Here’s the column on my 2005 trip to Vienna linked to in my last post:
Modernism in Prague and Vienna
June 16, 2005
IN VIENNA AND PRAGUE, built before the divorce of art and architecture, where buildings are encrusted with ornament and statuary, Victoria and I hunted for modern architecture.
In Vienna, on our recent trip, an early modernist building led us on a wild goose chase. We had an hour to kill before seeing Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Staatsoperhaus, so we decided to visit Secession House (1898), by Josef Maria Olbrich, of the Jugendstil movement, which spurned historical styles for Zweck (purpose, as opposed to mere form).
There was a tiny picture of the Secession House in my guidebook, but I kept forgetting what it looked like. We found a building with huge cartoon-like parrots at each corner. Its architect might have been trying to simplify his approach to ornament.
But I checked the guide. After realizing this wasn’t it, we continued down the street. We happened upon a set of bollards that looked more phallic than even bollards normally do. On we walked, but the image of Secession House had again slipped from my mind. When we saw an odd church down the street, we thought that might be it.
It wasn’t. And now we were lost. We abandoned our search for Secession House to find the opera house. Just before we found it, we saw the Secession House — with no time to double back.
Now that I could see it, my serial misidentification of the Secession House seemed remarkably silly of me. It reminded me of the time when I couldn’t find the Seagram Building, in Manhattan. I did not feel silly then, however, because on that stretch of Park Avenue all of the glass boxes looked just like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s prototypical glass box.
Even from a distance, the Secession House was a striking building, crowned by a gilded bronze dome of laurel leaves. As an early modernist, Olbrich clearly had a hard time abandoning ornamentation.
His effort to do so was supremely idiotic. The production of “The Magic Flute” we saw was also idiotic, and for similar reasons. It was staged in a severely modernist fashion. A huge revolving cube that changed color and belched fire and smoke dominated the set. Actors entered through square holes in the cube and in the walls and floor of the stage, and were attired so as to confuse the sexes. In short, the cues needed to figure out the plot of an opera in another language had been eliminated.
Likewise, modern architecture has purged all the cues that tell people what a building is for and how to use it. At least the producers of “The Magic Flute” didn’t mess with the music. You could close your eyes and still enjoy it. Try that with architecture and you might walk into a lamppost, or worse.
On the train to Prague, I suddenly realized that I’d totally forgotten to visit another early modernist building in Vienna. Its architect, Adolf Loos, wrote Ornament and Crime — a criminal act in and of itself, it seems to me, for which he was not imprisoned. But it was his Looshaus (1911) that got him in trouble with Emperor Franz Josef. With its naked walls and frameless windows, it seemed to moon the imperial residence from across Michaelerplatz. Yet Loos was still not thrown in jail. And in fact, by modernist standards, Looshaus is quite attractive. When I realized that I’d forgotten to visit it, I cried out in dismay. (We were in a private compartment, but Victoria will verify my account.) It took me several seconds to recover my equanimity.
One day in Prague, we walked from the Old Town up the Vltava River, looking for a building by Frank Gehry known as the “Dancing Building,” or simply as “Ginger and Fred,” after Rogers and Astaire. We found it easily enough, but not before passing blocks of sumptuous Neoclassical and Art Nouveau apartment buildings that faced the river across Masarykovo Nabrezi. With their over-the-top decoration and dream-world balconies, they seemed to look down their noses at Gehry’s tipsy confabulation.
But try as I might, I could not bring myself to dislike the “crushed can of Coke,” as critic Wilfried Dechau called it after its erection, in 1996.
We saw far worse examples of modernism here and there in Prague, but I recall none in the Old Town. Prague escaped World War II without major damage. Vienna suffered more destruction, but far less than Berlin. In fact, much of Vienna today resembles prewar Berlin. And there is nothing in Vienna like the preening sterility of Potzdammerplatz, in the former East Berlin. After the Cold War, the once glorious plaza, demolished by bombs and left vacant by the communists, was rebuilt by a sinister cabal of the world’s most famous modernists.
Perhaps there are horrifying modernist stretches in Vienna and Prague. Victoria and I certainly did not seek them out, and are glad, if they exist, to have escaped Europe without their finding us.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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