Let’s have another look at the beautiful site where Otto Wagner’s stunning Kirche am Steinhof is located. It’s an iconic Art Nouveau structure I’ve written about before (last December in fact), and many readers commented positively when I described Wagner’s church, located at the top of the hill overlooking the district. So I’m now happy to announce that the post I wrote has been expanded to include a photo album. This visual tour of the church can be viewed together with the post by clicking the title (The Most Beautiful Art Nouveau Church in the World). The photographs are also available separately at Vienna-Kirche-am-Steinhof.
For some time, the grounds of the surrounding campus, located in Penzing, the 14th district of Vienna, have been the home of the Otto-Wagner-Spital. As part of a major restructuring for the hospital and its services, this important institution will now be renamed “Klinik Penzing” on August 1, 2020. After the change, one-third of the area will become the new location of the Central European University (CEU), moving from Budapest to Vienna and expected to be in full operation for the winter semester 2022/23.
For the surrounding parkland, there will be other changes (as there have been already with the construction of some apartment houses in the more distant parts of the grounds). And the central focal point will continue to be the church, which can be seen from quite a distance. And it is the large gilded dome of the church – seen from afar – that has given the hospital and its grounds the nickname of “Lemoniberg” (which in some translations comes out as “lemon mountain”). The park-like complex continues to be open and is widely used as such, both by local residents and hospital patients, and will continue to be open as a park.
When exiting the church and making the attempt, as all visitors do, to clear our minds after that rather breath-taking experience, a short stroll down the hill takes us past one of the few confirmed Otto Wagner designs (other than the church) that are dotted throughout the park. These are the lovely lampposts, reminiscent (to me) of the decorative and utilitarian Art Nouveau ironwork built throughout Paris at about the same time. Looking at these and enjoying the sleek flowing designs, we move on to another of the site’s special Art Nouveau creations, the hospital’s Art Nouveau Theater. Although frequently misattributed to Otto Wagner, this is not one of his works (sadly I do not remember the name of the designer if it was told to me). But it doesn’t matter who designed it; the building itself is a special experience. It is unfortunately in a state of desuetude and while plans for its restoration are apparently discussed from time to time, the space has obviously not been used for years.
But it lives on, even if unused. When I was there, I was impressed that even though the theater is in an overall sad state of repair, the floors and wall tiles were clean and well-washed. So someone is looking out for this beautiful space, even if it is not being used for anything. And it does turn up in conversations in Vienna (especially between Viennese hosts and non-Viennese visitors), usually as the subject of yet another story about the Emperor. The story is probably apocryphal, but who knows? It is said that at the opening reception for the new theater, when asked about the style, the Emperor’s disdain was apparent when he said that “The Maria Theresa style is still unsurpassed in beauty.” Or, according to someone else, perhaps it wasn’t the Emperor but Archduke and Crown Prince Francis Ferdinand. And perhaps he wasn’t talking about the theater but about the church. Or about something else.
But it doesn’t matter, does it? And it certainly doesn’t interfere with the visitor’s enjoyment of the beauty of the place. Indeed, the Art Nouveau design of the theater – despite its sad neglect – is much appreciated, as is that of the church.
And I’m especially enchanted with how the designs of both have been used in the not-too-distant past and in, of all circumstances, in the designs of the Vienna Staatsoper for its two last productions of Wagner’s Parsifal. In the first – some years back – the opening act usually takes place on the edge of a forest. In the production I’m remembering, the first act seems to be happening in a space that, I suppose, is meant to represent (on one side of the stage) the sleeping quarters for the character Gurnemanz, complete with a chaise lounge. The overall design depicts the Art Nouveau designs of a large and quite expansive washroom – very like the one pictured at the right – on the other side of the stage. It even includes a circular wall, complete with sinks, each with what appears to be a relatively modern, stainless-steel faucet. And that’s it. All the ceremonial activity of Act One is performed in this setting, and in this now-replaced production, as I remember it, Acts Two and Three don’t seem to have any unifying design (except for much darkness).
The Staatsoper’s current Parsifal from 2008 (to be replaced in the 2021-2022 season, if there is a season at the opera house) isn’t any longer connected with the Art Nouveau designs of the theater’s washroom. It goes the whole way and dramatically presents the entire opera in variations of designs taken from Otto Wagner’s church just up the hill at the hospital. And it does connect with the hospital, for the entire opera appears to be set in a hospital or mental institution completely built around various designs used for the church, even down to the four angels on the large roof over the entrance to the church, as seen in this photograph taken by the Staatsoper’s Michael Pöhn. The set’s visual impact is certainly extremely grand, and one that caused a great deal of controversy, despite the beauty of the overall picture. Indeed, Jens F. Laurson, writing in Forbes ten years after the production was first introduced, referred to it as “…a portmanteau of Otto Wagner visuals and works of his Viennese Secession friends, the Vienna State Opera’s Parsifal is often gorgeous to look at, and offers nothing to remember, except a vague sense of frustration and of an opportunity widely missed.”
That kind of response is perhaps a bit over the top but that’s OK. This particular setting for this very special opera (it’s unlike any other opera) is definitely “gorgeous to look at.” Still, there was from this viewer’s point of view, that “vague sense of frustration” Larson mentioned. And whether it was the intention of Producer Alvis Hermanis or not, it was for some (for me, I suppose) a bit distracting. Again, I didn’t mind because with the special attachment I have to the church itself and to Otto Wagner and his work, it makes a certain level of sense for the great man to haave been so honored ninety years after his death. The set combines several motifs from both the interior and exterior of the church and, as Laurson mentioned, visuals of other Wagner works, including the famous design for the Karlsplatz Station, one of the most sensitive squares in Vienna. I suppose when I get right down to it, I do not mind seeing these “gorgeous” designs juxtaposed in this way.
Back at the Otto-Wagner-Spital Art Nouveau Theater, derelict as it is, the overall design is truly lovely, and I’m tempted to wonder if any of the Art Nouveau ideas of the theater did not come from Wagner. Inside the building, the foyers, a gallery and stage area, and the stunning wardrobe area (with its decorated wooden panels and beautifully designed tiles, similar to those in the washroom, with lovely details of delicate paintings and leaf ornamentation) all come together in a feast for the Art Nouveau lover’s eyes. The main auditorium, crowned with a stunning glass chandelier, simply emphasizes all the beautiful Jugendstil elements of the building. As for what the building was used for over the years, there doesn’t seem to much evidence as to its purpose, and since the theater was shut down in the 1930s anything we hear about its use since then is mostly just a guess. It might have been used for a variety of purposes, for some hospital documents refer to the theater building as a “social house” for the patients, but we don’t really know. Just that its lovely Jugendstil elements have not been seen for years except for the occasional lucky Art Nouveau fan who is able to arrange a private visit with a special and very knowledgeable guide.
Click here to see more photos of the Otto-Wagner-Spital site: Otto-Wagner-Spital
Click here to see more photos of the church: Vienna-Kirche-am-Steinhof.