Wittgenstein was a good architect

Tractatus Architectonicus

How do you build the perfect house? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein left Vienna a brilliant house. And it drove the Viennese craftsmen to despair.

This article appears here with the kind support of waahr.de.

by Lorenz Schröter

The house was ready it only had to be cleaned, after which Margaret Stonborough would move in. The architect decided that the ceiling of the main hall had to be raised by three centimeters for reasons of aesthetics. With the irascible, utterly humorless despot, contradiction was pointless. The ceiling was raised, which resulted in further enormous costs. But money did not play a role in this construction. The architect had never been seen near an architecture lecture before. He had studied mechanical engineering and patented an aircraft engine that anticipated the jet engine. He later invented a device for measuring blood pressure fluctuations. But his best-known work begins with the brilliant sentence: “The world is everything that is the case.” The architect's name was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

His sister, the patient and immensely wealthy builder Margaret, called him "Luki". She was seven years older, a recognized beauty of the Viennese upper class, intellectual and patron with an impressive collection of art and autographs. Your Berlin apartment had been furnished by the Wiener Werkstätte. Before her wedding to the American Jerome Stonborough in 1905, Gustav Klimt portrayed her as a noble social bloom in a cream-colored silk dress. Her restless later life - including emigration and smuggling jewelery in underwear - led Margaret Stonborough to Berlin, Switzerland, New York and always back to her native Vienna. She retained her ability to evade authorities through private contacts and subversive cunning into old age. When Sigmund Freud was targeted by the Nazis who had just invaded Austria in 1938, she and her friend Princess Marie Bonaparte helped him to leave for London.

In 1925 Margaret asked her brother Ludwig if he would help her plan a Vienna city villa. He had recently been dismissed as a primary school teacher because he tore the boys' ears bloody and slapped them until they passed out. He had distributed his share of the millionaire inheritance to his siblings, he had no steady income and was amateur gardener. So the sisterly offer came in handy. From 1926 to 1928 Ludwig Wittgenstein planned and managed the construction of the palace in the third district between 9 Kundmann- and Parkgasse. It was the last of its kind in Vienna's inner districts, a hybrid between aristocratic, representative and modern bourgeois architecture. The Wittgenstein expert Paul Wijdeveld interprets the philosopher's architectural exercise as a “cleansing gesture”, precisely because an autodidact of architecture performed it.

The hermetic outer impression of the villa is lost as soon as one has stepped through the high wall that separates the property from the street. The house, which used to be in the middle of a park landscape with old trees, looks more open and lighter with every step.

Windows: graphically lined up, placed close to one another, at the same time placed irritatingly far from the edges of the building. A few steps lead from the garden to a terrace protected by strict cubes. If light falls outside through their glass doors at night, it is as if a Japanese paper lamp were shining.

The in fl uence of Adolf Loos, a friend of the Wittgenstein family, is unmistakable. Two of his students were involved in the palace, Paul Engelmann, whom his brother and sister could manipulate to their hearts' content, and Jacques Groag, the only experienced architect on the project. With his ruthless perfectionism, Ludwig brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown several times during the two-year construction period. "Ludwig drew every window, every door, every bolt of the window, every radiator with the accuracy as if they were precision elements," wrote his eldest sister Hermione. “I think I can still hear the locksmith who asked him when he was opening a key:“ Are you saying, Mr. Engineer, is it really the millimeter that matters to you? ”And before he had fully spoken, a loud, energetic“ Yes "That the man almost got a fright."

The door handles, reduced to the functional minimum, became famous - without fittings or visible screws, they are inserted directly into the door. The double-wing doors in the great hall, each of them different sizes, are screwed together from iron plates; their fishing plates disappear under paint. Without a threshold, they still close flush with the floor. Wittgenstein had the radiators cast in Germany; no Austrian craftsman could deliver the required accuracy. Eight businesses were in despair at the windows: How should panes measuring 290 by 25 centimeters be held in thin brass frames without splintering? The ninth glazier had a crying fit because he wanted to do the job. And somehow it worked.

Wittgenstein's aversion to ornament far exceeded that of Adolf Loos. Wood was painted over so that no grain could be seen. The philosopher did not tolerate baseboards, borders or ledges and forbade his sister to use curtains, carpets or chandeliers. Only bare 200 watt bulbs were allowed. The garden had to stay completely green, without flowers. In a letter, the house owner asked him if she could at least hang up an outdoor thermometer.

