Otto Wagner in Vienna

The Architecture of Art Nouveau

detail close up of facade, two windows surrounded by patterns of colorful tiles and symmetrical sculptings
Majolikahaus. kapsiut/Getty Images (cropped)

Viennese architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918) was part of the "Viennese Secession" movement at the end of the 19th century, which was marked by a revolutionary spirit of enlightenment. The Secessionists revolted against the Neclassical styles of the day, and, instead, adopted the anti-machine philosophies of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Wagner's architecture was a cross between traditional styles and Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, as it was called in Austria. He is one of the architects credited with bringing modernity to Vienna, and his architecture remains iconic in Vienna, Austria.

Majolika Haus, 1898-1899

Four-story Majolika Haus with ceramic flowered facade designed by Otto Wagner, Vienna, Austria
Majolika Haus Designed by Otto Wagner, Vienna, Austria. Andreas Strauss/Getty Images

Otto Wagner's ornate Majolika Haus is named after the weather-proof, ceramic tiles painted in floral designs on its façade, as in majolica pottery. Despite its flat, rectilinear shape, the building is considered Art Nouveau. Wagner used new, modern materials and rich color, yet retained the traditional use of ornamentation. The eponymous majolica, decorative iron balconies, and flexible, S-shaped linear embellishment accentuate the building's structure. Today Majolika Haus has retail on the ground floor and apartments above.

The building is also known as Majolica House, Majolikahaus, and Linke Wienzeile 40.

Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station, 1898-1900

arched building with Karlsplatz printed on the arched window
Metro Entrance at Karlsplatz, Vienna. De Agostini/W. Buss/Getty Images (cropped)

Between 1894 and 1901, architect Otto Wagner was commissioned to design Vienna's Stadtbahn, a new rail system that connected urban and suburban areas of this growing European city. With iron, stone, and brick, Wagner built 36 stations and 15 bridges — many decorated in the Art Nouveau styling of the day.

Like architects of the Chicago School, Wagner designed Karlsplatz with a steel frame. He chose an elegant marble slab for the façade and Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) ornamentation.

Public outcry saved this pavilion as underground rails were implemented. The building was dismantled, preserved, and reassembled onto a new, higher foundation above the new subways. Today, as part of the Wien Museum, the Otto Wagner Pavillon Karlsplatz is one of the most photographed structures in Vienna.

Austrian Postal Savings Bank, 1903-1912

ornate facade of multi-story building emblazoned with roof sculpting and labeled OSTERR POSTSPARKASSE
1912 Austrian Postal Savings Bank, Vienna. Imagno/Getty Images

Also known as K.K. Postsparkassenamt and Die Österreichische Postsparkasse , the Postal Savings Bank is often cited as architect Otto Wagner's most important work. In its design, Wagner accomplishes beauty with functional simplicity, setting the tone for modernism. British architect and historian Kenneth Frampton has described the exterior this way:

"... the Post Office Savings Bank resembles a gargantuan metal box, an effect due in no small measure to the thin polished sheets of white Sterzing marble that are anchored to its façade with aluminum rivets. Its glazed canopy frame, entrance doors, balustrade and parapet rail are also of aluminum, as are the metal furnishings of the banking hall itself." — Kenneth Frampton

The "modernism" of the architecture is Wagner's use of traditional stone materials (marble) held in place by new building materials — aluminum covered iron bolts, which become the façade's industrial ornamentation. Cast-iron architecture of the mid-19th century was a "skin" molded to imitate historic designs; Wagner covered his brick, concrete, and steel building with a new veneer for the modern age.

The interior Banking Hall is as light and modern as what Frank Lloyd Wright was doing inside Chicago's Rookery Building in 1905.

Banking Hall, Inside the Austrian Postal Savings Bank, 1903-1912

historic black and white photo of large interior, longer than wide, curved light ceiling, teller desks along each wall
The Cash Desk Hall, the Postsparkasse in Vienna, Otto Wagner, c. 1910. Imagno/Getty Images

Ever hear of Scheckverkehr? You do it all the time, but at the turn of the 20th century "cashless transfer" by check was a new concept in banking. The bank to be built in Vienna would be modern — customers could "move money" from one account to another without actually moving cash — paper transactions that were more than IOUs. Could new functions be met with new architecture?

Otto Wagner was one of 37 participants in the competition to build an "Imperial and Royal Postal Savings Bank." He won the commission by changing the design rules.  According to the Museum Postsparkasse, Wagner's design submission, "contrary to the specifications," combined the interior spaces that had similar functions, which sounds remarkably like what Louis Sullivan was advocating for skyscraper design — form follows function.

