Olbrich Exhibition









Some weeks ago, I dragged [c] to the Leopold Museum to visit the large retrospective dedicated to the oeuvre of Art Nouveau architect Joseph Maria Olbrich [1867-1908].* Although Olbrich certainly was one of the artistic  ‘masterminds’ behind the typical look of Viennese Art Nouveau architecture and a leading personality within the Viennese arts and crafts movement, his name is not as far-famed as for example those of his contemporaries Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann or Gustav Klimt. The large-scale exhibition presents over 300 works by Olbrich, including drawings, water colours, architectural models, furniture, textiles and tableware designed by this universal artist. Additionally, a wide range of old photographs help the visitor to grasp the feeling of the era, and convey a good sense of the intertwinement of architecture and interior design typical for the time. All in all, the exhibition was so inspiring that we decided to do some kind of follow-up by visiting the few but important architectonical imprints Olbrich has left within Vienna before he moved to the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in 1899.

Our first path lead us to a rather obscure building, namely the Clubhaus des Radfahrvereins der Staats- und Hofbeamten [Clubhouse of the Bicycling Association of State and Court Civil Servants] in the Wiener Prater. Although it is situated within half an hour’s walk from our apartment, we did not know of its existence until the exhibition, and therefore were very excited to visit this little hidden design jewel:

Olbrich Clubhouse

Bicycle advertisement

(photo: WAGNER:WERK Museum Postsparkasse der BAWAG P.S.K)

Olbrich got the commission for this building in 1898, at a time when the Prater, although open for the public, still belonged to the reigning Habsburgian family. The fact that the architect was asked to design the Court’s Bicycling Association’s Clubhouse, on the one hand mirrors his at the time growing status as a renowned artist, but also reflects the importance of bicycling as a prestigious sport and pastime for the Fin-de-Siècle Viennese middle and upper classes.The building’s function as a venue for  a sportive elite has not changed during the last 110 years. As you can see from the photograph above, it is still used as a private Clubhouse for a Tennis Club and not accessible without special request. However, the little glimpses one can catch through the trees and hedges nevertheless reveal some of Olbrich’s architectural trademarks, including a very light and rather ephemeral overall appearance and a dominant centre part with a very peculiar round arch form. Interestingly, one comes across such arched shapes in other Viennese architectonical contexts as well:

Wagner Stadtbahn Pavillon

This is one of Otto Wagner’s famous Art Nouveau pavilions which were erected in 1898, in the course of the Stadtbahn [city railway] construction. Wagner [1841-1918] was one of Vienna’s most influential architects and a very important leading figure in developing the modern architectural style the city would become famous for. As the general planner of the urban railway he had a big company with numerous engineers and architects working for him, and in 1893, Joseph Maria Olbrich also joined Wagner’s agency. One thing we learned at the exhibition is, that most of the detailed drawings and plans for the Stadtbahn project were presumably sketched and drawn by Olbrich and that it is therefore very likely  that a considerable part of those particular Viennese Art Nouveau features generally ascribed to Wagner, actually reflect Olbrich’s ideas and style.

Wagner Stadtbahn pavilion Wagner Stadtbahn pavilion

However, there is one particular – very famous – building in Vienna whose attribution to Olbrich is beyond controversy:

Olbrich signature

More on that some other time…

* ‘to drag’ might be a little to harsh a term – although I may be the more active  pursuer of Art Nouveau in general and of Viennese Art Nouveau in particular,  [c] is a very enthusiastic companion of all endeavours in this particular art historical area…



August 26, 2010


Near Solstice. At winter’s dawning. Birds are dancing on my snow. To silent music. [B. Rorem]