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Hundertwasser’s humane architecture

In Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture, Insight and Experience, Places, Travel and Retreats by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

What exactly is wrong with today’s architecture? How can it be overhauled to meet the deepest needs of people who inhabit buildings?


These questions intensely preoccupied Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (whose name literally translates as ‘Realm of Peace, Rainy Day, Darkly Multicoloured, Hundred Waters’), an iconoclastic Austrian artist and architect born in 1928. Recurring themes in his art, characterised by bright colours and frequent use of spiral formations, include ecology and cities.

Relocating to Paris shortly after the Second World War, and living there on a shoestring, he survived by subsisting almost entirely on wheat, and designing his own clothes as an antidote to the sterility of modern mass-production. He was fond of deliberately wearing different-coloured socks on each foot, and saw clothing as humanity’s ‘second skin’.

Hundertwasser expressed similar views about mainstream architecture, especially modernism, which he saw as essentially soulless and dehumanising. He is famously quoted as saying that straight lines were the ‘tool of the devil’. Disagreeing with an architectural system controlled by professionals, during the late 1960s he gave a series of attention-grabbing naked speeches advocating for an individual’s right to construct his or her own house, the ‘third skin’.

For Hundertwasser, the dominant forms of building construction were causing widespread unhappiness. The remedy was a ‘humane’ architecture with happiness as its central goal, and all other design considerations taking a back seat. Fundamentally, this could be achieved through the creation of beauty in an age when craftsmanlike buildings have been supplanted by uniformity, and often ugliness. Quality of life can be further supported in a development by the allocation of diverse spaces that support a wide range of activities, such as group interaction, dialogue, retreat, and meditation.

A press release later issued by the City of Vienna echoes Hundertwasser’s philosophies when it states, “Visual pollution in the wake of depressing, aggressive and inhumane construction is the most dangerous form of pollution because it destroys man’s dignity and soul.” We can hope that urban authorities elsewhere might take account of this forthright view championing the importance of aesthetics.

In his personal philosophy, Hundertwasser saw the human race shackled by rules and regulations, and paying a high price in terms of social dysfunction. The state was robbing each individual of his or her innate individuality and sovereignty.

Where people are living in anonymous places, such as modern high-rise blocks, often not out of personal choice, Hundertwasser believed that they have ‘window rights’ and should assert their uniqueness by painting the area of external wall within reach of their windows.

As his architectural ideas developed, he was invited to appear on the TV show Wünsch Dir was (‘Make a Wish’), and devoted his airtime to presenting ideas that at the time would have seemed outlandish, concerning the planting of trees on roofs. Today, he can be seen as a figure ahead of his time, and today’s burgeoning global green roof movement often incorporates small trees into roof designs.

Even more eccentric was his idea involving ‘tree tenants’. Floors would be sealed with a thick plastic membrane, and trees could then be grown in buildings, where they would pay their ‘rent’ by purifying the air and water, curbing pollution in the process. Fed by rainwater gathered on the roof, they would grow out of the windows and improve aesthetics during the months when they are bearing leaves. This greening of the city would make it a more appealing place for people to live and work.

Underlying these proposals was an imperative to rebuild natural ecological cycles in urban buildings where they have broken down. They would include the use of ‘humus toilets’, which would save human waste in order for it to be used in food-growing. In this respect too, he was a prophet of the future: over the past decade, composting toilets have for the first time been incorporated into some inner urban construction projects.

In his early 50s, he embarked upon an architectural career when work began on a building in east-central Vienna later known as the Hundertwasserhaus (see sidebar). Undaunted by hostility from the architectural establishment, he then proceeded to design and oversee a remarkable series of projects in Austria and overseas.

Buildings designed by the architect commonly featured irregularly located windows, rooms of different sizes and shapes, undulating floors (‘an uneven floor is a melody to the feet’), balconies, and roof gardens. On the external surfaces, with bright colours he expressed his rejection of the conservative and staid. The closest comparison would be Antoni Gaudi, who shared Hundertwasser’s love of decorated organic forms.

