European Architecture Series
Joseph Maria Olbrich

Viennese Architect, Art Nouveau Designer of Vienna Secession House.

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House of the Vienna Secession
Haus der Wiener Sezession (1897-98).

Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908)


Olbrich's Architecture
Vienna Secession House
Darmstadt Artist Colony
Other Designs
Other Famous 19th Century Architects

For a short guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.

Olbrich's Architecture

One of the greatest architects in Austria at the turn of the century, Joseph Maria Olbrich, together with other artists including the decorative painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), was a founding member of the Vienna Secession (c.1897 onwards), for which he designed the famous headquarters building known as Haus der Wiener Sezession. Influenced by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918), Olbrich was also associated with Art Nouveau - known in Austria as Sezessionstil or by its German name of Jugendstil - and was involved in the decorative design which it promoted. But he succeeded in overcoming the weaknesses and limitations of Art Nouveau architecture by combining its fantasy appearance with spatial and distributive functionality. Thus, like Victor Horta (1861-1947) in Belgium, Hector Guimard (1867-1942) in France, and Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in Spain, Olbrich acted as a bridge between 19th century architecture and the advent of full-blooded modernism in the hands of Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and the Bauhaus design school (1919-33).




Born in Opava, in Austrian Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic), the son of a prosperous brick manufacturer, whose business stimulated Olbrich's initial interest in building construction, Olbrich studied architecture at the Wiener Staatsgewerbeschule and afterwards at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under Otto Wagner. At the Academy, Olbrich won several prizes, including the 1893 Prix de Rome, which also led to his joining Wagner's architectural studio, where he worked for five years.

Vienna Secession House

In 1897, along with Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, Olbrich founded the Vienna Secession (Wiener Sezession), an avant-garde art group committed to modernising Austrian art by acquainting it with the latest modern art movements, including the latest trends in Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, as well as various styles of decorative art, including Sezessionstil. The organization published its own journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) (1898-1903) to promote unity in the arts, including folk art, while Olbrich designed the organization's spectacular headquarters building (Haus der Wiener Sezession). This exterior of this iconic structure was crowned by a metal cupola decorated with Art Nouveau floral designs, while its interior was marked by a church-like entrance hall, and an industrial-style exhibition space. Twenty-three exhibitions were staged in the new building from 1898 to 1905, introducing the public to French Impressionism, as well as Symbolism, the English Arts and Crafts movement, Japonism and Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints, and various strains of international Art Nouveau.

The Vienna Secession House earned Olbrich immediate notoriety and numerous commissions between 1898 and 1900. Indeed, he quickly became recognized as the most gifted and inventive of the Viennese Secession architects.

Darmstadt Artist Colony

In 1899, Olbrich went to Darmstadt at the invitation of Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse, to design and build a number of buildings and galleries for the newly formed utopian Darmstadt/Mathildenhohe artist colony. He completed six houses, including the Ernst Ludwig House - a central hall containing meeting rooms and artist studios, borrowing elements from the architecture of Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) in the process. He also designed the multi-storey Wedding Tower (Hochzeitsturm), an exhibition centre with multiple galleries, marked by several avant-garde features including an Art Deco style superstructure and modernist bands of windows. In 1900, Olbrich acquired Hessian citizenship and later accepted the post of Professor of Architecture from the Grand Duke.

Other Designs

During the 1900s Olbrich completed a number of other diverse architectural designs - including the design of the Leonhard Tietz department store in Vienna. In addition, inspired by the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop) - a decorative arts studio founded by Hoffmann and Moser that employed gifted young Viennese painters like Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) - Olbrich also experimented with other types of applied art, including ceramics, book binding, musical instruments and furniture. He contributed several designs to the Louisiana Exhibition in St. Louis, USA, and - thanks to the good offices of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) - was elected an associate member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). (See also: American Architects.) He was also a member of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation) - see also the Munich Secession (1892) and the Berlin Secession movement (1898). Other buildings designed by Olbrich during this final phase include: the Opel Workers House (1908, Darmstadt), and Josef Feinhals House (1908, Cologne). Unfortunately for 20th century architecture, Olbrich died from leukemia in August, 1908, aged only 40.

Other Famous 19th Century Architects

Richard Upjohn (1802-78)
Gothic Revival architect.

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79)
Gothic style architect, medievalist restorer.

James Renwick (1818-95)
Gothic Revivalist architect.

Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Inspired by Classical and French Renaissance architecture.

William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)
Founder of the first Chicago School of architecture.

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)
Romanesque Revival architect.

Peter Behrens (1868-1940)
Innovative and influential German industrial architect.

• For more about 19th century Viennese Secessionist architecture, see: Homepage.

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