Paradox of the
‘Within all great art is a wild animal: tamed. Not with Mendelssohn, for example. All great art has man’s primitive drives as its ground-bass. They are not the melody (as they are with Wagner, perhaps) but they are what gives the melody its depth and power. In this sense Mendelssohn can be called a ‘reproductive’ artist. In the same sense: the house I built for Gretl is the product of a decidedly sensitive ear and good manners, an expression of great understanding (of cultures, etc.). But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open—that is lacking.’
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (1977)
The house for Ludwig Wittgenstein made for his sister, located in the Kundmangasse section of Vienna, is a beguiling moment in the life of one the twentieth century’s most prominent intellectual figures. It sits between two phases of the philosopher’s rather scarcely populated writing career and seems for all intents and purposes the necessary hinge in the development of the man, as both thinker and moral citizen. Its architectural merits—originality, consistency, beauty, insight—are ponderous at times and remain uncertain; and its relationship to the philosophers theoretical formulations appear even less clear. The countervailing influences and associations of the building are what make it an interesting subject for discussion and it’s in this context that we can explore what the architect meant when he named it a “hothouse plant,” a thing of good manners and sensitive ears, but fundamentally lacking the “wild animal” of great art.
A Beginning in Logic
The path to get to the “wild animal” that Wittgenstein names is a rather tortuous one; a protracted journey often tempestuous and disjointed—as much the philosophers lifelong frustration with the problem of language, as the embittered conflict of spirituality and rationality at the heart of his philosophical interests. Drawn early into the tradition of British analytic philosophy through Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein moved through life with a sort of quixotic intensity marked by blight with struggle, disavowal and privation. This struggle may be best described in the words of one of his major role models St. Augustine of Hippo on rare success along the path of life, that “..they are now [only] consolations of a traveler on a long journey.. no more than points of light ‘along the darkening highway.’”
Wittgenstein and St. Augustine share the fate of having two discernibly different phases in the evolution of their personal outlooks and philosophical beliefs. Wittgenstein begins with mechanics and mathematics in 1908 when he left his prosperous home in Vienna and went to Victoria University of Manchester for a degree in engineering. It was there he studied aeronautical projects and became involved in studying the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere, along with investigations on propellers and small jet engines. The young philosopher developed what would come to be identified as his early interest logical, mathematical systems; systems of reason based on logically-valid truths and irreducible axioms. This period marked the emergence of the logician, but it wasn’t until he came in contact with Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica (1910) that he became interested in the philosophical revolution taking place two hundred miles to the south at the University of Cambridge. This was enough to pique the interest of the young Wittgenstein such that he moved to Cambridge in 1911 and began studying with Russell and G.E. Moore on the foundations of logic.
The move to Cambridge allowed Wittgenstein to expose himself to the newly-emerging theories of philosophy and ingratiate himself with the group of philosophers that would eventually lay claim to the birth of a new branch of knowledge. However, the smoothness of the transition was short-lived and shortly after his move, we see presaged, his signature contempt for privileged social circles and the perceived limitations of the academy—a temperament that would stay with him his whole life. In 1913, in frustration, and in the first of many jaunts into isolation, Wittgenstein left Cambridge with his studies incomplete and the enamored Russell in disbelief, and settled in Skjolden, Norway to a small cabin he had built overlooking the longest fjord in Norway, to pursue his writings alone. It was there he laid the foundations of what would later be included in his Philosophical Investigations (1953).
The Solitary Path
The cabin stands as a solitary architectural marker in Wittgenstein’s life—the only structure designed and built purposefully for his personal interests and occupations. As such, it depicts a rather different outlook from the one so commonly attributed to the early philosopher. While sharing his believes in modesty and frugality, it is a markedly different architectural response than the Palais Stonborough, which was designed for his sister in its entirety. The few extant photographs of it show a simple steep pitched roof for shedding the heavy winter snow, a couple of small windows on either side and basic shingle siding rooted in the traditional vernacular language of Norwegian coastal building. The cabin serves an interesting role in expressing what Wittgenstein was often quoted as saying was missing from philosophical study of the time—a necessary rootedness in the fabric of everyday life, missing in the “frictionless ice” of the Cambridge’s metaphysical environs. Indeed, it was the friction of the everyday, the clarity of the solitary experience and the rootedness in the natural world that the cabin now signifies.
