Saturday, April 19, 2014

#Hapsburgswag: Otto Wagner and the Viennese subway system

Here are a couple of things that I know. I know that Zoe and I both love it when various figures in American popular culture declare that they'd like to "get my swag on," as evidenced by the Parks and Rec clip below:

I know that we also both share an obsession/fascination with all things Hapsburg. We both have lived in Vienna and have been exposed to fin-de-siecle Viennese culture, which is full of tangly, intertwined cultural threads and fascinating intersections between ethnicity and nationality. Fin-de-siecle Vienna also greatly encapsulates the world of the music theorist Heinrich Schenker, the man whose analytical framework for music has given us the clever gang signs we haughtily flash to the world today. Schenker's world (Schenkerz wurld?) is full of artistic innovations in architecture and crafts, experimentations in music, and fascinating intellectual exchanges on the role of art in society and the nature of man.

In another life (or possibly in this one?) Zoe and I would own a WWI-era Hapsburg food truck known as a Gulaschkanon that would serve up all kinds of tasty Hapsburg-related treats.

Anyway. Our love for this world has led to the creation of the hashtag, #hapsburgswag, which we plan to use in future posts to celebrate the awesomeness that was the Hapsburg empire. This is our inaugural post.

And to kick-start our #hapsburgswag series on Schenkerian Gang Signs, I bring you the Viennese architect Otto Wagner:
An original member of the Viennese Secession movement, Otto Wagner was a baller, y'all. He's most remembered for his work as an architect who designed some of the most famous Jugendstil (the Viennese version of Art Nouveau) buildings in Vienna. Real quick: Jugendstil/Art Nouveau was an international aesthetic movement in Europe between the 1890s-1910s or so, and it's my jam. In Vienna, Jugendstil artists like Gustav Klimt and Max Klinger *ran* that town. I'll profile them later.

Anyway. Whereas Gustav Klimt was mostly a painter and Klinger of course a sculptor, Otto Wagner built some really fascinating buildings in the city of Vienna. Here are a couple of them:

Exhibit A: The Majolica House
Located super-close to Karlsplatz, this apartment building is an excellent example of how Jugendstil in Vienna was a decorative art. Look at that ornamentation on the building!
And I am living for that balcony up there. My drag name is Rococo Baroque, after all. How can I look away from that gold ornamentation?!

In the 1890s, the Viennese government invested money into building a public transportation system which became known as the Wiener Stadtbahn (the official English translation for it was "Vienna Metropolitan Railyway"). And they enlisted Otto Wagner's help in designing many of its subway buildings. The Wiener Stadtbahn is an excellent example of Jugendstil architecture and is a good reminder as well of a time when artists worked closely with cities for the public good. In the name of infrastructure and public spaces. Imagine that.
I grew up riding the U4 line on the subway in Vienna and passed by many of Otto Wagner's buildings every day. 
I honestly had no idea who he was until I was an adult and had an odd sense of deja vu staring at some of his buildings in European history books. And now when I see them, I feel a sense of nostalgia and wonder. I was constantly surrounded by beauty as a kid.

Let me show you all some subway buildings so you can see what Otto Wagner and the city of Vienna accomplished.
Exhibit A: the subway stop Schönbrunn:
And here's the platform for it, too:
Going to Schönbrunn as a kid meant going to the zoo and to the butterfly house (which had adorable kiwi birds in it!) so obviously I loved this station very much.

Here's a dome he designed for the Hietzing subway stop:
And of course, his most famous design was the Karlsplatz subway station.
Wagner really was a pioneer of Viennese modernism. His buildings tend to harken back to ancient Greece in ways similar to other Viennese secession artists, for example. Here, for example, is the original poster for the first exhibition of the Viennese secessionists:
In this poster, Gustav Klimt refers to Greek mythology to show Athena (on the right), goddess of the arts, as she witnesses (with approval) Theseus killing the minotaur. The older practices of art that had been institutionalized by the traditional and historic Vienna Künstlerhaus were dead and a new art (the Vienna Secessionist movement) was emerging triumphant.

Otto Wagner's modernist aesthetic was certainly in agreement with other Secession artist then. Here's his 1886 villa, for example:
Moreover, like other Secession artists, Otto Wagner preached the utilitarian nature of art. Art and architecture can be decorative and ornamental, it can evoke the spirit of antiquity (in a modernist sort of way), yet it can still be functional.

What makes Otto Wagner's subway designs so interesting is that they also prove that art can serve the public. Forward-thinking, modernist, beautiful art can be integrated into daily life on a structural/infrastructural level. Riding the u-bahn in Vienna as a child and quickly speeding past subway stops like Margaretengürtel and Pilgramgasse certainly taught me that.


  1. You were surrounded by beauty as a kid! I did not have the same experience in Southern Ontario and was mainly surrounded by piles of dirt. I distinctly remember when I figured this out after a trip to France in my teen years.

  2. Hietzing was my U-Bahn stop when I lived in Vienna! Thanks for all the beautiful pictures and background :-)