Vienna Secession: The Beautiful Buildings of Austrian Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau has left its architectural impact all over the world, including Vienna. Austrian artists, however, developed a unique manifestation of the style known as Vienna Secession.

Apr 17, 2021By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History
vienna secession
Church of St. Leopold by Otto Wagner, 1904-07, via; with Secession Building by Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897/98, photographed by the author


The years around 1900 were shaped by a feeling of novelty, youth, and the rise of modernism. Artists wanted to break free from the constraints of traditional forms, historicism, and academic art. This search for new aesthetics established itself internationally. Vienna was no exception. Under the influence of Art Nouveau and in search of art that was anti-establishment, the Vienna Secession was born. It was founded in the year 1897 by a few of the most famous Austrian artists and architects such as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Gustav Klimt. Discover the Viennese version of Art Nouveau architecture characterized by a more understated, geometrical style and clear, structured lines! 


The Majolica House: A Floral Facade In Vienna Secession Style

majolica house otto wagner
Majolica House by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


The Majolica House was built in the year 1898 by the architect Otto Wagner. Wagner initially intended to build a magnificent boulevard that ran alongside the Wien River, but those plans were never put into practice. Located in the inner-city of Vienna, the apartment building displays an exceptional exterior which also provoked the construction’s name. The expression Majolica House stems from the colorful and glazed ceramic – called maiolica – that was used for the tiles covering the facade. The architect Otto Wagner always attached great value to the hygienic component of constructions. Hence, the tiles are made to be weatherproof and easy to clean. Because of the special quality of the tiles, dust, smut, and dirt generated by the city pose no problem. 


majolica house detail
Detail of the Majolica House by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


While the general architecture of the building was nothing new, the polychrome facade made the construction stand out radically. The flamboyant design of the tiles was made by the artist Alois Ludwig, who was a scholar of Otto Wagner. By utilizing such playful and floral motifs, Ludwig created a distinctive reference to Art Nouveau.


The multicolored appearance of the building’s front caused critical as well as praising reactions. Heavily discussed at the time, the decorated facade of the Majolica House became an infamous attraction. The Austrian architect Adolf Loos severely criticized Wagner’s use of ornamentation. Loos – who also wrote “ornament and crime” – called the creation of new ornamentation “a sign of degeneration,” alluding to Wagner’s architecture.

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Nevertheless, the vibrant colors, prominent flowers, and geometrical design make the Majolica House one of the most important buildings of Vienna’s architecture around 1900.


The Medallion House: A Fusion Of Classicism And Vienna Secession

medallion house otto wagner
Medallion House by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


Right next to the Majolica House stands Otto Wagner’s other apartment building that was constructed in 1898: The Medallion House. Both buildings are often collectively referred to as the “Wienzeilenhäuser.” The Medallion House runs not only along the Wien River but also around the corner while maintaining its characteristic facade. 


Since 1914, the building had belonged to the Kohn family. The family however fled into exile during the Second World War and the building was seized by the Nazis. When the family came back in the year 1947, they reclaimed the house that was rightfully theirs. 


medallion house corner
The corner of the Medallion House by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


The flat, golden ornamentation was designed by the Austrian painter and craftsman Koloman Moser, who was another famous member of the Vienna Secession. His medallion-shaped ornaments gave the building its name. The Austrian sculptor Othmar Schimkowitz created the female figures on top of the building. Since they visibly mimic the expression of a person calling someone they are often referred to as “Ruferinnen” which is German for “crying women.”


detail medallion house otto wagner
Detail of the Medallion House by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


While the rustic ground level and simple decoration underneath the windows are evocative of a classical style, the golden ornaments demonstrate the repertoire of the Vienna Secession. 


The combination makes the Medallion House an unusual example of Vienna Secession architecture that contains neoclassicistic elements. The influence of Art Nouveau is clearly visible through the use of botanical themes such as palm leaves and playful, golden decor. Furthermore, the female faces which embellish the inside of the medallions are reminiscent of the works of famous Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. The women depicted in the medallions evoke memories of Mucha’s women with their long, flowing hair and soft facial features. Much like its neighboring building, the Medallion House also had to endure a lot of criticism.


Otto Wagner’s Stadtbahn Pavilions: Austrian Art Nouveau City Railway Station

stadtbahn pavilion otto wagner
Stadtbahn Pavilion by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


Otto Wagner’s Stadtbahn pavilions were built at the open square Karlsplatz as stations for the old city railway in Vienna in the year 1898. Otto Wagner was in charge of the artistic component of the city railway construction and designed two identical pavilions facing each other in the style of the Vienna Secession. Their central location made the functional buildings also play a representative role. 