As Hundertwasser’s reputation spread, more commissions arrived, including buildings as diverse as a church in the south of Austria, the railway station in Uelzen, Germany, and a winery in the Napa Valley, California. His makeovers were attracting considerable attention from the public, which in the case of commercial developments translated into higher turnover. Developments were proposed, and later completed, on an increasingly large scale.

This culminated in a purpose-built thermal resort close to the Hungarian border known as Rolling Hills hot springs village. In New Zealand, he had been inspired by a unique grass-roofed house where sheep could walk onto the roof and graze. This theme was further pursued in the hot springs development, which featured multi-storey hump-shaped ‘hill meadow houses’ that allowed visitors to walk from the ground onto the roof. A similar design was used in a German daycare centre, where the route up to the roof resembled a steeply sloping ramp.

In the 1970s, Hundertwasser visited New Zealand when his work was on exhibition there, and was so taken with the country that he decided to make it a second home. From 1976 onwards, he spent a few months of the year living in a house on a secluded part of the Waikino Peninsula on the North Island. The nearby town of Kawakawa was experiencing a slow rural decline, which he helped to reverse by redesigning the public toilets. This was his only project in the Southern Hemisphere, and now attracts tourists from around the world. Regardless of where he was in the world, his watch was always set to New Zealand time.

Despite his childlike qualities and sometimes polemic approach, Hundertwasser is considered to be one of Austria’s most important 20th century artists. His many other projects extended to mosaic work, flags, stamps, coins, posters and clothing. In 1999, one year before he died, he is quoted as saying that ‘nature, art and creation are all one unit’.

The Hundertwasserhaus

This building, which was unveiled in 1986, is a new and unique reincarnation of what used to be an unremarkable council-owned tenement block. Today, it has become one of the city’s most visited attractions. Aside from its bright colour scheme, the block distinguishes itself with mosaics, a deliberate absence of straight lines and surfaces, and uneven floors: a play area called the ‘adventure room’ slopes so much that children use it as a slide.

Prayer flags flutter on the roof, which they share with trees, shrubs and a layer of insulating turf; this vegetation fulfills the functions of absorbing dust and pollution while emitting oxygen. Scattered among the rooftops are numerous golden balls and two onion-shaped domes similar to those commonly found on Austrian churches. In small rooms on the ground floor grow three tree tenants.

As an alternative to the straight line, corners are hand-rounded; many walls inside the building have been left white for human tenants, especially children, to paint on them. This emphasis on creativity was even extended to the construction process; workers were given unrestricted freedom when making up the tile mosaics.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, when this building was being redesigned, Hundertwasser declined to take any payment. In his opinion, it was worth doing the work for free to ‘prevent something ugly from going up in its place.’

Saint Barbara church

Bärnbach, a town of about 5,000 situated in the southern Austrian state of Styria, was the location for one of Hundertwasser’s next makeovers.

Despite being constructed in the early post-war era, the Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Barbara required renovating by the late 1970s. In a 1987 referendum, 80 per cent of the population decided to commission Hundertwasser to carry out a redesign project.

From the outside, the new-look St. Barbara church is adorned by delicate pastel-coloured patches covering the walls, and large green spots add interest to the red tile roof. The tower, which features many religious symbols, is topped by a gold onion dome.

An uneven path circulates around the back of the church, passing 12 archways, each of which in a multi-faith spirit bears a symbol to represent a major world religion. Besides Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, other unusual faiths include African animism, and Oceanian religions, and in a generous gesture, atheism was given its own arch too.

In contrast with the lively outer layer, the interior of the St. Barbara church is tranquil and meditative, and a deliberate lack of decoration leads the mind inwardly. On entering, visitors are immediately drawn to Hundertwasser’s exquisite circular ‘Spiral of Life’ stained glass window, deliberately positioned to catch the afternoon sun as it shines colour patches onto the font. This window features two interweaving spirals: red symbolising fire, and blue signifying water.

About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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