The Straight Line Is A Godless Line

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Almost without fail, an architectural draft starts with one straight line, and then another, and another. A succession of clean orderly lines until eventually, a building emerges, and it makes sense that straight lines form the core of our built environment. They’re cost efficient, materials like wood and steel and pipes come in straight linear units, although that’s a bit of a tautology. But it’s certainly easier to calculate structural loads on recto-linear surfaces, straight lines on logical, predictable.

Luisa Beck:
And they are completely devoid of humanity.

Roman Mars:
So says producer Luisa Beck.

Luisa Beck:
Actually, it’s not my argument, it’s this guy’s.

Hundertwasser:
The straight line is godless and immoral. The straight line is not a creative line, but an imitating line, a lying line, a coward line.

Luisa Beck:
This is Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser.

Roman Mars:
In German that means Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters.

Luisa Beck:
It’s a name he gave himself.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, no kidding.

Luisa Beck:
Which makes sense because for Hundertwasser radical self expression was everything.

Hundertwasser:
Even tenant-owned buildings are subject to censorship such regulations are characteristic of prisons, cages, or stables.

Luisa Beck:
This is from a speech Hundertwasser gave in 1983 at the Architectural Association in London. He was known for giving talks wearing mismatched wild colored socks and wacky hats or showing up completely naked. That day though, he was fully clothed. He looked out into a room full of architects, and told them they were criminals, planning lifeless, rigid structures that restricted human creativity.

Hundertwasser:
The time has come for people to rebel against their confinement in cubical constructions like prisoners or rabbits in cages. The confinement which is alien to human nature.

Luisa Beck:
Hundertwasser was born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928, he made a name for himself, so to speak as a painter. He was known for squiggly, abstract, nearly psychedelic paintings.

Roman Mars:
And in 1985, he completed a building, an apartment complex in his home city of Vienna. Hundertwasser house looks as if one of his paintings had been made manifest. It’s full of asymmetrical shapes, wacky colors, clashing patterns, and mismatched windows and undulating uneven floors. There are no godless straight lines inside.

Luisa Beck:
Working together with architects and engineers Hundertwasser went on to design more buildings all over Vienna. His work really sticks out in that city. Almost all the other buildings there are stately baroque. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Hundertwasser went on to design all kinds of other structures, like gas stations, heating plans and schools, and his renown extended beyond Vienna. He was hired to design buildings in Germany, Japan, New Zealand.

Roman Mars:
He made one building in the U.S. – a winery in Napa Valley.

Luisa Beck:
His architecture is festooned with golden orbs and onion domes, zigzagging tiles, trees that grow out of apartment windows. He dreamed of creating indoor moss covered floors, though he was never able to get that approved.

Roman Mars:
I think you get it. Hundertwasser designed some crazy looking buildings. Many architectural circles dismiss Hundertwasser work as kitsch. They look like buildings from Dr. Seuss or Pee Wee’s Playhouse or any number of children’s cartoons.

Luisa Beck:
But Hundertwasser actually got them built, and to him they weren’t just gimmicks. Real people live in his buildings. He was trying to reframe what the built environment can be, to reimagine what architecture is supposed to do.

Hundertwasser:
Today architecture is criminally sterile.

Roman Mars:
“Today architecture is criminally sterile,” he says.

Luisa Beck:
One of these Hundertwasser buildings stands in Magdeburg, the city where I was born. Magdeburg is in what used to be communist East Germany, and it’s one of those cities full of endless grids and straight lines. It’s rows and rows of gray soviet-style apartment blocks and post war architecture, until you walk onto the main street in the city center, and encounter this huge eight story tall castle.

Roman Mars:
And this castle is bright, bright pink, salmon pink.

Luisa Beck:
And it’s decorated with brown tiled squiggles like big ceramic vines creeping up the pink walls. They’re almost 900 windows of all different shapes and sizes, and 150 different lollipop-looking columns hold up the buildings floors. On the roof, eight golden spheres rise triumphantly, like suns over the dull homogeneous blocks around them.

