Hundertwasser’s Crazy Quilt

Breaking Every Rule We Have About Form: An Ode to Nature in Service of a Museum

The back facade of the Kunsthaus from the garden | Photo:

Hundertwasser: honoring the style of Gustav Klimt | Photo:


The back facade of the Kunsthaus from the garden | Photo:

I picked up my niece at Vienna International Airport wondering what I would do with her.  She is 22 years old, on her first visit to Vienna, and isn’t interested in anything.  You probably have relatives like this.

As we drove towards the city, I discarded all the usual tourist attractions. Grey apartment buildings were melting one into another as we passed through the outskirts of the city center, block after block of ornamental granite blurring into faceless repetition along the Danube Canal. Into the third district, we were nearly home, when my eye caught a glimpse – just for a split second — of the irregularly shaped, multi-color ceramic pillars topped with glistening black and gold caps of the Kunsthaus, popping out of a tangle of branches. That was it! The weird and wacky home of contemporary art and photography, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, plays havoc with any rules we ever thought we had about form, function and their relation to the natural world. Un-proportional windows in a patchwork, cartoon façade, a mosaic of black and white with splashes of primary colors. The lines shift, the proportions bend, the crooked house of the fairy tale.  Except that this is a real place.

So we dropped off her bags at home, drove back to Untere Weißgerberstraße 13 and parked in front of the Hundertwasser house that stood, seductive as ever, luring us into its own dimension.

The building was designed by Viennese artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser late in his life became as a permanent setting for his work. With the support of Walter Flöttl of the workers’ bank BAWAG (now famous/infamous as the setting for a far-reaching scandal the subject of a current show court-case), he transformed an old furniture factory into a startlingly original museum. It opened in the period from 1981 to 1991 when it was transformed under the supervision of the BAWAG bank’s general manager Walter Flöttl, who was acting as building sponsor. The house was in fact built in 1892, as a Thonet Brothers furniture factory but it was integrated with the neighbor house during the transformation period by the famous architect Hundertwasser. The with total exhibition space became of approximately 4000 sq.m., divided between the Hundertwasser rooms and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.

Hundertwasser was a freethinker. Born in 1928 to a Jewish mother, he was baptized as a child into the Catholic religion of his father who had died shortly after his birth. With their Catholic family name, caution and good luck, he and his mother managed to survive the Nazi holocaust in Vienna, which took the lives of 69 of their relatives.

After attending a Montessori elementary school, his mother switched him to a regular Austrian Gymnasium (grammar school) where she hoped he would be less noticeable and where, like all the others, he joined the Nazi Youth movement at the age of 9, following the Anschluss, remaining a member until the end of the war. The result was a life-long hatred for authority, for regimentation, rigidity and right angles.

Standing in front of this architectural miracle, I felt myself getting goose bumps once again at this astonishing place. The “skin” of the house is like a set of gladrags, a mixture of colorful, bumpy and irregular surfaces, geometrical shapes and small mosaics that capture your attention. The windows seem like eyes in the façade as well as openings into the very soul of the building, allowing us to be voyeurs of a new dimension. It is hard to know where to look first; every centimeter of the building is unique.

Hundertwasser blended his buildings with nature. Here, the trees grow shyly in the front, but the back is bursting with life. Plants of all sizes grow from both the ground and the walls, like fingers reaching out from the house. It must look beautiful when spring gives life to them, covering them with shiny leaves and flowers. Nevertheless, even in winter the plant life is not completely in hibernation because of many exotic plants which stay green the whole year round.


Hundertwasser: honoring the style of Gustav Klimt | Photo:

Hundertwasser was himself a work of creative art. Born Friedrich Stowasser, he began signing his name Hundertwasser (Sto = 100 and wasser = water in Slavic languages) on his canvasses while a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, before later turning to architecture and even later to designing and decorating jewelry. He developed his own style of modern painting called “transautomatism” – a type of surrealism focused on ways of seeing – in 1954, which he later applied to architecture as well.  His goal was to draw people away from geometrical straight lines and bring them closer to nature.

This perfectly describes the Kunsthaus, with its feeling of being a surreal, out of this world, living creature and not merely a building.

Inside, it is like walking through Alice’s Looking Glass, falling into a mystical fairytale land.  The entrance hall is tiled in colorful bricks that play with vision. The floor melts into the walls and then into a cashier’s stall making it seem metamorphic. Startlingly uneven underfoot, you are forced to notice where and how you walk.

“The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man,” a plaque quotes the architect as saying.

We pass up the gift shop off to the right, with its wide variety of admittedly fascinating Hundertwasser scarves, ceramics and stationery, as well as the current exhibition’s memorabilia and art books. It is, unfortunately, all too expensive for us, at least today.

We do, however, stop in at the ground floor restaurant, with its beautiful terrace that reminds me of Frances Burnett’s The Secret Garden I had loved as a child, bursting with life in the grey concrete world. The illusion sadly gets shredded minutes later by the depressed annoyance on the face of the waiter.

The upper floors are simpler, not so overwhelming so as not to steal attention from the artworks. The surface is still uneven, but the walls are flat and in one color. The permanent collection rooms are filled with plants, blending together with Hundertwasser’s tapestries, paintings, graphics and models of either already built or planned projects.

The current exhibition with works by the famous French photographer Guy Bourdin occupies the last two floors of the building. Those rooms are very simple, with not even any plants, but even here Hundertwasser has left his touch in the uneven floors.

It all made me think of my childhood, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she read me stories of exotic places she knew she would never get to visit from communist Croatia. It was her own form of personal protest.

“The time has come for people to rebel against their confinement in cubical constructions like chickens or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature”, Hundertwasser wrote.

Even my niece was drawn to this magical place, waking up in surprise from her sleepy life to discover that there was at least one museum she actually liked.

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