Wagner was a visionary, recognizing that architecture based on the past did not correspond to the political, economic and social dynamics of his time. In response, he created the architecture of the future based on functionality, material, and construction. For the representatives of Viennese modernism, Wagner’s radical drafts meant a shift, and for the guardians of tradition, a provocation. That is why many of his projects remained unfinished, such as the plan for the “City Museum” on Karlsplatz, on the site of which the “Historical Museum of the City of Vienna” was later built, ie today’s “Vienna Museum”.
The exhibition occupies the entire upper floor of the museum, ie. more than a thousand square meters. Thus, this event is three times larger than the usual exhibitions in Vienna. In addition to Wagner’s works, the exhibition presents in detail the artistic, cultural and political context of his creation, as well as unique items that testify to his charisma and fame – precious drawings, models, furniture, paintings and personal items.
Most of the exhibits on display, approximately 500 copies, are part of Wagner’s legacy, which is considered the greatest treasure of the “Vienna Museum” collection. Along with the exhibited objects, top works of partner institutions can be seen in public for the first time, such as, for example, the “Cabinet of Graphics and Drawings” of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the Albertina Museum and others.
The exhibition draws attention to the still current questions that Wagner asked back then: what is the cultural value of architecture, what is the role of art in building cities and how are the quality, aesthetics and functionality of architecture connected?
The main themes of the exhibition – from a metropolitan visionary to a master of disguise
For the first time, the exhibition deals in detail with Wagner’s early phase, in which he was inspired by the famous Viennese ring-shaped street: Ringstraße. Contrary to the contemporary stylistic architecture of the time, his works exude a free renaissance based on material and construction. At that time, Wagner was very successful in buying real estate and building residential buildings for rent, which later enabled him financial independence.
The greatest emphasis of this exhibition was placed on Wagner’s vision of the metropolis, from the plan for the construction of Vienna in 1893, to the largest commission in his career – the construction of the Vienna City Railway in 1894. The encounter with the technical requirements of modern traffic represents a turning point in Wagner’s creation. Equally important was the position of professor at the Academy of Fine Arts offered to Wagner the same year. In a creative exchange with students, Wagner opened himself to current tendencies in art and thus became the founder of the Viennese Art Nouveau. At the same time, with the help of his school, he was able to influence modern architects in order to spread his ideas. The exhibition deals with its short, but intense, secessionist phase in a separate part. At that time, spectacular designs were made for the new building of the Academy of Fine Arts, a modern church and other buildings in which Wagner’s enthusiasm for drawing is most pronounced.
Other no less demanding drawings show Wagner’s futile attempts to build imperial modern architecture for Emperor Francis Joseph. Attempts to find his expression will lead Wagner to the project that has occupied him the longest and most intensively: the City Museum on Karlsplatz. Wagner was in the period 1900-1910. years tirelessly worked on plans for the modern construction of this cultural monument. At the same time, the first sharp criticisms could be heard because of Wagner’s radical architecture, which breaks with tradition. Finally, his conservative opponents managed to stop the planned project.
With the construction of the church on the Steinhof and the Postal Savings Bank, Wagner managed to build two key architectural buildings of the 20th century. Just as the Postal Savings Bank was the first functional building, Wagner created the first modern church at Steinhof. In contrast to the traditional stone construction, both buildings are lined with imitation real, and in fact more accessible marble slabs, thanks to which Wagner became famous as a master of disguise. While these facilities were emerging, Wagner made plans for hotels, hospitals, churches, museums, ministries, etc. They can be interpreted as models of the metropolis of the 20th century. In 1911, Wagner published a book in which he described his vision of the future and architecture of a metropolis. At the same time, he realized his last residential buildings, which have been reduced and exude radical simplicity. They announce the architecture of “New Construction” in the 1920s.
Most of these plans, unfortunately, did not move beyond paper. At that time, Wagner’s world popularity was at its peak. When he turned 70 in 1911, he was celebrated as the greatest living architect.
At the beginning of the First World War, many construction projects began. Wagner was thinking of fully engaging as a designer. The early death of his beloved wife Louise in 1915 hit him hard. In the last years of his life, he is increasingly withdrawing from the public. Drafts for wooden barracks, churches and monuments to warriors testify to his dealing with current topics. In April 1918, Wagner died at the age of 76. With the fall of the monarchy, the civic concept of architecture and culture lost its basis – the revolutionary ideas of the “New Construction” movement in the 1920s rejected any connection with the past. The pioneers of modernity soon fall into oblivion. In memory of Wagner, as the forerunner of modernity, a monument was erected on Balhausplatz in 1930. After World War II, its buildings were threatened by abandonment. It was not until the 1960s that public opinion about him changed slightly. In the meantime, the work of Otto Wagner has been recognized as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Austria, and at the same time its buildings are visited by tourists from all over the world.