Roman Mars:
Parts of the roof slope all the way down to the street, and it’s covered in trees. This is why even though the building is mostly pink, it’s called the Green Citadel.

Luisa Beck:
Residents of Magdeburg grappled with what to make of this gigantic tree top salmon pink castle. Everyone has different opinions about it, including my grandparents, who live about a 20 minute walk from the Green Citadel in Magdeburg. I talked to them about it the last time I went back to visit.

Annemarie H.:
Speaking in German.

Winfried H.:
Speaking in German.

Annemarie H.:
Yeah.

Winfried H.:
Speaking in German.

Luisa Beck:
My grandpa says he thinks it looks like a monkey house.

Winfried H.:
Speaking in German.

Luisa Beck:
I ask him why, and he grunts about the colorful facade and wavy surface. It just doesn’t fit.

Annemarie H.:
Speaking in German.

Luisa Beck:
But my grandma, she likes it. In fact, she’d like to live in it. It breaks with the sameness that is so typical of East Germany.

Annemarie H.:
Speaking in German.

Luisa Beck:
As my grandmother describes it, “For 40 communist years, we lived in the same concrete high rises, and here is an apartment building that represents the uniqueness of each resident, and Hundertwasser realizes this. In my opinion,” she says, “there should be more buildings like it. Too bad he passed away.”

Roman Mars:
Plans for the Green Citadel began in 1996 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hundertwasser died in 2000 while at sea on the QE2. The Green Citadel was completed five years later.

Luisa Beck:
Eighty percent of the Green Citadel is covered in grass, and the building has what Hundertwasser called tree tenants. Trees that were planted into special rooms inside of people’s apartments, and his ideas about how to incorporate Flora into buildings didn’t stop with plants and trees. Hundertwasser was also really into mold, like the kind of mold that grows in the back of the fridge.

Hundertwasser:
When a wall grows mold, and the mold exhibits unusual patterns, or a moss grow over the geometric angles of a corner of your house, together with mushrooms and vegetation, life moves into a sterile house.

Roman Mars:
And as delightful as Hundertwasser’s warped and kaleidoscopic buildings are, the exaltation of mold is where he and I part ways. At least we know he didn’t suffer from allergies.

Hundertwasser:
Instead of TV, it is better to watch nature grow wild and grow out of human control, for instance, in the case of spontaneous vegetation.

Roman Mars:
Oh boy.

Luisa Beck:
Hundertwasser was big on manifestos. He had another one that he called, and I’m not making this up, “The Holy Shit” manifesto.

Hundertwasser:
Every time we use the flush toilet, we think it is a hygienic accomplishment. But in fact we violate the laws of nature. We pray before we eat, and we say grace afterwards. But we do not pray when we sh*t.

Roman Mars:
Everything taking humans away from nature, or any of our natural processes was an affront to Hundertwasser, so his buildings were designed to keep us more in touch with our disgusting organic reality.

Hundertwasser:
If we do not tressure our sh*t, and if we do not transform it into humus, in honor of God of the world, we lose our right to be present on this earth.

Roman Mars:
Humus is the part of the soil that’s rich and dark with organic matter.

Luisa Beck:
Hundertwasser had proposed to plan natural urine purification systems and compost toilets in his buildings.

Roman Mars:
Although, his investors wouldn’t back indoor compost toilets in the Green Citadel. When Luisa was last in Germany, she talked her way into the building.

Nicole Z.:
This is the shower that he put in for the bathroom they use blue tiles as a rim.

Luisa Beck:
And also there’s no straight lines here either.

Nicole Z.:
None. None.

Luisa Beck:
I visited a bathroom in the Green Citadel, I didn’t see any composting toilets, I didn’t even see any mold. What I did see though we’re crazy patterns.

Nicole Z.:
If you look at this, you have like round corners all over the apartment, there are no sharp and crisp corners here.

Luisa Beck:
Nicole Zander and her partner Sebastian, live in the Green Citadel.

