Otto Wagner: Buildings & Modern Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In architecture, the concept of being modern has very specific connotations. In this lesson, we will explore the career of Austrian architect Otto Wagner and consider his contribution to modern architecture.

Otto Wagner

What does it mean to be modern? It's easy to simply say that anyone who is alive in the present is modern, but there's actually a lot more to it than that. Intellectually, modernism refers to a set of ideas that emerged in the early 20th century that broke from the traditions of previous centuries. Modernist ideas focused on the use of new technologies and philosophies, particularly those that were unavailable in the previous century. Of the people who helped define this concept of modernity was Otto Wagner (1841-1918). Based in Vienna, Austria, Wagner was one of the most important figures in early modernist architecture. He literally helped build the modern world.

Otto Wagner


To understand Otto Wagner's impact on architecture, we need to understand the world he grew up in. Wagner lived in Vienna throughout the second half of the 19th century, a time in which architecture was going through an interesting trend. The style of the era was revivalism, in which historical styles were emulated in new buildings. There was a period of neo-Classicism, a neo-Gothic trend, and revivals of various colonial styles. In this era, architecture was highly defined by its stylistic appearance. It was ornate, detailed, and decorative.

In the later parts of the 19th century, Otto Wagner began speaking openly against the revivalist movements of his day. He claimed that these highly eclectic styles were too focused on the form of buildings, rather than their function. He compiled his ideas into a book called Modern Architecture, published in 1896. In Modern Architecture, Wagner called for an end to revivalist designs and proposed new ideas based on the emerging materials and techniques made possible by new technology at the end of the century. He claimed that the world was changing, and that it needed new styles of architecture to represent the intellectual and practical needs of modern people. Modern Architecture would become one of the most influential texts in architecture, codifying the ideas of similarly-minded architects around the globe like America's Louis Sullivan and Scotland's Rennie Mackintosh. It represented the advent of modernist thinking.

The Vienna City Railway

Otto Wagner's book set the intellectual tone for modern architecture, but he contributed more to the cause than just theory. As a modernist architect, Wagner believed strongly in stressing the function of architecture as being more important than form or style. This is evident in his designs for the city railway of Vienna. A masterpiece of practical and functional design based on the most advanced technology of the time, Wagner's plan helped cement the use of modernist ideas in urban planning.

His railway stations along this route also helped establish the stylistic aesthetic of early modernist architecture. Wagner's stations are largely completed in the style of Art Nouveau, defined by curvilinear and softly angular forms, organic motifs, and geometric designs. In Germany and Austria, this style was often called Jugendstil. It broke from the revivalism of the 19th century, seeking inspiration not in the past but in modern technology. Changing industrial technology of the late 19th century made it possible for to use new materials like steel and plate glass in smoother, softer ways. Before, these materials often appeared in angular, sharp patterns that reflected the harsh but productive industrial era. Art Nouveau was softer, emphasizing technical craftsmanship and skill and thus rejecting the 19th-century obsession with pre-fabricated parts. The organic motifs also represented a harmonious relationship between humans and industrial technology. It was a new style for a new industrial culture, and is seen as one of the main predecessors for the true modernist style.

Art Nouveau station by Wagner

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