Dreams poured into concrete: Freidenreich Hundertwasser,
Austrian artist/ architect (1928-2000)
Rob R. Rao
From Vol. 2, No. 4
“People have no preparation for looking at what is beautiful. If you offer a glimpse of Paradise before the revolution has triumphed, you are branded a traitor. Perhaps I’m a traitor when, instead of going in for constant criticism or destruction, I try to do something constructive and to guide people to a world that is – well, just how I like to picture a better world.” – Freidenreich Hundertwasser, ‘Rainy Day’ (1974), p. 63.
Why write an article entirely on an (recently deceased) Austrian artist/architect for Fish Piss? Why go on a sustained rant about architecture, of all things? Well, simply put, because we are affected by the beauty (or ugliness) of our surroundings. The physical spaces we inhabit affect the shape of our consciousnesses – both our patterns of thought and what we think about. The way a building frames the sky shapes the way we look at the sky. The shape of a room guides the way we move within it. As you wander through your house or apartment, the path your feet take have largely been determined by the floor plan of a building designed by someone who you never met, and who never knew you. Sure, you get to arrange the furniture any way you want, but how much say did you get over where the window was placed? It seems somewhat amazing that we have the least control and input into the places that are, literally, closest to home. Leases can often get quite draconian (I had one once where you weren’t allowed to paint the walls any other colour than a certain shade of white). The result is the creation of buildings and ‘neighbourhoods’ that are psychically uninhabitable.
“Today’s architecture is criminally sterile. For, unfortunately, all building activity ceases at the very moment when man “takes up quarters,” but normally building activity should not begin until man moves in. We are outrageously robbed of our humanity by defiling dictates and criminally forced not to make any changes or additions to façades, the layout or interiors, either in colour, structure, or masonry. Even tenant-owned dwellings are subject to censorship (see building-inspection regulations and lease statutes). The characteristic thing about prisons, cages or pens is the prefabricated “a-priori” structure, the definitive termination of building activity prior to the prisoner’s or animal’s moving in to a structure which is innately incompatible to him or it, coupled with the categorical restriction that the inmate may change nothing in this, “his,” housing, which has been imposed upon him.
“For true architecture grows out of normal building activity, and this normal building activity is the organic development of a shell around a group of people. Such building growth is like the growth of a child and of man. Absolute completion of building construction is tolerable, if at all, only in monuments and uninhabited architecture.”
(all excerpts are from Hundertwasser’s ‘Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture,’ 1958.)
The suburbs are a notoriously easy target. The major problem with the suburbs is that they were designed and built on a car scale, not a human scale. Since you have to get into a car and drive to get to the grocery store, people who own and drive cars feel comfortable in this kind of environment, but it’s kind of isolating and depressing for those who don’t have easy access to a car – young people, the elderly, those who can’t afford to or don’t want to drive so much – in short, a significant segment of the population.
Toronto is a perfect example of this kind of thinking spawned by urban planners spending too much time sitting and driving around. The city sprawls on for hours in every direction, covering what was previously cornfields and grassland. Even in Montreal, probably one of the more architecturally interesting cities in North America, there exist large expanses of the urban cityscape blighted by brutal-looking, drab-grey Stalinist-era buildings.
Which brings me to this Hundertwasser guy. Freidenreich Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist who despised architects as a professional class. He tried to create an alternative vision to the ‘functionalist architecture’ so popular in the sixties and seventies. The philosophy behind the ‘functionalist’ style of architecture was basically ‘form equaled function’; which meant that the purpose of the building (e.g. to shelter people) was its most important characteristic; any ‘useless’ ornamentation (such as stylistic engravings, round windows or ornate peaked roofs) detracted from the pureness of its form, since it didn’t contribute anything to the simple ends of providing shelter from the elements. The result of this line of thinking surrounds us; many drab-brown or –grey, severe-looking corporate and government buildings were built during this era, as well as many university campuses created for the baby boomers in the early seventies such as UQAM, Concordia and York.
For all those looking for an alternate vision of a different world, of how our urban cityscapes could be (literally) constructed differently, Hundertwasser created examples of a certain kind of dreaminess, poured into concrete. His buildings look like the kind of structures you would come across wandering lost in a forest in some kind of ancient fairytale – like they were built by elves on ‘shrooms. They are best described as whimsical, created with a child’s sense of freedom, of possibilities and playfulness. And yet they were commissioned by local mayors and funded by municipalities in Hundertwasser’s native country of Austria, and integrated into gritty urban cityscapes – perhaps an indication of how far behind we are here in North America in reconstructing our urban realities to allow a bit more humanity to shine through.
When I was in Vienna four years ago, I got a chance to see a couple of buildings designed by him and built in the city. One of them is public housing, built by the city and inhabited by a mixture of families, young couples and elderly single people. There are ‘tree tenants’ (i.e. actual living trees) growing in front of recessed windows two and three stories up. There are no straight lines to be found anywhere in the building. (There are no straight lines in any of Hundertwasser’s designs. More on that in a bit.) The building is painted in bright colours, mostly white and yellow, with big splotches of blue and black lines tracing edges. The effect was somewhat magical and hallucinatory, as if you had come across a smurf village in the middle of a cosmopolitan Western European city.
Okay, alright, I hear you say. So this guy was basically a fucking hippie, right?
