By Dylan Strain
25 April 2009
Perhaps it's fitting for a city that invented social housing, that Vienna's number three tourist attraction is a block of 52 council flats of very modest rent.
But is Hundertwasser House just a tourist one-off? Or does it point us into the future in the midst of a climate change crisis and in terms of what we expect of the homes we live in?
As a boy, Friedrich Stowasser used to dream of seeing "a forest on the roof". As a man, now Friedensreich Hundertwasser, he became Austria's most famous painter and realised his dream. His dream was that man must live in harmony with nature.
He did just that and declared war on all forms of pollution, with much success in Austria and internationally, decades before the rest of the world woke up to the earth's man-made problems. He said: “For centuries man has been killing nature and killing themselves. We must free human creativity, not indoctrinate it."
Authorities doling out homes of bland cloned conformity for a king's ransom or forcing people into grey prison boxes in the sky was something Hundertwasser was vehemently against.
"We live in buildings that are criminal and have been built by architects who are real criminals... Whereas architecture should develop, should grow after the people have moved in."
He believed that man has three skins. His own, his clothes and the outer walls of his home. Unless all three change, as we change, we will not live happily. Hundertwasser House changes with the seasons. The trees, supported by 9,000 kilos of earth, naturally change.
Some grow out of the facade of the building, "paying rent" by cleaning the air, softening noise, giving shade and covering the facade with natural life. Children and adults alike can scribble or paint on the corridor walls and are free to change the interior of their flat as they want. The exterior as a living skin was also extremely important to Hundertwasser, so that the tenant has a “Right of Window”.
Stipulated long before the actual building of the house began and written right at the beginning of the terms of the rental agreement, the house allows the tenants to change her or his exterior as long as the arm will reach outside the window, because for Hundertwasser, one must be able to change the front of their dwelling in any way they see fit, in order to stay in harmony with nature.
Nils, an ex-TV director in his seventies, now turned café raconteur, said that he knew Hundertwasser, that they were both in love with Hungarian countess sisters at one time. Apparently, Hundertwasser's "first hobby was the ladies."
Women appear to adore him too. Female visitors in Nil's cafe generally love the flats, whereas men often don't like them, some getting angry. I was the opposite. The free video in the café shown in German and English is a fitting history to the house. I have to admit that Hundertwasser's idealism and realisation of a seemingly impossible dream, brought a tear to the eye, on more than one of half a dozen visits.
"They thought I was mad," said Hundertwasser, architects and no doubt certain councillors, shaking their heads at the idea of trees growing from every orifice of a flat's structure. But working with Austrian architect Josef Krawina, who must take some of the credit, Hundertwasser proved his ideas were structurally possible. Work began in 1979 and the building completed in 1986.
Hundertwasser's belief that a building should not be made of walls, but windows was realised. He said that the straight line was not to be found in nature and so could make us sick and that "flat floors were good for machines, good for dictators but not human-beings".
But for whatever reason, conventional flat floors and walls do feature in the flats; only the corners and edges have been rounded out. The corridors are uneven as are the wall surfaces, painted by the tenants in a kind of wave pattern.
No two flats are the same, just as no two people are the same. There are flats on one or two floors, flats with gardens, flats without, small and large flats, flats with a lot of shade or sun, flats with a cooking, living and dining area combined. There are areas where nature is allowed to grow naturally and tenants have no access, a children's play room and communal areas, including a winter garden.
Mass produced objects were used in an individual way throughout. Mosaics and tiles have been fitted by craftsman. No two lampshades in the corridors are identical. Door handles and fittings are different in every flat. Access to the flats is limited to tenants only. But nearby buildings, including the museum of his art or Kunsthaus, offer an idea of what it must be like.
Hundertwasser wanted to incorporate humus toilets (recycling all human waste) and vegetable purification plants within the flats but these ideas were not possible.
Appearing in a film about the flats some years later, Hundertwasser spoke of the architect’s response saying: "This is fantastic. We admit we were wrong with our indoctrinated architecture, subduing man and living creativity, nature. Because we are architects, we can do much better than this... this… painter. But I am still waiting for that."
After the success of Hundertwasser House, he developed 50 designs for buildings, 25 of which were realised across the world, including a village and thermal spa, Bad Blumau in Austria, an eco-friendly incinerator in Vienna and a toilet in Kawakawa, New Zealand, that brought so many visitors to it, that the mayor built a hotel and a new public toilet for use beside it. A fitting legacy to his recipe for happiness, many manifestos building on the last one, include Humus toilets (Munich 1975) and The Sacred Shit Manifesto (Pfaffikon 1979).
At the end of the film on his flats, Hundertwasser appears to throw down the gauntlet to people everywhere: "If everybody uses his creativity and inside expression of the soul to change his environment then the world will be a paradise, you won't have to walk far to get to paradise, because your neighbour has made it."
Some people might look at these pictures or visit a Hundertwasser building and think it is crazy. Or mad. But isn't it crazier to live in bland conformity and still leave the lights on? Hundertwasser died on 19th February 2000, aged 72.