Debra Bruno is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.
Behind the almost child-like designs, Friedensreich Hundertwasser wanted to recover the “dignity of man” which had “been violated in our unnatural and hostile urban grid system.”
Friedensreich Hundertwasser gave speeches in the nude. His buildings, towers, and fountains—scattered throughout Europe and Asia—look like something a child might draw, with wavy lines dividing one floor from the next and trees popping from the roof. After all, he once said, “the straight line leads to the downfall of mankind.”
Yet beyond the wackiness, the Viennese architect and artist was in many ways a visionary who helped to put sustainability and an earth-based approach to architecture on the map.
Hundertwasser, who died in 2000 at the age of 71, wanted humans to think of their homes as their third skin—a part of them that must continually change in order to stay alive. For him, that meant allowing residents of his buildings to decorate the outer walls, to use composting toilets, and to grow meadows and forests on the roofs.
Starting out as an artist, Hundertwasser also created tapestries, paintings, stamps, license plates, and sculptures. His architecture grew out from his art, and he didn’t make much of a distinction between a model for a utopian village where cows graze on roofs and a wall mosaic looking like something by Gustav Klimt on hallucinogens.
In Vienna, the Hundertwasser phenomenon is a tourist attraction. In a quiet neighborhood on the west side of the Danube, a former tire factory today known as Hundertwasser Village is one of the top shopping locations in the city. On the wall is a sign that quotes from its namesake: “The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines—not human beings.”
It goes on: “An uneven and animated floor means to recover dignity of man which has been violated in our unnatural and hostile urban grid system. The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet, and brings back natural vibrations to man.”
In other words, watch your step as you pick your way through the shops selling Hundertwasser posters and refrigerator magnets. The place, with its curving stone steps, wavy shelves, and an indoor fountain, today offers a way for Hundertwasser pilgrims to get a sense of what it’s like to be inside a building he designed.
Across the street is Hundertwasserhaus, a large apartment building based on his vision. Residents still live inside apartments where a tree might grow from a balcony and ivy crawls up the façade.
But aside from the curiosity of Hundertwasser’s work, it’s hard these days to find a direct disciple. It’s possible his work is seen more as a novelty than a template.
The German-born modernist architect Thomas Leeser, whose firm designed the expansion and renovation of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, says Hundertwassser has probably inspired some of his work, which uses spiral ramps and moving walls.
Hundertwasser was more primitive, “one of the Austrian crazy artists” of the 1970s, he says with a laugh. Even so, his work served as a sort of foreshadowing.
Like Buckminster Fuller, Leeser says, Hundertwasser was an ecological architect at a time when few thought that way. Leeser, who teaches architecture at the Pratt Institute, always includes a talk on Hundertwasser in his course, “100 Years of Architecture Thought.”
Since he wasn’t taken seriously while alive, Leeser says, “it is kind of fun to see him validated now.”
Bettina Leidl, director of the Kunsthaus Wien, the museum celebrating Hundertwasser’s art and work, says that 20,000 Austrian schoolchildren file through the Vienna museum each year. She sees awareness of Hundertwasser growing as sustainability becomes a more popular issue. Back when Hundertwasser began his work in post-war Europe, Leidl notes, few cared about nature or the environment.
His death was as iconoclastic as his life. Hundertwasser had fallen in love with New Zealand, and when he died suddenly of a heart attack on a cruise ship, his body was buried—naked and without coffin—under a tree in the Garden of the Happy Dead in northern New Zealand. Not far from his burial place are the Kawakawa public toilets he designed, a rare tourist attraction that’s as much about art as it is about relieving yourself.