A Home For The Soul
Today I’d like to take a peek into the wild, whacky, weird, but wonderful world of Freidensreich Hundertwasser. It doesn’t entirely flow trippingly from the tongue but it’s a name worth knowing if you value eco-friendly, imaginative, idiosyncratic living. Hundertwasser is another one of those quirky geniuses who cannot be labelled. His life seems to me rather like his work, a sinuous, checkered, patchwork of startling insights, self-revelation and “in your face” demands for us to be better humans whilst at the same time thumbing a nose at all that is static, linear, flat, and predictable, in other words all that is fabricated in our lives and our environments.
A Home For The Soul
He was born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna in 1928 to a Jewish mother and aCatholic father. From the perspective of 2011, these details of his family identity may not seem important but in the Nazi era they were critical to his survival. When Freidrich was only thirteen months old, his father died leaving his mother in a perilous position as the Austrian Bund took root and Jewish citizens became targets of increasing marginalisation. From his earliest years, Friedrich showed a striking talent for art, particularly in the use of colour. Hundertwasser was later to attribute this to his early education in a Montessori school in Vienna that nurtured the free expression of creativity in children. As a result of this early start, it was his life-long habit to carry a small box of paints and a brushes with him, enabling him to capture in colour and form the feelings evoked in moments of complete absorption in his surroundings.
As the political situation in Austria became more threatening, Elsa Stowasser and her son lived as Christians and she urged Friedrich to join the Hitler Youth reasoning that sometimes the best protection was to hide in plain site. This strategy worked for a time but when war finally broke out and her relatives began to be deported to concentration camps, Elsa and Friedrich had to go into hiding. By war’s end Elsa Stowasser had lost 69 family members but she and Friedrich had survived and 20th art would be the richer for it.
Art or Art Education
Post-war Vienna was awash with refugees fleeing the Russian occupation of their countries and Vienna was caught in the power struggle being waged in the so-called “Cold War” between the western Allies and the Soviet Union. In this simmering atmosphere, Friedrich enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Art, above Left. Whilst at the Vienna Academy of Art, Friedrich changed his name from Stowasser to Hundertwasser, a transliteration from the Slavic root word “sto” meaning 100. Up to this point he had had no formal art education. He tried it for three months but he was convinced that formal training was ruining his art so he left Vienna for Italy on what would be the first of many self-educating journeys that left him free to be himself whilst learning what he felt he needed to from his own contemplation of ‘the masters’ of the past. His only other attempt at formal education was at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He lasted one day! Clearly, he was an artistic and creative maverick.
The Human Spirit: Two Visions
At this point I must confess that I am not as great a fan of Hundertwasser as I am of Gaudi. Hundertwasser’s work shares some similarities with Gaudi’s in terms of a preference for undulating forms, the use of tile on building surfaces and a lively palette of colours. But whereas Gaudi’s vision is ultimately otherworldly, Hundertwasser’s is more about this world, what Hundertwasser termed his ‘vegetative art’, an excellent example of which is this “tree tenant” growing from a window of his famous Waldspiral apartment block. His inspiration comes from the joy of interacting spontaneously with the natural environment, even going so far as to plant trees inside the apartment rooms he designed as well as creating grassy roof tops where trees grow above the city for the tenants to enjoy as a sort of communal park. Hundertwasser’s stated purpose in his designs was to make humans more aware by creating environments that could not be ignored. I imagine it would be difficult to ignore a large tree growing from your living room through the wall or the window!
Hundertwasser entertained a sort of tree mysticism reminsicent of the Druidic tradition that emphasised the debt owed by humans to the vegetable world that supports and protects us. Living with trees growing through the walls and windows of our homes is a literal way of ‘rooting’ us and stabilising us as well as making humans the caretakers of nature in catering for the needs of the tree as is evident in the Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna, now the museum that houses his art and designs for buildings with “tree tenants”. How can we see ourselves as separate and ‘above’ nature when we serve it?
Industrial Buildings As Art
Apart from the practical consideration of making human dwellings congruent withthe natural environment, Hundertwasser’s vision was to challenge the entire industrial model of architecture that had come to dominate our urban spaces and spill over into the suburban housing developments of the post-war world. His design for a heating plant in Spittelau tosses aside all assumptions about how an industrial building can look! Although it is thoroughly contemporary in terms of functionality, Hundertwasser’s vision harks back to the Medieval to Victorian idea that even industrial or commercial buildings can be beautiful or at least not utterly repulsive!
Hundertwasser believed the adoption of cold, impersonal forms and materials for industrial buildings translated into the anti-human of box-like houses and blocks of flats that most of us live in today. Humans are innately creative according to the Montessori philosophy and Hundertwasser’s own experience confirmed that for him. To construct buildings without regard for the nature of human-ness was more than an affront; it was an attack on the human, a symbolic form of genocide that replaces creative humans with ersatz ones concerned more with not being different than with being who they were born to be.
Creativity Is Not A Luxury
It is in this belief that I concur most deeply with Hundertwasser. His Waldspiral complex is a masterpiece of idiosyncratic domestic architecture and eco-consciousness in harmony with the environment. In contrast to this very human-centred design, industrialisation – and by extension commercialisation (both in production and financial infrastructure) – demand high levels of conformity. Creative thinking is a threat to the conformist imperative. Essentially, that is what drove the social and intellectual upheaval of the 60s and 70s, the rebellion against the neo-militarist structuring of human society in which hierarchies of all kinds controlled the individual and suppressed the impulse to question authority. Creativity is a casualty in this undeclared war. This heavy-handed approach to social-engineering led inevitably to the anti-war movements, the civil rights movements, the anti-colonialist revolutions, and the women’s movements, and the resurgence of interest in spirituality freed from the bonds of ‘organised religions’. Any system that seeks to minimise the human capacity for creative and independent thought is doomed to eventual failure. Even when such systems seem to succeed, there are always some mavericks who won’t be quelled. In the USSR it was the samizdat writers, artists and even some scientists who found ways to publish their work and protest against the inhuman system in which they lived. Pockets of free spirits survived even the horrors of the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” and Pol Pot’s determined genocidal assault on the anyone who showed an interest in learning and cultures other than the illiterate agrarian one he was ruthlessly imposing on Cambodia. These grotesque regimes destroyed untold numbers of artist, thinkers, inventors, composers, writers, teachers, and individualists in all fields who refused to surrender their right to exist on their own terms.
A Unique Home For Every Soul
Having grown up in an area with many beautifully proportioned original Georgian and neo-Classical buildings still intact, I nurture a fondness for the high ceilings, subdued milk-paint colours, modest balanced spaces and pewter fixtures that were part of 18th century life. But although I may feel comfortable in such spaces for short periods I would not want to live my life in one of them. They speak to an historical era that produced more than its share of genius in every field but when itcomes to stimulating my creative nature and nurturing my spirit, it is the visionary architecture of James Hubble, Eugene Tsui, Antoni Gaudi, and Hundertswasser that I’m drawn to. Their art-chitecture speaks the language of the soul and I want to insinuate myself into one their buildings for a spiritual re-charge. Of these three, it is James Hubble whose buildings beckon most strongly. They are clearly the products of a spirit rather than a ‘school of thought’ or ‘formal concept of design’. Hubble’s buildings are sculptures, un-repeatable and unique in their relationship with the land from which they arise. They are to me ideal dwellings for the human spirit, timeless buildings in which clocks and watches have no relevance. They are psychic spaces and sacred places for the human soul. They are home.
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Hundertwasser picture credit: Hunderstwasser Haus, Vienna
Hubble mosaic floor: Hubbell Archives