Wagner’s “Crazy Church”

A walk through the Steinhof grounds, Europe’s biggest and best preserved Art Nouveau Complexes

On The Town | Vera Mair | October 2009

"Next stop psychiatric hospital" the monotonous female voice in the speakers of bus No. 48 announces. Through the giant, mint green iron bars, a grey building emerges from behind towering fir trees, laurel wreaths decorate the walls and two side wings in brick. Over the doorway, in large mint green block letters, Otto Wagner Spital, crowns the façade. A steady stream of visitors enter and leave through the open gate, passing manicured beds of white and red flowers arranged to make the Vienna City seal. Leaning on the wall of one of two warden houses, a man dressed in white and four surveillance cameras observe.

At 13:45 a group of 10 people is already gathered and more flock to the entrance as 14:00 approaches, when the hospital in the summertime gives a weekly two hour long tour through its site at the Steinhof grounds, one of Europe’s biggest and best preserved Art Nouveau complexes.

It’s an eccentric lot: a mother with her teenage son; an elderly American couple armed with cameras; a Viennese version of Crocodile Dundee wearing a red lumberjack t-shirt and brown leather hat decorated with sharp teeth; a group of students in an infinite variety of black. Who among us is truly sane?

When Vienna’s first mental institution at Brünnlfeld in the 9th district became too small the Lower Austrian government commissioned deputy Leopold Steiner to find a site.  Seeing these picturesque hillside meadows, he quickly bought the 144 hectares from several owners within three days. The Steinhof area met all necessary requirements: it was spacious, on the sewage system, was easy to reach for visitors, and just on the outskirts of Vienna.

"For people who have lost their rudder in life" read newspapers at the opening of the clinic in 1907. It had a capacity of 2002 beds, with a sanatorium, a tea salon and a theatre for patients and their aristocratic relatives, that soon became "the meeting points of Vienna’s high society," according to guide Bettina Mandl.

Small details in the design reveal the hand of Austrian architect Otto Wagner, a founding member of the European Art Nouveau movement. The laurel wreaths heralding the victory of Wien Modern over the historicism of the Habsburgs, the lightness and elegance of curved iron balustrades in front of the theater like the jewel-like subway Pavilion at Karlsplatz and many of the city’s elevated railway stations of Vienna, all designed by Wagner.

We move on to Pavilion V. Here the mood darkens, as we are confronted with an exhibition on the crimes against disabled children and patients – experiments, sterilisation, and even euthanasia – during the Nazi "War against the Inferior." At the doorway, a German couple approaches the guide.

"We will wait at the church," the husband says. "Our son was disabled," his wife adds in a quiet voice, staring at the floor.

Inside, panels retell the nightmare of the Nuremburg Laws and the misguided practices that followed. There are two large empty jars: "Brock, Josef. Clinical Diagnosis: Hereditary Idiocy. Microscopic findings: normal" reads the yellowed and stained label glued to the glass. With Eugenics – a science aiming to strengthen the human species through selective heredity – Nazi medicine strove to the "weeding out" of people designated as "inferior."

Under the National Socialists the hospital became the Viennese centre of the organised medical murder, and more than 7,500 patients died from undernourishment, willful neglect or gassing. Their bodies were often then preserved for research purposes. Until only seven years ago was the glass still filled with Bock’s preserved brain, stored in the cellar of the Otto Wagner Spital until the remains of all victims were finally given formal burial in 2002.

People leave the exhibit quiet, deep in thought. Other sounds dominate: pebbles crunch underfoot, leaves rustle in the wind. In silence, we follow the path up to the church.

Suddenly, light explodes before us, as the sun glances off the golden cupola of the church hidden behind the tops of the trees. "Lemoniberg" (Lemon Mountain) the Viennese affectionately call the area – and indeed the cupola with a small semi circle centered on top with a catholic cross looks like a lemon cut in half.

The façade consists of 3300 white marble blocks from Carrara, Italy, that are fixed to the wall with large copper bolts, which incite some funny comparisons.

"It looks as if the church has measles," calls out a man with curly hair. The blonde teenager starts to giggle. The man with the leather hat also grins. This method of using pins for decoration as well as function is also characteristic of Wagner’s architecture – like the Post Sparkasse in the first district, Mandl points out. Over the entrance, four columns support copper angels with golden wings and draping ornament, gazing down. Even angel number two, head broken early on in a storm and mended to look self-confidently straight. Today, it looks exactly like the others, corrected in the major restoration completed in 2006 along with the re-gilding of the cupola and the replacement of the old marble blocks.

Enthroned on the two bell towers are two local saints, the St. Severin and St. Leopold, who unlike other holy figures, are seated in chairs.

In designing the Kirche zum Heiligen Leopold – also called Kirche am Steinhof – Europe’s biggest Art Nouveau religious structure, Otto Wagner broke with many norms. A bathroom was built inside the church, behind the registry – considered a scandal at the beginning of the 20th century. The church is aligned north-south – not the usual east-west, flooding the nave with light. The angels in the stained glass windows on each side also caused a stir, Mandl adds, as the slim adolescent figures designed by Koloman Moser have little in common with the chubby-faced – and very neutered – baby angels of the Baroque.

Above all, Wagner believed design should be functional.

"So he consulted doctors for advice." Mandl explained pointing to the rounded edges of the dark brown wooden benches to prevent patients from getting hurt. To clear the sight lines, Otto Wagner built the church in the shape of a Greek cross with a 26cm pitch down to the altar. The holy water font near the entrance was also designed for the patients. Reminiscent of the liquid-soap dispenser at rest stops, holy water was constantly dripping out of the golden container and collected in a white marble basin below. To diminish the risk of contagiousness visitors cupped their hands beneath it, never touching the water in the basin.

Wagner’s contemporaries were sceptical, calling it the "crazy church" perfect for a clinic closed from the world. Among the critics was Archduke Franz Ferdinand who in his dedication in 1907 made it very clear that he disapproved of Art Nouveau, preferring "Maria-Theresian style" to represent his power. Otto Wagner dared to answer back.

Back near the entrance a patient enjoying the last rays of the afternoon sun waved at the departing guests: Wiederschauen, Wiederschauen, Wiederschauen, he calls out cheerfully. Passing the mint green iron gates, I turn around and wave. I want to come back and wonder if he will still be there.

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