Hoffmann Designs the Palais Stoclet Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Palais Stoclet was Josef Hoffmann’s architectural masterpiece, and the building set a precedent for domestic architecture.

Summary of Event

By 1905, Josef Hoffmann had become one of Vienna’s more successful so-called Secessionist Secessionists (artists’ group) architects, who had abandoned the ornate and imitative styles of traditional Austrian architecture. Hoffmann’s chief inspiration was his former professor, Otto Wagner, Wagner, Otto the head of the Architectural School of the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts. Wagner had developed an austere, rectilinear style that Hoffmann admired and further developed, and the style became known as the Austrian version of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau Art movements;Art Noveau Architecture;Palais Stoclet Palais Stoclet [kw]Hoffmann Designs the Palais Stoclet (1905) [kw]Palais Stoclet, Hoffmann Designs the (1905) [kw]Stoclet, Hoffmann Designs the Palais (1905) Architecture;Palais Stoclet Palais Stoclet [g]Belgium;1905: Hoffmann Designs the Palais Stoclet[01160] [c]Architecture;1905: Hoffmann Designs the Palais Stoclet[01160] Hoffmann, Josef Klimt, Gustav Stoclet, Adolphe

Hoffmann had obtained commissions to build several villas in a fashionable suburb being developed on the outskirts of Vienna. One such villa was for the designer Koloman Moser, Moser, Koloman with whom Hoffmann had established the Wiener Werkstätte Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese workshops), dedicated to creating decorative objects of original designs and the finest workmanship. Adolphe Stoclet, a Belgian banker who was living in Vienna at the time, greatly admired the villa. Introduced to Hoffmann by Moser, Stoclet was prepared to commission the architect to design a villa for him at the same location.

In 1904, circumstances changed. Stoclet’s father, a Belgian industrialist, died, leaving his son immensely wealthy. A house by Hoffmann was still to be built, but now it was to be in Brussels, where Stoclet’s business was located. Hoffmann, motivated by the talent available to him through the designers of the Wiener Werkstätte and Gustav Klimt, an artist whom he greatly admired, prevailed on Stoclet to let him design a house that would be perfect in every detail—one of the exquisite creations of the Wiener Werkstätte in macrocosm. Money was to be no object. Stoclet gave Hoffmann a free hand and carried the knowledge of the real cost of his house with him to the grave.

The house was designed as a piece of sculpture, so perfect that nothing could be added or taken away without severely altering the creation. The basic design of the house was planar, a series of interconnecting squares and rectangles, with black and white the dominant colors. The house was placed so that it presented a unified, artistic composition from wherever it was viewed.

Hoffmann employed optical illusions in the construction of the house, the most obvious being its “atectonic” appearance, which resulted in a seeming denial of the load-support relationships. The walls of the house, or palais (palace), as it was soon called because of its costly construction, were covered with slabs of white Norwegian marble of crystalline purity. Carved moldings of darkly gilded bronze cascaded down from a square tower topped with an open-work design of flowers and surrounded by four Herculean figures of beaten copper. The moldings followed and delineated both the vertical and horizontal edges of the building and gave the illusion that the walls were thin sheets of marble delicately held together by the gilded moldings, which also served to protect the edges. To mask the basically heavy-masonry construction of the building further, the windows were placed flush with the outside walls. The lightweight effect was almost ethereal.

If the exterior was austere black, white, and gold, the interior glowed with rich colors. Entering the Palais Stoclet was an experience. The entrance began with a narrow covered walkway and revealed in successive stages the splendors within. The street door opened into an austere, windowless anteroom clad in white marble. This opened into a somewhat larger vestibule clad in dark-green marble and dimly lit through soft lights directed at a series of small golden urns placed on top of the marble walls. Turning left, the visitor entered the great hall—a stupendous room stretching the entire width of the house and, supported on slender honey-colored marble columns, soaring two stories to the roof level. At one end, a bay window enclosing a fountain added to the length of the hall; on the other end, glass doors extended the hall into a landscaped garden. The muted colors of the great hall provided an unobtrusive background for parts of Stoclet’s famed art collection, which was placed or hung throughout the area.

