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Virtuosity in Vienna

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The Wittgenstein House By Bernhard Leitner. Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. 160pp. £30

Round about the time that Adolf Loos was penning his architectural polemics, two young Austrians were at primary school.

While both achieved prominence in other fields, they retained an interest in architecture - one designing a house for his sister, the other, having failed to enter architectural school, becoming a prolific client.

In The Wittgenstein House, Bernhard Leitner does not speculate as to whether the pre-adolescent Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler showed a precocious interest in architecture. Appropriately, in view of his topic, he sticks to the known or the logically provable, but the book and its subject are so dry that a little speculation, even irony, might not have gone amiss.

That said, it is an impressive work. Beautifully produced, its diligently captioned photographs, diagrams and occasional facsimile drawings give a good idea of the architecture Wittgenstein created for his sister in Vienna, between 1926 and 1928.

'Wittgenstein's extraordinary architectural achievement is manifested in the main floor of the building, ' says Leitner, so he 'deals exclusively with this layout' and leaves 'relevant specialised literature' to record the other floors.

And what an architecture it was. Superficially it bears relation to the grand tradition of Germanic burgerlich homes - Adolf Loos, perhaps, but more intriguingly a touch of Behrens' Wiegand House in the residual Classicism - though Leitner presents it as a unique product of a particular aesthetic resolved into architecture (rather than philosophy or anything else).

Doors, even door handles, move deliberately, the joints between stone floor-slabs align according to a pre-ordained order, and no element fails to reinforce its own function with an aesthetic attribute. So, curtains were banned in favour of counter-balanced metal shutters, 'which weightlessly floated upwards' (as a servant in the house from 1928 to 1971 remembered), embodying Wittgenstein's aesthetic of weightlessness rather than, say, Loos' Raumplan.

By comparison Mies - shame on him - 'did not hesitate to close up his Tugendhat House with lengths of curtain', a terrible slip which certainly 'distracts from the clarity of his architectural language'.

This clarity, though, came at a price. It was entirely devoted to Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein. As Leitner lets slip, children, servants and Herr Stonborough had accommodation on the other floors;

children and servants even had a separate entrance, although the husband did apparently enter through the same door as his wife.

It is not surprising that the issue of this union, Thomas Stonborough, disliked the house enough to sell it to a developer who poisoned the trees and built a skyscraper on part of the garden. One remembers that, though the protagonist of Robert Musil's great novel about Vienna was a 'man without qualities', his father did have qualities. Here the mother (or her house) had qualities denied to her children. Thomas would have flattened the house had Leitner not initiated an heroic two-year campaign to preserve it.

Eventually, after Leitner proved that Wittgenstein himself designed it - as an entirely family affair, it was never documented and made little impact in avant-garde circles in the 1920s - it was protected in 1971. Shortly afterwards, it was converted into the cultural institute of the Bulgarian Embassy and there were unfortunate modifications. Leitner comments on the removal of a wall between the salon and living room, and replacement of bare 200W light bulbs with a conventional spot track: 'Architectural nonsense emerged out of Wittgenstein's sense of space.'

Wittgenstein's architecture is intense, and Leitner has extra reason to feel intensely towards it, but this engagement gives the book a hermetic quality.

So precious and specific to circumstance are Wittgenstein's ideas, argues Leitner, that reproducing his door handles is a travesty.

This special pleading is, of course, the heart of the matter. Leitner firmly believes that the house is so important as to be untouchable, either literally or through comparison with contemporary architectural ideas. Yet as well as being a product of Wittgenstein's mind, it is also a piece of domestic architecture and those of us who have a Rabelaisian attitude to life might want that aspect scrutinised too.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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