THE NEW MYTHOS
VIENNA CELEBRATES ITS MODERNIST MOVEMENT THIS YEAR. FOR ALL THE RADICAL DECLARATIONS OF ITS DESIGNERS, ARCHITECTS AND ARTISTS, THEIR WORK DISPLAYS A TOUCHING NOSTALGIA – ALBEIT FOR A PAST OF THEIR OWN DEVISING.
Ifind myself perched on a banquette in the world’s most beautiful bar at the happiest hour of all: the dreamy crowd-free midafternoon zone between the lunch-time lingerers and the early-knockoff drinkers. The Viennese air on this clear winter day is crisp and while there’s still light in the sky the streets are rapidly darkening. But inside the Adolf Loos-designed American Bar, which served its first Manhattans in 1908, all is aglow. The coffered African marble ceilings give off a cosy warmth, the bottles behind the bar wink invitingly, and the coral-wood walls blush like the belly of a Stradivarius. The god of holy drinkers is in his heaven, all’s right with the world.
The bar measures a mere 6m x 4.5m, but every corner seems to unfold like a jewellery box. The octagonal tables are topped with opaline glass lit from below – a made-in-Vienna imitation will set you back $19,000. The floor is chequer-boarded with pine-green marble, the lamps are adorned with little gauzy coverings, as if to protect their privacy, and the mirrors refract the ceiling pattern to create an illusion of bountiful space in a bar the size of a bus shelter.
Soon the place will be as packed as a penguin colony. But for these blessed few minutes of tranquillity there’s just me, Adolf Loos, and the genius of fin-desiècle Vienna. It deserves a toast!
Around the turn of the 20th century, and a few decades beyond, the Habsburg imperial capital at the juncture of East and West was a crucible of creativity. Today an effort is required to appreciate Schoenberg’s 12 tones and Robert Musil’s unfinished Modernist doorstopper, The Man Without Qualities. But Vienna’s architectural heritage is laid out on the grand buffet of the city’s imperial streetscape, for everyone to share.
I’m here on a tour of Viennese Modernism, as this year the city is celebrating its Modernist legacy. Why did the movement happen here and why at the turn of the century, I ask our guide, art historian Christian WittDörring, as we set out on a walking tour amid volleys of sleet. He puffs on his cigarette and, without breaking stride, says that while there’s no one simple answer, a good start is the emergence of a forwardthinking, largely Jewish middle-class anxious to express its rising cultural status. Without a class of willing artistic patrons keen to live in modern apartments decorated with modern furnishings and modern artworks, there would not, in short, have been a