The Angel of the West Facade

June 3, 2011

Previously on the pen, the brush and the needle: In 1888, rich Viennese industrialist Johann Evangelist Zacherl commissioned a new factory building for the thriving family business he’d taken over from his father eight years earlier. The resulting complex of buildings, the Zacherlfabrik, was designed and executed in an Orientalist style and may righteously be described as perhaps the most eccentric piece of fin-de-siècle architecture in Vienna. As fascinating is that building is, however, it’s basically just a curiosity known only to specialists, a slightly bizarre footnote in the city’s architectural history.

Fifteen years later, though, Zacherl secured himself a prominent place in the history books or, at least, in the art history books by commissioning this:

It’s the so called Zacherlhaus (and I don’t think I have to translate this name, do I?). Located at Brandstätte 6 in Vienna’s city centre, it served both as the family’s city residence and as office building for Zacherl’s company which by then was operating on an international level, with establishments all over the world from Constantinople to Philadelphia. Designed by Slovenian born Joze Plecnik (1872-1935) in 1903 and finished in 1905, the Zacherlhaus is considered the first truly modern building in Vienna’s inner city.

Plecnik was a student of Vienna’s art-nouveau superstar Otto Wagner, but while Wagner’s buildings – no matter how monumental – always have something light about them, Plecnik’s Zacherlhaus comes across as somewhat gloomy and imposing. This has, of course, a lot to do with the fact that he chose to cover the facade with grey granite slabs. Also, the massive cornice on top of the building doesn’t exactly help to lighten things up, nor do the massive black atlantes which support the cornice…

Both the atlantes (by famous sculptor Franz Metzner [1870-1919]) and the granite slabs contribute largely to the building’s modernist aesthetics. So much in fact that, despite the date of its construction and despite the architect’s training in Otto Wagner’s school, one hesitates to label the Zacherlhaus as art-nouveau. Rather, with its slick polished surfaces it almost seems to anticipate the art deco aesthetics of the 1920s and the 1930s.

Some elements of the building, however, are decidedly art-nouveau, especially the huge metal sculpture of the archangel Michael which adorns the facade:

This figure was made by Austrian painter/sculptor Ferdinand Andri (1871-1956) who would go on to become president of Vienna’s Secession just after the Zacherlhaus was finished. And indeed, this sculpture of St. Michael is a perfect example of the style propagated by Vienna’s Secession movement, the angel’s wings and armour exquisite pieces of art-nouveau ornament:

But why would a wealthy industrialist in early 20th century Vienna install a monumental image of St. Michael on the facade of his house anyway? The answer is quite simple: According to the Biblical tradition, it’s the archangel Michael who overcomes Satan and all evil spirits. He was therefore chosen by Zacherl as a (slightly far-fetched and somewhat blasphemous) symbol of the product which had made the Zacherl family rich,…

Zacherlin ad, 1907 (Image from Wikimedia Commons, © by Afernand74)

Zacherlin, the insecticide guaranteed to overcome all evil bugs and midges.

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