Vienna - Wittgenstein House
Vienna 1928 - Wittgenstein House
Architecture as Reflection
by HM, translated from romanian by Aranca Munteanu
The villa built in 1925 by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister, Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, expresses a vision in search of form perfection outside styles and time. The house clearly illustrates the principle of conceptual quest, a rigorous and often restless (however cold and iconoclast) quest for truth in art, as opposed to a sensual and formal approach.
Motto: „You probably imagine that philosophy is complicated enough, but let me tell you, this is nothing compared to the hardship of being a good architect. Back when I was building the house for my sister in Vienna I was so exhausted at the end of the day that the only thing I was still able to do was to go every evening to the cinema."
published 2002 in the romanian review Arhitectura
This letter written by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, to a friend of his could flatter any architect. We are used to architects pretending to be philosophers. Many books have been written (some of them quite difficult to read) to prove that the architect is a wise man, a visionary that can also write, not only draw. Unfortunately, it is not at all often that a philosopher proves he can also be an architect, not only a writer. If in the September issue we wrote about a Mexican architect most "sensual" (and about the "emotional quality of architecture"), this time the subject of the Viennese architecture of the same period – especially Wittgenstein’s – is par excellence
a subject reflexive, mental, secluded from life or what we imagine life to be, in the Latino
sense of the word.
What Luis Barragán and Ludwig Wittgenstein have in common is a rejection of modernity understood only as fashion, as gratuitous avangarde. However, Barragán refuses the rationalism of modernism, replacing it with a very humane and sensitive, intuitive manner of building, while Wittgenstein, as we shall see, pushes modern rationalism towards a perfectionism of conception and execution, a precious and pretentious minimalism, evidently Viennese. In Vienna, one can find anything but succulence and vital abundance. Instead, one can find a way of meditating and (psych)analyzing that equals (in a profoundness pushed to the chasm of absurdity) the tragicomic of the Balkans. (Extract the humor from Caragiale and you will obtain Kafka!)
The author of the famous Tractatus logico-philosophicus
(1922), founder of an entire philosophical movement, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) gives up in 1920, upon returning from WW I captivity, his inherited fortune and dedicates himself consecutively to engine engineering, mathematics, philosophy, college teaching, gardening and then, with a single building, to architecture. His sister, Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, orders in 1925 an urban villa (Stadtvilla
) with the architect Paul Engelmann, a villa that she imagined in the line of Viennese neoclassicism. The family owned in Austria a few more palaces and villas in this style. Hence, the first project drawn by Engelmann for what we call today the Wittgenstein House was a classicist one. It so happened that Engelmann, an army friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote the latter in order to talk about the project. Wittgenstein, who had more than once changed his field of activity, with remarkable results, showed himself quite interested in the project and eventually agreed to signing it together with Engelmann.
Without previous knowledge other than the stuctural culture of an intellectual of a good origin (drawing, modeling), Wittgenstein gets so passionately involved in the project that he eventually is the only one to monitor, work out its details and materialize it. Engelmann steps out. The classicist plan is cleansed of what the philosopher thinks superfluous and its proportions optimized. The façades slide into a modernist purism as they are freed from all adornment. When it comes to detail, Wittgenstein proves just as passioned as Mies van der Rohe with the Tugendhat House in Brno: he designs the doors and windows in steel, with special proportions, brass handles and locks that he executes minutely with a specialized Viennese company. Everything related to proportions (the grid of the artificial black stone, the railings of the tall windows, the frames, the elevator – a novelty for a villa at that time – and the lamps) is minutely planned and perfectly manufactured. The large budget as well as the time the architect could spend on this project allowed for an incredible finishing of proportions and details. Since he hated curtains he forbade his sister to use any. However, in order to offer a solution for the visual closure of the rooms from the exterior, he invented the now famous (and strange!) metallic curtains, a kind of large metal shutters hidden in the basement that can, by means of a narrow groove in the floor, slide in front of the windows on a pulley and counterweights system placed inside. The windows seem to disappear and the room utterly changes its spatial appearance, closing upon itself.
Many things have changed since the house was finished. After the death of Margarethe Stonborough, in 1958, the house and the garden were sold. In the ‘70s there was a plan to build an office tower on the premises. The house was saved from demolition partially through an initiative of a number of men of culture, lead by the architect Bernhard Leitner (who also became the main exegete of the house), and partially by the Bulgarian Cultural Institute that bought the house in 1975 and restored it. Today the office tower that should have replaced the house occupies -- less than twenty meters away -- three quarters of its garden, changing unfortunately in a radical way its initial urban context.
What is striking about this house today? First and foremost its proportions, very probably. Regarded from the alley leading today to the old entrance, one notices the unusual ratio between three parts: (1) the composition of volumes, (2) the purism of the façades and (3) the proportions and rhythm of the windows.
Volumes (1) are apparently composed in classicist symmetry: a central prism flanked by two side wings, as we find in the Viennese eclecticist palaces. However, this seeming classicism (that the house inherits from Engelmann’s project and the neoclassic urban villa the owner desired) is not classic to the end. Asymmetries and deviations from the rule, once more special and "Viennese" since they do not grow on an asymmetric skeleton, quote (2) modernism and the influence of Loos. Stripping the house of all adornment and transforming its necessary / functional elements in sculputural elements observe the principles stated by Loos in "Crime and Ornament", but also refer to Karl Kraus’s purism in literature or Schönberg’s in music. Although the simple façade refers directly to modernism, the rhythm and the proportions of its voids (3) refer again to classicism. This is probably the most striking fact when you look at the house: the very tall windows and their partition once more underlining the vertical line are in contrast with the typical image of a modernist villa (the white box with horizontal windows or a continuous row of windows). Even if the critics talk here about an exception, the same windows, with the classicist proportions and rhythm taken over from the 19th
century Viennese urban palace, can also be found in the famous house of Adolf Loos at Michaelerplatz, Vienna.
