House modell, Photo: Lisa Rastl

Building Typology

The ground plan and cross-section of the Secession reveal very simple geometrical forms. The building itself covers an area of about 1,000 sq m (10,800 sq ft) and has a centralized floor plan. Olbrich exploits the square as a basic motif in a number of cruciform combinations in the entrance area and exhibition wing. This scheme for the floor plan also underlies the building’s elevation and thus informs the overall shape of its volume.

Joseph Maria Olbrich, layout for Secession's parterre, 1898, Archive of Secession

Undivided flat surfaces dominate on the exterior of the building. The massive, unbroken walls lend the structure the appearance of being constructed from a series of solid cubes. Yet Olbrich uses this rigid geometry as a general framework he then enlivens with sinuous lines, curves, and intersecting elements.

Olbrich organizes the building into a “representative” entrance area and a “functional” exhibition area. The entrance is flanked by hermetic blocks above which four pylons hold the dome. The exhibition hall has a basilica form with a lofty nave and two lower aisles and, at their far end, a transept. It is almost completely covered by tent-like glazed roofs that bathe the interior in an even light.

The Symbolism of the Architecture

The laurel leaf is the dominant symbol in the finished building. It can be found on the pilasters of the front wing and the entrance recess as well as in the various garlands along the lateral façades and crowns the building in the form of the 3000 gilt leaves and 700 berries of the dome.

Detail of Secession’s dome, Photo: Katarina ŠoškićDetail of Secession’s dome, Photo: Katarina Šoškić

The entrance area is also decorated by the masks of the three Gorgons, which symbolize the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting. The side elevations feature owls Olbrich himself molded (after designs by Kolo Moser). The Gorgons and the owl are attributes of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, victory, and the crafts. Olbrich’s innovative use of symbolism, an integral part of the building, deftly avoids the pedantic quality of the academic tradition.

Detail of the façade: Owls, Photo: Wolfgang Thaler