The Life Nouveau (Wagner’s Stadtbahn stations, Vienna, Austria)

Austrian architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918) was a fully paid-up member of the Vienna Secessionists’ vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of the complete artwork, achieved through everyday living surrounded by Art Nouveau. Ideally, you should wake up in your Art Nouveau house, gaze at your Art Nouveau wall art, eat breakfast from you Art Nouveau dinner service, sprinkle salt and pepper from your Wiener Werkstätte condiment set, go to work in your Art Nouveau office, and pop in to the latest exhibition at the Vienna Secession building on the way home.

Transport was a part of it too. You should travel between work and home on an Art Nouveau metro. And if you lived in Vienna, in the early years of the twentieth century, you could do just that, because Otto Wagner had designed one.

Perhaps less well-known than Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau Metro entrances in Paris, Wagner’s Vienna Stadtbahn stations were a gorgeous feast of Art Nouveau. The Art Nouveau movement was a broad church, and the Vienna Stadtbahn stations generally owe less to the botanically influenced whip-lash curves of Guimard and Mucha, and more to the jewel-coloured, geometric patterning of Gustav Klimt. Which is hardly a surprise as both Wagner and Klimt were part of the Vienna Secessionist movement (Klimt was, in fact, the movement’s president).

Many of the stations survive, including the extraordinary pavilion at Karlsplatz, and the station at Hietzing, which contained the ‘Hofpavillon’, a station entrance solely for the use of the Imperial family. As you’d expect, it’s rather opulent, and the curvy botanical details are pure Art Nouveau:

Hietzing Hofpavillon. By Thomas Ledl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-at or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pavilion entrance at Karlsplatz is more typical of Wagner’s stations and a little more restrained (just); less like Parisian Art Nouveau (all flowers and curves and barely a straight line in sight) and tending towards Klimt’s version – a bit more rigidity and gold leaf absolutely everywhere:

Karlsplatz. By Greymouser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-at], via Wikimedia Commons

Art Nouvea’s hold over Vienna didn’t actually last very long, despite the city now being famous for it. The Vienna Secessionists had fought against stultifying Establishment control and definition of art, and had rebelled against it to bring art nouveau to the city. But before too long the up and coming Modernists had rebelled against the decoration and embellishments of Art Nouveau, which had itself become the establishment, deriding Art Nouveau’s non-functional prettification, which they saw as fundamentally dishonest.

As with Art Nouveau in most of the cities where it flourished, the style was then forgotten and ignored, and not appreciated again until the 1960s. The Vienna Stadtbahn was subsumed into the city’s U-Bahn network, and in many ways the survival of so many parts of Wagner’s work at the stations is incredibly fortunate.

Rather cheeringly for a network which was founded on artistic principles, art still plays an important part on the network. Here, for instance, is Schweglerstraße. I’m not sure what Otto Wagner would have made of it, but you can still live the complete artwork in Vienna, even on the U-Bahn. It’s just that the new art isn’t Art Nouveau any more…

Schweglerstraße. By Der gelehrte hermes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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