Today, the metro is situated right under the pavilions. Due to the construction of the metro in the 60s, the city wanted to tear down both buildings. The plan of the demolition however resulted in protests which ensured that the pavilions could stay.


back of stadtbahn pavilion
Back of Stadtbahn Pavilion by Otto Wagner, 1898, Vienna, photographed by the author


Otto Wagner followed his central premise for the pavilions, which was that construction comes first and decoration has to be subordinated to the form of the building, not the other way around. This principle that form should follow function was very popular during the 20th century. The skeleton construction is made out of metal, while the facade of the pavilions is clad with plates made of marble. Golden, floral but also geometrical motifs decorate the exterior, showcasing the style of Art Nouveau. The emphasis on clear lines and functional construction paired with curved and floral embellishment are exemplary for the architecture of the Vienna Secession. 


Nowadays, both buildings are covered with graffiti. The pavilion on the west serves as a small museum about the history of the building and the life of its architect Otto Wagner. The eastern pavilion hosts a café and a small club in the basement. 


The Church of St. Leopold: Practical Approach To Religious Architecture

church of st leopold
Church of St. Leopold by Otto Wagner, 1904-07, via


The Church of St. Leopold was built from 1904 to 1907, based on Otto Wagner’s designs. In German, the building is often called “Kirche am Steinhof” which roughly translates to “church on the yard of stones.” The name originates from the quarries near the building. “Church of St. Leopold,” however, refers to the patron saint of Austria to whom the construction was dedicated.


The church was originally built for patients of a mental hospital that was located on the same premises. Wagner, therefore, had to take into account that the church would be visited by people with severe mental illnesses. To ensure a safe and practical place for the patients, Wagner discussed the issue with the caregivers. The architecture consequently included benches with their sharp edges rounded off and a few emergency exits for safety. In addition, the interior did not display any violent scenes from the life of Christ to avoid unsettling the patients. Wagner again implemented hygienic aspects into the construction. The holy water, for example, was accessible through a dispenser, thereby avoiding diseases caused by infection.  


church of st leopold otto wagner
Church of St. Leopold by Otto Wagner, 1904/1907, Vienna, Photo by Andrew Nash via Flickr


Due to disagreements between Otto Wagner and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the architect was not mentioned during the inauguration of the church. Since the Archduke was not won over by the style of the Vienna Secession and the collaboration with the architect, Wagner did not receive any subsequent jobs from the imperial family. 


The bright walls, sharp edges, functional construction, and use of golden, playful elements like the laurel wreaths align perfectly with Otto Wagner’s architectural style and the Vienna Secession. Othmar Schimkowitz – the artist who also created the sculptures for Otto Wagner’s Medallion House – made the prominent angel sculptures above the opulent entrance.


The Secession Building: Exhibition Space For Vienna Secession Art

secession building joseph maria olbrich
Secession Building by Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897/98, Vienna, photographed by the author


Since the artists of the Vienna Secession needed a place to exhibit their works, they commissioned Joseph Maria Olbrich to build them an exhibition space. Olbrich was a student of Otto Wagner. Designing the Secession Building was his first big job as an architect. Built from 1897 to 1898, the construction represents one of the most important architectural examples of Austrian Art Nouveau. Even today, the building serves as a museum for contemporary art. 


Its cubical form, white walls, and extravagant, golden cupola make the building dramatically stand out from its environment. When the construction was completed in 1898, people gathered in large numbers in front of the building and discussed its peculiar appearance. The Austrian journalist Eduard Pötzl once even compared the conspicuous cupola to a head of cabbage. 


secession building detail
Secession Building by Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897/98, Vienna, photographed by the author


Above the entrance, one can read: “Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit” which means “to every age its art, to art its freedom.” The quotation was one of the mottos of the Vienna Secession. Another principle is written on the left side of the building in the Latin words “Ver Sacrum” which translates to “holy spring.” The reference to spring expresses the new and blossoming era of art that the Vienna Secession symbolized.


Through its clear lines, flat walls, golden décor, and botanical elements the Secession Building embodies the characteristics of Austrian Art Nouveau.



details secession building
Details of the Secession Building by Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1897/98, Vienna, photographed by the author


Various Austrian artists collaborated on the décor of the exterior. The flowerpots on each side of the building were made by the Austrian craftsman Robert Oerley who decorated the base of the pots with sculptures of turtles. Othmar Schimkowitz made the relief of gorgons above the entrance. The owls on both sides of the building were designed by Koloman Moser.


The Vienna Secession has not only changed the way we view architecture but also what we consider acceptable. The novel – and back then often provocative forms – challenged traditions and paved the way for new architecture and contemporary art.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.