Wittgenstein is probably an exemplary embodiment of the Viennese "past-ridden utopism" (as Friedrich Achleitner defined it through the concept of "utopia oriented towards the past" - rückwärtsgewandte Utopie
) and a vision (totally different from that of the international modernism) looking, sub specie aeternitatis,
for perfection of form outside styles and time. As a matter of fact all those previously mentioned (to whom we should add Freud, Robert Musil and many others) were not just creative individuals within their own fields of activity, but also persons engaged in a dialogue and deeply involved in the general change of cultural paradigm, within that incredibly fertile Viennese movement in the time before WW I. The set of common principles and ideas with different means of expression, the contamination between the artistic professions and the enlightened dilettantism characterize that context. Thus, Wittgenstein’s architectural adventure is neither an isolated case, nor an intellectual caprice.
The plan of the house is defined by the ground floor that uses a representative entrance hall as spatial nucleus, a concept taken over from neoclassic tradition. Starting from the entrance, passing through a vestibule, one enters the main hall through wide glass doors. The large stairs are the essential element that transforms this villa in an aristocratic house. If Loos’ school attempts to create intimate, bourgeois interior spaces (the Raumplan
with the feeling of a warm, homely labyrinth) the Wittgenstein house is situated on the opposite side. An elegant aristocracy dominated by a certain rigidity of vertical proportions sets a different atmosphere. The representation, the distance imposed upon the visitor by the steps he has to climb in the hall, all these are obvious.
It is around this hall that the ground floor spaces articulate, linked to each other by glass doors, identical to the ones linking the hall to the terrace opening to its left. The dining room, Margarethe’s bedroom, the breakfast and the living room are set around the hall that is thus a functional distribution junction, not only a representative anteroom.
Although on the interior the philosopher gives up adornment, the pillars in the hall still keep a "trace" of capital through that simple section shift on their upper end. If the door proportions and the magnificent stairs in the hall, the perfect metal carpentry and the minimalist lamps (a novelty for the time, being only harsh lamp sockets with 200W bulbs!), the black floor made of artificial stone, all these suggest distance and a rather cool atmosphere; on the contrary, the wall finishing (at origin) in yellowish stucco-lustro
compensates all with an iridescent materiality. As for the floor, we have to notice that here as well Wittgenstein gave the appropriate attention to details. Instead of using a unique size of plates, which would have reduced costs, he minutely projected a sophisticated grid adapted to the different proportions in every room, so that the result is a multitude of sizes. Here too the vision of the house as a perfectly proportioned universe (and not as a "live in machine") points to classicism and, why not, to philosophy.
A house made by a philosopher is of course a wonderful occasion for the critics to speculate on the relation between the philosophy of the architect and the architecture of the philosopher. These are defined by Paul Vjideveld with the dictum simplex sigillum veri
(simplicity is the sign, the symbol of truth). Art is the perfection of a technique/craft, and a construction -- be it mental or architectural -- approaches truth by means of simplification and polishing, by means of a "clearing" that belongs to logic. Today, this judgment could be as well an axiom of the minimalist movement, but it reminds, on the other hand, of the platonic equality between good, truth and beauty.
In the end, whether we like it or not, the Wittgenstein house, whether its spirit confirms our own passions or just distantly amazes us, it is an example of coherence although creation premises did not point at all in that direction: the divergent esthetic visions of the architect and of the beneficiary, an amateur and debutant architect (but a genius amateur!). It proves that the principle of Ludwig Wittgenstein (passionately commit yourself to a subject and your achievement will match you committment) is true. Good architecture is possible without formal education, yet with an appropriate amount of culture and, especially, sharpness of mind. Thus, architecture is not Beruf
(profession) but rather Berufung
(vocation) in the sense given by Max Weber. Architecture can reach quality without
formal premises. Not by starting with "what shapes are appropriate for a project or which of those are beautiful?", but from ideas like "what is the spirit that can generate the house?" and by consistently observing them, one can obtain results both novel and remarkable. The Wittgenstein House clearly illustrates the principle of conceptual quest, rigorous and often restless (however cold and iconoclast) of truth in art, instead of the sensual and formal quest usually so close and dear to us. Wittgenstein used to say, the impression good architecture leaves is that it is a gesture expressing a thought.
Following the last phrase of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus
-- "we must remain silent about things we cannot speak about" -- Wittgenstein remained silent indeed, as he published no more books until the end of his life. His architecture does not speak either, it only shows
these things about which one cannot talk: clarity, logic lucidity, simplicity as ethic and esthetic values.
Wittgenstein Haus, Kundmanngasse 19, A-1030 Wien
web resources: architecture archives at www.nextroom.at (nextroom - architektur im netz), and www.azw.at (architekturzentrum wien)
thanks to: the Bulgarian Culture Institute in Vienna, www.haus-wittgenstein.at , with its headquarter in Wittgenstein house, for allowing photographs to be taken.
Photographs: Horia Marinescu, digital processing: Radu Soimulescu