Wagner’s Modern Architecture
Modern architecture has been criticized for emphasizing practical and technical issues at the expense of aesthetic concerns.
The high-rise buildings constructed throughout the industrialized world in the 1960s and 1970s provide ample evidence that cost-efficiency and utility have became the overriding concerns of the modern architect.
However, Otto Wagner’s seminal text on modern architecture, first published in Germany in 1896, indicates that the failure of modern architecture cannot be blamed on the ideals of its founders.
Wagner’s Modern Architecture called for a new style based on modern technologies and models of construction.
He insisted that there could be no return to traditional, preindustrial models; only by accepting wholeheartedly the political and technological revolutions of the nineteenth century could the architect establish the forms appropriate to a modern, urban society.
“All modern creation,” Wagner wrote, “must correspond to the new materials and demands of the present…must illustrate our own better, democratic, self-confident, ideal nature,” and must incorporate the new “colossal technical and scientific achievements” of the age.
This would indeed seem to be the basis of a purely materialist definition of architecture, a prototype for the simplistic form-follows-function dogma that opponents have identified as the intellectual basis of modern architecture.
But the picture was more complex, for Wagner was always careful to distinguish between art and engineering.
Ultimately, he envisaged (to have a mental picture of especially in advance of realization “envisages an entirely new system of education”) the architect developing the skills of the engineer without losing the powers of aesthetic judgment that Wagner felt were unique to the artist.
“Since the engineer is seldom a born artist and the architect must learn as a rule to be an engineer, architects will in time succeed in extending their influence into the realm occupied by the engineers, so that legitimate aesthetic demands can be met in a satisfactory way.”
In this symbiotic relationship essential to Modernism, art was to exercise the controlling influence.
No other prospect was imaginable for Wagner, who was firmly rooted as a designer and, indeed, as a teacher in the Classical tradition.
The apparent inconsistency of a confessed Classicist advising against the mechanical imitation of historical models and arguing for new forms appropriate to the modern age created exactly the tension that made Wagner’s writings and buildings so interesting.
While he justified, for example, the choice of a circular ground plan for churches in terms of optimal sight-lines and the technology of the gasometer, the true inspiration was derived from the centralized churches of the Italian Renaissance.
He acknowledged as rationalist that there was no way back to the social and technological conditions that had produced the work of Michelangelo or Fischer von Erlach, but he recognized his emotional attachment to the great works of the Italian Renaissance and Austrian Baroque.