Baroque’s off: my mission to seek out Vienna’s modernist masterpieces | Vienna holidays

The 20th century was unkind to Vienna. The capital of the Habsburg empire until 1918, it was, by early 1989, a bleak and battered outpost within touching distance of the iron curtain. Now that the city has undeniably recaptured its glory of old (symbolically, its population grew to two million last year, its pre-first world war imperial population), it might seem counterintuitive to visit it for its modernist architecture. But this is a highly rewarding endeavour, especially if one wishes to avoid an overdose of Sachertorte (chocolate cake), horse-drawn carriages, flamboyant churches and palaces, and imperial tat.

Viennese Modernism, or Die Wiener Moderne, began much earlier than its European counterparts. As early as 1895, the most prominent architect of the day, Otto Wagner, announced the end of historicist and romanticist architecture, which had dominated the previous decades – there was to be no more neoclassical, neo-baroque, neo-gothic or neo-Renaissance.

Max Fabiani’s Urania Observatory. Photograph: edpics/Alamy

Two years later, the Vienna Secession emerged. An Austrian version of art nouveau, one of its main proponents was Wagner himself. It is still widely visible, in the form of the Vienna Stadtbahn stations (especially at Karlsplatz), or the colourful Linke Wienzeile Buildings (Nos 38 and 40). Later, in the 1900s, came the splendid Kirche am Steinhof, and the more starkly functional Österreichische Postsparkasse off the Ring. His second villa, Villa Wagner II (14th district), is a paragon of sobriety, built next to his previous, more extravagant, home, the predictably named Villa Wagner I. The first was erected in 1888 and the second in 1913, thus spanning the most important years of his career and offering a striking contrast between the pre-modern and modern eras.

Many of Wagner’s students and proteges became key architects of Vienna Modernism, most notably Joseph Maria Olbrich, the architect of the renowned Secession Building by Karlsplatz. Josef Hoffmann, another founder of the Secession who studied under Wagner, was a prolific architect who came to specialise in villas, which are still dotted around the Viennese landscape: aside from the Villa Skywa-Primavesi in the upmarket 13th district, he built several houses in the even more affluent 19th district, including the Haus Knips, and the Haus Eduard Ast. By the end of the 1920s and in the early 30s, he had turned his attention to social housing, and encouraged young architects such as Le Corbusier.

Architects including Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos designed the Werkbundsiedlung, a housing estate in Vienna-Hietzing that was opened in 1932. Photograph: Nathalie Carton Lou/Alamy

Max Fabiani was another student of Wagner’s who worked on the Stadtbahn and left an indelible mark on Vienna. Aside from the unmistakable Urania building by the Danube, his beautiful Artaria-Haus on the prestigious Kohlmarkt in the Old Town is a true outlier on the street, reminiscent of the “Slovene art nouveau” he created and exported to Ljubljana. His Haus Portois & Fix in the 3rd district is without doubt one of the most interesting, avant-garde and original buildings in Vienna. It is hard to imagine what people made of it at the time, in 1901.

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As well as Otto Wagner and his followers, the most famous exponent of Vienna modernist architecture was the Brno-born Adolf Loos, who, having briefly dabbled with the Secession movement, quickly turned his back on it, seeking a less ornate, stripped-down form of architecture (nevertheless concealing rich interiors), which quickly made him controversial and set him apart from his Viennese contemporaries. Most famous for his “scandalous” Looshaus in the Old Town. Loos’s break from the consensus was particularly noticeable in works such as the Haus Steiner (Sankt-Veit-Gasse 10) from 1910, the 1913 Haus Scheu and the little-known Haus Rufer House from 1922, all three in the 13th district, and all three reminiscent of traditional modernist movements elsewhere in Europe.

The list is far from exhaustive and walks through the centre, or 13th, 14th and 19th districts in particular will undoubtedly reward admirers of modern architecture.

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