Otto Wagner

The Architectural Record 31 (May 1912):485-500.

Otto Koloman Wagner (1841-1918) is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers of the modern movement in architecture. When he wrote this article he was the Austrian Imperial Royal Surveyor-in-Chief of Buildings and Professor of Architecture in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Wagner was a native of greater Vienna and studied architecture there at the Vienna Polytechnic and the Vienna Academy of Arts as well as in Berlin at the Königliche Bauakademie. In Vienna he first worked for Ludwig von Förster, the architect of the Ringstrasse, before establishing his own practice. Much of his early work consisted of apartment houses, but he received commissions or won competitions for such other structures as a theatre, synagogue, banks, and dwellings. In these and later projects Wagner demonstrated an ability to move beyond the styles of the moment in pressing forward to find design elements that were more expressive of modern society and technology.

His study of 1911, Die Grosstadt (The Large City), was Wagner's response to a competition for the general regulation of Vienna. The version reprinted below provided access to his ideas for English-speaking professionals. It reveals a concept of urban growth that would place no limits on the size of cities but would provide an orderly method of expansion through successive additions of districts of 100,000 to 150,000 persons. These were to be located within a great spiderweb system of ring and radial boulevards extending outward from the urban core. Wagner makes explicit in this essay his opposition to the planning theories of Camillo Sitte and his followers. He called "unjustifiable" and "objectionable from an artistic viewpoint" some of Sitte's favorite devices: unwarranted curves and irregularities in the lay-out of streets and squares, intended solely to produce artificially picturesque vistas."

Unlike many professionals who produced diagrams or plans of the future ideal metropolis, Wagner described the implementation device that would make this feasible. He called for advance public acquisition of land at the urban fringe and its subsequent release to the private building market only with strict controls governing the terms of its use and built form. He believed that before the newly-acquired public land was needed for building it would be leased to "furnish a sufficient interest on the investment." Then, some years later when required for expansion of the city, land would have "increased to such an extent as to far surpass the original investment and its interest, and to bring in a profit amounting even to hundreds of millions."

A flattering invitation which came to the author in March, 1910, from Professor A. D. Hamlin of Columbia University, conveyed the request to prepare a paper for an international congress on municipal art, which it was proposed to hold in New York under the patronage of the City and State. This gave the first impulse to the preparation of these pages; while the repeated urgings of another committee to attend the city-planning exhibition in Berlin in 1910, and later the conferences on the Vienna Building Ordinance, finally confirmed the author's desire to give to the public his views on the subject of city planning; the more so in view of the contention of the Association of Austrian Architects that the Vienna conferences had failed to give adequate consideration to the artistic side of their problem as well as to the important questions of street-circulation and building lines.

This paper contains certain propositions which the author feels himself bound to present because thus far all the exhibitions, treatises and addresses on this subject have failed to produce definite results.

The considerations about to be presented apply to no one city, but to large cities in general, although there may be particular cities which stand out prominently by reason of their pressing need for the solution of the problems of future expansion as well as of the improvement of present conditions. What follows represents neither the radicalism of the iconoclast nor the wail of the traditionalist on the subject of city-planning, but proceeds from the fundamental assumption that the most important element in the solution of any such problem is the practical fulfilment of a definite purpose, and that art must impress its stamp upon whatever may result from the accomplishment of this purpose.

Since our manner of life, our activities and our technical and scientific achievements are different from what they were a thousand years ago or even a short time since, and are the results of constant development, Art must give expression to the conditions of our own time. Art must therefore conform its city plan to the needs of the mankind of today

Those favorite catchwords--"the art of the home," "co-operation in city-planning," "sentiment in city-planning," etc., taken in the sense in which they are used by people who know and judge Art only from text books, are empty phrases to which such people cling because they are destitute of ideas on the real problem of the city plan. Only the true architect can distinguish between what is old and beautiful, and what is merely old; he will favor neither the wanton destruction of what is beautiful nor the copying of the antique; nor will he care for the much-lauded "embellishment" of a city; all architectural extravagance is foreign to his nature.

Our democratic existence, in which the masses feel the pressure of the necessity for economy in their methods of living. and call for homes at once sanitary and cheap, has resulted in a certain uniformity in our dwelling houses. This tendency will therefore find expression in the plan of the future city. Individual dwellings of like cubical contents and plan are cheaper in first cost and rental price if combined in houses of many stories than in houses of few; the cost of the lot, of foundations and of roof entering into account but once. And since the proverb "Time is money" is truer today than ever before, the increase in height of residential and office buildings in the city's center to seven or eight stories, indeed, to skyscrapers ( if the city permits) is a natural development.

In any given city the number of dwelling houses must greatly exceed that of its public buildings; and their contiguous multiplication inevitably results in long and uniform block- facades. But our modern art has turned these to monumental account by the plotting of wide streets, and by the introduction of picturesque interruptions of their monotony is able to give them their full artistic effect. There can be no doubt that when Art rightly handles such cases all talk about a "city pattern" is beside the mark. This kind of talk is possible only when Art is left out of the question. Unfortunately the effort to avoid the uniformity of dwelling-house types which has resulted from practical and economic considerations, has led to an altogether objectionable and artistically worthless overloading of the exteriors of these utilitarian structures with purposeless features, meaningless projections, turrets gables, columns and ornament; although wide streets serve to mitigate somewhat the effect of these ungainly absurdities.

