Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Tyranny of the Straight Line

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1954

“I have a bicycle. Paris is big. I think that the lines I draw through this city with my bike are wonderful. The lines I draw are just as wonderful as all the other lines that I cross over, which other people have left behind. I ride around people and obstacles. I am happy that as a painter that I am finally in harmony and in direct contact with others. These lines, which cost me many hours and make me tired, and have become giant circles by the time of my return, are more beautiful, truer and more justified than those which I can draw on a sheet of paper." 
- Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Nearly 20 years ago, when we were starting the massive cob, strawbale and earthbag structure that was to become The Green Dragon, we wondered whether we had been wise to listen to Bob Kornegay, who was a biodynamic landscaper. Bob had insisted that we needed to avoid corners and follow the lay of the land rather than level the foundation. Now that we have the experience of years in the building to draw upon, we can know how right he was. The building is alive. 

From the moment you enter you feel a sense of wonder and magic in the space. The sloping floor and round pole ceiling give you a sense of a Neolithic cave or a cathedral of boughs in the forest. You feel secure. The light, entering through odd shaped and unevenly placed windows, plays off the irregular surfaces in a dance of color, form and life. The building makes you happy.

Pleasant Hill Shaker Village
We are between conferences this week, having just come from the Communal Studies Association annual meeting at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village and being about to leave, after a short workshop in Natural Building Construction this week, for the Natural Building Colloquium at Black Range Lodge in New Mexico. Curiously, we found in a talk given at the former by Professor Gerald Macdonald of Bochum Germany a perfect bridge between these two worlds – community and architecture.

Steiner's Goethaneum
Rudolf Steiner was an enemy of the straight line. In anthroposophical architecture he conceded posts and corners to rise against gravity and hold stress, but he rounded edges wherever he could. In 1941 when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland and was interned before he could meet with Churchill, Hitler in his rage blamed Steiner's influence and banned all his books and all esoteric groups.

It was small wonder then that little Friedrich Stowasser would be deeply affected by Steiner, whether he learned of him through the Montessori School in Vienna in which he was enrolled in 1935, later from the news surrounding Hess, or from his connection to Heinrich Himmler's astrologer WilhelmWulff, a Steiner devotee.

Stowasser was fond of art and would eventually pursue a career in it.  Like Steiner, he became an enemy of the straight line.

When Hitler annexed Austria, Stowasser, age 10, suddenly had his world turned upside down. His Montesorri School was closed in the Anschluss. His mother was Jewish and to avoid suspicions, she enrolled Friedrich in public school and urged him to join the Hitler Youth, not atypical for Jews trying to hide their identity. The Stowassers survived the war but 69 of little Friedrich's cousins, aunts and uncles went to the furnaces or starved in camps.

In 1948 Friedrich enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and began signing his works Hundertwasser ("Sto" means "hundred" in most Slavic languages). He dropped out after one semester and travelled to Italy, Paris, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily, learning English, French and Italian quite well and some Japanese, Russian, Czech and Arabic. He held his first art show four years later.

In 1953, Friedrich painted his first spiral, which became something of a trademark, but it was in 1959 that he stepped out from the art world in a more profound way. As a visiting professor of fine arts at Hamburg University he staged his first political theater.

On December 18, 1959 at 3:11 o’clock in the afternoon, a date and time recommended to him by his friend Wulff, the astrologer, he began painting an endless line in room 213 of the University of Fine Arts building.

Together with a group of students working non-stop, Hundertwasser painted a continuous line around the walls of the room, including doors, windows and radiators. His intention was for the line to entirely cover the walls and then wander outside of the building into the neighborhood until the entire city district was literally contained in a spiral. He would not only to take the art into the community, but to draw the community into the art. So when newspaper reports about the project implied that it was open to the public, people came. The university, which had approved the work, was unable to deal with the masses storming through its halls in an attempt to enter or at least peek into room 213.

The university ordered Hundertwasser to stop painting and the project ended abruptly 46 hours after it had begun. The line had been competed to a height of about 9 feet. Hundertwasser was not fired, he just declined to return to the university after the Christmas break.

