With its tuxedoed café waiters, baroque palaces, and a horse arena lit by chandeliers, Vienna can seem extremely uptight. That helps explain the magic of local architect (and painter) Fried-ensreich Hundertwasser. His buildings don’t just stand out among their somber, gray neighbors; they shout and cheer at you from down the street. Shiny primary-colored pillars, some leaning intentionally off-kilter, support facades decorated with wavy mosaic checkerboard patterns. Each window frame is painted a different color. Trees sprout from roofs and balconies, their boughs hanging over the buildings’ edges like overgrown bangs.
Born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928 (in reaction to the turbulence of world events, he made gradual changes to his name and finally settled on the German words for "peaceful realm hundred water" in 1968), he lived most of his life in Vienna and died last year while traveling on the Queen Elizabeth II between Europe and his New Zealand farm. While Hundertwasser’s formal artistic training was limited to three months at the Vienna Academy of Art, his painting and graphic design work enjoyed great commercial success. By the late 1970s, posters of his swirling urban landscape paintings (imagine a hybrid of Klimt and Chagall had they been working in Haight Ashbury during its heyday) hung above futons across Europe and North America.
In the 1970s Hundertwasser used his wealth and fame to speak out against what he saw as the soul-deadening effects of modern buildings. Deriding architects’ adherence to symmetry and uniformity (he called straight lines "the tool of the devil"), he sought to create a more organic architecture that celebrated both nature and un-schooled creativity.
By far the most well known of his buildings in Vienna is the Hundertwasser Haus, a block of 50 low-income apartments. While critics have been quick to point out that the gold onion domes, grass rooftops, and wacky mosaic archways merely mask its conventional engineering, they miss the fact that this enormous architectural carnival has become a lively public space in an otherwise dour section of Vienna. And not just because of the many tourists who visit. In a time when Austrian politics are lurching to the right, the residents of Hundertwassser Haus are never shy about hanging anti–Jörg Haider banners out their windows.
The interiors of Hundertwasser’s buildings are exemplified in the Kunst-Haus Wien, a former furniture factory that has been turned into a museum for both international art shows and a large selection from Hundertwasser’s oeuvre. In keeping with his aversion to flat surfaces, terra cotta tile floors rise up and down, creating small hills that snap you into the realization that, hey, you are walking through these rooms. Fountains gurgle, spider plants drape over stair railings, and schoolkids yell at each other in their twangy Viennese accents.
My favorite of Hundertwasser’s Viennese buildings is the gargantuan Fernwärme, or garbage burner, originally a hideous industrial complex. Hundertwasser was commissioned to give it a face-lift in 1988. The results are exhilarating. An enormous shimmering blue smokestack topped with a gold globe—a minaret straight out of Jules Verne—towers over the buildings. The plant itself has all the Hundertwasser trademarks: trees growing on balconies, undulating mosaic patterns, even an oversized replica of a floppy cloth cap. On the ground level there is an art gallery showcasing the works of local artists.
Hundertwasser’s New Age kookiness (not to mention the fact that his favorite politician was Margaret Thatcher) leaves me a bit cold. But when I’m standing by the Fernwärme and a fleet of orange garbage trucks beep! beep! beep! into the loading docks and the sound of glass crashing fills the air, I realize why I’m a fan: Hundertwasser’s buildings remind me that there’s a place for play in the urban world. And in a time when our cities are choking on smog and clogged with strip malls, the belief that everyone—including those who live and work near garbage incinerators—needs and deserves the playful beauty of art is a conviction worth revering.
Elizabeth Larsen, a former editor and regular contributor to Utne Reader, is a freelance writer living in Salzburg, Austria.