Quite as unjustifiable and as objectionable from an artistic viewpoint are intentional but unwarranted curves and irregularities in the lay-out of streets and squares, intended solely to produce artificially picturesque vistas. Every large city possesses of necessity a greater or smaller number of winding and irregular streets; but these have artistic warrant only when they result naturally from conditions of circulation, traffic, topography or the like.

The characteristic impressions produced by a city results from its existing or inherent beauty and its potential beauty. The city's general "physiognomy" is the most important consideration in its plan. Upon it depends the success of the effort to make the first impression as pleasing as possible. This impression is furthermore dependent on the pulsating life of the city as a whole. With regard to this it must be remembered as a fundamental fact that the great majority of the community, including, of course, visitors to the city ( we are dealing now with the general mass) are quite ignorant of artistic matters. Therefore Art, if she would arouse the interest of and give satisfaction to the average man, must seize upon every opportunity that gives promise of producing a favorable impression. Industry, trade, fashion, taste, comfort, luxury, all provide media for artistic expression, and must all be availed of to attract the attention of the average man towards Art, so that he may be disposed to bestow favorable judgment upon works of art. The uninterrupted vista of a main thoroughfare flanked by fine stores displaying the artistic products of the city and of the country to the view of the crowds hurrying by; other streets through which one may stroll for an outing and regale himself to the extent of his pocketbook; a sufficient number of good restaurants, where one may find both satisfaction and relaxation; open squares, where public monuments and buildings in artistic settings present themselves to the gaze of the beholder, and many other like factors not here enumerated--such are the things that give to a city its characteristic physiognomy. To these may be added an efficient system of transportation, a faultless street- cleaning department, living accommodations provided with every comfort and suited to every social grade--all these are conditioning factors of a favorable impression on the artistically indifferent average man. In the application of a criterion of excellence to these things beauty, that is, artistic quality, is the deciding factor; this alone makes it possible to produce a satisfactory first impression on citizen and stranger alike. Thus impressed, both citizen and stranger will be better disposed towards the city; less moved by a hypocritical pretense of art-interest to martyrize themselves "doing" the art treasures and museums of the town.

The more completely a city fulfils its practical ends, the better does it minister to the pleasures of its inhabitants; and the greater the part played by Art in this ministry, the more beautiful the city. Neatness and scrupulous cleanliness go hand in hand with Art; city governments please take notice!

One chance for the influence of Art on the development of the city, and hence upon its future aspect, is well-nigh closed in these days; not by the pressure of economy, but by the complete indifference of the masses to artistic work, and the consequent lack of artistic creativeness. The masses have been for ages accustomed to leave all matters of art to the ruling classes, and they overlook the fact that the autonomous community having now come into power, it devolves upon it to provide the necessary artistic initiative .

On the extreme periphery of a great city private boundaries, paths, water courses, small differences of level, a tree, even a manure pile, may determine the later location of particular structures. These in turn influence the position of roads, squares, etc., so that at last out of these chance beginnings the permanent plan of the city grows up.

It will never do, however, to elevate things to the plane of determining influences in artistic development. For if they were so, what would become of our hopes and efforts for the ideal city plan, the carefully thought out placing of public buildings, of parks, of vistas? What would become of the scientific layout of circulation, the practical and economically necessary straight boundaries for building lots, and last of all, the control of building lines, so essential in any great city?

From this it may be seen that the forming of the city cannot be left to chance, but must be founded on well-weighed considerations. To determine these considerations and point the way by which this goal is to be reached is the aim of this paper.

There can be no doubt of the fact that the majority of mankind prefer living in a great city to living in a small one or in the country. A large proportion of the inhabitants of a great city are forced to do this by their occupations. Profit, social position. comfort luxury, low death rate, the presence of all the spiritual and physical necessities of life, possibilities both good and evil of recreation, and lastly Art, are all factors in this tendency. Most of the forces which favor the growth of great cities are operating with constantly increasing energy.

Economic forces are potent in all this. It should excite no surprise that city councils favor the growth of large cities.(1) The exertion of the influence of every city administrator to encourage the influx of inhabitants and strangers is therefore a matter of course.

The skeleton of a great city is formed by its lines of traffic, by its rivers, lakes or bays, its topography and like permanent conditions. The regulation or systematizing of the city plan can, as I have intimated, be carried out by following a definite principle and scheme, This scheme falls naturally in to two divisions:

1. The regulation of the old already existing part, and

2. The regulation of future development and expansion.

The regulation of the old part is limited to maintaining its already existing beauty and making use of it advantageously in the city plan.

Conditions of traffic, sanitary requirements, the circumstance that so much that is beautiful is in private possession, that many a work has reached the limit of age and usefulness, and finally social and economic relations--all these demand a special consideration of each individual case in the regulation of the old part.

