. Both live(d) on past glories with a massive sense of entitlement and that fin-de-siècle feel of corruption and decay. Their aged and ultra long-serving monarchs provide(d) a flimsy fiction of unity for a country that is deeply divided in every sense. The rising consciousness of long subsumed nations threatens the break up of the supra-national state. Irresponsible oligarchic elites excite the country towards disastrous foreign policy whilst populist politicians play on insecurity and the fear of ‘otherness’: in Vienna the Jews, in England anyone who sounds or looks different. The pampered cosmopolitan capital cities are increasingly detached from, and distrusted by, the rest of the country. Both societies failed to solve their housing crises, Vienna before 1918, as London today, prioritizing luxury apartments rather than social housing.

Where Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre

Well, ok, we can’t push this too far. Austria-Hungary was atomized by war, not its internal contradictions, although these were in part responsible for the war. There is little of the far sighted late Habsburg investment in urban infrastructure in Britain today. I don’t see today’s London architecture, arts and music scene as quite competing with Vienna 1900. But Vienna does have lots of lessons for us, if only we were not quite so determined not to learn them. It consistently comes in the top two or three cities in the world for ‘quality of life’ and however sceptical one may be about aggregating a potpourri of data rankings to determine ‘best and worst cities’, Vienna is self evidently an extremely pleasant, self assured, welcoming and relaxed city.

The forces of darkness in Mittel Europa – The Beethoven Frieze

Vienna is quintessential Mittel Europa, the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, as is obvious from the departures screen of its airport. It is so very different from the rectitude of north Germany with all that Austrian Baroque and fluffy stucco, the onion domes of the Counter-Reformation and that very Imperial heritage. The medieval core of the city is at the confluence of the Wien river with a braid of the Danube, now the Danube Canal; to the west the mountains and to the east the great plain. Today the mighty Danube flowing eastward to the Black Sea is here tamed and straightened with railways and motorways along its banks. It is not very blue.

Hope, suffering, ambition

In the C18 the built up area expanded beyond the tight walls of the medieval city which had withstood Ottoman and other invaders. The walls were demolished in the 1850s and this broad swathe was redeveloped with the creation of the famous ring boulevards. These are lined with vast palaces, parks, the parliament building, city hall, museums, galleries, opera house – Westminster meets South Ken. It is all a bit pompous, overpowering and indigestible, a bit like those rich and over decorated café cakes. However many of the interiors are splendid like the Opera salons, partly rebuilt after war damage, and MAK – Vienna’s V&A. The art collections are superb. The very grand, brick, City Hall looks Hanseatic rather than Imperial, possibly deliberate symbolism.

Wagner's  culverted Wien and Stadtpark

In the 1890s the Wien river was culverted as part of a vast programme of infrastructure improvements for the rapidly expanding town. New urban railways were constructed including one alongside the newly tamed Wien, together with boulevards and new parks. The Stadtbahn linked the railway termini, which were inconveniently built beyond the outer ring of bastions, later demolished and replaced by the Gürtel (girdle) boulevards.

Otto Wagner

The key architect of these improvements was Otto Wagner, who became a leading figure of the Secession movement, the Viennese version of Jugendstil. His standard design for the stations of the Stadtbahn is a classic – simple, functional, elegant and very beautiful. More spectacularly decorated station pavilions built at Karlsplatz, and the Emperor’s own station at Hietzing, are now museums. Wagner also designed much other infrastructure including viaducts and the locks and embankments of the Danube Canal. Along the Wienzeile boulevard you find some of his extraordinary apartment buildings, like the Majolica House (the floral ornamentation actually designed by Ludwig) and the equally spectacular building next door with gilded façade and cornice by Moser, a key figure of the Secession. Later Wagner developed a more austere, functional (if beautifully executed) model for apartment buildings, as at Neustiftgasse 40. He still built elaborate villas for wealthy patrons in the suburbs; his own at Hütteldorf is now a museum. I was unable to see his much admired Church of St Leopold nearby which is only open on Saturday afternoons.