Well yeah, but it goes a little further than that. While his buildings look overly playful and even child-like, underlying all this is a consistent worldview, grounded in an ecological and humanistic sensibility that guides the building plans along some interesting paths. For example, it’s interesting to read his opposition to the ‘tyranny of the straight line’ from his ‘Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture’:
“Just carrying a ruler with you in your pocket should be forbidden, at least on a moral basis. The ruler is the symbol of the new illiteracy. The ruler is the symptom of the new disease, the disintegration of our civilisation.
“Today we live in a chaos of straight lines, in a jungle of straight lines. If you do not believe this, take the trouble to count the straight lines which surround you. Then you will understand, for you will never finish counting.
“On one razor blade I counted 546 straight lines. By imagining linear connections to another razor blade of the same manufacturing process, which surely looks exactly the same, this yields 1,090 straight lines, and adding on the packaging, the result is about 3,000 straight lines from the same blade.
“Not all that long ago, possession of the straight line was a privilege of royalty, the wealthy, and the clever. Today every idiot carries millions of straight lines around in his pants pockets.
“This jungle of straight lines, which is entangling us more and more like inmates in a prison, must be cleared. Until now, man has always cleared away the jungles he was in and freed himself. But to clear a jungle you must first become aware that you are in one, for this jungle took form stealthily, unnoticed by mankind. And this time it is a jungle of straight lines.
“Any modern architecture in which the straight line or the geometric circle have been employed for only a second – and were it only in spirit – must be rejected. Not to mention the design, drawing-board and model-building work which has become not only pathologically sterile, but absurd. The straight line is godless and immoral. The straight line is not a creative line, it is a duplicating line, an imitating line. In it, God and the human spirit are less at home than the comfort-craving, brainless intoxicated and unformed masses.
“When rust sets in on a razor blade, when a wall starts to get mouldy, when moss grows in a corner of a room, rounding its geometric angles, we should be glad because, together with the microbes and fungi, life is moving into the house and through this process we can more consciously become witnesses of architectural changes from which we have much to learn.”
Thus, all of his buildings have a very organic look to them, as if they grew out of the ground. One of his guiding principles was to create an architecture in harmony with nature, and there is a strong pragmatism here, amidst the blustery manifestoes. Hundertwasser was first commissioned in 1986 to redesign the exterior of a district heating plant in Vienna at the invitation of the mayor of Vienna, a garbage-incinerating plant that would heat 60,000 apartments whose emissions would otherwise be a further source of pollution.
There are also strong principles of egalitarianism, participatory democracy and tenant’s rights buttressing his architecture:
“The apartment-house tenant must have the freedom to lean out of his window and as far as his arms can reach transform the exterior of his dwelling space. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and – as far as his arms can reach – paint everything pink, so that from far away, from the street, everyone can see: there lives a man who distinguishes himself from his neighbours, the pent-up livestock!
“Only when architect, bricklayer and tenant are a unity, or one and the same person, can we speak of architecture. Everything else is not architecture, but a criminal act which has taken on form.”
This may seem like an ultimately utopian vision, where the ‘tenant’ becomes an architect and a mature artist in his or her own right. Who has the time, money and resources to invest into designing and building their own homes? Yet if you think of how many people commit themselves to 15- or 25-year mortgages for a crappily-made brick, sheet-rock and plywood house in the suburbs, identical to every other one in the subdivision, it starts to make more sense to use the down payment to buy just the land, take a year off and study some books on basic construction from the public library. You might have to hire a contractor or two, but in the long run, you’d probably save a hundred grand or so. Of course, I realize this is probably not possible right now for more than a small percentage of the population, but imagine if the power to build our cities was truly in the hands of the people who live in them. If instead of mortgages, you got a ‘house-building’ loan for a few hundred grand at a comparatively low interest rate. If it became socially acceptable to go on a ‘home-building’ leave, as people go on maternity and paternity leaves now.
Architecture is the one realm where the effects of putting principles into practice could be seen almost immediately – and a lot of other things would have to flow from that. Utopian possibilities would become actualities.
“Painting and sculpture are now free, inasmuch as anyone may produce any sort of creation and subsequently display it. In architecture, however, this fundamental freedom, which must be regarded as a precondition for any art, does not exist, for a person must first have a diploma in order to build. Why?
“Everyone should be able to build, and as long as this freedom to build does not exist, the present-day planned architecture cannot be considered art at all. Our architecture has succumbed to the same censorship as has painting in the Soviet Union. All that has been achieved are detached and pitiable compromises by men of bad conscience who work with straight-edged rulers.”
More info about Hundertwasser:
A website both aesthetically-pleasing and informative about his public projects in and around Vienna: www.hundertwasser.com . Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture: www1.kunsthauswien.com/ english/gegen-arch.htm . Manfred Bockelmann, “Hundertwasser: Rainy Day.” New York Graphic Society, 1974. Some buildings deemed okay by Hundertwasser: The Gaudí buildings in Barcelona and other Art Nouveaus; The Watts Tower by Simon Rodia, in Los Angeles; Le Palais Du Facteur Cheval in the Département de la Drôme, France; Old Austrian and German “schrebergärten” (workers’ allotment garden houses); Dutch and Sausalito houseboats; buildings by the architects Christian Hunziker, Lucien Kroll and a few others.
For info on self-made or otherwise inventive architecture, see the book Shelter, Shelter Publications/ Ten Speed Press, 1973/ 1990. Also, see interview with Art Beal reprinted from that book in Fish Piss no. 1.