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Elegant idioms: the architecture and artifacts of Vienna 1900

Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture, and Design, by Kirk Varnedoe. New York: Museum of Modern Art. 264 pp. $45. Illustrated. Josef Hoffmann, by Eduard Sekler. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 544 pp. $130. Illustrated. It was, as Robert Musil wrote, ``a new untrodden century,'' at once the sunset of the old Austria and the dawn of modern urbanism. And from that strange and ambiguous atmosphere rose the nimbus that still crowns our vision of fin-de-si`ecle Vienna.

The Vienna of Freud and Wagner, Wittgenstein and Mahler, Strauss and Hitler has long figured in the imaginaton of the 20th century. Of late, however, the visual Vienna - the Vienna 1900 of architects Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann, of artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, of graphic designer Kolomon Moser, and the craftsmen of the Wiener Werkst"atte - has come to create a more vivid backdrop.

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Whether artifacts of excellence or excess, their creations remain some of the most gorgeous objects, architecture, and art that the three-quarters of a century still called ``modern'' has produced.

These two books - the one a definitive catalogue of the major architect of the period, Josef Hoffmann; the other a handsome expansion of the recent show of the period - joining perhaps a dozen books in this decade, illuminate a period too long dimmed by both the twilight of history and the mythology of Vienna as the ``joyful apocalypse,'' an ending, not a transition and font of the modernism to come.

Kirk Varnedoe's ``Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture, and Design,'' published by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with an exhibition, does a superior job of pulling the period from the footnotes of history than does the MOMA exhibition itself. Balanced and well-written, it weights the contributions of the architects and artisans better than the exhibition where the superficial if dazzling work of Klimt and Schiele overwhelmed the seminal and stunning work of the architects and craftspeople.

Otto Wagner, the father figure; Camille Sitte, the planning prophet (still ignored here); and the next generation Hoffmann and Adolph Loos bridged the ponderous classicism of Vienna's Ringstrasse past. They also predated the austerity of the Bauhaus and other modern movements to come, in designs that become ever more appealing. Reproduced here, the pristine elegance of their geometry, the attenuated line of their objects, the picturesque flair of their designs look fresh and unsettling enough to have evolved yesterday.

Varnedoe's text is useful as a recounting of immediate facts and provocative in expanding on their philosophical meaning. He splices together both the rational Vienna and the romantic one of ``heated sensuality amid swollen materialism, flowered idealism under looming guns.'' With Carl E. Schorske's 1980 ``Fin-De-Si`ecle Vienna: Politics and Culture'' (Alfred A. Knopf), his work sums up the state of the hour and the sight of the arts.

You have to live up to your teapot, Oscar Wilde once wrote. And Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkst"atte he headed fulfilled that total function uniquely. Instead of ransacking the past for classical motifs, Hoffmann and the workshop turned the circle, the square, the oval, and the rectangle into idioms of elegance. Translating folk forms into up-to-date motifs, they moved art ``off its easels and pedestals'' and away ``from the imitation of nature.''

Growing from three rooms in 1897, the workshop expanded into a manufactury of furniture, glassware, and fabrics in a three-story room, with free-lance contributors and branches in New York, Zurich, and Berlin. Before it faded from its economic ills and its ambiguous urge to serve the masses with objects affordable only by the elite, it had spawned prize artifacts and prototypes.

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Tense and fluid, warm and cold, the same engaging ambiguity characterized the workshop's leader Josef Hoffmann, as recounted in Sekler's impressive volume, recently translated from the German. Known largely for his vogueish chairs but otherwise exorcised from the early canons of modernism, Hoffmann here finally wins accreditation. ``Without Hoffmann I personally couldn't imagine myself,'' Sekler records Alvar Aalto saying. ``Fifty years ago [Hoffmann] was already one of the lights of the architect's route'' is Le Corbusier's comment in the year of Hoffmann's death.

From the Purkersdorf Sanitorium and the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, a mansion still displaying a showcase of the Wiener Werkst"atte, Hoffmann integrated art and architecture, and, indeed, life. With his curled moustache, his wire glasses, his homburg, and high-collared shirt swallowing his chin, he looked the Viennese coffee-house gentleman yet led a rigid nine-to-five routine to incorporate his crafts ideals into his architecture. His urge to join art and life was unceasing. Men, he believed, should wear monochromes, the same palette that characterized his architecture; while women - adorned, colorful, opulent - gleamed against this backdrop, again as, say, the rich art of Klimt or Schiele enriched the surface of the interior.

Unfortunately, such personal tidbits occur infrequently in Sekler's book. Typical of the field, architects get monographs - discussions of their work, project by project - while others get fuller biographies.

For all the importance of this book, one misses a more complete treatment. Half of its heft, 250 pages, catalogues the architecture; the other traces the work. Hoffmann, Sekler quotes a colleague, lived ``inside a cellophane skin'' despite his charm and generosity. For all Sekler's documentation, it would have helped to puncture it.

As with ``Vienna 1900,'' the illustrations delight; and following the evolution from the early Art Nouveau and historical period, to the geometrical purity of the Hoffmannesque squares now seen all about, to the final mix of classical and folk designs, the photographs still have the power to dazzle and inspire for their capacity to translate an architectural aesthetic into objects for all.

``It is hoped,'' Hoffmann wrote, ``that with us, too, sometime the hour will strike when the wallpaper, the ceiling painting, as well as furniture and utensils will be ordered not from the dealer but from the artist.'' The proliferation of books like these on Viennese design could help fulfill such aims.

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