Not exactly the Manchester Metro is it? - Karlsplatz

And we use Trespa - Majolica House

Wagner gave Emperor Franz Joseph his own Stadtbahn station

Wagner’s most spectacular building is the Postsparkasse savings bank (1903-12), a key buildings of modernism. Externally it has a simple clarity, faced with marble mounted with aluminum capped bolts. Aluminum is also used on the canopy supports and for the amazing statues which crown the building. Yet more spectacular is the bank’s cash hall with its vast glass, iron and aluminum roof. This is complemented by the most beautifully and functionally detailed furniture and fittings. There is a small museum display of the building.

Postsparkasse savings bank

Very early, and very swish, modernism

The most famous building of the Secession is its exhibition hall designed by Olbrich in 1897, a series of chaste white cubes topped by a fantastical ‘golden cabbage’. It caused a scandal, as it was meant to. Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibited there and was much admired. (Margaret MacDonald is on display at MAK). Klimt’s famous frieze, an interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, was displayed too and now restored is on permanent exhibition. It is a disturbing piece, not at all like those somewhat kitsch Klimt posters that used to adorn every student flat. His actual works appear much more nuanced than reproductions and are a real eye opener. But for me the stand out Viennese artists are Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, who sock you in the eye with their raw emotional power. Both died in their 20s – Gerstl killed himself when Schoenberg’s wife ended their affair and Schiele was a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic. Visits to the Leopold and Belvedere galleries are an absolute must. The Architecture museum is very good too.



Adolf Loos famously rejected the Secession and declared ‘ornament is crime’. This is not entirely apparent at his American Bar, which incorporates marble, onyx, mahogany, brass and very cleverly used mirrors to transform a tiny space into a deeply satisfying and comfortable experience. It is a pity that the exterior, with its angular canopy featuring a stylized American flag, is compromised by a dreadful awning and crappy advertising. Vienna is not quite so respectful of its icons as you might expect – his Café Museum opposite the Secession has been buggered too. The famous ‘house without eyebrows’ opposite the Hofburg Palace, which so annoyed Emperor Franz Joseph, offended not so much by being proto-modern with its flat elevation having no sills or lintels as by its revival of classical forms which were anathema to the bourgeoisies. It is somewhat insensitive that the façade today is adorned with window boxes. You can wander into Loos’s Knize menswear shop on Graben, like a Tardis, and marvel at his manipulation of space (as well as the prices). Nearby are the Loos loos, a model of elegant simplicity. Loos’s capacity for provocation is also very evident with his villas in the swanky Hietzing district. Whilst Wagner’s students were designing amazing extravagances like the Schokoladehaus, with shiny brown glazed majolica reliefs, Loos’s nearby 1910 Steiner house presents a metal barrel roof to the street. His Scheu house of 1912 caused outrage with its unadorned façade and stepped flat roofs.

Loos House has no eyebrows, so why window boxes?

Ornamental restraint and similarities with Rennie Mackintosh

The Loos loos

Schokoladehaus, dark 70% cocoa 

Steiner house upset the neighbours

Scheu was a Social Democrat and the influential public housing movement met at his house. Vienna’s working class tenements were notoriously cramped and squalid and when democracy came with defeat in 1918 the new Social Democratic city administration put Scheu in charge of housing. ‘Red Vienna’ was responsible for a remarkable programme of council house building. In the decade before the Clerico-Fascist putsch of 1934 the city built more than 60,000 flats, re-housing about 10% of the city’s population. This was made possible by the Wohnbausteuer, a radical tax on more expensive houses and luxury goods specifically to fund social housing. I did say Vienna had a lot to teach us.

Karl Marx Hof

The success of the housing programme was partly because the Social Democrats pursued a pragmatic approach to design and construction, building on Viennese traditions rather than following radical theories like those of Corbusier or the Bauhaus. The construction is conventional brick and render, partly because Vienna had no tradition of new building techniques and anyway the objective was to provide work for as many of the unemployed as possible. The flats were small, based on model tenements derived from English example. They lacked bathrooms and central heating – these were too expensive at the time. The City bought land cheap and it benefitted from earlier municipal investment in the Stadtbahn, trams, gas, electricity, water, flood prevention and the magnificent sewers, a backdrop to Carol Reed’s late-expressionist masterpiece ‘The Third Man’.

