The construction of a proper exhibition space was already among the programmatic concerns at the foundation meeting of the “Association of visual artists Vienna Secession”. The Secessionists commissioned the barely 30-year-old architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, (at that time a member of staff at the studio of Otto Wagner), with the conception of the structure, which would become one of the key achievements in Viennese Jugendstil (art nouveau).

Initially, land at the Ringstrasse was acquired as a site for the building. However, Olbrich’s drafts raised sharp protest in the Viennese municipal council. Not until the relocation of the building site to the Friedrichstrasse did the municipal council authorise the “edification of a temporary exhibition pavilion for a period of ten years at the longest” (protocol of the municipal council meeting from 17 November 1897). The necessary financial means for the construction were partly provided by patrons, above all by the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein, and partly from the proceeds of the first exhibition in the Imperial and Royal Horticultural Society. The construction site at the Wienzeile was given by the township of Vienna. The building was developed by Joseph Maria Olbrich in a ten-month planning within which he had to adapt to ever changing conditions; he had to rework and refine his design. On 28 April 1989, the foundation stone was laid during a small celebration. Only six months later, on 29 October 1898, construction was complete.

The construction typology

The ground plan and front view of the Secession offers a very simple geometry. The building spreads over an area of about 1000m2 and is located over a centralised layout. For the entrance and exhibition area, Olbrich interlocks the basic motif of a square with several cruciform arrangements. This layout pattern in turn generates the elevation and thus the entire sculptural shape of the building. The exterior gives the unbroken surface a particular prominence. Because of the manifold enclosed walls, the building appears from the outside as if it is built from massive cubes. However, Olbrich uses the strict geometry only as general frame, which he then emblazoned with lines, curvatures and overlapping. He subdivides the building into a “head” and “body”; that is, the “representative” entrance area and the “functional” exhibition area. The foyer is flanked by hermetical blocks and overtopped by four pylons which incorporate the dome. The exhibition room is divided according to the plan of a Basilica, namely a raised central nave, two lower side aisles and a locking transept. It is almost entirely covered with tent-like glass roofs which provide the interior with an even distributed of light.

The iconic language of architecture

The laurel is the dominating symbolic element on the finished building. It is situated on the pilasters of the front wing and the niche on the entrance. Furthermore, it also appears within various annular motives on the fassade and it towers above the building in the form of a dome consisting of 3000 gold plated leaves and 700 berries. What is more, the entrance area is adorned by three gorgon heads that represent the architectural, sculptural and pictorial arts. The fassades are decorated with owls, shaped by Joseph Maria Olbrichs himself (after Kolo Moser’s designs). Gorgons and owls are the symbols of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, victory and the industrial arts. Joseph Maria Olbrich interconnected the construction with a symbolic and iconic language, which found a new and popular utilisation.

Contemporary criticism

The construction of the Secession, today a highlight of every trip to Vienna, was faced with scorn at the turn of the century. The building was described as “temple for tree frogs”, “temple of the anarchistic art movement”, “mausoleum”, “Egyptian royal tomb”, “tomb of Mahdi” and “crematorium”. The dome was denoted as “cabbage“, and the entire building was known as “hybrid of temple and warehouse” and “crossover between a glasshouse and a furnace”.

The building history

In its hundred years of history, the Wiener Secession has been renovated and converted several times. Already in 1901 the entrance area was reorganised. 1908 saw the removal of some parts of the decor and of the slogan “To every age its art and to art its freedom“ (“Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit”). At the end of the Second World War, the building was damaged by bombs and set on fire in the German Wehrmacht withdrawal. During renovation in 1963, the original decor was reconstructed and a gallery in the entrance hall was added. 1984/85 saw another overall refurbishment, lead-managed by Adolf Krischanitz. Alongside the rearrangement of the original room typology of the central entrance and exhibition area, the rooms for exhibition organisation and technology were newly organised and updated. Altogether, about 20 exhibitions a year take place in the premises of the Wiener Secession (main room, gallery, graphic cabinet and Ver Sacrum room). The entire exhibition space amounts to 1000m2. Every exhibition is accompanied by a publication, often paralleled by a range of events, lectures, symposia, art discussions, etc.

Beethoven frieze

Gustav Klimt created the famous Beethoven frieze for the XIV exhibition of the Association of visual artists Vienna Secession, which took place from 15 April – 27 June 1902. During this exhibition the idea of the secessionistic synthesis of the arts really took shape and prominence under the direction of Josef Hoffmann. The frieze was intended as homage to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, and the works of art by 21 members of the association of visual artists corresponded, as regards content and space, to the just completed Beethoven figure by Max Klinger. Klimt’s monumental wall cycle was situated in the left side hall, which was the room in the exhibition a visitor saw when first entering. Today, the frieze is considered a self-contained work of art and is regarded as among the culmination of Wiener Jugendstil.


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