The salon, or drawing room, usually the principal room in a great house, was insignificant. The two dominant rooms—both entered from the great hall, one entrance opposite the other—were the music theater and the dining room, which celebrated what the architect Peter Behrens called “life’s greatest festivities.” The walls of the music theater were of polished, strongly veined black marble, the floor was made of dark teak squares surrounded by coralwood, and the coverings and draperies were crimson-purple. A gallery on one side permitted viewers to look down on the luxurious patterns formed below.

The dining room was the most celebrated room. It was forty-five feet in length, and its wall combined the honey-colored marble of the great hall with the black of the music theater. The glory of the room—the most costly feature of an incredibly costly house—was a set of great mosaics by Gustav Klimt, which almost entirely covered the two long walls; a smaller mosaic covered a third wall opposite the bay window overlooking the garden. The mildly erotic themes of the great mosaics centered on the gardens of art and of love. The small mosaic on the wall opposite the garden windows was a stylized version of a garden that never fades.

This room, too, employed visual deceptions. The walls receded in stages, thereby achieving a three-dimensional effect and permitting the lower parts to be used as sideboards, on which were displayed silver pieces created by the Wiener Werkstätte. The mosaics, constructed of rare marbles, enamels, semiprecious stones, and precious metals, were two-dimensional in the Byzantine manner, made the more interesting by rich, raised ornamentation.

The garden, as carefully planned as the rest of the house, was an extension of the interior. The two great bays extending into the garden seemed like open arms inviting the viewer into the house through an elegant loggia opening into the great hall. On a moonlit night, the effect could be overwhelming, causing a famous museum director to exclaim that such a work of maturity and artistic grandeur as the Palais Stoclet had not been seen since the days of the Baroque.

Significance

The completion of the Palais Stoclet established Josef Hoffmann as one of Europe’s leading architects. Hoffmann probably would have become still better known had he written about his art, but he believed, as did the noted Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí, that art is not to be intellectualized; it is to be felt. Hoffmann was to become better known as an “architect’s architect,” one of the founders of modern architecture and design. Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, and Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, among others, all admired him. Hoffmann directly influenced Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Frank Lloyd Wright had long conversations with Hoffmann, and the similarity of their essentially planar designs is obvious.

Although he was a prolific architect, working to the year of his death, Hoffmann never again achieved a triumph such as the Palais Stoclet. Had he built it and nothing else, however, he still would have been regarded as one of the great architects of the twentieth century.

Another effect of the building of the Palais Stoclet was that, perhaps more than any other artistic creation of its time, it became the outstanding example of Gesamtkunstwerk, Gesamtkunstwerk or complete work of art. Such a creation was the idealistic goal of artists ranging from the composer Richard Wagner to the architect Gaudí. Both Adolphe Stoclet and his wife were aware of the concept and purposely worked to achieve it. The house, an artistic triumph in itself, could be compared to an elegant vitrine housing a great art collection. The collection, mostly in the form of primitive art from all over the world, blended happily with the polished polychrome modernity of the house. Combining theatrical and musical production with the brilliant conversation of their guests and fine food in the fabled dining room, Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet created artistic experiences equal to that of viewing the house and its art collection. Seldom accepting outside invitations, the Stoclets created their own world by having as guests or performers some of the greatest artists of the time, including the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, the musician Igor Stravinsky, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry, and the writer Anatole France.

The greatest impact of the Palais Stoclet was in the context of architectural, social, and intellectual history. The Palais Stoclet was the right building at the right time in the right place. Intellectual historians sometimes refer to the nineteenth century as the Bourgeois Century, “bourgeois” meaning capitalist in the Marxist-Leninist sense. Dominating the nineteenth century both politically and economically, the bourgeoisie had yet to develop its own cultural identity in architecture, resorting instead to borrowing from earlier styles. Although Hoffmann lived in a Vienna that was an imperial capital, he made no effort to cultivate the patronage of the nobility. His architectural designs, as well as those of the Wiener Werkstätte, were for the wealthy bourgeoisie.

