FRIEDENSREICH HUNDERTWASSER (1928-2000) WAS an artist, architect, and activist known for his holistic, all-encompassing embrace of nature and ecology in both his life and work. While on the surface his artistic and personal style would seem to place him squarely in the freewheeling hippie milieu of the late 60s, he also possessed a rigorousness and discipline that made him more monk than hedonist (fittingly, he was staunchly against the use of drugs and the visions they brought, which were doomed to remain “arrested in dreams”). His pseudonymous name was a prime act of self-reinvention: born Friedrich Stowasser, he chose to go instead by the multitude-containing Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (roughly “Peace-empire Rainyday Darkcolored Hundredwaters” in English), forgoing easy hippie conceits for a broader, darker symbolism.
Die fünf Häute des Menschen, 1998; Piktogramm für das Buch von Pierre Restany „Die Macht der Kunst: Hundertwasser, Der Maler-König mit den fünf Häuten“. © 2020 Namida AG, Glarus, Schweiz
Hundertwasser For Future, new from Hatje Cantz, is a pocketbook-sized volume that juxtaposes the artist’s sketches, paintings, and models alongside quotes from manifestos and catalogs. Physically, it’s a beautiful synthesis of minimalism and pluralism: the page-by-page layout is spacious and straightforward in its presentation of aphorism-like texts, while the book’s support structure is built with splashes of color: bright-blue end pages, purple stitching, and colored inks.
Small-format compilations of images and text can run the risk of being limited in scope, good for a few rounds of inspiration before their batteries run out. Fortunately, while Hundertwasser’s practice takes as its goal a simple evocation of nature and ecology in human life, there’s plenty beneath the surfaces of his “five skins” (above), and the book is full of both images and text that grapple with complex and occasionally dark subjects. As much of a utopian idealist as he may have been, his thinking was nonetheless grounded in the real, and he confronted the flaws and shortcomings of human society head-on.
As Carolin Würfel argues in her opening essay, “Hundertwasser was no dreamer. ‘Dreamer’ really means that someone is not anchored in the here and now: more floating than grounded.” His visionary work, she argues, was not grounded in fantasy but reality, and if it tended toward utopian overreach, it was only to increase its potential to actually see fruition. Decay and waste were as much a part of his process as growth and flowering, and he was a staunch proponent of compost-creating “humus toilets” (which he drew and described in numerous diagrams) and human-based fertilization of local plant life.
The Minimalism of Ecology
Though on the surface Hundertwasser was an enemy of much of what is associated with modernism — straight lines, clean monochrome surfaces, regular and efficient use of urban space — he was nonetheless a minimalist after his own style. He did not advocate abandoning cities and returning to nature, but rather inviting nature into cities, into buildings, into apartments themselves in the form of “tree tenants”. He summed up this radical co-tenancy with a simple koan-like couplet:
The horizontal belongs to nature.
The vertical belongs to man.
His 1974 depiction of a motorway submerged under mounds of land was forward-thinking for the time, but doesn’t seem out of place in the increasingly overcrowded cities of the 21st century:
Singender Vogel auf einem Baum in der Stadt, 1951. © 2020 Namida AG, Glarus, Schweiz
Gustav Klimt, Hope II, 1907-08. Public domain; image via Wikimedia Commons
He had a complicated relationship with the Bauhaus, but his use of organic geometries, color, and flat, ornamented surfaces made him a kindred spirit to Paul Klee, one of the Bauhaus’ primary aesthetic and spiritual drivers. He also, in both lifestyle and subject matter, embodied the ascetic mystic, with forebears ranging from William Blake to Van Gogh to Hilma af Klint. His visionary paintings of cities as dual heaven/hells, burning with wild colors and teeming with spirits made visible, is firmly in the Blakean tradition.
Finally, the spirit of the Vienna Secession shines brightly in both his life and work: “Egon Schiele was also in prison” was his response to an arrest order that followed one of his “naked protests” against modern architecture. The flat, oval-adorned surfaces of Klimt are analogous to Hundertwasser’s “skins”; both artists use the flat, decorative, and repetitive to indicate the deeper currents beneath.
