The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Café Museum and Modern Architecture


Karlsplatz, the immense square in the centre of Vienna, is a good starting point for those who want to get a sense of some of the most interesting developments in Viennese architecture at the turn of the twentieth century. The square is, in fact, dominated by the grandiose Karlskirche, the famous Baroque church.

The Café Museum after renovations

If you look across the church, though, you will see one of the oldest metro stations in the city, currently a café, which was designed by Otto Wagner, one of the signature architects of Vienna and a major representative of the Secession (the Austrian version of the art nouveau style). On the far end of the square is the Secession Pavilion, which is, in many ways, the movement’s visual manifesto. The Pavilion was meant as an illustration of one of the big ideas of the avant-garde not just in Austria, but all over Europe – the total work of art, i.e. a work that achieves its effect through the combination of different artistic media (architecture, poetry, music, etc.). The Pavilion houses the so-called Beethoven Frieze, a set of frescoes by Gustav Klimt, probably the most famous figure of the Viennese Secession. Across, almost diagonally, is the Café Museum, which became the gathering place of some of the most important painters of the time such as Klimt himself, Oscar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and the writers Franz Werfel, Elias Canetti, etc. Canetti would later get the Nobel Prize for Literature in large part for his autobiographical trilogy describing his childhood and youth in Vienna before the Second World War. The café was designed in 1899 by Adolph Loos, the other great architect of the period.

Loos was, it appears, a talented artist and a not very nice man. He was involved in a particularly nasty paedophile scandal for which he was convicted. His architectural work, though, is important both in the Viennese context and in foreshadowing future trends in modern architecture. He started as part of the Secession, a style, which however different, blends easily with the imperial architecture of Vienna, but then moved to an austere, functionalist manner, devoid almost entirely of any decoration. It is said that the Emperor Franz Joseph was so put off by Loos’s building, the so-called Looshaus, facing the main entrance of the Hofburg Palace, that he stopped using this entrance. One can understand why someone who sees beauty in terms of Baroque grandeur could fail to appreciate Loos’s simple, functionalist works. The Café Museum’s original look relied on this conception of clear lines, almost Cubist forms and classical simplicity. Most of that is lost in the present-day café which, one suspects, Franz Joseph would have approved of. Austerity is not something that would come to the mind of a visitor, sitting on the plush, comfortable chairs. However, it is worth looking around at the overall design of the room and especially the ceiling. The metallic lamps, for example, have been recently restored following the original design. That is the original Loos and, in many ways, that was the future.

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