The brutalist temple that shook Vienna half a century ago

Originally, the commission was to build a cloistered monastery and a temple, but when the Viennese sculptor Fritz Wotruba presented the project in public in May 1968, after three years of work, barricades were erected. Too innovative, too expensive, not very functional, the dream of a socialist and atheist dilettante, “the work of the devil”, was heard among the critical voices, led by the Carmelite nuns that he was going to host. Cardinal Franz König canceled it and the Archdiocese of Vienna agreed to allow the prestigious artist to design a parish church, something simple, more aided, in the outskirts of the city. Today that church is a symbol of modern architecture.

Conservative Austrian society needed time to digest the ideas of Wotruba. As he did so, the sculptor stacked 135 concrete blocks on top of a hill in the district 23 in the foothills of the Wienerwald, the Vienna Woods , with a powerful panoramic view of the city. Wotruba relied on an architect, his comrade Fritz Gerhard Mayr, who convinced him in time to substitute stone for concrete. There were those who accused him of trying to build the Central European Stonehenge of modernity ―a compliment rather than a condemnation―, and even already finished in 1976 It looked like the realistic incarnation of René Magritte’s surrealist canvas The Art of Conversation , but Wotruba always replied that, even if it is not seen, the temple has a roof. That is, it is a building. Architecture.

Fritz Wotruba trabaja en su estudio en 1967.
Fritz Wotruba works in his studio at 1948. BELVEDERE, VIENNA

Gabriele Stöger-Spevak, the curator of the exhibition dedicated to her by the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, talks about archisculture: “The dialogue between sculpture and architecture is evident in all the sculptural work of the artist”. And remember his stage productions for the Burgtheater, the Salzburg Festival and the Odeon of Herod Atticus. The Viennese museum will exhibit Wotruba . Towards the sky until January 2022, an exhibition that brings together sculptures, drawings, photographs and original plans to explain how the Church of the Holy Trinity was created, today known as Wotruba Church, the total work to which the artist aspired for years. “I dream of a sculpture”, formulated in 1948, “in which landscape, architecture and city become one ”

The relationship between brutalism and Catholicism, in architectural terms, is a rarity in Vienna. There are some exceptions, such as the LainzSpeising church of the architect Josef Lackner, in Hietzing, or the Oberbaumgarten parish planned by Johann Georg Gsteu, both with a harmonious appearance of an anti-aircraft bunker. It is clear that the Wotruba temple evokes the concrete delusions of international brutalism of the years 57 and 70, but the commissioner has chosen to omit the term in all The exhibition. “In its conception there was no concrete, it was adapted for stability reasons, it was a unique sculptural work to be made from stelae and abstract stone cubes. Brutalist architecture was developed after the Second World War in order to build public buildings and reasonable, cheap and accessible housing for the working class with raw concrete, ”he says next to one of the models designed by Wotruba.

On the construction site, on the tree-lined hill of Georgenberg, no one can suspect that it is a Catholic church. Her iconoclastic fury has made her an icon. It has no tower, no bell tower, no Christian symbols, or religious references, apparently it has no entrance, only sensed by the path of concrete slabs among the grass. The plant is irregular and polyhedral. Despite its appearance of a Neolithic or geometric bastion ―each façade is different―, the interior clarity is surprising.

Vista de la exposición del museo Belvedere dedicada a la iglesia Wotruba.
View of the Belvedere museum exhibition dedicated to the Wotruba church. Johannes Stoll (BELVEDERE, VIENNA)

Fritz Wotruba did not see it finished. He died of a heart attack with 68 years old on a hot day in August 1975 while chiselling stone in his workshop. There were still key decisions to be made such as the execution of the main entrance, the arrangement of the steel frames of the windows and the design of the furniture. An art advisory council was created consisting of his wife, Lucy Wotruba, his faithful assistant Engelbert Lanzenberger, and architect Fritz Gerhard Mayr. The absence of a crucifix was resolved by attaching a cast of the monumental bronze crucifix that Wotruba created in 1968 for the Bruchsal Palace church , in Germany.

Two years ago one last controversy broke out. The architect Mayr, who managed to paralyze at the end of the 70 project of two bulky schools that threatened to overshadow the Wotruba monument, could not prevent this time from installing an exterior elevator and expanding the church’s basement with outbuildings dug into the hillside to meet the needs of the parish. Stöger-Spevak tells that Mayr, already retired with 90 years, hates intervention with all his forces. The new space was tried to camouflage with the glazing but, as we know, the glass is not transparent and breaks the unity of the landscape.

The Wotrubakirche is a cult temple that for many, says Stella Rollig, the director of the Belvedere, “has achieved cult status.” On 24 October 1976, once the clergy and critics assumed that there was no ornament or crime in the project, it was consecrated in a state ceremony. Cardinal Franz König officiated the first religious service.

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