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The Philippine Star

Who is this Austro-Hungarian architect who influenced the early development of Modernism?

MANILA, Philippines - He was born on Dec. 10, 1870  and died on  Aug. 23, 1933. He  was an Austro-Hungarian architect influential in European Modern architecture, and in his essay “Ornament and Crime” he abandoned the aesthetic principles of the Vienna Secession. In this and many other essays he contributed to the elaboration of a body of theory and criticism of Modernism in architecture.

He was bon in Brno in the Moravia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He attended a technical school in Liberec and later studied at Dresden University of Technology.

In 1893 he traveled through the United States for three years. In his first year he visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He visited St. Louis and did odd jobs in New York. He returned to Vienna in 1896 and became friends with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schönberg, Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus. He visited the island of Skyros in 1904 and was influenced by the cubic architecture of the Greek islands. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I He was awarded Czechoslovakian citizenship by President Masaryk.

He was married three times. In July 1902, he married drama student Carolina Catherina Obertimpfler. The marriage ended three years later in 1905. In 1919, he married 20-year-old Elsie Altmann, a dancer and operetta star and the Austrian-born daughter of Adolf Altmann and Jeannette Gruenblatt. They divorced seven years later in 1926. He married his third wife, writer and photographer Claire Beck, in 1929. She was the daughter of his clients Otto and Olga Beck, and 35 years his junior. They were divorced on April 30, 1932. Following their divorce, Claire Beck wrote a literary work of snapshot-like vignettes about his character, habits and sayings, which was published by the Johannes-Presse in Vienna in 1936. The book was intended to raise funds for his tomb.

In 1918 he was diagnosed with cancer. His stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed. By the time he was 50 years old he was nearly deaf. In 1928 he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal. He died aged 62 on Aug. 23, 1933 in Kalksburg near Vienna. Following his death in 1933, his body was moved to Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof to rest among the great artists and musicians of the city – including Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Altenberg, and Karl Kraus.

He authored several polemical works. In Spoken into the Void, published in 1900, he attacked the Vienna Secession, at a time when the movement was at its height.

In his essays, he used provocative catchphrases and has become noted for one particular essay/manifesto entitled “Ornament and Crime,” spoken first in 1910. In this essay, he explored the idea that the progress of culture is associated with the deletion of ornament from everyday objects, and that it was therefore a crime to force craftsmen or builders to waste their time on ornamentation that served to hasten the time when an object would become obsolete. His stripped-down buildings influenced the minimal massing of modern architecture, and stirred controversy. Perhaps surprisingly, some of his own architectural work was elaborately decorated, although more often inside than outside, and the ornamented interiors frequently featured abstract planes and shapes composed of richly figured materials, such as marble and exotic woods. The visual distinction is not between complicated and simple, but between “organic” and superfluous decoration.

He was also interested in the decorative arts, collecting sterling silver and high quality leather goods, which he noted for their plain yet luxurious appeal. He also enjoyed fashion and men’s clothing, designing the famed Kníže of Vienna, a haberdashery. His admiration for the fashion and culture of England and America can be seen in his short-lived publication Das Andere, which ran for just two issues in 1903 and included advertisements for English clothing.

Through his writings and his groundbreaking projects in Vienna was able to influence other architects and designers, and the early development of Modernism. His careful selection of materials, passion for craftsmanship and use of Raumplan —the considered ordering and size of interior spaces based on function — are still admired today.

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