Ver Sacrum, July 1898
There were villages of canvas and pasteboard, villages intended to transform a visual desert into a
flowering landscape for the eyes of Her Imperial Majesty. But was it a whole city which that cunning minister was supposed to have produced?
Surely such things are only possible in Russia!
But the Potemkin city of which I wish to speak here is none other than our dear Vienna herself. It is a hard accusation; it will also be hard for me to succeed in proving it. For to do so I need listeners with a very fine sense of justice, such listeners, unfortunately, as are scarcely to be found in our city nowadays.
Anyone who tries to pass himself off as something better than he is is a swindler; he deserves to be held in general contempt, even if no one has been harmed by him. But if someone attempts to achieve this effect with false jewels and other imitations? There are countries where such a man would suffer the same fate. But in Vienna we have not yet come so far. There is only a small circle of people who would feel that in such a case an immoral act has occurred, that they have been swindled. But today it i& not only by means of the fake watch chain, not only by the furnishings of one's residence (which consist of outright imitations), but also by one's residence itself. The building in which one lives, that everyone wants to make himself out to be something more than he is.
Whenever I stroll along the Ring, it always seems to me as if a modern Potemkin had wanted to carry out his orders here, as if he had wanted to persuade somebody that in coming to Vienna he had been transported into a city of nothing but aristocrats.
Whatever the Italy of the Renaissance produced in the way of lordly palaces was plundered in order to conjure up as if by magic a new Vienna for Her Majesty the Mob. A new Vienna where only those people lived who could afford to occupy an entire palace from socle to cornice line. On the ground floor were the stables; on the low-ceilinged, intermediate mezzanine level were the servants; on the first of the upper stories, with its rich and elaborate architecture, were the banquet and ceremonial rooms; above them were the residential and sleeping quarters. The Viennese landlord very much enjoyed owning such a palace; the tenant also enjoyed living in one. The simple man, who had rented only one room and a w.c. on the uppermost floor, was overcome with a blissful feeling of feudal splendor and lordly grandeur whenever he looked at the building he lived in from the outside. Does the owner of an imitation diamond not gaze fondly at the glittering glass? Oh, the tale of the deceiver deceived!
It will be objected that I impute false intentions to the Viennese. It is the architects who are at fault; the architects should not have built this way. I must d~ fend the architects. For every city gets the architects it deserves. Supply and demand regulate architectural form. He whose work most accords with the wishes of the populace will have the most to build. And the most capable architect may depart from this life without ever having received a commission. The others, however, create schools of followers. Then one builds in a certain way because he has become accustomed to it. And he must build this way. The building speculator would most dearly like to have his facades entirely plastered from top to bottom. It costs the least. And at the same time, he would be acting in the truest, most correct, and most artistic way. But people would not want to move into the building. And so, in the interest of rentability, the landlord is forced to nail on a particular kind of facade, and only this kind.
Yes, literally nail on! For these Renaissance and Baroque palaces are not actually made out of the material of which they seem. Some pretend that they are made of stone, like the Roman and Tuscan palaces; others of stucco, like the buildings of the Viennese Baroque. But they are neither. Their ornamental d~ tails, their corbels, festoons, cartouches, and denticulation, are nalled-on poured cement. Of course, this technique too, which comes into use for the first time in this century, is perfectly legitimate. But it does not do to use it with forms whose origin is intimately bound up with.a specific material simply because no technical difficulties stand in the way. It would have been the artist's task to find a new formal language for new materials. Everything else is imitation.
But this was not even a matter of concern to the Viennese of the last architectural epoch. He was delighted, in fact, to be able to imitate with such lowly materials the more expensive material that served as the model. Like the authentic parvenu that he was, he believed that the others would not notice the deception. That is what the parvenu always thinks. At first he is sure that the false shirt dickeys, the false fur collars, all of the imitation objects with which he surrounds himself fulfill their roles perfectly. It is only those who stand above him, those who have already surmounted the parvenu stage and are among the initiated, who smile at his futile exertions. And in time the parvenu's eyes too open up. First he recognizes one inauthenticity among his friends, then another, in things he had earlier thought were authentic. Then, resigned, he gives them up for himself as well.
Poverty is no disgrace. Not everyone can come into the world the lord of a feudal estate. But to pretend to one's fellow men that one has such an estate is ridiculous and immoral. After all, should we be ashamed to live in a rental apartment in a building with many others who are our social equals? Should we be ashamed of the fact that there are materials that are too expensive for us to build with? Should we be ashamed to be nineteenth century men and not men who want to live in a building whose architectural style belongs to an earlier age? If we ceased to be ashamed, you would see how quickly we would acquire an architecture suited to our own times. This is what we have anyway, you will object. But I mean an architectural style that we will be able to pass on to posterity in good conscience, an architectural style that even in the distant future will be pointed to with pride. But we have not yet found this architectural style in our century in Vienna.
Whether one tries to create out of canvas, pasteboard, and paint the wood huts where happy peasents dwell, or to erect out of brick and poured cement would-be stone palaces where feudal lords seem to reside, it is the same in principle. Potemkin's spirit has hovered over Viennese architecture in this century.