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Destination: Austria

The Art of the Viennese Walls : Foe of city gray: Hundertwasser's work makes even Gaudi dowdy

May 11, 1997|MAXINE ROSE SCHUR | Schur is a freelance writer based on San Mateo, Calif

VIENNA — Humans have more than just eyes to enjoy beautiful things and ears to hear beautiful sounds and noses to smell beautiful smells. Humans can also feel with their hands and feet. The flat floor with straight lines has been recognized as a real danger to humans. The uneven path becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet. This path makes one vibrate with joy.

--Friedensreich Hundertwasser

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I was sitting in the cafe of the Kunsthaus Wien, which must be the most disorienting museum in the world. When I looked at the floor, I saw it rise and dip like sand dunes, and when I looked at the multicolored ceramic pillars, they seemed to tilt dangerously. Yet this uncertainty delighted me, for I had made a journey of 24 years to get here.

The Kunsthaus Wien is the Vienna museum designed by and devoted to the art of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of Austria's best known artists and architects, although his name is relatively unknown in America outside art circles.

I was living in New Zealand when I first heard of Hundertwasser. In 1973 he brought an exhibit of his prints to Wellington's Dominion Museum. Tall and bearded, in a flannel shirt and hiking boots, Hundertwasser looked like a woodcutter returned from the forest. I had no idea at the time that he would become an Austrian icon, and that his museum and buildings he designed would be listed as important Vienna landmarks, top tourist attractions listed alongside the Spanish Riding School and the Schonbrunn Palace.

At the exhibit, I fell in love with Hundertwasser's shimmering fantasies with intriguing titles: "Blood Flowing in a Circle and I Have a Bicycle" or "The Painters Have Houses to Pray but Do Not Use Them." I bought a small book about the artist and over the years have returned to it, each time gaining new insight into the mind of a nonconformist who rails against the dehumanizing of our environment.

Hundertwasser celebrates the handmade and the organic, but he also reveres that which is childlike and rebellious. Calling himself an "architect doctor," he has both shocked and delighted his compatriots by turning mundane buildings into colorful, toylike fantasies. In Vienna, the Spittelau District Heating Plant, for example, was transformed into a psychedelic mosque with a dazzling gold minaret. The Bad Fischau Highway Inn, a prefab 1950s diner 45 miles south of Vienna, is now topped by Hundertwasser's blue octagonal observation tower, which in turn is topped by a live fir tree. The artist has also painted rainbow colors on an old 12-ton freighter, which he calls Rainy Day and which serves as his second home on the Danube.

However, there's no better example of his bold spirit than the Hundertwasser House, a Vienna public housing project before it was redesigned inside and out by Hundertwasser and reopened in 1985, the building was a dreary gray-brick tenement. I was so eager to see this structure, that when I arrived in Vienna I headed straight for it, completely forgetting to bring my map. Yet in the trim, middle-class neighborhood of Hapsburg-era houses, there was no way to miss it.

Pundits have remarked that a Hundertwasser building looks like circus clowns were let loose with giant crayons. When I arrived, I stood on the sidewalk opposite the apartment building, astonished by blue, orange, yellow, white and brown walls, wavy roofs planted with mini-meadows and crowned with gold onion domes, a concrete arch decorated with mirror fragments, multicolored tiles that float over the walls like party streamers, and hundreds of gaily painted small windows so unexpectedly placed that they look like a stamp collection dropped from heaven.

On the cornices, window sills and gables of the apartment rise an odd assortment of statuary: bright yellow bowling pins, Greek goddesses, lions, red Santa hats. And as if all this weren't enough, trees sprout from the windows. These "tree tenants," as Hundertwasser calls them, exemplify his philosophy of returning greenery to the city.

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Now 68, Hundertwasser is as eccentric and rebellious as ever. He has written numerous treatises railing against drab color and the "godless straight line." In one, called the Manifesto of Tenant's Rights, he recites his idiosyncratic philosophy of human liberation, a tract that reads like a collaboration of Karl Marx and the Mad Hatter:

Renters must be able to lean out of their windows and scratch off all the plaster within reach. And they must be permitted to paint everything pink within reach of a long brush so that it can be seen from a distance, from the street that a human lives there!

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