The outbreak of the First World War ended this period of solitary reflection and he soon volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army serving first aboard a ship and later in a howitzer regiment on the Russian front. During this time perhaps the most profound change took place when he was introduced to the writings of Leo Tolstoy and St. Augustine. Wittgenstein once wrote: “Are you acquainted with Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief? At its time, this book virtually kept me alive... If you are not acquainted with it, then you cannot imagine what an effect it can have upon a person.” His introduction to religious writings had a marked effect upon his own writing focus and he completed Tractatus, his first and only work published during his lifetime, with a newfound spiritual and ethical dimension in 1921.
The autobiographical story of Ludwig Wittgenstein finds its interest because the narrative is so often squared off as a simple duality between early writing—maligned by the author as an ethical failure—and the later writing—which sought to undermine and expand the aprioristic formal and systematic logic models of the early work. In other words, the shift went from what David Stern calls “Logical Atomism to Practical Holism.” Self-contained models of logic—truth-functions, privileged paradigms of language, the notion of language as calculus—gave way to the concept of language as an activity within the background of human practice; like a game with particular rules, played within a less tractable social context.
But the transition from his early period was far from a clean one. Wittgenstein, in the wake of the public’s reception of Tractatus, fell into despair believing it largely misunderstood; including most of his colleagues in Cambridge. It was thought to have received a publisher mostly on account of the introduction by Russell. He severed himself from academics and went to work as a school teacher in several small villages throughout the Viennese Alps, giving himself unreservedly to public service and aestheticism. His intensity proved to be too much when in 1926 he was asked to leave by the local school board under pressure by parents for the unusually harsh punishment of one of his students.
Separated from his self-assumed altruistic mission to help develop young people, Wittgenstein became more despairing than ever before and found himself unmoored without clear direction. He returned to Vienna to work as a gardener at a local Benedictine monastery. Allegedly during this time he enquired about the protocols for applying for monastic life, though never followed through with the idea.
These peripatetic years are especially important for understanding the stage culminating in the Palais Stonborough. It was a period of lonely struggle and separation for Wittgenstein that allowed him, quite essentially as some now see it, to dirty his hands and set his feet to march against the backdrop of ordinary life. He often argued for philosophers to leave the frictionless ice and return to the rough ground of ordinary language and in many ways this interregnum period was the time in which he put his declarations to work. This time begins to usher a new period of thought, one that soon renders his early work too determinate and abstract— unblemished by the trials of ordinary life. We see during this time, just before he was commissioned to work on his sister’s house, the dissolution of the pure rationality from his early years and the emergence of psychological and spiritual complexity that would culminate in his later writings. The Palais Stonborough, falling somewhere in the middle, would eventually test, in the syntactical domain of architecture, the extent to which some of these new ethical and spiritual ideas could be validated—or, indeed, the degree to which such opportunities might altogether be missed.
“..running up against the walls of our cage.”
Palais Stonborough shares the unfavorable moniker of “hothouse plant,” like Tractatus, for similar reasons of dogmatic rationality and lack of ordinary language experience. It’s clear when judging the house that one must soften the critique because of Wittgenstein’s dilettante relationship with architecture and the mitigating influence of Paul Engelmann who, by all measures, is little more than an adequate service architect who once worked for Adolf Loos and became close with Karl Kraus through a few odd editing jobs on Die Fackel. Despite all this, Wittgenstein applied himself to the house with a fervent intensity. If nothing else, this intense involvement in design and coordination, the theoretical undertakings related to aesthetics and the immersion in the Viennese intellectual climate seemed to rekindle Wittgenstein’s interest, culminating in his rededicated return to Cambridge in 1929.
So why then, despite the intense commitment, did the design of the house fall short of successfully conveying the ideas that formed it? How do we view the “hothouse plant” in relationship to the autobiography of its creator? To answer these questions one must first take a closer look at the term.
The term “hothouse plant” refers to a plant cultivated in a greenhouse. It connotes the somewhat puzzling removal of organic life from its natural setting into an artificially-controlled, optimally-measured and -abstracted artificial setting. The term offers a timely perspective against the backdrop of scientific, technological and political revolutions of fin de siècle Europe. Wittgenstein through his life became increasingly skeptical of scientifically-grounded moral theories prevalent at the time, especially the use of science to promote social progress. He, like many others of his time—including those in literature, like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley — saw the emergence of rapidly-developing industries and scientific schools claiming to answer and remedy societal ills with rationality and positivism, and believed they could not grasp the ineffable spirit of man’s worldly struggle at the metaphysical level. In fact for many thinkers of the time, the emergence of scientific and technological progress became increasingly the source of alienation and subjugation of the subject. The dialectic was often rational vs. biological—the latter implying the wild animal inside a man’s corporeal, finite self; the former, technological determinism and behaviorism rooted in empirical measurement and analysis. The “hothouse plant” sits eerily between the full grasp of either nature or the laboratory. While on the one hand it is controlled it suggests a metaphysical disconnection—the end of a certain organic evolution or natural adaptation. Its place for Wittgenstein is obviously problematic. While understood as integrally rooted in the systematic functioning of the greenhouse environment it is no longer the wild or mysterious specimen that motivated capture it in the first place.
