One must view the urban architectural work of Otto Wagner within the context of the redevelopment of the Ringstrasse of Vienna. As in many European cities at the time, the old fortifications around the medieval city center of Vienna were no longer needed, and pressures for redevelopment were great. These old fortifications of the feudal era were replaced with institutions of the new bourgeois power: University, Parliament, Museums, etc.), as well as upscale blocks of housing
The new Ringstrasse development did not stitch the historic city center with the surrounding suburbs as much as permanently separate them. Rather than a series of urban spaces and connections it was essentially a linear void that circumnavigated the historic city.
Critical of this development was Camillo Sitte, the prominent urban planning theorist whose book “City Planning According to Artistic Principles” was published in 1889 and was exceedingly influential. His study of cities in this book emphasized the importance of plazas and squares, composed and enclosed spaces that served as outdoor rooms. In particular, he criticized the nineteenth-century trend of floating massive civic and institutional buildings in the middle of vast plazas. To Sitte, the plazas had to have an enclosed, human scale, and the important monuments (typically churches in the past) were not free-standing, but emerged from the surrounding fabric. Sitte advocated for an informal, picturesque composition, as well as an approach that was “artfully” choreographed.
Sitte even proposed changes to the Ringstrasse, attempting to arrest the linearity of the new boulevard and to capture space along its length. Modernity with its vastness of scale and it’s emphasis on speed was a tragic turn of events for Sitte, one with profound emotional and cultural ramifications.
Wagner, on the other hand, embraced the new modern city, and believed it should represent movement and efficiency. His buildings were in deference to the streets. They were not freestanding, or attached in picturesque ways as recommended by Sitte, but inserted into the urban fabric. In this way, the buildings DEFLECTED and FACILITATED movement.
Wagner vested monumentality not in buildings, but the street itself, which can be seen as vast cuts through the urban fabric, most famously in his Groszstadt Plan.
But before the Groszstadt plans, Wagner proved himself an incredibly adept sculptor of urban blocks. For his Groszstadt, the urban blocks were units of aggregation, and the open space was either the space of the street, or the residual space of blocks removed, in both cases geometrically subservient to the infinite expansion of the urban module.
But when Wagner was working with actual urban conditions in Vienna, he showed a very astute ability to navigate between the space of the city and the form of the building. The block for Wagner was the connection between these two scales, and provided urban synthesis. Here, for example, is his plan for the Technical Museum in which the block and building almost converge. The building in plan is really an ensemble of forms which both emphasize streets (by defining the block edge), but also whose parts suggest hierarchy, access, urban scale, etc. The building in this case is a sophisticated machine that resolves the complex geometries of the block and surrounding urban conditions.
Similarly, in Wagner’s plan for the Franz Joseph Municipal Museum, which was on a prominent site adjacent to the Karlskirche of Fischer von Erlach, he created a building that was not only itself a sophisticated urban proposition, but was part of a larger urban ensemble that gave definition to the new park and maintained a deferential respect to the Karlskirche.
Wagner’s buildings beautifully balanced between exquisitiely designed objects, appropriate for the site and program, and sensitive pieces of larger urban aggregations. They were both object and context, figure and ground. These seemingly paradoxical qualities, perhaps even responsibilities, of buildings were increasingly difficult to find after the 1930’s and advent of high-Modernism.