No 'poor doors' here

The most famous icon of Red Vienna is the Karl Marx Hof, built on a vast scale and over a kilometre long. The name and its dominant, fortress-like presence are a deliberate and defiant statement of working class and Social Democrat power. The design by Karl Ehn was completed in 1930. At first impression it looks not so much Modernist as Post-Modern in its scale, bright colours and employment of large scale, simplified motifs like the arches. The arches are not structural but symbolic and give permeability; the grand arches opposite Heiligenstadt U bahn station were apparently provided to cater for football crowds heading for the nearby stadium. But they also present a real sense of grandeur for what was conceived of as a palace for the people. The Karl Marx Hof was very influential and its grand arch motif is imitated in many of George Lansbury’s LCC estates.

The neighbouring, more intimate courtyard blocks

The central courtyard blocks are nine stories high. Above the arches are displayed secular icons to freedom, knowledge, health and the community. Other courtyard groups are lower and more intimate but all are grouped around large gardens with playgrounds, schools, crèches, surgery, shops, restaurants, laundries and public baths (as the flats had no bathrooms). There was an agency to help residents furnish their small flats; Viennese furniture was too big and heavy, like that crammed into Goldfinger’s Willow Road terrace by his Austrian mother-in-law. The Karl Marx Hof was the scene of a battle in the brief civil war of 1934 and prior to recent improvements, including new insulation, you could apparently still see the bullet holes.

The Reuman Hof

Matteotti Hof

Akin to the Amsterdam School – Matteotti Hof

The other major concentration of Red Vienna council housing is along the Margareten Gürtel, the ‘Boulevard of the Proletariat’. These flats are less monumental and fit into a pre-existing block structure but are nevertheless very impressive. They were built slightly earlier in the 1920s, in different styles by a variety of architects; Loos had been appointed as chief architect but his schemes were not accepted. The more purist German Social Democrats called the resultant lack of a unifying style ‘chaos’. The Reuman Hof, named after the first Social Democrat mayor, is fairly typical, built around a large garden courtyard with his statue in the middle. Like most of the Margaretan Gürtel flats it looks like the sort of mansion blocks you might easily find in Marylebone, possibly Nice or even Miami. This was deliberate – they were meant to be as impressive as the housing of the bourgeoisie. The Matteotti Hof, named after the assassinated anti-fascist Italian, is strictly modernist. What distinguishes the buildings as council flats is the proud lettering on their main façades, noting that they were commissioned by the City Council and paid for by the Wohnbausteuer tax. Today they have not been sold off and are generally fairly well maintained, although with some signs of stress around the edges. Some of the courtyard gardens are now gated, but fortunately most can still be visited.

This is not 70s sci-fi art, this is actually real, Alterlaa

Well maintained 

The Social Democrats regained power after World War II and continued a programme of building council house blocks, opportunistically on various sites across the city. In the late 1960s a grander building programme was deemed necessary which resulted in vast estates like Alterlaa. The scale of this is fairly mind blowing, as if Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre flats in Nottingham, but on steroids. The three gargantuan blocks designed by Harry Glück are remarkable with their stepped profile and stacked-up green balconies, but what is more remarkable is their beautiful and well maintained parkland setting – eat your heart out Alice Coleman. In fact the only part of the complex which is not well maintained is the crummy shopping centre between the U bahn station and the flats.

Courtyard enclosure ... 

... and impressive scale, Am Schöpfwerk

Next stop on the U bahn is Am Schöpfwerk – another massive estate but on a grid system around landscaped courtyards with mostly medium rise blocks. This is a more familiar example to British eyes, the difference being that it is far, far better maintained and has fantastic public transport connectivity. The design has an admirable simplicity of form and a clarity of organization. However despite the huge success of Vienna’s council house programme, in Austria today social housing has to be delivered by private developers. It is subsidized by the federal government but still ends up being much more expensive to rent than the city’s own council housing – which in theory at least is still open to all EU citizens.

