Otto Wagner and the Steinhof psychiatric hospital: architecture as misunderstanding.

Author:Topp, Leslie
Position:Critical Essay

A few weeks ago I was returning to Vienna by train from the west. A sculptor from Paris was sharing my compartment. As we approached the outskirts, he suddenly pointed to the view on his left and exclaimed in astonishment: "What is that?!" There, on the long slope above the tiny village of Baumgarten--Gustav Klimt was born there, an omen of modernity--was a white city, sparkling in the bright summer sun. Crowned by the golden dome of a white marble church.... "That is something very special," said my Frenchman. "That, I have to see." --Ludwig Hevesi, "Otto Wagners moderne Kirche," 1907 (1) Thus did Ludwig Hevesi, art critic and advocate of all things modern in Vienna, begin his newspaper column on October 6, 1907. His anecdote wove together past and future, local and international, the fine arts, technology, and medical science. Baumgarten, the tiny old village in the hills to the west of Vienna, in the beloved Vienna Woods, had given birth to Gustav Klimt, who would revolutionize the visual arts in Vienna. Now the farmland above it had sprouted a "white city," itself crowned by a domed church designed by the architectural archmodernist Otto Wagner. The intercity train sped by, allowing the Parisian sculptor, an anonymous witness from the center of modern European culture, to absorb the impact of the largest mental hospital on the continent--for that is what this "white city" was (Fig. 1). He was spellbound, and Hevesi gratefully reported the astonishment of the Parisian confronted with the accomplishments of a city usually known for its attachment to the past: "He stared, incredulous: 'You're so far advanced in Vienna?'" (2)

The Lower Austrian Provincial Institutions for the Care and Cure of the Mentally and Nervously Ill "am Steinhof" opened on October 8, 1907, two days after Hevesi's column was published in the Fremdenblatt. A century later, it still functions as Vienna's primary public psychiatric institution, known among the Viennese as a rambling complex on the outskirts harboring the disturbing psychiatric legacy of the Nazi period and containing one of Otto Wagner's major works, his domed church (Fig. 2). Visits to Wagner's Steinhofkirche tend to be accompanied by nervous jokes about men in white coats and the likelihood of getting out afterward. But in 1907 Hevesi did not think the French sculptor's desire to see the new hospital was comic; nor did he assume that he would visit only the church. Hevesi presented the church and the hospital as an integrated whole, a "white city," the fulfillment of the "omen of modernity" offered by Klimt's birth nearby. Solemnly, he reported statistics to fill out the picture: "five million pieces of laundry to launder; an electric train, which delivers meals in huge containers from the kitchen." (3) He described "a whole city with an area of 100 hectares, with 60 separate buildings, each with 40 meters between them; for a population of 2500 people, but with future capacity for 5000." (4)

How was it that a psychiatric hospital was fashioned as a "white city"? How could such a project have captured the imagination of a cultural modernist in this way? How and why did a specialist medical institution end up speaking a language readily understood in progressive artistic circles? For answers to these questions, this article looks closely at the process through which the complex at Steinhof was initiated, planned, designed, built, and represented to the public. I focus on two of the main disciplines, or subdisciplines, involved in this process: asylum psychiatry and self-consciously modern architecture. I seek to retrieve the precise moment that each of these subdisciplines had reached in Vienna by the early twentieth century, particularly with a view to identifying what each group believed buildings were for, what ambitions and intentions they had (or did not have) for them. Finally, I look at what we can know about the nature of their interaction and analyze the Steinhof complex itself as a product of that interaction--bearing the traces of their mutual understanding and misunderstanding.