Indeed the “hothouse plant” is the paradox of the human condition. It implies the Kirkegaardian spiritual sickness at the heart of modern life. Mans reason, rationality, purpose and striving will perpetually fail to grasp the ineffable spirit of nature—the “untamed,” the “animal.” Rationality, when faced with the psychological and pathological infinitudes of the human soul must continually rely on metrics of reduction and abstraction that falsify and compromise the picture; it must efface organic unity. It was perhaps this level of reduction and abstraction, issued forth through the eminent doctrines of Loosian modernism, which so tempered Wittgenstein’s view of Palais Stonborough after its completion.
An architecture that cannot speak
The house was intended to be more than just the mere reduction in language to its essential meanings; it aspired to find the purity long covered underneath the historic eclecticism of bourgeois Viennese values and to transform the culture around it. In that way it sought to challenge the status quo of praxis and—similar to Schopenhauer’s view of art as having the power to transport people beyond worldly realms into the transcendental —aspired to “climb beyond” the “walls of our cage,” using the clarification of uniquely modern architectural ideas to do so. To “see the world rightly” was to bring about the necessary transformation on the way to living a correct moral life. However, as we will see, these ambitions fell short and to know why is to understand the architecture of the Palais Stonborough and its historic backdrop.
It was against this backdrop that one of Vienna’s most famous architects, Adolf Loos, would assert his incendiary theoretical attacks concerning the duties of responsible modern architectural practice. In Ornament and Crime (1908) he states:
‘A person of our times who gives way to the urge to daub the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or a degenerate.. the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use. ’
Loos believed that ornament was no longer an expression of culture; he believed it was covering over the practical value underneath. This idea is reinforced in his reference to Vienna as the “Potemkin City”—the analogy that false-fronts and genteel well-mannered gestures couldn’t hide the hollowness at their core. Loos was an odd sort of modernist—one with quite different values than we typically ascribe to the late modern movement of Corbusier and Rohe. Contrarily, he believed in the refinement of classical forms—the refurbishment of their principles according to a new spirit of modern times. He believed that modern architecture should reduce itself in geometry and proportion, albeit still within the traditions of the Western canon. He writes:
‘..everything created in earlier times can be copied today provided it is still usable. For the form of new phenomena in our culture (railway, carriages, telephones, typewriters etc.) solutions must be found that do not consciously echo a past style.’
He saw ornament and decoration as a crutch that hindered architectures ability to translate the socio-cultural spirit of its day. Loos was very much aware of the public “ancients vs. moderns” disputes surrounding the Ringstrasse projects, between Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner. The former—the perceived reactionary—was a critic of the distinctly modernized wide avenues that distinguished the Ringstrasse and the openness of spaces that claimed to make the city more efficient. This efficiency and productivity—the sweeping away of past styles, purporting to unify people while erasing a cities traditional culture—he believed to be symptomatic ills of modernity. Wagner, on the other hand, the perennial radical, had a zealous fascination and advocacy for modern urban planning’s commitment to efficiency, economies of scale and optimization of forms of business. Wagner believed social and technological progress had outstripped architectural evolution and that the time had come for radical modern responses.
Loos, for his part, fell between these poles of the debate. He, like Wittgenstein, was weary of the panacean promises of modern social theories borne out by technological and industrial progress. He was hostile to the bourgeois values demonstrated in the historic eclecticism of fin de siècle Vienna, though believed in the social and cultural role of architecture to restore purpose in society. Of the house, as typology, he writes:
“A house should please everyone, unlike a work of art, which does not have to please anyone... The aim of a work of art is to make us feel uncomfortable. A house is there for comfort.”
Wittgenstein understood these ideas better than anyone. After all, the mission of Tractatus was an ethical one; it was intended to show readers that language was more often than not the cause of our endless metaphysical conflict; it was meant to give people back the resistance to social and personal decay, characteristic of modern society.
