The Colourful Artist-Architect: Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000)

In former times painters painted houses. Today painters have to invent houses and the architects have to build after the paintings because there are no more beautiful houses.[1]


Viennese artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) represents the ultimate artist-architect of fantasy architecture. An artist influenced by the decorative artistic history of Secessionism, Expressionism, and the Wiener Werkstatte, he applied these influences through his individualistic style not only to canvas but also to buildings. Hundertwasser’s work is also connected with ideas expressed by Outsider Art, Art Brut and with Situationist thought on the importance of movement and experience of urban space. Not only does the work of Hundertwasser reveal the rich artistic history of Vienna, but it also signifies a connection to other European movements, particularly Nouveau Realism in Paris, led by Pierre Restany. Critics have also suggested a connection to the CoBrA group. In his work as an ‘Architecture Doctor’ – the ‘healing of sick buildings’[2] through applied art and redesigning of facades – or as the designer of new-build projects – of which the majority are scattered throughout Germany and Austria – or through his artistic projections of new spaces and non-built projects, Hundertwasser’s style is ultimately fantastical in approach, process and deliverance. Hundertwasser’s artistic representations of architecture and space are specifically allegorical, mythological, and otherworldly – the reality of urban space is supplanted by a fantastical construction of spatial experience, enveloped by colour and pattern.


The decorative, colourful and fantastical housing spaces created by Hundertwasser are outside the architectural traditions of post-war social housing schemes borne out of a modernist dogma. In particular, Hundertwasser presents himself and his work as the antithesis of modernist architectural ideology, and is specifically opposed to the functional and rationalist position on housing. It must be noted however, that  Hundertwasser’s anti-modernist criticism is mainly levelled at the non-ornamentation promoted by Adolf Loos, with a generalised reference to Le Corbusier. There is a clear misunderstanding of Bauhaus thought on art and architecture, and other Modernist discourse. It is this misunderstanding, perhaps owing to mid to late Twentieth Century misrepresentation of Modernism in austere housing schemes, which leads Hundertwasser to call for greater ornamentation, colour and pattern in architecture. He believes the artist’s romanticism and vision can deliver a more aesthetically pleasing and healthier built environment for man and nature – art is to be a uniting force. Throughout his career Hundertwasser produced a series of manifestos through which he promoted his own architectural agenda embracing ornamentation, applied art, colour, organic forms, pattern, individualism, irregularity, participation, an ecology, and craft.

A criticism levelled at Hundertwasser is that of his childlike naiveté and ‘primitivism’ in both his artistic forms and utopian ideology. However, although some may consider Hunderwasser’s art ineffectively translates into adult urban environments other critics have commented on the appeal of the artist’s structures to adults and children alike for providing good family spaces and housing. Interestingly, Hundertwasser’s agenda has a far more sombre foundation than ‘child-art’. As Austrian Jews, many relatives from his mother’s family were deported and executed in the Nazi concentration camps, with the remainder of the family having to go into hiding. In order to avoid discovery of the family’s Jewish heritage, as a young child Hundertwasser was enrolled for a short time into the Nazi Youth. Hundertwasser’s art and Fantastic architecture should thus be assessed as an expression of freedom against artistic, political and social standardisation – the type he and his family, and Austria and Germany as a whole, experienced during Nazi occupation. In particular, architecture is viewed by Hundertwasser as a manifestation of national identity, with the ‘house’ playing a significant role in the development and expression of individual self identity. The house, along with the body, clothing, environment and country, contributes to the ‘five-skin identity’ of any individual. How we interact with these five ‘skins’ determines our life experiences and personal happiness and satisfaction. However, given Hundertwasser’s own nationalistic attitudes and embracement of folk symbolism, there is an uneasy correlation between this nostalgic position and rejection of Modernism, and Nazi ideology.


 Key Case Studies:


.  Hundertwasser Haus: City of Vienna Housing Complex, Vienna 1977-1986

‘A house is a mirror of the person’[3]

This was Hundertwasser’s first major construction and, importantly, was commissioned by the Viennacity council. Its location within Vienna proves significant given the city’s layered architectural and artistic history and culture.


.  In the Meadows Housing Complex, Bad Soden am Taunus 1990-1993

‘Nature, art, creation are a unity’[4]

Located in the heart of the city, between Wilhelmspark and Springs Park, next to Soden spa hall, Haus Bockenheimer (built 1722), the complex attempts to demonstrate Hundertwasser’s ideal of architecture in harmony with nature.


.  Living Beneath the Rain Tower, Plochingen amNeckar 1990-1994

‘As with all buildings by Hundertwasser, the individual creativity of the craftsmen involved was particularly challenged’[5]

This project sees the introduction of architects Heinz M. Springman and Siegfried Kaltenbach to Hundertwasser’s collaborative partnerships. Significantly, the project also demonstrates the problems raised by the individual artistic concept and vision, and the artist’s desire for absolute artistic control.


.  The Forest Spiral, Darmstadt 1995-2000

‘An unusual building that illustrates solutions for the future’[6]

The natural features of the landscape are expressed in this building. Darmstadt itself is a particularly significant location given the encouragement of the avant-garde and architectural experiment within the city, such as the Jugendstil works by J.M. Olbrich. 


.  The Green Citadel of Magdeburg, Magdeburg 1996-2005

‘People’s dreams will again be accorded an important role’[7]



[1][Quoting Hundertwasser], Taschen. Angelika. Hundertwasser Architecture: For a More Human Architecture in Harmony with Nature.Cologne: Taschen, 2007, p. 8.

[2] Ibid, p. 10.

[3] Taschen, p. 178.

[4] Ibid, p. 129.

[5] Ibid, p. 226.

[6] Ibid, p. 266.

[7] Ibid, p. 286.



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