Nicole Z.:
Like you said we have two bathrooms, one with a tub and one with just a shower.

Luisa Beck:
The bathroom tiles are staggered and slightly shifted sideways so that they don’t line up in columns. In some places, they’re tilted diagonally or shattered, and their fragments put back together to form a unique mosaic like pattern. They showed me around their place.

Nicole Z.:
And you see, this is a different kind of window that opens up all the way in, and it’s got that round on top of it.

Roman Mars:
Now we’ll get into the parts of Hundertwasser’s manifesto laden worldview that is blissfully free of mold and excrement and appeals to our sense of individuality.

Luisa Beck:
For Hundertwasser the goal was to construct a creative lifestyle for the people who lived and worked in and around the Green Citadel. He designed the building to encourage residents’ individuality to shine forth, and it wasn’t just in terms of how he built the Green Citadel. Part of it were the rules that governed it.

Hundertwasser:
The apartment house tenant must have the freedom to lean out of his window, and as far as his arms can reach to change the outside walls of his building.

Luisa Beck:
Hundertwasser encouraged residents to lean out of their windows and paint the facade around them any color and design they wanted. He called this concept Fensterrecht or right of window.

Hundertwasser:
He must be allowed to paint or transform his outside walls, his third skin as far as his arms can reach, so that from far away from the street, everyone can see their lives a man who distinguishes himself from his neighbors, and the other prisoners.

Roman Mars:
When he says prisoners he’s referring to you and me.

Luisa Beck:
The idea was clothes are your second skin, your home is your third skin.

Roman Mars:
And if we choose our own clothes, why shouldn’t renters choose the colors for their outside walls, at least around the window? Hundertwasser believed that residents painting their windows, their homes would be a form of their own self expression. He wasn’t explicitly demanding that residents lean out their windows and paint the borders around them, but he was hoping to design an environment that would encourage them to do it of their own free will.

Luisa Beck:
I asked Sebastian and Nicole the Green Citadel residents if they thought about taking him up on his right of window idea?

Sebastian Z.:
We didn’t but technically the right is there, yeah.

Nicole Z.:
But hanging out the fourth floor of your window to try to change something, I’m not going to do that. I’m having a hard time cleaning the windows.

Luisa Beck:
So far only one person has taken Hundertwasser up on the right of window here, and the modifications were pretty minor.

Roman Mars:
And now residents need to apply to claim their Fensterrecht.

Luisa Beck:
The building manager told me that he hasn’t received a single application from anyone else requesting to paint the exterior facade around their window to exercise their Fensterrecht.

Roman Mars:
We took a quick poll here in the office and both Sam and I would feel a little too intimidated to haphazardly paint the outside of our window on an already amazing building. Avery would be leaning outside to paint on day one, and Katie would be out there on a window washers rig painting up a storm in a hot minute. I generally love the right of window idea, even if I wouldn’t necessarily participate, but it also feels a little like forced fun, like being required to take a day off of work to play wacky games with your co-workers on a company retreat, or audience participation at schtick dinner theater, or having a pop album appear automatically on your phone. It’s mainly fun for people designing the experience.

Luisa Beck:
That’s the irony in all of this. Hundertwasser fought against architectural doctrine so that people could be free to express themselves, but only as he wanted them to.

Roman Mars:
In many ways in addition to being brilliant objects of art, Hundertwasser’s buildings were like concept cars or high fashion. A three-wheeled car with a bubble roof or six foot tall fur hats are not meant for the mass market. But radical concepts move the norm forward. You certainly do not want a house full of mold, really don’t. It’s terrible. But just try to find an urbanist these days who is not all for green roofs and that’s what the big talking naked speech giving manifesto writers of the world are for.

Credits

Production

Reporter Luisa Beck visited the Green Citadel (die Grüne Zitadelle) in her home town of Magdeburg, Germany. She spoke with Green Citadel residents Nicole and Sebastian Zander; and with her grandparents Winfried and Annemarie Harnack, who live nearby.

Archival audio of Hundertwasser accessed from hundertwasser.com.

