I thought I knew a little bit about Vienna. Chocolate cake, boys’ choirs, prancing horses, waltzing and a bit of Art Nouveau. That stuff (and some of it very good stuff indeed) is abundant in Vienna. But there’s also a different history, one less known, which puts Vienna pretty close to the centre of modernism in Europe. You have to do some digging to get to the gems; many of the main tourist spots are in an imperial tradition of big eagles, grandeur and large spaces through which to march armies. But look again and you’ll find some of the rarer sights of European modernism. The phrase I kept coming back to was “Well, I never knew”. Well, now I do.
Just past the soaring bulk of the cathedral (a huge lump of 14th century Gothic) a side street takes you to the American Bar, a tiny jewel that looks as thoroughly modern as Millie but in fact dates from 1908. Built by Adolf Loos (a recurring name in Viennese architecture) the place is a perfect evocation of dreams of modernity, but with added hooch. Seated in a banquette booth, armed with a gin fizz, one takes in a marble ceiling, mirrors galore, light fittings that speak easily of long nights, a checkerboard floor and a long wooden bar. The American Bar would be special whenever it had been built but coming fully two decades before Mies Van Der Rohe really hit his stride makes it not just lovely, but historically significant.
Central Vienna is surrounded by a road that would make many a modernist shudder. A collection of ‘neos’ romping from Romanesque to Renaissance, from Baroque to Gothic and back again. These huge buildings drip with decoration, reflecting the prevailing tastes of the wealthy and powerful of the day. Vulgar is the word that comes to mind. But inside that autocratic ring you can find a defiant outward-looking face. It’s the Vienna Postal Savings bank and, like the American Bar, it’s a very early example of modernism, dating from 1906. The steel studded structure speaks of a new world, one where form itself is as much decoration as you need and when you get inside that’s emphasised by a massive glass roof filling the space with light. The desks and fixtures, which look unchanged, make you feel like you are steeped in an expressionist film.
A trip on the wondrously cheap and efficient underground takes you outside the centre to another example of new thinking where modernism and socialism meet. Karl Marx-Hof (the name’s a bit of a give-away) is a collection of apartments built in the late 1920’s is a fascinating example of what might be achieved by applying a bit of modern thinking to mass dwelling. Rent-controlled flats, play areas, communal wash-houses, a kindergarten and a library all speak of an optimism that made one writer remark that post-war Vienna was “the most exhilarating social movement of the post-war period in any European country”. The buildings themselves are well worth a visit, with pink brick arches, superb metal frame doors and windows and a brilliant museum in one of the laundries.
The helpful people in the museum directed me to the highlight of a modernist visit to Vienna, the Werkbundsiedlung; a collection of houses and flats from 1932 that formed the centre-piece of a kind of World’s Fair exhibition, showing off the radical ideas of a collection of architects including Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Gerrit Rietveld, Richard Neutra and Jacques Groag (whose wife Jacqueline was later responsible for those way out 50’s fabrics). The houses are all lived in so you have to dream about the interiors and some could do with a touch of repair but you don’t need a lot of imagination to appreciate the storm that these daring designs caused at the time. The visit makes one think of what might have been as 1932 was not as it turned out, a propitious time to be doing something new that smacked of being a bit of a leftie. Hitler and the horror of war weren’t far away and to some extent these houses are only remnants of a broken dream. There’s more, much more, to be found in old shops and, especially, cafes in Vienna and you should also bear in mind that you are no more than two hours away from Brno in the Czech Republic home to Villa Tugendhat, one of the most impressive modernist buildings in the world. You could (we did) combine Vienna and Brno into one trip and make a long weekend into something very special indeed.
Matthew Loukes, well-travelled lover of Modernism, is the author of the Slim Gunter detective novels, published by Soul Bay Press www.soulbaypress.com He travelled to Vienna To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com. Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism