Joseph Maria Olbrich, draft for Secession, 1898, Archive of Secession

Planning

One central desideratum discussed in the very first assembly of the Association of Visual Artists was the erection of a dedicated exhibition building for the Secession. The members commissioned the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich—an associate in Otto Wagner’s architecture studio, he was barely thirty years old—to design the building, which would become a key work of Viennese Art Nouveau. A site along the Ringstraße was originally chosen, but Olbrich’s designs drew harshly criticism from the Vienna city council. It was only after the Secession revised its plans to build on a site on Friedrichstraße that permission was granted for “the erection of a provisional exhibition pavilion for the period of no more than ten years” (minutes of the city council meeting of November 17, 1897).

Secession around 1902, Archive of Secession

Part of the funding for construction was supplied by patrons led by the industrial magnate Karl Wittgenstein; the rest was paid for with the proceeds of the Secession’s inaugural exhibition, which was held at the Imperial and Royal Gardening Society. The City of Vienna provided the site on Wienzeile. Olbrich designed the building over the course of ten months, continually modifying his designs to meet new requirements while also reviewing and refining them. The cornerstone was laid during a small ceremony on April 28, 1898. Only six months later, on October 29, 1898, construction was completed.

Contemporary Reviews

“Walking out to the Wien River early in the morning and passing behind the Academy of Fine Arts on the way to the Theater an der Wien, you will see a great number of people thronging around a new structure. They are laborers, craftsmen, and women, and they should be going to work, but day after day they stop, gaze in wonder, and cannot take their eyes of that thing before them. They marvel, they inquire, they discuss. It seems odd to them, they have never seen anything like it; they express disconcertment and consternation. Then they set off, grave and pensive, only to turn around to take another look, neglecting their business and delaying the inevitable moment when they will have to part with the object of their amazement. All day long, a crowd will surround the site. The building is the new home of the Secession, by the young architect Olbrich.”
(Hermann Bahr, in Claus Pias (ed.), Secession, Weimar: VDG, 2013, 47)

Crowd in front of the Secession, 1902, Archive of Secession

The Secession’s home, which is now an indispensable highlight of any visit to Vienna, caused a stir at the turn of the century—and was heaped with ridicule. It was variously described as a “temple for bullfrogs,” a “temple of the anarchic art movement,” a “mausoleum,” a “Pharaoh’s tomb,” “the grave of the Mahdi,” and a “crematorium”; the dome was derided as a “cabbage head,” and the building as a whole was dismissed as a “a bastard between temple and warehouse” and a “cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace.”