Music

“Kyuten” — Melodium
“Computer Recital” — Lullatone
“Phoebe” — Melodium
“Magical… I Don’t Know” — Lullatone
“A Nice Concert Hall” — Lullatone
“My Second Favorite Song in the World” — Lullatone
“My Xylophone loves Me” — Melodium
“Hey June” — Melodium

Comments (18)

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  1. Chris Teasdale

    Please do an episode about EarthShips! They have plants groig in planters watered with gray water. There are very few straight lines most of the time.

  2. Josh

    I really enjoyed this episode (as I always do). Thanks for an very interesting 20 minutes (plus the 30 I spend looking at Hundertwasser’s work and philosophy).

  3. Great episode! As an architect, I believe our education/inspiration lacks information about radical thinkers like Hundertwasser. They are dismissed as insane or generally uninformed and are therefore omitted from architectural coffee-table books. But without these artists forcing us to reexamine our comforts and culture (however uncomfortable it may be), I don’t believe architecture style and sensibility can make any significant progress.

  4. Roger

    google “hundertwasser trash incinerator” for the most beautiful trash incineration facility in the world (though I doubt there’s much competition). I cycle by it frequently and it never fails to inspire!

    1. I dunno, Roger; along with the one in Vienna–which I assume you’re referring to, though I could be wrong–there’s the Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka, which is also a Hundertwasser masterpiece!

  5. This is awesome. I lived in Darmstadt, Germany for a few months as a student, where Hundertwasser erected an apartment building in the late 90s. You could live there but mostly, I think, it was a tourist attraction complete with a restaurant on the roof. It’s a truly amazing sight. I would bring all my visitors there for, at the very least, a few drinks. This episode makes me nostalgic! Keep up the good work, Roman!

  6. The Green Citadel has tons of straight lines. It’s futile attempt to hide them just highlights them in my eyes.

    It is all a pathetic facade. People pretending to be what Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser claims is a natural state. But in its attempt to force itself to be so it becomes more artificial than any of the utilitarian structures that he bemoans.

    1. Douglas Tabony

      That was the 1st thing I noticed. Other architects have designed living spaces with no straight lines on the exterior.

  7. I live just a couple of blocks away from the Hundertwasser Haus and the Kunsthauswien. Any day of the year, with any weather, there are tourist taking pictures with a smile on their faces. And it has been like this since it was built. That wouldn’t be the case if it was just a gimmick. There is definitely something deeper in his work.
    You can find a good overview of Hundertwasser work at http://www.hundertwasser.at

  8. Kevin Chambers

    Thanks for another great show!

    “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners.” –Antoni Gaudi

    I hope you’ll be taking a trip to Barcelona at some point, so as to cover another (the first?) no-straight-line architect. The building of La Sagrada Familia and the string & weight model could be an episode on its own, not to mention La Pedrera and Park Guell.

  9. Anonymous

    I could. not. handle the woman’s voice on this episode. It was so irritating I wasn’t able to listen to the whole podcast.

  10. I live in Vienna and though his buildings are interesting I do feel Huntertwasser was a great pretender and having visited his toilets yesterday, (having to listen to his sh*t manifesto, while peeing) I believe Roman is right, it is all about enforced fun. Antonio Gaudi, is the complete opposite of this! He created true beauty… I would live in casa Batilló any day of the week!!

  11. laruen

    hmmm. i’m not sure i like the tone of this one. hundertwasser was a radical and revolutionary thinker and artist, with an elaborate and unique world veiw and corresponding philosophy. i think its unfair to dismiss some of his works as ‘forced fun’. i think there’s a lot more to it than that. i’m also kind of tired of the ‘woaah wacky artist’ trope. so tired. if your going to explore an artist and their work, there’s no point in reducing their weirdness to a wacky opposition to your normalness.

  12. Bret C

    Wish I’d lived in Magdeburg when this building existed; though the grayness just made everything else stand out that much more. Thanks for the visit, Luisa Beck!

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