The Vienna Secession is an exhibition space for contemporary art that occupies a unique position in the history of modernism, combining a contemporary, forward-looking program with a building that is an icon of the spirit of innovation and optimism that prevailed around 1900. Its youthful architecture has stood the test of time: the building’s functionality and aesthetic elegance continue to offer excellent conditions for today’s artistic and exhibition practice.
The Secession’s architectonic design is meant to be used in many different ways, a challenge taken up by exhibiting artists who have engaged with the building’s interior as well as exterior to produce an ongoing series of specially developed artistic ideas and concepts. The magnificent main hall with its glass roof is particularly well suited for interventions on account of its functionality and flexibility. In addition, the Grafisches Kabinett on the upper floor and the three-room gallery in the basement accommodate a wide range of temporary exhibition designs for contemporary art, while Gustav Klimt’s historic Beethoven Frieze is on permanent display on the second underground level.
One central desideratum discussed in the very first assembly of the Association of Austrian Visual Artists Vienna Secession was the erection of a dedicated exhibition building. The members commissioned the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich—an associate in Otto Wagner’s architecture studio, he was barely thirty years old at the time—to design the building, which would become a key work of Viennese Art Nouveau. A site along the Ringstraße was originally chosen, but Olbrich’s designs drew fierce opposition from the Vienna city council. It was only after the Secession revised its plans to build on a site on Friedrichstraße that permission was granted for “the erection of a provisional exhibition pavilion for the period of no more than ten years” (minutes of the city council meeting of November 17, 1897).
Part of the funding for construction was supplied by patrons led by the industrial magnate Karl Wittgenstein; the rest was paid for with the proceeds of the Secession’s inaugural exhibition, which was held at the Imperial and Royal Gardening Society. The City of Vienna provided the site on Wienzeile. Joseph Maria Olbrich designed the building over the course of ten months, continually modifying, reviewing, and refining his plans to meet new requirements. The cornerstone was laid in a small ceremony on April 28, 1898. Only six months later, on October 29, 1898, the building was completed.
The Secession’s home, which is now an indispensable highlight of any visit to Vienna, caused a stir at the turn of the century—and was heaped with ridicule. It was variously described as a “temple for bullfrogs,” a “temple of the anarchic art movement,” a “mausoleum,” a “Pharaoh’s tomb,” “the grave of the Mahdi,” and a “crematorium”; the dome was derided as a “cabbage head,” and the building as a whole was dismissed as a “a bastard between temple and warehouse” and a “cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace.”
Walking out to the Wien River early in the morning and passing behind the Academy of Fine Arts on the way to the Theater an der Wien, you will see a great number of people thronging around a new structure. They are laborers, craftsmen, and women, and they should be going to work, but day after day they stop, gaze in wonder, and cannot take their eyes of that thing before them. They marvel, they inquire, they discuss. It seems odd to them, they have never seen anything like it; they express disconcertment and consternation. Then they set off, grave and pensive, only to turn around to take another look, neglecting their business and delaying the inevitable moment when they will have to part with the object of their amazement. All day long, a crowd will surround the site. The building is the new home of the Secession, by the young architect Olbrich."
The ground plan and cross-section of the Secession, one of the most important works of Viennese Art Nouveau, reveal very simple geometrical forms. The building itself covers an area of about 1,000 sq m (10,800 sq ft) and has a centralized floor plan. Olbrich exploits the square as a basic motif in a number of cruciform combinations in the entrance area and exhibition wing. This scheme for the floor plan also underlies the building’s elevation and thus informs the overall shape of its volume.
Undivided flat surfaces dominate on the exterior of the building. The massive, unbroken walls lend the structure the appearance of being constructed from a series of solid cubes. Yet Olbrich uses this rigid geometry only as a general framework, which he then enlivens with sinuous lines, curves, and intersecting elements.
Olbrich organizes the building into two segments, the “representative” lobby and the “functional” exhibition wing. The entrance is flanked by hermetic blocks above which four pylons cradle the dome. The exhibition hall has a basilica form with a lofty nave and two lower aisles and, at their far end, a transept. It is almost completely covered by tent-like glazed roofs that bathe the interior in an even light.
A number of members of the Secession were in the ornamental design of the building, bearing testimony to the artistic goals held in common by the young Association. Othmar Schmikowitz created the sculptural décor of the portal niche. Georg Klimt designed the copper-sheet cladding on the entrance doors. The fresco Round-Dance of the Wreath-Bearers on the northern façade was by Kolo Moser. Olbrich himself modeled the owls formed in cement on the side’s front on Moser’s drawings. The 3000 gilded wrought-iron laurel leaves for the cupola were obviously inspired by Gustav Klimt’s ornamentation.
The laurel leaf is the dominant symbol in the finished building. It can be found on the pilasters of the front wing and the entrance recess as well as in the various garlands along the lateral façades and crowns the building in the form of the 2500 gilt leaves and 311 berries of the dome.
The entrance area is also decorated by the masks of the three Gorgons, which symbolize the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting. The side elevations feature owls Olbrich himself molded (after designs by Kolo Moser). The Gorgons and the owl are attributes of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, victory, and the crafts. Olbrich’s innovative use of symbolism, an integral part of the building, deftly avoids the pedantic quality of the academic tradition.
The Vienna Secession building was altered and renovated several times in the course of its history, which now spans well over a century. The entrance hall was first modified as early as 1901. In 1908, part of the ornamentation and the motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” were removed. The building suffered bomb damage in the final weeks of World War II and was set on fire by the retreating German army.
During refurbishment in 1963, the original décor was recreated and a second floor was inserted above the entrance hall. Adolf Krischanitz led the last general renovation in 1984–85. The central entrance hall and main exhibition spaces were restored to their original proportions, and the ancillary rooms for the Secession’s exhibition programming team and the technical facilities were reorganized and improved. Most recently, the building, now protected as a historic monument, underwent rehabilitation and technical modernization in 2017–18; the measures included the creation of a barrier-free access to the Beethoven Frieze and the regilding of the dome.
To defray the expenses for the restoration of the dome, the Secession has launched a donation drive. For a contribution of €100 to gild one of the leaves of the dome, donors can be part of the preservation of this prominent Viennese landmark.