Despite the almost manic obsession with clarity, which can also be found in Wittgenstein's writings, the result is astonishingly beautiful, the atmosphere anything but cold. You still feel comfortable in these rooms today. Light falls through the glass doors and the glass monopitch roof of a winter garden in the stairwell, the stucco lustro on the walls shines in light ocher, the green-gray glazed metal doors shimmer as well as the polished, almost black floor slabs made of fine-grain limestone.

They were cut for each room so that the joints met exactly in the middle of the double doors. All of this formed the framework for the style of the lady of the house, for her furniture from the Wiener Werkstätte, her collection of sculptures and paintings from the Secession.

“Wittgenstein has the house built for itself to test the intellectual experiment in action, ”says the architect and space-sound artist Bernhard Leitner, professor at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. For Margaret and Ludwig, the building of the palace meant another rapprochement. As children they had been very close to each other, but later Margaret's older sister came out: "All of Luke's swans are geese," she once said about her little brother's circle of friends. Building a house marked a turning point for both of them. Margaret's marriage finally failed, on Black Friday 1929 she lost a large part of her enormous fortune, her sons had inherited the sadness of their father, who later committed suicide. Then the Nazis came and as a Jew she had to leave her beloved Vienna. The world as she had known it was ending.

For Ludwig, on the other hand, building a house had a cathartic effect. All his life he had been on the run from his family, which was like the Buddenbrooks. The powerful father, a picture book capitalist with a mustache, a watch chain and a cigar, became one of the richest men in the Austro-Hungarian Empire through trade and speculation within a few years. u. k. Monarchy. The mother was loving, neurotic and overwhelmed, the sons all art-savvy, all depressed and partly homosexual. Three Wittgenstein brothers committed suicide, Ludwig tried twice and then went to war with the intention of falling at the front. Instead, he was awarded the highest medal for bravery. “What you can't talk about, you have to be silent about it” - this last sentence of his famous “Tractatus logico-philosophicus”, written in the trenches, can definitely be read as a farewell. After the First World War, Wittgenstein walked around in a shabby Norfolk jacket, unkempt, no tie, the top button of his shirt open. Like someone to whom social conventions no longer mean anything.

But with the house building, the 37-year-old found life again. "You think philosophy is complicated enough as it is," he remarked to his friend, the psychiatrist Maurice Drury. “But I can tell you it's nothing compared to the difficulty of being a good architect. When I was building the house for my sister in Vienna, at the end of the day I was so exhausted that all I could do was go to the cinema every evening. ”Building the house and the westerns did him good. The "Tractatus" was recognized as a doctoral thesis in philosophy at Cambridge, where he established himself as a professor feared for his relentlessness. For years Wittgenstein thought of his work in Kundmanngasse: “My house for Gretl is the product of decisive sensitivity, good manners, the expression of a great understanding (for a culture)”, he noted in 1940. “But the original life, the wild life who wants to let off steam - is missing. So one could also say that he is in poor health. ”Despite his notorious self-doubt, he was satisfied with his building work. Except for one detail. A stairwell window at the back. When he finally had to declare the villa to be finished and even the ceiling had been raised by the famous three centimeters, he wanted to do something about it. In order to collect the money for it, he played the lottery for the first and only time in his life. Vain.

Until her death in 1958, Margaret Stonborough lived in the villa, which was much too large for her alone, albeit with longer interruptions. During the Second World War the Wittgenstein House served as a military hospital, after which the Red Army moved in with horses. After Margaret died, it stood empty for years and fell into disrepair. Her son Thomas, unemployed and depressed like his father, sold the palace to an investor who wanted to build a hotel on the property. In 1971 the demolition permit had already been signed. Thanks to an initiative by Bernhard Leitner, the final destruction could be prevented at the last minute. "Nobody knew the house," he had to realize. After it was completed, it was not mentioned by experts, not documented in any magazine and certainly not discussed. Leitner writes: “I saw it and my eyes fell out. It is one of the most important buildings of the 20th century. ”In 1975, Bulgaria bought the property for an inexpensive 500,000 euros to house its cultural institute. Wittgenstein's work of art, which the city of Vienna, according to Leitner, “has actually always hated”, is slowly but surely decaying. Walls were torn down, doors welded, radiators and walls repainted, door and window handles replaced, glow sticks put in and the old trees in the garden felled. Lines are laid over plaster, it is raining through the roof, cracks in the walls are fading. But one should keep quiet about it.

Lorenz Schröter is an author and writer. His homage to the sea “Das kleine Kielschwein” has been translated into four languages, and his interview with Klaus Kinski for Tempo magazine is one of the delicacies in magazine history. This text first appeared in March 2004 in Architectural Digest 3/2004.