In the 14th district of Vienna (Penzing to its friends) one finds two villas, side-by-side, constructed by the great Jugendstil architect Otto Wagner to be his personal residences. I visited them last weekend, and to be honest, I’ve gone a little blog silent while I struggled with how to talk about what you’ll see if you make your way up there. Because what you think of the Wagner Villas (Villas I and II as they’re known) will really depend on your relationship to Wagner himself.
In that regard, I will go ahead and say that I’m a big fan of Otto Wagner. He was a remarkable figure. An architecture professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he bucked tradition and the likely goodwill of his colleagues in 1897 when he became one of the founding members of the Secession, the exhibition arm of Jugendstil, or Viennese Art Nouveau. He was at the time also in the midst of a massive urban planning effort aimed at restructuring Vienna’s transit and water systems from their medieval conditions into the infrastructure of a modern city. We can and will talk about these designs another time — but in short, if you ever ride the U4 or U6 U-Bahn lines; ride the tram around the Ringstrasse; walk along the Danube Canal; cross the Gürtel; or in a variety of other ways make use of Vienna’s public structures, you are interacting with Wagner’s designs. More than anyone else of his milieu (far moreso than, to my mind, his friend and fellow-Secessionist Gustav Klimt, for instance) his late career fully embraced a forward-looking modernity predicated on an essentialized application of classical principles; his Postsparkasse along the Ringstrasse is an exquisite manifesto of modernist regularity and restraint. He was intellectual and self-editing, his style an embodiment of the notions of utility, functionality, and balance.
Unfortunately, that’s not what you’re likely to see if you visit the villas.
Villa I is the first and larger of the two structures, built beginning in 1886, before the Secession was founded. It reflects Wagner’s classical, academic training even as it signals the kind of linearity and modular thinking that are features of his later work. The villa is essentially a Palladian structure, consisting of a square building with a central loggia above a double staircase. The two pergolas to the sides were filled in to become additional interior spaces not long after the initial construction; they extend the building into a long rectangle.
Still, the central block dominates. Note its modular regularity: the four ionic columns (so balanced! So neutral!) paired by four pilasters behind and two niches to the sides, the cornice broken into yet smaller rectangles, even as a decorative play unites these elements.
It’s difficult to establish from historical photographs whether the color is original, but those historical photos do reveal a key difference in the facade from its original appearance.
Here is the Villa as seen in 1888 (note the open pergolas to the sides). And to the left is that facade seen close-up today.
You’ll notice that the rather awful sculpture of a nude woman is not present in historical images. That’s because it wasn’t there. It also used to be painted black, and isn’t any longer, thank goodness, but its off-putting presence will put a viewer immediately in mind of a basic truth of Wagner Villa I. Namely: It’s not Wagner’s Villa anymore.
Wagner Villa I is owned by Ernst Fuchs, an Austrian artist who practices a style called Fantastic Realism (click here to see a sample). To the right is his portrait bust, which he placed on the facade in the center niche of the staircase. He purchased the villa several decades ago and paid for its restoration—it was evidently in quite bad shape. In the process he turned the villa into his personal museum, in addition to making substantial alterations to the interior (and, as we’ve seen, the exterior). On the one hand, he keeps the villa open to the public, unlike the neighboring, privately-owned Wagner Villa II. On the other hand, he charges 11 euros to enter, and has his own idea of what a visitor is there to see. If your interest is in the collected works of Fuchs himself, this is probably money well-spent (he’s had a long career, and it’s a sizable collection). If your interest is in Otto Wagner, or Viennese modernism, you’re going to have a rough time.
Take, for example, the sun room/living room on the far side of the villa. It was originally an open pergola, filled in in 1895 and then finished with stained glass windows (by Adolf Böhm) and a tile floor. Here’s how it looks:
I shouldn’t need to point out the clash between the art and furniture (both by Fuchs) and Wagner’s aesthetic. My personal approach was to try to tune out the more, um, recent additions, and try to visualize the villa’s origins. You can see here a typically 1890s love of floral ornament in the windows; indeed, this room, more than the facade, reflects a Secessionist style. The graphic linearity of some of the details—the ornamental smoke climbing to allude to columns and harmonizing with the repetitive play of bending and straight lines that modularize the ceiling, as well as the snake design in the floor (line becomes life)—are elegantly Wagnerian. I love the way he restricts his formal vocabulary and then digs structure and meaning out of it:
In the main salon, one has a similarly clashing experience, where Fuchs’ massive painting and equally massive couch/bed dominate the otherwise cool, rectilinear space:
The decor is pretty awful, really. The fact is, Wagner’s style is about an elegant play between utility and ornament. He does not, like Adolf Loos, for instance, reject the notion of ornament; but it plays out within a sense of the use and overall coherence of the space.
Fuchs seems to be governed by an entirely different idea — there’s a kind of gratuitous opulence and excess to the aesthetic of both the art and the furniture added to the villa. And if that’s your style, that’s fine, but it’s hard to make a case that it gels very well with Wagner’s ideas.
Of course, Wagner’s is essentially a classical vocabulary, as the grotesque (in the classical sense) ceiling decorations in the main salon make clear:
In places, Fuchs’ alterations are hard to excuse. The hideous figure from the front staircase makes a reappearance as a self-designed wallpaper in the dining room. Again, you might like this sort of thing (though you shouldn’t), but there’s no real case to be made that this self-exploration of a narcissistic libido is a good fit with Wagner’s cooly restrained, geometric aesthetic:
Let’s leave aside what’s been done to the upper floor, where a rather beautiful original mosaic is surrounded by a sloppily-executed sponge-painting of the walls in livid shades. Overall, the experience of the villa was unsavory and in fact kind of creepy (Fuchs keeps a toothbrush under the Wagner-designed mosaic sink upstairs, a detail that merges unpleasantly with the louche, self-designed daybed and the endless images of fetishistically distorted nudes).
The second villa, Wagner Villa II, is directly next door. Wagner sold Villa I and shortly thereafter in 1912 designed Villa II to be a new residence for himself and his wife. He sold it again in 1918. Villa II is a much more assertive statement of Wagner’s modernism — a spare block of a building, its only projection a coffered cornice, its facade a steady rhythm of unarticulated windows.
This flat score—one can almost hear it as music—is uninterrupted all the way across until the door, where the basic linear forms of the rest of the facade concentrate to signal movement through. Rather than a centrally-placed door of a Palladian villa, Wagner emphasises the linear regularity of the facade, the relentlessness of its geometric progress. In its plainness, in its sense of the facade as a weightless sheet, in its use of ornament only to clarify structure (note the way the entire facade is framed by a reduced bead-and-reel device), in its modern materials (a foundation of steel and concrete, aluminum rivets of the same sort used at the Postsparkasse), Villa II signals a radical step forward from Villa I. It is no longer Secession, nor Jugendstil.
Should you go to the Wagner villas? Sure, if you’re in the neighborhood. Just be clear with yourself about what you want to get from the experience, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. And if you only have time for one intensive Wagner excursion, I would much more strongly recommend the Kirche am Steinhof.
But I’ll tell you all about that another time.