After a long break, I am very pleased to continue this series of posts focusing on Vienna and Art Nouveau (or to be more precise, “Secessionsstil,” as Art Nouveau is called when we speak of the movement as it was taken up in Vienna, or even “der Wiener Jugendstil,” in some circles). Within this context, it makes sense to continue my homage to the work of Otto Wagner (1841-1918).
Not surprisingly, the name of this great master architect, in the thinking of many admirers of Secessionsstil, comes up often. Almost any time we speak about the “look” of Vienna, Otto Wagner’s buildings and architectural principles come into the conversation. As an admirer, I am no exception, and Wagner’s work is central to the purpose of this current series of posts, starting with the attention I gave in December 2019 to the Kirche am Steinhof, also called the Church of St. Leopold.
By that time, though, I had already realized that it would be appropriate to approach Wagner’s work with admiration. As early as 2017, I had found myself associating Secessionsstil with Wagner, so I’ve been thinking about his work for some time. Even earlier, when meeting in 2008 with Renata Kassal-Mikula, Director of the Wein Museum (and being particularly pleased when she signed her new book on Otto Wagner for me), I was certainly giving thought to Wagner and his influence on Viennese architecture.
Now I can be a little bolder and give attention to one of Wagner’s buildings that not only pleases me but others as well. From what I can gather from visits to other buildings he designed and from what I’ve read about his overall work, this building, the Österreichische Postsparkasse (the Austrian Postal Savings Bank) stands out. How it came to be, with its individual approach to the building of great monumental headquarters for one of the country’s most important government agencies (founded only in 1883), is a fascinating story. In this case, I especially like the story as told in one of my favorite books about Vienna, Architecture in Vienna 1850 to 1930, by Bertha Blaschke and Luise Lipshitz.
Planning for the Postsparkasse began in the 1890s, when it became necessary to solve construction problems in the Stubenring area. To everybody’s surprise, including the architect’s, Otto Wagner won the competition in 1903 although his proposal did not match competition requirements. Perfect symmetry was Wagner’s guiding principle when he designed the five-point layout plan.
Blaschke and Lipshitz went to Joseph August Lux, Otto Wagner’s biographer, to find the best words for describing the building (still accurate today, in my opinion):
Nothing about the Postsparkasse reminds us of ‘free Renaissance style’. No reminiscence of historical styles, no Palazzo architecture, no monumentality taken from architectural history. Instead, everything is functional. The materials used command attention. Ferroconcrete, glass, aluminum, hard rubber, etc., those are the materials this building is made of. All of them are new! … Otto Wagner discovered them. He may not have invented these materials, but he did give them their current importance, discovered their functional architectural application.
Blaschke and Lipshitz mention the 1903 competition, and Andrew Berner, sharing his scholarly knowledge of architecture, told the story in an informal presentation he gave for visitors to Vienna in 2019: “Otto Wagner’s contribution was certainly the most carefully worked out of all suggestions submitted to the jury of the competition,” Berner said, noting that “Wagner was the only participant [in the competition] able to combine the vision of a new Postal Savings Bank with that of a new, modern architecture.”
“It was,” Berner concluded, “an extremely rare event in the history of architecture to see a visionary task coincide with visionary architecture, with client and architect pursuing the same content and objective.”
It is hard to go anywhere in or near Vienna without finding examples of Wagner’s work, or the work of some other architect showing his influence. He had built up a large following through his work at the Vienna Academy, where he taught from 1884 to 1913, and it seems that almost all the important Viennese architects of the late-19th or early-20th were his pupils at one time or another.
We can see why they were so attracted to Wagner and his work, and it is a point well made by Elizabeth Merrill in her description of the Postsparkasse. In November 2015, she wrote in Smarthistory that in his 1896 manifesto Modern Architecture, Wagner expressed his ideal of practical and efficiently designed architecture:
The purpose of beauty is to give artistic expression to function. Extraneous ornament, therefore, is not only impractical and inefficient, it is also decidedly unmodern.
And what are we seeing here? In his informal remarks to his audience, Andrew Berner referred to the Österreichische Postsparkasse as “one of the world’s great examples of modern architecture.” Berner’s description – as does that of Renata Kassal-Mikula – points out that the main façade faces the Ringstrasse. Opposite the Österreichische Postsparkasse is the Government Building (formerly the Imperial Ministry of War), completed in 1913. It was a case of ironic timing, as Berner notes: “…when one considers that a year later the First World War would begin, leading to the end of the Hapsburg dynasty.”
The two buildings could not have been more different. One looking resolutely to the past, and to the glories of an empire that would soon come to an end; the other totally forward looking in its modern approach and its desire to create a workplace that was both attractive and hygienic (the use of a great deal of steel and glass made cleaning easier). The Postsparkasse’s façade of white marble is studded with large metal “rivets” that appear to be holding the marble in place, though in fact they are strictly decorative. Inside, the banking floor, with its glass-block floor (which allows light to reach the lower level) and its glass ceiling, open to the sky, has little in the way of extraneous decoration, and is remarkably elegant. And it comes as no surprise to us to learn that Franz-Joseph – a man not known for his embrace of anything modern – intensely disliked the Postsparkasse and much preferred the empty grandeur of the ministry.
In 2019, at the conclusion of the centennial observance of Otto Wagner’s death and following a major exhibition at the Österreichische Postsparkasse, the building was closed for renovation. As for its intended use, few public statements were published. On December 15, 2021, however, the Austrian Academy of Sciences made the following announcement:
From next year, libraries, laboratories, offices, meeting rooms and other rooms for basic research will be settled in the historic building of the Wiener Postsparkasse on Georg-Coch-Platz in the center of Vienna. Anton Zeilinger, President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), and his Vice-President Arnold Suppan as well as Hans-Peter Weiss, CEO of the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft (BIG), have now signed the lease that will ensure the best possible use of the Art Nouveau architectural gem by the Academy. From the beginning of 2022, humanities, social and natural scientists from the Academy will be able to pursue their research on almost 16,000 square meters and several floors. This will make the ÖAW the largest tenant in the 40,000 m² Post Savings Bank.
At this time in the history of the Österreichische Postsparkasse, much more could be said in support of recognizing Otto Wagner and his influence. To be honest, though, there is probably no better statement in support of his contribution to architecture, in general, and to the architecture of Vienna, than Otto Wagner’s own words:
ETWAS UNPRAKTISCHES KAHN NIE SCHÖN SEIN
WHAT IS IMPRACTICAL CAN NEVER BE BEAUTIFUL
[Additional photos are at Vienna-Austrian-Postal-Savings-Bank]
Share your thoughts. Please send your comments to me at
Unless you prefer otherwise, your comment will be published with the post.