When asked by Viennese friends what I like most about their city, I tend to say architecture or art, or else, more vaguely, “culture”. When friends and family back home in Moscow pose that same question my reply, typically, is “freedom”.
This notion will likely sound hollow to the Viennese - Austrian life can be morbidly codified and regimented, and active change is often strongly discouraged - yet there is something about Vienna that has inspired generations of creative minds: the Austrian capital has never (except perhaps briefly during the period of Nazi rule in the Second World War) really dictated any official prescription for art in the way that other cities have.
And so while it may appear overly sedate and imperious in its Baroque and classicist grandeur, Vienna’s true nature lies in experimentation.
Countless artists have taken advantage of this historically open attitude to art: that most famous artistic group, the brilliant cohort of Gustav Klimt’s Secession, shocked its contemporaries with its sheer ambition and decadence and so too, almost a century later, did the unconventional creations of Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Born into a poor Jewish family in 1928, Hundertwasser first gained prominence in the 1950s and had his reputation firmly established by the end of the following decade. He was prolific in many art forms, including painting, design and happenings. But it was his experiments in architecture that brought him the most fame.
An advocate of natural, organic forms, Hundertwasser believed that human habitat should be closer to nature - literally. His designs included vegetation on rooftops and fantastical apartment blocks with patch-worked, customisable façades, the idea being that any person should be able to reach out of their window and change the masonry around it at will. His naturist views also found expression in his famous “Naked Speech” performance that he delivered in the nude in 1968 and the “Los von Loos” (“Away from Loos”) manifesto, in which he went to war with the rationalism of Adolf Loos, another experimentalist architect, who declared that all ornament was “a crime”.
Impractical and eccentric as all this sounds, Hundertwasser’s vision became a reality in Vienna in 1985 when, at the behest of the then chancellor Bruno Kreisky and with the help of architect Josef Krawina, he completed what is now duly considered one of his greatest masterpieces: the Hundertwasserhaus. A communal residential block in the city’s 3rd district, the building’s multiple façades do not contain a single straight line (in a hyperbolic statement rivalling that of Loos’ denouncement of ornamentation, Hundertwasser famously proclaimed straight lines “godless” and “a true tool of the Devil”).
It is a riotous pastiche of colours, motifs and forms - a drunken hybrid of Tolkien’s bucolic Shire and L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. To compound the whimsical impression, parts of the building are covered in leaves and grass, with shrubs and trees growing on rooftops and even escaping from individual apartments. Its floors - much like the floors at the nearby Kunst Haus Wien museum, another Hundertwasser creation that houses the world’s only permanent collection of his works - are at best slightly tilting, at worst undulating like hobbit hills. “An uneven and animated floor is the recovery of man’s mental equilibrium,” Hundertwasser suggested. I wonder if the residents agree.
Health and safety risks aside, this building - standing defiantly amid its drab, grey council flat surroundings - is evidence of Vienna’s quirkier side (you need but look). And this is what I’m talking about when I say that I admire the city’s “freedom”. In many places, not least in my native Moscow, that word is often taken to mean licence to degrade and destroy. But in Vienna it means the right to invent and create, no strings attached. And that’s what I mean by culture.