Tram spotters' paradise

A striking thing about Vienna is the excellence of its public transport system, one of the best in the world according to UTIP. The foundations were laid before the first World War with the building of the Stadtbahn, originally steam like the Metropolitan line and electrified in 1924. Orbital railways provided the basis for the extensive S bahn network and a very comprehensive tram system was constructed. But extensions to the system had to wait until the 70s, since the Social Democrats prioritized the building of housing in the inter and post war years. In 1969 three new lines were constructed (U1, U2 and U3), which tunnel under the heart of the city.

The old platforms, restored ... 

...  and the modern, remodeled

The generously scaled city centre stations have expansive underground concourses and the platforms are spacious with wide exits at either end (which can lead to some confusion – you are signposted to your line in two different directions!). The platforms of the new lines are all to a very elegant standard design with a simple plastic form, I imagine conceived as a modern reinterpretation of Wagner’s work. At the same time the Stadtbahn was upgraded as lines U4 and U6. Wagner’s entrance pavilions were mostly retained and additional entrances with escalators or lifts provided at the opposite ends of the platforms, the platforms themselves often remodeled in the new corporate plastic style. Although retained, many of Wagner’s structures have been carelessly treated with inappropriate kit, tat and advertising but some such as Stadtpark are now being fully restored to the original designs.

The Vienna U bahn and TRON. Courtesy Marcin Skrzątek

The U bahn is frequent, very fast and uber convenient. It provides seamless integration with the S bahn and mainline train services (although there is a long walk at the new Hauptbahnhof). The tram system is amazingly extensive, frequent and a lot of fun but can be slow because the trams have little priority over general traffic. Buses mostly run as outer suburban extensions to the U bahn and tram lines, or as orbital routes. They are remarkably frequent, running every five or ten minutes. Needless to say ticketing is completely integrated and what is really civilized is that there are no barriers at stations, you just validate your ticket and the general presumption is that you are not a fare dodger, unlike authoritarian Britain. It is worth emphasizing that Vienna is a relatively small city – no London or Paris or even Berlin, more the size of Manchester or Birmingham. Of course it is pointless to speculate how investment in public transport on the Viennese model would transform those cities as this is simply inconceivable, but it would of course shoot them up the ‘quality of life’ and productivity league tables.

New Central station - the bit that is not all about shopping and eating

Vienna had various terminal stations like London, but main line trains now all go from the new Hauptbahnhof. This is part of a big regeneration plan which aims to overcome the great barrier between the inner and outer suburbs created by the tangle of railway lines into the old East and South stations. Early evidence for the success of this plan is not too encouraging. The Hauptbahnhof, designed by Wimmer, Hoffmann and Hotz, is like an inverted Birmingham New Street. You approach by long, wide subways like a shopping centre mall, all glitzy shops and eateries and nothing to do with trains. Eventually you find the platforms at the upper level, so somewhat better than New Street. The platform canopies are quite stylish, especially seen from a distance. The entrance from the (un-crossable) Wiedner Gürtel is glass and projecting canopies; simple, even sparse but a dignified refuge from the chaos of traffic and mall-dom. New development around the station is fairly dreary, all chain hotels and glass offices on windswept streets. However the new campus for the Erste group on the old South Station site, designed by Henke Schreieck Architects, is more promising: an arrangement of relatively low rise, curving glass blocks in subtle relationship to each other, possibly inspired by Vienna’s UN buildings. It is not great architecture but it is competent and confident, the height respecting the Belvedere Schloss nearby, a World Heritage Site. How very different from the approach at Liverpool Waters.