The Palais Stoclet was evidence of the bourgeoisie’s architectural coming-of-age. Their style generally was known as Art Nouveau, although the style varied greatly depending on the locale, with Hoffmann’s version verging on austere classicism. Pre-World War I Brussels, flush with wealth from banking, industrial expansion, and colonial exploitation, became the site of some of the most spectacular creations in the bourgeois Art Nouveau style, and the Palais Stoclet set the ultimate example. Some cultural historians maintain that this search for a new style by the bourgeoisie was a form of escapism, as if they knew their world would end—as indeed it did in 1914, with the coming of World War I. Although he survived the war by nearly four decades, Hoffmann never designed another Palais Stoclet. Even if he had found another patron, it is doubtful that the egalitarian postwar world would have tolerated such an ostentatious display of affluence. The luxurious creations of the American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, intended for the same upper-middle-class clientele, were to meet a similar fate. Just as Europe’s great medieval cathedrals stand as expressions of the piety of their time, so the Palais Stoclet is palpable evidence of a now-vanished era of rampant capitalism. As such, the building, although it has influenced subsequent architectural designs, remains unique—a source of pleasure, even wonder, for those interested in architecture, but also a primary document for architectural, social, and intellectual historians alike. Architecture;Palais Stoclet Palais Stoclet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brändstatter, Christian. Wiener Werkstätte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Heavily illustrated book offers as complete a record as possible of the Wiener Werkstätte’s creative work, from complex, integrated environments such as Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels to individual objects such as enameled-glass stemware by Otto Prutscher and vibrantly colored postcards by Oskar Kokoschka.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delano Greenridge Editions. Josef Hoffmann: Furniture, Design, and Objects. New York: Author, 2003. This volume provides a comprehensive look at Hoffmann’s designs for furniture, decorative objects, and printed material for the interiors of his visionary buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frampton, Kenneth. Modern Architecture: A Critical History. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Just as Carl Schorske’s volume (cited below) sets Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet masterpiece against Vienna at the close of the nineteenth century, Frampton sets both the architect and his works within the broader framework of Western architecture. The chapter relating to Hoffmann is titled “The Sacred Spring,” referring to the pool of artistic talent to be found in Vienna at the time. It is interesting to compare the Palais Stoclet with the Secession Building, the first structure in the austere new style that was the Viennese version of Art Nouveau.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schorske, Carl E. Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1981. Increasingly, Vienna at the close of the nineteenth century is being recognized for its amazing cultural and artistic achievements. With musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler, artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, and architects such as Josef Hoffmann, Adolph Loos, and Otto Wagner, the city at the time equaled, if not surpassed, Paris, London, and Berlin as a center of Western culture. The creation of the Palais Stoclet, which Schorske calls a “Viennese house,” must be seen against this richly varied cultural and artistic background. Of particular interest is a comparison of a frieze Klimt created for a Beethoven Exhibition in 1902 and the later frieze for the Palais Stoclet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schweiger, Werner J. Wiener Werkstaette: Design in Vienna, 1903-1932. Translated by Alexander Lieven. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984. No study of the Palais Stoclet could be complete without a concurrent study of the Wiener Werkstätte, the design group cofounded by Hoffmann. Indeed, the Palais Stoclet has been described as a permanent Wiener Werkstätte exhibition. Includes excellent illustrations of the Palais Stoclet and its Wiener Werkstätte creations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sekler, Eduard Franz. Josef Hoffmann, the Architectural Work: Monograph and Catalog of Works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. This extensively illustrated book permits the evaluation of Hoffmann as an architect and decorator. It notes the influence of classicism, cubism, and expressionism on his work. A two-hundred-page catalog lists all of Hoffmann’s known works both as an architect and as a designer. Includes an index and comprehensive bibliography, mostly in German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Stoclet House by Josef Hoffmann.” In Essays on the History of Art Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, edited by Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Lewine. Vol. 2. London: Phaidon Press, 1967. Considering the fame of the Palais Stoclet, comparatively little literature is available on it, possibly because it was completed shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Sekler is an authority on Hoffmann, and this is undoubtedly one of the best monographs available on the Palais Stoclet. The coverage is thorough and lovingly detailed; includes a precise description of the materials used in and the names of artists who contributed to the construction of the house. Excellent color photographs give an idea of the polychrome richness of the interior.

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