As his students might attest, he vehemently criticized Hamburg’s pragmatic post-war architecture with its sterile straight lines, calling them a tool of the devil. He denounced the profession of architects as a closed club of elitists. Architecture, he claimed, was no more than a conspiracy of straight-liners.

"I dare say that the line that I draw with my feet in order to go to the museum is more important than the lines that one finds on the actual paintings hanging in the museum. And I take endless satisfaction in seeing that this line is never straight, nor, however, is it random. Rather, it is just as it should be. And this holds true in its each and every segment. Beware of the straight line, and of the inebriated line. But especially beware of the straight line. Following the straight line will someday lead the human race to its doom."

In the early 60s, on a visit to Japan and trying to translate his name into kanji, he realized another possibility: Friedensreich, which means either Kingdom of Peace or Rich in Peace. So he became Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

In 1967 he made his now-famous “naked-speech” in Munich, in which he made the case for people’s right to a “third skin.” According to Hundertwasser, people have three skins: their epidermis, their clothes, and finally their shelter.

"A person living in a rental apartment must have the right to lean out the window and scrape away the stucco as far as her hands reach. And she must have the right to take a long paintbrush, and without falling out the window, paint everything pink as far as she can reach so that from the street people can see: A human being lives here."

Later, in 1972, Hundertwasser added two additional layers of skin: our social environment of family, friends and nation, and the biosphere and its role in clothing, sheltering and protecting us. He took the name Regentag (Rainy Day"). He later added the word “Dunkelbunt” (“dark-colorful”), so his full name became Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser.

In 1981 Hundertwasser wrote his treatise “On the Relationship of Architecture to Nature," while in Venice. In it he laid out his love of the colors found in nature, rather than by mixing chemicals, and his distain for smooth surfaces. "Nature, the definition of life itself," he wrote, "is inherently uneven. It is rough, rugged and curvy. Nothing pleases the eye more than an old farmhouse with its corners, curves, warps and crookedness. Such houses appear to grow out of the ground like plants. They appear to belong there."

With modern apartment blocks. One person, the architect, determines how the building is to look, right down to its uniform color. The inhabitants become slaves to the will of the architect. Hundertwasser proposed that apartment dwellers shape the appearance of their apartments, not only on the inside, but on the outside as well. Paradoxically, this expression of individualism creates the diversity that humanizes the space. Not only are the inhabitants humanized, but passers-by as well. Consequently, such a building has a positive effect on the entire community.

According to Hundertwasser, vertical spaces belong to humans (we construct and shape the walls), horizontal spaces belong to nature (grass and trees belong on roofs and walkways). Floors should never be level. From a bird’s eye view, the building is invisible.

We will be taking these ideas to the Natural Building Colloquium, not as new things, but as reminders. Natural building is not a new thing, it is ancient. These structures resonate deeply. Requiring neither architects nor professional builders, they are a people's art. Each structure is an individual expression. It has roots in the earth and touches the sky. It soars, and it burrows. Natural buildings are something very much in alignment with Hundertwasser's powerful vision of human reinhabitation.

Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser died on February 19th, 2000, at the age of 72, on board the Queen Elizabeth II, while en route from New Zealand to Europe. He had chosen an ocean voyage over flying because he loved the experience and he had hoped to paint while on the seas. Had he lived he would be 87 now and could explain himself much better than we have.


Jan Lundberg said...

Wunderbar! Danke Albert.

John Hoag said...

Just returned this Sept from a trip that included 3 days in Dornach with cousin who teaches in Steinerland and lives across street (Herzenthalstrasse) from the (new/renovated) Goetheanum... (also got a tour of Weleda's herb gardens, etc); then off to Austria for a 12-day Permaculture Course with Sepp Holzer, his son and associates, followed by 3 days in Vienna that incorporated Hundertwasser homages.... you might want to mention Steiner's concept of "tree tenants".... (the opposite of balconies for humans - where instead, the "outside nature" in the form/presence of trees invades or colonizes building facades with tree wells within the building along the facade at various stories...). Regarding uneven floors, you might cite architectural critic Bruno Zevi for some role in that discussion. ..




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