Erste group campus, very Sir Owen Williams

If you get the train from the airport you will arrive at the more central Mitte Station. (Don’t get the rip-off CAT express – the S7 is much cheaper and hardly takes any longer). Mitte was redeveloped in the 90s and is just like New Street, trains in the bowels of the earth and you emerge into a torrid and disorientating shopping centre. However it does have good U and S bahn connections and, if you can find your way out to the street, the building structure devoid of advertising junk looks quite impressive. The peaceful Stadtpark nearby is a welcome relief.

This Secessionist stuff is everywhere – Cafe Rudigerhof

Given the delights of Secession Vienna and the relevance of Red Vienna, we had little time to explore more recent architecture. We did not get to see the sculptor Fritz Wotruba’s extraordinary concrete church on the outskirts. We did see the Wittgenstein House, designed by Paul Englemann in 1926 for the famous philosopher and his sister. It is a modernist paradigm expressing ‘a vision of form perfection outside styles and times’ but like the Villa Savoye, it was not really a place to live in. Hermine Wittgenstein said ‘it seemed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than a small mortal like me’, and it is now a cultural institute. Relatively nearby is the eccentric Gaudi-lite Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser, which seems rather trite, like the Po-Mo which Vienna seems fond of, for example the 1990 Haas-Haus on Stephansplatz, opposite the very wonderful cathedral. Hmmmm.

All forethought and no play – Wittgenstein House

All play and no forethought – Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser

The Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, designed by Oswald Heartl in 1959, is beautifully detailed with fine internal spaces. The central courtyard has been roofed over recently. Amongst other displays is a modernist living room designed by Loos, and a small but exquisite collection of Vienna 1900 art. A major revamp and extension is planned. In the park between the Belvedere and the Hauptbahnhof you find the 21er Haus, a reconstruction of the Austrian pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Expo, which, when we saw it, was housing a beautiful wooden temple reclaimed by Ai Wei-Wei. The simple geometry of the 2002 temporary Kunsthalle at Karlsplatz also seems set to remain as permanent exhibition space. Rachel Whiteread’s ‘nameless library’ Holocaust-Denkmal memorial in Judenplatz to the 65,000 Viennese Jews murdered by the Nazis is very moving.

The Wien Museum - a study in time and space 

Austrian pavilion from the 1958 Brussels Expo

In 1955 Khrushchev agreed to Russian withdrawal from Austria on condition of its permanent neutrality. Vienna has used this neutral status very effectively to revive its position as a great international city. The United Nations has one of its largest headquarters there in the Vienna International Centre, established on the east bank of the Danube in the 1970s. This has its own station on the U1 but it is worth getting off at Donauinsel station on the immensely long, thin island park in the middle of the mighty river, largely populated by very polite punks and goths. From here you get a good view of the conurbation and the hills beyond. The UN is now subsumed into Vienna’s version of Canary Wharf, including its tallest building at 60 stories, the slightly wonky DC Tower of 2013 by Dominique Perrault with a shorter sibling under construction. The rest of the ensemble doesn’t merit much attention. The really awful thing is that there is no urban structure or public realm, although the covered way leading to the Austria Centre is quite elegant. Overall it is a non-place, but note the small church opposite the VIC U bahn station, trying to tell a very different story from the surrounding towers of Mammon.

Gary Neville would love this – commerce towers over United Nations

The UN complex is literally international – you need a passport to get past the gun-toting guards, so we only saw it from outside. The Lonely Planet guide says ‘ this complex was a picture of modernism way back in 1979; today it looks less than fab’. Designed by Johann Staber, the semi-circular towers with their powerfully solid ‘bookends’, arranged around an arena as a symbolic way of expressing international relations, are very dignified and appropriate. They still seem pretty fab to me.

At the centre of Europe and the World

Thanks to Owen Hatherley and Anne Lloyd-Thomas for their advice.

Dr. Christa Veigl gave us an excellent tour of Red Vienna www.wien-architektur-tour.at

Jannon Stein’s article ‘The Propaganda of Construction’ in Jacobin Magazine is very useful on Red Vienna. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-propaganda-of-construction/

Falter Verlag’s City Walks 1 on Viennese Jugendstil provides very useful itineraries covering most of the best Secession architecture and has good, short expositions on the movement.