As you will know I love listening to podcasts. One of my favourites is 99% Invisible, a 15- minute show about the unseen and overlooked aspects of design and architecture. The title comes from a quote by the great Buckminster Fuller – “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable“. Anyway it was on this show that I learned one of the great eccentrics of the twentieth century.
Born in Vienna in 1928, Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an iconoclastic artist architect and environmentalist. He was actually born Friedrich Stowasser, but changed it to the more German-sounding Hundertwasser, which means hundred waters. He had a complicated upbringing in the Austrian capital. His father, Ernst, died when he was just one. His mother was Jewish, but pretended to be Catholic and to avoid suspicions young Fred was baptized in that faith in 1935. To this end he also joined the Hitler Youth. This strategy was probably wise; 69 relations on his mother’s side would be deported and killed before the end of the war.
Hundertwasser briefly attended the Montessori School, which may have contributed to his belief in radical self-expression. He credited the school with influencing the choice of colour in his paintings His formal art training included three months at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1948 and a day at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1950. However, Hundertwasser would later profess an intense dislike for all art theory. He preferred a quasi-mystical conception of art. He founded Transautomatism, a kind of surrealism which focussed on the viewer’s fantasy rather than an objective interpretation, allowing different people see different things in the same picture. Hundertwasser’s believed that straight lines were ‘godless and immoral’. We had lost our connection to the organic geometry of nature. You can see his paintings in this video:
Beginning in the early 1950s, he began to focus on architecture bringing these same concerns with him. This led him to reject orthodox architectural ideas. Our built environment is dominated by straight lines. We take it for granted and economically it makes sense. But this kind of reasoning was anathema to Hundertwasser. He felt straight lines enslaved modern man in a cold heartless modern rationalist architecture. He hated the idea of being forced to live in boxes. His most iconic project was the Hundertwasserhaus in his native Vienna. It was his paintings made architecture.
One of his last architectural projects was the Green Citadel of Magdeburg, which he had been working on it right up until his death in 2000. It was finally in a ceremonial act on 3rd October 2005.
Hundertwasser did not limit himself to art and architecture; he also created flags, stamps, coins, and posters. One of Hundertwasser’s most famous designs was the Koru Flag, a proposal for a new national flag for New Zealand based on a Maori motif. It was not accepted ultimately.
There is no doubt that he enjoyed courting controversy. He was big on manifestos. In 1958 he delivered the Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture on the occasion of a congress at Seckau monastery. It was in the Mouldiness Manifesto that he first claimed the “Window Right”:
“A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door.”
He was very much into mould, believing it to be part of nature. He argued that watching it grow was much more interesting than sitting in front of the television This closeness to nature is the part of Hundertwasser that is hardest to stomach. He also favoured what he called indoor humus toilets. This humus has nothing to do with the creamy chickpea dip which originated in the Middle East, but the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter. What Hundertwasser wanted was to have compost toilets within his buildings, something which the planning authorities took a dim view of.
Another of his manifestos was the Right to a Third Skin. For Hundertwasser, man has five skins: his natural epidermis, his clothes, his house, his identity and the planet. He gave that speech without his second skin as can be seen in the photo below. But we are talking about the sixties, and in those days everything went.
In the 1970s, Hundertwasser acquired a number of properties in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. He was able to live largely self-sufficiently and at one with nature. He installed solar panels, a water wheel a biological water purification plant and his trademark grass roofs. Hundertwasser was buried in New Zealand after his death at sea on board the QE2 in 2000 at the age of 71.
I have to say I was initially drawn to Hundertwasser by his eccentricity, but I am now attracted to his art and architecture. Architectural critics accuse of being kitschy, but I like to see buildings that stand out and I think we can say that nobody could accuse his buildings of being bland. Having said that, I’m not sure I’d want to actually live in one. We have uneven floors in our flat and it doesn’t feel like a “a melody to the feet“. But we do need people who push the boundaries. And his idea of vegetation growing in and out of buildings has now become a standard practice. But I’ll think I’ll give mould and compost toilets a miss.