The Palais Stonborough is located in the Kundmanngasse section of Vienna’s Ringstrasse—an area born of Emperor Francis Joseph’s 1857 mandate to tear down the walls of the old city and develop a modern series of streets encircling the old city. This historic development of the area gave rise to motley of various historical styles and de rigueur ornamentation. Against this backdrop the Palais Stonborough appears incomparably modern and aesthetically-bare. From the exterior it appears among the highly-mannered, more-ornate houses of the neighborhood as a strong asymmetrical arrangement of ordered, cubic masses. The volumes are the major elements of the buildings, with windows and the entrance acting as secondary subtractions. In Wittgenstein’s appended design all additional elements or appurtenances are excised from the composition.
The formidable building forms are treated in white block, which stands in sharp contrast to the natural, tree-lined setting. The language of the building is such that the eve lines resist delimitation and give the impression of an infinite Euclidean grid bounded momentarily in the buildings heavy forms. The building remains aware of the infinite potential of its grid; as such it seems to resist mediating borders and all extraneous lines. In Wittgenstein’s terms, the design is free of “idle wheels.”
This unflinching austerity suggests Wittgenstein’s lifelong commitment to undertaking his philosophy of the limits of language. To wrestle with these antinomies at the heart of metaphysical problems he must first reduce down, pare and strip away excesses in order to find and validate the logical truth beneath. Wittgenstein’s interests here are distinctly Loosian, despite the sheer size of the house conflicting with what Loos would ever deem appropriate. Loos, not merely a functionalist, believed in the suitable character and purpose for architecture to help serve culture and its people. Similarly, Wittgenstein makes choices in the Palais Stonborough which are not just function but matters of aesthetics and philosophical prudence. For one, he exaggerates the window openings to continuously favor the vertical. He does this in the interior with doors and partitions also. He purposely removes the attic level windows in the original proposal by Engelmann, which was an excessive detail not to his compositional taste for the elevations.
Moving inside the house, it is a departure from Loos’s Raumplanung spatial planning theories; in fact, it appears to be a much more conventionally plan-generated set of interior relationships typical of many of the traditional mansions of the time. One enters the house through a vestibule on the south side, up a set of stairs and into the central hall off of which most of the program radiates. From the central hall there is access to one of two terraces, a secondary hall—comprising Margaret’s more personal areas—and access to both the library and large drawing room—the two most public program pieces. Wittgenstein himself fashioned the secondary hall in order to separate his sister’s personal spaces—the pantry, servant’s room, private salon, all with direct connection to her bedroom, situated at the end of the hall. There is hardly any Loosian Raumplanung in these decisions; they remain statically plan-derived and spatially residual.
It is at this point we begin to notice a certain level inconsonance in the formulation of the architecture. On the one hand, you have the ostensibly modern exterior—unshrinking in its effort to reduce the buildings expression to a bare, almost axiomatic, simplicity—along with a strangely traditional formal logic on the interior—the clear primary/secondary relationship of the halls and the squeezing of smaller rooms, which seem to get added after the fact.
In some ways the treatment of the buildings mechanical parts share the same troubling inconsonance. Wittgenstein’s treatment of door handles, fixtures and door and window systems is, to put it mildly, obsessive. The trace of his autobiographical past—his time spent testing aeronautical kites and tinkering with jet engines—remains firmly rooted in his treatment of the buildings mechanics. Simplicity and standardization are the rule. Door handles lose any lines beyond those needed for holes of a strict common diameter and housings for internal parts. All extra plates are removed—there are no moldings, if you need a handle you bend a simple piece brass and no more. Where there are counterweight mechanisms with movable parts, rolling channels, or embedded door handles, they are usually recessed and hidden behind dependant strips of metal. In many ways the reductionism absorbs him because of its close affinity with his past, but it remains a singular logic—not a holistic theme throughout.
In the end, one feels the close autobiographical proximity of the architect when examining the Palais Stonborough; the proximity of a life, which so commonly oscillated between complete immersion and abstention. In the house there are moments of characteristic intensity and zeal and in others, notions left unscrutinized and modalities unquestioned. In more practical terms, the house, in relation to the rest of the neighborhood did not create the ethical stir that perhaps Wittgenstein originally envisioned. It occurs during the interregnum period of Wittgenstein’s life and due to its uncertain relationship to the philosopher perhaps prompted a new beginning—a return to Cambridge followed by the most intense period of his writing. Wittgenstein’s words at the end of Tractatus serve as a useful guide to understanding the significance of the work:
“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”