The Secession Building

The Secession shortly after completion, postcard, dated June 2, 1899 (1899)Secession

The Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, which was founded in the spring of 1897, made itself truly visible to the outside world with its new club and exhibition building. The building was designed by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, a native of Lower Silesia, who had lived in Vienna since 1890.

Building of the Secession, Getreidemarkt (1903)Secession

His Secession building design gave the then 30-year-old Olbrich his breakthrough as a famous architect. In 1899, he was appointed director of the famous Darmstadt Artist's Colony in Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Germany, where he worked successfully for a number of years.

First draft for an exhibition building at the Wollzeile, the facade on the side of the ring road (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Olbrich began planning a building for the new Association of Visual Artists even before it was established in March 1897. The intended building site was located on Stubenring—as it is known today—on the corner of Wollzeile, diagonally opposite the Museum of Art and Industry.

First draft for an exhibition house of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Olbrich's design bore many correlations to the type of building that Otto Wagner had designed around the same time for the Viennese "Stadtbahn" (metropolitan railroad) stations. To make its mark on the ring road, the entrance to the building was to be accentuated by two 56-feet-high pylons.

Version of the first draft (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

He used the laurel leaf motif in this design as a framing device to crown the entrance niche. Olbrich undoubtedly had in mind a free-standing design made of metal, which he probably intended to be accentuated with gilding.

Draft for a temporary entrance to the Secession (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Olbrich had designed a similar gantry solution as part of his competition entry for the design of the Vienna Pavilion at the Jubilee Exhibition in Vienna's Prater amusement park. The pavilion project was part of the many jubilee monuments that were built across Vienna for Emperor Franz Joseph I's Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Plan for the construction of the Secession, design of the surrounding space (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Due to the War Ministry's objections to the proposed site, a new plot of land for the Secession building was designated in the fall of 1897, located on Naschmarkt, in direct proximity to Karlsplatz. The venerable "Akademie der bildenden Künste" (Academy of Fine Arts) was also in sight.

Building of the Secession, Sketch for the second draft (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Olbrich changed his design immediately in response to the change in site, which was signed off in September 1897. He had the idea of using the laurel tree motif—originally intended as decoration for the entrance niche—for the dome.

Sketch, Autumn (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

A study sheet, on which Olbrich sketched out numerous other architectural details, probably represents the first piece of evidence of his original and spectacular idea. He may also have been inspired by the proximity to the famous Karlskirche and its dome.

Plan for the construction of the Secession, Cross section through the entrance hall (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

Olbrich designed the building in two major parts. On the one hand, he designed an imposing entrance hall crowned by heavy blocks, pylons, and the laurel dome. The unusual, sculptural appearance of the entrance building renders it almost like a huge monument.

Entrance Secession (1899)Secession

The entrance was designed as an architectural talking point. A quote by the writer Ludwig Hevesi, "Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit" ("to every age its art, and to art its freedom"), visible on a mighty crossbar, became politically significant in such a prominent position.

Plan for the construction of the Secession, longitudinal section (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

By contrast, Olbrich designed the back of the building in a much simpler and more functional style. The glass roof that extended over the entire passage was particularly reminiscent of industrial architecture and was perceived by the public to be revolutionary, even provocative by some.

Plan for the construction of the Secession, entrance level (1897) by Joseph M. OlbrichSecession

The exhibition hall received its light exclusively via the glass roof. There were no side windows to distract those contemplating the works of art. Some might say that Olbrich created the first "white cube" with this simple, multifunctional hall.

Dance of the Wreath-Bearing Maidens (1898) by Koloman MoserSecession

The back of the building was adorned with a figurine frieze made using the sgraffito technique, which portrayed a sequence of wreath-bearing virgins. This frieze was designed by Koloman Moser, who also created the designs for the owl reliefs, which appear several times on the side facade of the building.

Foyer with the rose window "Archangel of the art" by Koloman Moser, postcard (1898)Secession

Koloman Moser was also the creator of the large multi-colored rosette window that illuminated the entrance hall. Unfortunately, this glass window was destroyed in later years, and even Moser's figurine frieze on the rear facade has not been preserved.

Foyer after the remodelling by Josef Hoffmann (1902)Secession

After Olbrich followed a call to the Mathildenhöhe artists' colony in Darmstadt in 1899, Josef Hoffmann became the leading architect of the Secession. He redesigned the entrance hall in 1902. Alongside Moser, Hoffmann was responsible for the presentation of the exhibitions.

Ver Sacrum-Room at the II. Exhibition (1898)Secession

Hoffmann also designed the "Ver Sacrum" Room towards the front of the building. The soft, curved forms of the furniture and door frames still reveal the language of floral art nouveau. A short time later, Hoffmann preferred a stricter, geometric design.

„Das Heim der Wiener ’Sezession’“, in: „Ueber Land und Meer“, 1898, N. 13. (1898)Secession

The fact that the Secession building was financially viable is considered a masterpiece of modern sponsorship. Besides the state of Lower Austria, the most important financier of the building's construction was the industrialist, Karl Wittgenstein. Furthermore, Olbrich and all of his colleagues waived their fees.

Colored postcard, building of the Secession (1898)Secession

With its radically novel appearance and show of staged symbolism, the Secession building immediately became the target of fierce criticism. It was called a cross between a blast furnace and a glass house, an Assyrian raised blind, and even the "grave of the Mahdi."

Colored postcard, building of the Secession (1901)Secession

The main focus of the criticism, but also a cause of admiration, was the conspicuous laurel dome. With its fire-gilded surface, approximately 3,000 iron-forged laurel leaves, and 700 berries, the dome had an almost exotic look which was unusual to the Viennese.

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