" The bright interior spaces are illuminated by a glass ceiling, and on the first level, a glass floor provides light to ground-floor spaces in a truly revolutionary way. The building’s harmonious synthesis of form and function was a remarkable breakthrough for the spirit of modernism." — Lee F. Mindel, FAIA

Church of St. Leopold, 1904-1907

ornate dome with cupola and cross surrounded by two statues on ornate, pyramid pedestals
Steinhof Church, Otto Wagner, Vienna, Austria. Imagno/Getty Images

The Kirche am Steinhof, also known as the Church of St. Leopold, was designed by Otto Wagner for the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. As architecture was in a state of transition, so, too, was the field of psychiatry being modernized by the likes of a local Austrian neurologist. Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Wagner believed that architecture had to functionally serve the people who used it, even for the mentally ill. As Otto Wagner wrote in his most famous book Moderne Architektur:

" This task of correctly recognizing the needs of man is the first prerequisite for the architect's successful creation." — Composition, p. 81
" If architecture is not rooted in life, in the needs of contemporary man, then it will be lacking in the immediate, the animating, the refreshing, and will sink down to the level of a troublesome consideration — it will just cease to be an art." — The Practice of Art, p. 122

For Wagner, this patient population deserved a functionally designed space of beauty as much as the man doing business at the Postal Savings Bank. Like his other structures, Wagner's brick church is clad with marble plates held in place with copper bolts and topped with a dome of copper and gold.

Villa I, 1886

columned white building in wooded landscape
Villa I, Otto Wagner's 1886 Palladian-Styled Home in Vienna. Imagno/Getty Images (cropped)

Otto Wagner was married twice and built a home for each of his wives. The first Villa Wagner was for Josefine Domhart, whom he married in 1863, early in his career and at his controlling mother's encouragement. 

Villa I is Palladian in design, with four Ionic columns announcing the Neo-Classic home. Wrought iron railings and splashes of color express the changing face of the architecture of the time.

When his mother died in 1880, Wagner divorced and married the love of his life, Louise Stiffel. The second Villa Wagner was built next door.

Villa II, 1912

facade with symmetrical, elongated windows, overhanging eave, first floor ornamentation between the windows
Villa II, Otto Wagner's 1912 Home in Vienna. Urs Schweitzer/Getty Images

Two of the most famous residences in Vienna, Austria were designed and occupied by that city's iconic architect, Otto Wagner.

The second Villa Wagner was built near Villa I, but the difference in design is striking. Otto Wagner's ideas about architecture had morphed from the Classical design of his training, expressed in Villa I, into a more modern, symmetrical simplicity displayed in the smaller Villa II.  Ornamented as only a master of Art Nouveau could do, the second Villa Wagner pulls its design from Otto Wagner's masterpiece being built at the same time, the Austrian Postal Savings Bank. Professor Talbot Hamlin has written:

" Otto Wagner's own buildings show a slow, gradual, and inevitable growth out of simplified Baroque and classic forms into shapes of continually increasing creative novelty, as he came with greater and greater certainty to express their structural principle. His Vienna Postal savings Bank, in its handling of the exterior as a pure veneer over the metal frame, in its use of regular steel rhythms as the basis of its design, and especially in its simple, graceful, and delicate interiors, in which the slimness of the steel structure is so beautifully expressed, anticipates in all of these qualities much of the architetural work of twenty years later in date." — Talbot Hamlin, 1953

Wagner built Villa II for his second family with his second wife, Louise Stiffel. He thought he would outlive the much younger Louise, who had been governess to the children of his first marriage, but she died in 1915 — three years before Otto Wagner died at the age of 76.


  • The Dictionary of Art Vol. 32, Grove, oxford University Press, 1996, p. 761
  • Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture (3rd ed., 1992), p. 83
  • The Österreichische Postsparkasse, Vienna Direct; The Building's History, Wagner:Werk Museum Postsparkasse; The Architect's Eye: Architect Otto Wagner's Modernist Marvels in Vienna by Lee F. Mindel, FAIA, Architectural Digest, March 27, 2014 [accessed July 14, 2015]
  • Modern Architecture by Otto Wagner, A Guidebook for His Students to This Field of Art, edited and translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave, The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1988 (translated from the 1902 third edition)
  • Otto Wagner Biography, Wagner:Werk Museum Postsparkasse [accessed July 15, 2015]
  • Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 624-625
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Craven, Jackie. "Otto Wagner in Vienna." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). Otto Wagner in Vienna. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Otto Wagner in Vienna." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).