How Wittgenstein Became Bulgarian

If you happen to take a walk through the quiet street of Parkgasse in Vienna’s 3rd district, your eye will glide over an elegant white villa with the Bulgarian flag waving out front. This is the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, in Haus Wittgenstein – an emblematic architectural masterpiece with remarkable stories to tell.

If these walls could talk, the visitor might hear fascinating tales of the private life of the Wittgenstein family, the strains of Gustav Mahler’s music and recitations of Tagore’s poetry. Following the timeline of history, you might hear the sounds of the military boots of Russian soldiers, or voices of nurses from the Red Cross echoing through the building after the end of WWII, or secret conversations of the Politburo’s Elite of the Bulgarian Communist Party, west of the Iron Curtain.

A long time ago, the city villa was a meeting place of the Vienna Circle, hosting the intellectual international scene of vivid and controversial thinkers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and scientists. The guests were often bohemians and intellectuals, the critical minds of the prewar era, shaping the cultural life of Central Europe.

This house has a dazzling history of ups and downs that could be the basis for a number of exciting films. Built in 1928, in a modernist style reminiscent of the Bauhaus, the house was conceived with fanatic mathematical accuracy by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and his friend, Paul Engelmann, a student of Adolf Loos, for Wittgenstein’s sister, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. In clean lines and elegant proportion, he sought to apply philosophy to architecture, a perfect coherence between each element in the space.

Finished in 1928, Haus Wittgenstein was designed down to the last detail by philsopher Ludwig Wittgenstein./(C) Haus Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein dedicated more than two years to the interior, shaping each door, each handle, window and radiator. When the house was nearly ready, he suddenly decided the ceilings were 3 cm too low, and had them raised, to fulfill his vision of perfect proportions. The costs for the reconstruction were huge. And when Margaret refused to pay for the rebuild, Ludwig – who had given away his share of the fortune to his brothers and sisters – bought himself a lottery ticket in the hopes of winning enough to pay for the changes.

In the 1940s, the Stonborough-Wittgensteins emigrated to the USA. And after WWII, the house was used first as a barracks for Russian soldiers and later for the Red Cross. In the 1960s, the Wittgensteins sold the building to a businessman, who planned to tear it down because of its poor condition and build a profitable new high-rise in its place.

But by a fortunate chance, a group of architects, led by Carl Auböck III, heard about the plans, and after huge protests, the group managed to stop the project and make the case for the unique building as part of the city’s cultural heritage. The house went back on the market. Auböck suggested to Bulgarian Ambassador Vladimir Ganovski to buy the building.

Haus Wittgenstein, a Love Story

Carl Auböck III wasn’t just any architect, he was the son of architect couple Carl Auböck II and Bulgarian Mara Utschkunowa, both students at the Bauhaus in Weimar, studying under Walter Gropius and Johannes Itten, the fathers of the Bauhaus. Utschkunowa was also the only Bulgarian woman to study there.

But it gets better: Once on her way back to Bulgaria from Weimar, Mara lost her wallet in the Vienna station. She turned for help to her Viennese colleague and friend Carl Auböck. But instead of finding her wallet, she found love, and stayed in Vienna for the rest of her life. In 1924, her son, Carl Auböck III was born – at about the time the idea for Wittgenstein’s house, too, was born. So when Carl III became the savior of the house some 40 years later, it was an act of love. In honor of his mother, it became the National Cultural Center of the Communist People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

The building’s next patron was Ljudmila Zivkova, the minister of culture and daughter of Communist Party leader Todor Zivkov, who launched a “policy of liberalization,” following the Helsinki Accords in 1975. A free thinker whose esoteric practices of yoga meditation brought strong disapproval from the party, Zivkova set out to popularize Bulgarian culture in the West, beginning with the Cultural Palace in Vienna.

On December 5, she signed the contract and Haus Wittgenstein became the first institute of its kind opened in a Western capital during the Cold War. After restoration (supervised by Carl Auböck III) the center opened on January 4, 1977, with a concert of opera in the newly built performance space, attended by Austrian Minister of Higher Education and Research, Hertha Firnberg.

For a long time, the building had extraterritorial status, with access possible only with a passport and highly restricted. Still, several important cooperation agreements were signed there, including the Exchange Convention between the Austrian and Bulgarian National TV stations, the Austrian and Bulgarian Academies of Science, Künstlerhaus Wien and the Association Of the Bulgarian Artists, Austrian Association of Modern Music and the Bulgarian Composers Association Convention.

In the 1980s cultural relations between Austria and communist Bulgaria were among the best-developed in the West. Still, in Haus Wittgenstein programming was conservative and bounded strictly by the cultural propaganda of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

Today, the organization still has an official character. When you enter, you sense immediately the deep respect and the feeling of distance that shimmers through the heavy metal curtains of the past Wittgenstein once designed. The house that all admired but none found hospitable is the doyen of all Bulgarian institutions in Vienna that nursed cooperative Bulgarian-Austrian relations through the communist years.

But the moment art fills the building, you feel its power.

The Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Vienna was a stage for Borjana Ventzislavova’s  Video project “It isn’t healthy” from 2013. The Title was playing with the words Wittgenstein once said himself about the House he created./(C) Borjana Ventzislavova

And today as then, the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture actively contributes to the social life of the Bulgarian diaspora in Austria. It has been a host to the Bulgarian Research Institute as the organizer of science conferences and cultural events, The Friends of Wittgenstein House Society, SS. Cyril and Method Cultural organization and many others.

The Literature Circles Lectorium Bulgaricum, the 22 volumes of Miscellanea Bulgarica and Young Musicians in Vienna’ have all been created in the frame of the Cultural Center Haus Wittgenstein and fit naturally to the previous history of the building.

From the classical art exhibitions and contemporary performances, the program of the center
goes beyond Bulgarian borders and shows exhibitions of top artists, from Picasso to Christo,
Boris Hristov and many more. The theater has hosted Viennese-Bulgarian Dance and
Singing Collectives and brings the beauty and uniqueness of the Bulgarian rhythm and
sound closer to display.

Works by Bulgarian artists who studied or live in Vienna, such as WESSI, Irina Georgieva, Krassimir Kolev, Mariana Kroutilinan and Val Wecerka, were part of the exhibition “DREI JAHRZEHNTEN“, organized by the  Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Haus Wittgenstein. /(C) Haus Wittgenstein

Some say that the Bulgarian Ratschenitza and Horo (from the Latin “chorus”) are a technique of healing through music and movement. People connect through dance, creating sacred circles that swirl with energy, the rhythm resonating with the beat of the human heart. When the feet move and the voice unfolds across the borders of space and time, new horizons open.

The stage is open for theater pieces and films, concerts, and talks with artists and politicians, from the classical to the experimental – Haus Wittgenstein is the first address for Bulgarian culture in Vienna.