Like many recent studies, this one aims to capitalize on architecture's concrete and necessary involvement in an aspect of the world beyond architecture by situating the object of study very precisely in its extra-architectural context. I am indebted especially to those scholars who have, in case studies of particular buildings, building programs, or building types, made extensive use of the resource offered by the people other than the architect--clients, building committees, professional users--who were responsible for the shape and look of the building or buildings in question. The goal of these studies is a new kind of architectural history, one that recasts the building as a cultural and social document and avoids the logical dead-ends and blind spots of the focus on the single architect-hero, of style- and taste-oriented histories, and of teleological narratives of the architectural avant-garde. There are, broadly, three methodologies used by these new studies (at least, by those that focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). In the first, the building or buildings are--very self-consciously--separated not only from the architect but also from the "architectural" (by which I mean the discipline as delineated by academic architectural training; I do not mean the design of buildings in general, which, as these studies point out, was often undertaken by professionals other than architects). This strategy radically challenges the traditional authorship of the building by the architect and the building's position in an architect- or style-focused story of architectural development. It is an approach often used in the discussion of buildings that tend to be dismissed as retrograde or insignificant in traditional architectural history. (5) The second methodology emphasizes the architect's own openness and sensitivity to, and suitability for, the extra-architectural worlds represented by the other agents involved in the building. The resulting structure is seen as the product of a fruitful collaboration, co-authored by the architect, the client, and other agents, all of whom are given more or less equal attention. This approach tends to be used in discussions of buildings and architects thought of as modernist, and it is accompanied by a rethinking of what it means to be true to function, in which "function" is shown to include the political, the spiritual, and the social as well as the practical and structural. (6)

The third methodology, while equally dedicated to retrieving the full range of meanings with which clients and other nonarchitectural participants invest buildings, concentrates on the gaps between the intentions and discourses of the various players--including the architect. Here, the building is seen as the result of a complex and fraught interaction between groups, or disciplines, with distinct cultures, worldviews, and assumptions about how a building mediates meaning and what meanings it should mediate. This approach engages with Dana Cuff's analysis of the relationship between architect and client as one of negotiation, in which "the architect responds to his or her vision of the client rather than the actual client." (7) Christine Stevenson's study of eighteenth-century British hospital and asylum architecture shows how fruitful this strategy can be for building types that are subject to battles between architects and medical professionals, while at the same time responding to the claims of a wider urban, political, and artistic context. (8) Steinhof's design evolved through a series of interactions among a number of groups and individuals, including (but not limited to) psychiatrists, government officials, government-employed architects, politicians, representatives of the Catholic church, and the private architect Otto Wagner. (9) All these groups make an appearance in this essay. My focus, however, as I have mentioned, is on Otto Wagner, on the one hand, and a group I am calling the asylum planners, on the other--that is, those who were involved in writing the extensive building brief for the complex, a group dominated by psychiatrists but also including civil servants who were experts in public welfare provision. The doctors and civil servants who planned Steinhof embraced an overblown psychiatric optimism, with a strong emphasis on publicity, and they sought to expand the influence of the mental hospital into the lives of the wider public. Wagner, who designed both the church and the overall plan of the complex, learned only enough of asylum planners' language to be able to grasp simple ideas, enough to be able to understand the version of their goals that was intended for public consumption. The buildings and their representations communicate this simplified notion in the sophisticated medium of modern architecture and the ideal community. (10)

Let us imagine that Hevesi's Parisian sculptor, having settled into his Vienna hotel, decided to see Steinhof. He makes an appointment by applying to the office of the director, Heinrich Schloss; as part of a concerted public relations effort, tours were provided for those members of the public who had a genuine (as opposed to prurient) interest in the institution. (11) From the city, he travels westward toward the Vienna Woods, past the walls of the former Vienna asylum and along a road where a new electric tramline is being built to transport people from the city to Steinhof. Suburbs change to countryside, which in turn gives way to landscaped parkland on either side of an avenue forming the approach to the hospital. (12) At the entrance, a sense of occasion, transparency, and welcome: two simple but substantial blocks (containing staff apartments) frame two identical diminutive, flat-roofed buildings (for the porter and guards), which flank wrought-iron gates painted green and bent into...

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