The Architecture of Secession

The new-found Union of Austrian Artists sought to push design as a whole toward an idealistic freedom and away from stagnant values and commercial tastes. The group quickly rose to international fame due to its forward-thinking membership that included artists, designers, sculptors, painters. and architects. Architecturally, these great minds included Otto Wagner, and many of his students and proteges, such as Joseph Maria Obrich, Joseff Hoffman.

Otto Wagner. Austrian Newspaper “Sport und Salon”, April 21, 1918, p. 8

Joseph Maria Olbrich. 1908. Source: Berliner Architekturwelt 1908, S. 201.

Joseff Hoffman. 1902. Stadtchronik Wien, Verlag Christian Brandstädter, p. 379.

The first fundamental architecture of the movement was the Secession Building. It was built over six months in 1898, and financed by the sale of art, and by benefactors such as Karl Wittgenstein (father of philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein). It became the principal gallery space, headquarters for the movement, and temple to the community’s evolving ideologies.

The Secession Building served as the focal point of the group, and an exhibition hall for their works. Photo by Jorit Aust.

Joseph Olbrich’s dome. © WienTourismus / Christian Stemper.

Secession Building Dome Detail. Thomas Ledl. August, 2011.

The Secession Building was a radical statement for its time. It provoked mixed reactions. Press of the time describe how passers-by would stare, in excitement, shock, awe, and would continue away, unable to resist glancing back over their shoulders for another look. The form was familiar, yet distinct, thought to be inspired by the architect’s travels through Italy and North Africa. Detractors criticized it as being a takeoff of Egyptian, Assyrian and Mesopotamian form, and in some circles it was fondly (or not fondly) referred to as the ‘Golden Cabbage.’

The Secession Building facade, featuring Gustav Klimt’s quote and the three gorgon’s heads.

The Vienna Secession Gorgons.

In reality, it was all of these things. The building features a centrally placed door and entry stair. Symmetrically to either side is a windowless box, with only a sparse entablature capping the blank stucco wall. The composition is designed to draw your focus to the center, where above the entry are three gorgon’s heads representing the foundational arts; painting, sculpture, and architecture. The entry door is surrounded by a large-scale applique of a forest motif, with graphic trunks descending below golden leaves.  On top of the building rests a large globe constructed of gilded leaves, and the frieze below displays Klimt’s iconic quote, “To every age its art, to every art its freedom”; the spirit of the movement.

Keeping with the Wagner-inspired quest towards ‘functionalism’ the temple is said to have performed admirably. It was praised as an ideal venue for displaying the quickly evolving world of contemporary art.

Design plans.

Design plans.

Interestingly, this was not achieved through radical thinking, but through a balanced, bi-laterally symmetrical layout. The sequence leads you up the main stair into a cruciform entry hall, and then into the bright, open gallery: a large square room flanked by three classically-proportioned galleries.

An exhibition room.

An exhibition room.

According to Secession writer Hermann Bahr, ‘… we enter the building. Here everything is dictated by function alone. Here there was no attempt to please in a frivolous way, to show off or dazzle. This is no temple or palace, but a space which will allow works of art to be shown to their greatest possible effect. The artist has not asked himself: how do I make it so that it looks best? But: how do I make it so that it best fulfils its functions, the needs of new tasks, our demands?’

And, to understand the spirit of the work, the words of the Architect:

‘With what joy did I give birth to this building! It arose from a chaos of ideas, an enigmatic clue of the lines of feeling, a confusion of good and bad; not easy! There were to be walls, white and shining, sacred and chaste. Solemn dignity should pervade. A pure dignity that overcame and shook me as I stood alone before the unfinished temple at Segesta. There I conceived the germ of that contempt with which I face clumsy pieces of work that are concerned with everything but with warmth, with the heart. And when I understood the task with the heart, when the inner feeling grew louder than mind and spirit, then I also had the fortitude to produce what I felt, and it was born!’

The three owl detail.