How the Hundertwasser House Was Built | An Interview with Elfriede Forte

“He put so much love and dedication into this project. It’s no longer comprehensible what he accomplished here.”

Whether it’s looking over the green roof gardens, peering up through winding staircases whose landings are each painted a different pastel shade, or encountering colorful frescoes lining a corridor, wonders abound at the Hundertwasser House in Vienna’s 3rd district.

Not one window, light, color, or floor plan is the same as any other. It’s inspired sensory overload, creating the effect of entering an alternative universe – that of the legendary Viennese artist and designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser). Hundertwasser’s aesthetic was a reaction to what Elfriede Forte refers to as the “08/15 (null-acht-fünfzehn)” effect – or, mass standardization, a reference to the World War I German “Maxim” machine gun invented in 1884, and updated in 1915. Such was Josef Krawina’s original grid-based floor plans for the building.

Hundertwasser, whose motto was “a straight line is godless,” rejected the plan and went on to collaborate with the talented young architect Peter Pelikan. Shortly after Hundertwasser’s death in 2000, Krawina successfully sued to claim co-credit for the creation of the building, now a magnet for tourists.

Forte, who observed the construction, said Hundertwasser was the one on site, doing the lion’s share of the work. “He was here every day from 6 a.m., working alongside the builders, whom he encouraged to add their own creative touches,” the 68-year-old Wienerin said.

“He could communicate with everyone, from working-class laborers to world-renowned artists.” Hundertwasser’s powerful sense of equality and freedom touched everyone and everything he encountered, including Forte, who was “lucky enough” to get an apartment there through the social housing system and “had the honor” of being a close friend. Hundertwasser faced opposition at every turn, she remembered, particularly from small-minded bureaucrats.

“He was always fighting against these little government people, drawing on what seemed to be a limitless well of strength and courage.” One anecdote was telling, how as a child during WWII, Hundertwasser, himself half-Jewish, joined the Hitler Youth in order to protect his family. “When the SS came banging on the door one night, this boy put on his uniform and greeted them with a ‘Heil, Hitler’ salute, and so saved his family. He carried this bravery with him throughout his entire life.”

Janima Nam
Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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