Hundertwasser was a great proponent of hyper-local eating, and whenever possible consumed only what was available to gather from the surrounding habitat. During the greater part of his life spent in Central and Western Europe, this meant a particular obsession with nettle salads:
One can live off spinach prepared from stinging nettles.
Stinging nettles grow everywhere.
Stinging nettles grow everywhere.
They are entirely free.
They cost nothing at all!
His occasionally prickly demeanor paired well with his predilection for nettles, and he often had more than a little of the cranky proto-absurdist philosopher Diogenes in him:
The first thing to do, when a machine is bought, is to give it a kick so that it is different from the others.
In this world it is like this: if you put a crown on your head, you are king, and if you put on two, you’re the emperor. Why don’t the people put on a crown? Because they are too cowardly to be kings.
In his more polemic moments, he had much in common with the ubiquitous nettle: common yet elegant, refined through toil, and not easily pushed aside.
Hundertwasser’s Architectural Legacy
Hundertwasser House in Vienna shows the artist’s vision in action, with plants and trees protruding from balconies and a facade drenched in color. Tiles snake between windows in intentionally curved and askew lines, and per the artist’s desire, each tenant has “window rights”, i.e. the right to paint the space reachable around his or her own window:
The apartment-house tenant must have the freedom to lean out of his window and as far as his arms can reach transform the exterior of his dwelling space… so that from far away, from the street, everyone can see: there lives a man who distinguishes himself from his neighbours, the pent-up livestock!
Across the street lies Hundertwasser Village, a shopping center created out of an old Michelin factory. While it maintains the appropriately whimsical aesthetic, the project is ultimately more a quirky design experience, almost like a theme-parkish “Hundertwasserland”, than a radical experiment in utopianism. While its several-dozen live trees are a unique sight in such a setting, its souvenir shops and expensive food stands would not be out of place in any urban shopping center.
Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna. Photo © Bwag/Commons.
Indeed, much of the so-called “green architecture” of the 21st century is more about presenting the appearance of sustainability than actually integrating nature into urban spaces. Even the now somewhat common and moderate practice of installing living roofs on new buildings, something Hundertwasser adamantly supported, can be a deceptively difficult task, as evidenced by the tragic collapse of the Zolitude shopping center in Latvia in 2013, attributed to insufficient load-bearing support for the dirt, gravel, and plants that made up the roof.
Apart from the fraught question of how “green” his existent buildings are, and whether they ultimately address the question of humans and nature coexisting in urban settings, they are undeniably his. They use shape and color to take on monumental natural forms of their own, with many of his non-residential structures (such as fountains and towers) resembling mountains, trees, and flowers.
Hundertwasserbrunnen, Zwettl. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Abensberg Kuchlbauerturm, Brauerei Kuchlbauer, Bavaria. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The utopianist Berlin project Statista, which seeks to transform the abandoned Haus der Statistik into a multiuse space with co-tenants including pigeons and bees, would have delighted the artist. Such projects show a way forward for those looking to bring nature back to urban spaces. Even underused and abandoned Brutalist structures worldwide, which on the surface are the antithesis of the curved, colorful Hundertwasser style, can be construed as green in their own way: namely, concrete is an incredibly effective insulator against both hot and cold weather, and such buildings often draw far less energy for heating and cooling than analogous structures built from metal and glass.
Ultimately, the message that comes through in this collection is one of reduction and simplification, terms that are thrown around easily in the modern era. But Hundertwasser’s version of simplifying was relentlessly self-disciplined, requiring one to constantly shed any of the “five skins” that was no longer vital, no matter how difficult:
I have tried to concentrate nakedly on the truth.
You are vulnerable to everything if you have nothing on. But the victory is great.
As much as any other artist of the modern era, Friedensreich Hundertwasser was his own life’s work, and he spent the better part of a century shedding and regrowing his five skins.
Hundertwasser For Future
Texts by Robert Hodonyi and Carolin Würfel, design by Santiago da Silva
Hatje Cantz, €18