Is Josef Hoffmann’s Biennale Pavilion of 1934 modern architecture? Probably not from the avant-garde standpoint of the International Style, nor from that of Le Corbusier’s four composition principles. But are these criteria sufficient? Particularly from the side of Austria, several additional layers have been integrated within the 20th century. In Vienna, it was above all Josef Hoffmann whom Le Corbusier registered on his travels.
A building like this one is not immediately recognized as representing a break with history. Hans Hollein, who thoroughly restored the pavilion in 1984—after 50 years of the building’s existence—has called it “the (Austrian’s) dream of the south” and compared it to the open “pleasure buildings” of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and of Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, which did not survive north of the Alps.
Moreover, this pavilion, like many others in the Giardini, is divided from the main current of contemporary modernism by another feature: its symmetry, which is perhaps employed here in a particularly uninhibited way. This symmetry has two parts. This has another aspect: repetition. The main space and the secondary space repeat each other, mirror inverted. The repetition of architectural space behaves differently than repetition in music or in language: In the latter, the repetition is only heard “with time”; in space, it can be seen simultaneously.
Visual reality even enables symmetry to “fluctuate between duality and singularity,” Hollein’s words, since after all a third spatial element is possible in the central axis, a single one between the two that repeat each other. A trinity of spaces, as it were, of which the middle one has priority over those on the sides but also serves as access to them.
These are the conditions that the symmetrical exhibition building offers. The content of one room can be juxtaposed with a second one of equal importance. This double presentation is so equal that one may be uncertain which part to enter first. Experience shows that most turn to the right first. The simultaneous perception of the doubleness is followed by a temporal sequence of before/after, in which what is later need not be lesser. On the contrary. But isn’t symmetry in architecture an authoritarian symbol of rule? That argument was made in modern architecture, and asymmetry recommended for just that reason. The pavilion, after all, was built at the time when reactionary dictatorships ruled in Austria, Italy, and Germany and ultimately in the Soviet Union as well.
My teacher Ernst Plischke, who was a generation younger than Hoffmann, was fundamentally against symmetry. When I was explaining in a seminar presentation the possible application of symmetrical solutions in specific cases and showed examples by Le Corbusier, to which I attributed symmetry, albeit of disturbed sort, Plischke replied: “So then make a disturbed symmetry.”
The symmetry of Hoffmann’s pavilion is not disturbed. His axis of symmetry runs the entire length of this stretch of the bank beyond the Rio dei Giardini, and its opposite end is the one of the Greek Pavilion. But it is merely the long second axis perpendicular to the short main axis over the bridge. An axial approach to the Hoffmann pavilion through the park is not possible; even its monumental entrance can only be reached from the sides.
But would one approach the pavilion straight along its central axis if it were possible? Does one move along the central axis on Saint Peter’s Square in Rome? Or would one like to cross it along the transverse axis between the curved arcades? Doesn’t crossing such axes diagonally offer a free sense of space? If such axes are not present, they cannot be disregarded in concrete action either; for then one is moving in an already open field into which one inscribes one’s own movement—the destructive pleasure of insubordination is thus lost.
The infinite space that is measured by perspective axes and in which volumes, including architectural volumes, are found is a creation of the Renaissance. Modernism wanted to replace this concept of space with that of the field, possibly the four-dimensional field of space-time. The concept of transparency was defined (by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky) not just as permitting free sight but rather as ambiguous multiple meanings, as the multiple interpretability of this field.
In this moral question whether we have the idea that is “right for the time,” Josef Frank helped us with the insight that “our time is the whole of historical time known to us.” We can float evenly suspended between two ideas of space and even superimpose them. Frank was also the person who, as Friedrich Kurrent and Johannes Spalt have put it, was able to produce a synthesis of the antithetical positions of Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, which were irreconcilable at the beginning of the 20th century.
Loos can be described as having an intellectual approach to architecture, while Hoffmann can be said—to simplify somewhat—to have had a decorative one. Hoffmann avoided responding to Loos’s verbal attacks. Loos said: “Good architecture can be described; it doesn’t have to be drawn. The Pantheon can be described. Secession buildings can’t.” Hoffmann’s spatiality can be seen as a “boxing in” of the world, which is then resolved again, reopened, by the planar ornament. Loos grasps the space, which nonetheless remains open, by means of cubic structure; he believed the world would learn “to play chess in a cube.”
But Hoffmann’s pavilion in Venice has hardly any ornament; cost pressures contributed to that. He used classical forms: Outside, horizontal fluting relieves the two exhibition prisms; inside, tall tripartite round arches follow the central passageway on either side and convey the view through the two halls. But he uses these forms in a stylized abstraction. Loos insisted on faithful copying when ornaments were reused.
Hoffmann had been appreciative enough to describe Loos’s Kärntner-Bar, the so-called Loos Bar of 1908 in Vienna, as a “Schmuckstück” (a piece of jewelry, gem): Loos would presumably have been appalled by the use of that word for any space.
But perhaps, conversely, Loos, who had died shortly before it was built, would have been able to respect Hoffmann’s pavilion of 1934 from his own perspective. Without a doubt, it is based on an idea of space, and that “can be described.”