PRINT February 1970

Wittgenstein’s Architecture

FROM 1926 to 1928, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein worked at building a mansion in Vienna—not for himself, but for one of his sisters. In an effort to help her brother, who had been in a crisis since World War I, Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein suggested he build the house. Building as therapy.

For two years Wittgenstein devoted himself exclusively to this task. In the beginning, he worked with his friend Paul Engelmann, a disciple of Adolf Loos; but soon he took over and was solely responsible. The building fits none of the numerous architectural theories of the early 20th century. Only the exterior, in its austere and cubic forms, reminds one of Loos’ buildings. Is it perhaps characteristic of Wittgenstein that the meaning of this architecture is disclosed by its inside?

Wittgenstein did not possess a catalog of ArchitecturaI ideas. Everything was a challenge. He confronted the overall spatial concept as well as the smallest detail with his whole self. The main hall or a simple window lock show identical thinking, providing equivalent evidence of his logical and rigorous reasoning. Nothing is left to a speculative esthetic judgment: “Ethics and Esthetics are one and the same.” (Tractatus logicophilosophicus, 6.422.)

The building stands among multistory apartment houses on the 30,000-square foot site of a former flower nursery, some 20 feet above street level and, therefore, quite hidden from the view of bypassers. The path leading from the garden gate to the main entrance of the house on the opposite side of the garden follows a free curve, a serpentine approach, remarkably contrasting with the rigidness of the building.

The three-story building includes 27 rooms, with a floor area of 11,000 square feet. Construction: reinforced concrete columns and beams, brick-bearing walls and ribbed concrete slabs. The building is stuccoed. Distribution of space: on the ground floor, reception rooms and wife’s apartment; on the second floor, the husband’s apartment and guest rooms; on the top floor, children’s and guest rooms and servant quarters.

Wittgenstein was working on the building between his first philosophical period, i.e., the period of logical positivism or logical empiricism, and his second, when he taught in Cambridge. In 1918, he wrote in the preface to the Tractatus: “I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems.” His architecture reflects this claim for absoluteness and rejection of compromise. It cannot be compared with the so-called “Neue Architektur” of the same era. Important inspirations for this movement’s intellectual and formal-esthetic vocabulary were derived from new materials, new industrial processes and a new social consciousness. Wittgenstein, the philosopher, shows entirely different, absolutely firm esthetics in his one practical confrontation with architecture: his philosophic posture translated into space and form.

Photographs of details may show something of Wittgenstein’s thinking as an architect, but they do not give evidence of the particularity, the intellectual oneness, the absolute interdependence and complementarity of his spatial concept and the design of details. The highly disciplined process of clarifying and reducing which leads to simplicity becomes evident only when experienced in its context. A simple, commercially available door handle changes in meaning if seen within the total concept of the building.

The building is an intellectual process: an individual attempts to overcome subjectivity and succeeds through the force of his extraordinary intellect. Ultimately the building becomes depersonalized and anonymous; great architecture.

Clarity does not become obscured by functionality.

Precision and austerity are not based on modular units.

Simplicity does not result from renunciation of ornaments.

Academies and architectural offices can find no formal dogmas or recipes in this building. They will look in vain for details to copy such as column-less glazed corners or ribbon windows. Instead of formulas and clichés, a philosophy.

The building in its harmony and serenity, in its finality and dignity, is a materialization of Wittgenstein’s thinking.

The building is important because it is an example of going beyond limits, because it demonstrates how enriching an “unprofessional encroachment” can be, and because it questions the limits of a profession that are mainly set by the very members of that profession. Wittgenstein, the philosopher, was an architect.

In the light of recent architectural history, Wittgenstein’s building is not modern, but it is certainly one of the built documents which impressively represent the 20th century.

Mr. Leitner is a Viennese architect currently practicing in the United States.