Discovering Olbrich [pt. 2]

September 14, 2010

I think you already guessed which of Joseph Maria Olbrich’s building I was alluding to at the end of my last post on the architect’s Viennese oeuvre:

Vienna, Secession

Yes, it is the Secession exhibition hall, built by Olbrich in 1897 for the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs [the Union of Austrian Artists], a group of young avantgardistic artists whose aim it was to change the at the time prevalent conservative artistic climate in Vienna.* The building is often described as an architectural manifesto complementing the young and fresh artistic idea of ‘art as life’ the movement was promoting, not at last because of the prominently featured  mission statement displayed above the entrance of the pavilion:

Vienna, Secession

[to every age its art and to art its freedom]

Vienna, Secession

But also the building’s design was very fresh and unusual: In the spirit of the Secession movement, Olbrich chose a very unacademic approach and created a light and ephemeral modular architectonic ensemble based on the idea of the square as a leading motive; this very unostentatious exterior was complemented by highly functional glazed roofs that guarantee constant daylight within the exhibition hall, as well as by the architect’s typical round ornamental forms and floral ornaments, culminating in a very extravagant dome made of over 3000 gold plated laurel leaves and berries:

Vienna, Secession

Although today the Secession exhibition hall is regarded as one of the most important and prominent art nouveau buildings worldwide, the contemporary reactions to its architectonic appearance were everything else than positive: the rather conservative Viennese bourgeoisie acknowledged it with such flattering names as Krauthappl [‘cabbage head’ in Viennese dialect], ‘Pharaoh’s Tomb’, ‘Grave of the Madhi’ and ‘Temple for Bullfrogs’ – reactions that reflect the contemporary taste accustomed to the rich and pompous forms of historicistic Ringstrassen architecture, as for example displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, built only seven years earlier than the Secession pavilion:

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum (C) Stern

Yet, in the long run, Joseph Maria Olbrich’s idea of a simple yet functional exhibition building proved to be quite ahead of his time. Still, after more than a hundred years, the Secession pavilion is the perfect setting for the display of young, fresh and innovative art:

Vienna, Secession, Exhibition

For further reading: Ralph Beil and Regina Stephan [eds], Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1867-1908: architect and designer of early modernism [Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz/Darmstadt: Mathildenhöhe, 2010]

*Apart from Olbrich, other famous founding members include Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser.

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