On these grounds the advance determination of future building lines in the existing parts of the city, however greatly to be desired, is scarcely practicable. It goes without saying, however, that in the case of new buildings or remodeling the city administration should avail itself to the utmost of any artistic advantages from their proximity to existing elements of beauty. But it is the new and undeveloped quarters that can and must be systematized, if coming events are not to bring the city authorities face to face with the unsurmountable "too late." Regulation on a large scale of the housing living conditions of the future inhabitants, the possibility of conveniences and appliances at present unknown, the provision of "safety valves" for expansion, last and not least the development of the city's growth along lines of beauty, must all be taken into account in the scheme.

How important, how fraught with terrible responsibility this duty of foresight in regard to future conditions of living is, may be gathered from the fact that great cities double in size in from thirty to fifty years. Hence their governing bodies are forced to take care that houses, public buildings, main streets, sanitary arrangements, etc., shall be properly located in advance; otherwise, instead of the hoped-for ideal a chaos would result which could be restored to order only at enormous expense.

We may consider it axiomatic that the administration of a great city demands its division into wards. The situation and boundaries of the wards or boroughs form the foundation of the systematized regulation of the great city.

While it may be wise and proper to lay out each ward or borough with careful consideration of its schools, business centers, industrial requirements and domestic conditions, there is no use in planning entire wards for particular classes or purposes; since workmen, employees of high and low rank, officials, and so on, will and must make their homes in their own particular wards. Certain things must however be common to all wards to a greater or less degree; for example, parks, (public) gardens, playgrounds, schools, churches, traffic routes, markets, municipal buildings (courts, police buildings, building department, borough hall), department stores, centers for the handling of inward and outward bound traffic, garages, morgues, even theaters, special museums, libraries, barracks, asylums, workshops, public halls, etc.--this on the ground that, since there are a great number of public buildings whose usefulness can scarcely be determined for more than a century in advance, future buildings for the same or like purposes can only "be provided as new wards spring into being.

Naturally the wards will be arranged circularly in zones around the center of the city; whether the zones are closed circles or segments is of no consequence. The distance from the center of the city will always be the determining factor in regard to reaching the permissible building limits or the beginning of rural suburbs.

The division of the wards into zones, in most cases naturally arises from the discharge or out-reaching of the streets that radiate from the city's center.

The maximum population of a ward may be taken experimentally at a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand. It need hardly be mentioned that, until this limit is reached, two or even three such boroughs may have one administrative center.

A population of from 100,000 to 150000 corresponds to an area of from 500 to 1,000 hectares,(2) if the houses are built to the allowed limit of height. The idea of surrounding the city center with zonal streets from two to three kilo meters apart, and of laying out the wards in the resulting zones, is therefore in accord with this design.

In any systematic lay-out special care must be taken that the chief radial streets have a sufficient width to meet all future demands of traffic, while the zonal streets should be planned so as to suffice for unlooked for and unknown requirements. The width of the zonal streets may be set at from 80 to 100 meters (262-328 feet). The laying out of zonal streets in the already built-up portion of the city will present great difficulty, but they can be made in part to coincide with streets already existing, and need not measure up to the above mentioned dimensions.

Since, as will be shown later, the separate wards or boroughs will be developed at exact intervals fixed in advance according to a well laid plan, and thus form a group of small cities around a center, it seems more advisable to give each separate division its own open spaces, such as parks, public gardens and playgrounds, than to plan a belt of woods and meadows. Such a girdling of the city forms a hard and fast limitation that is certainly to be avoided. In the light of our present experience the expansion of a city must be unlimited. Moreover, such a belt would be spoiled by the inevitable building along the radial streets that must of necessity intersect it, and thus would fail of its purpose. The system of city building set forth in this article is illustrated by two plans and a bird's-eye view [the view is not reproduced here]. The first of these plans presents as an example the future Vienna with its zones and wards extended in every direction to the limit of a radius of 14 kilometers (8 3/4 miles). It is however needless to say that the length-of these radii can be increased at any time, and thus the addition of new zonal streets is unlimited.

A second plan shows the proposed development of the future twenty-second ward of Vienna as it would be when completely built up. The height of the buildings is limited to 23 meters, exclusive of roof-story or attic, and the minimum width of streets is 23 meters (75 feet).

By applying the propositions made later in this article, and by systematic planning, it is possible to determine the fundamental arrangement of each division or borough with regard to artistic, mercantile and hygienic considerations before the city administration opens it to development. In this way a series of beautiful and at the same time practically convenient miniature cities will arise. They will present to posterity an uninterrupted plastic history of Art, and thus exclude all mechanical uniformity. A pleasing variety will be presented by such sections as are devoted predominantly to special purposes, such as art centers with their new collections and schools, or university cultural. centers with a national library,. and so forth.

The lots destined for public buildings in any ward or borough can of course serve other purposes temporarily until the actual construction begins.

Apart from buildings for state and national parliaments, and for great art collections which must be located near the municipal center, and apart from those buildings claimed by the several wards respectively, there will be in every large city many edifices whose location is absolutely determined by topographical conditions, water courses, harbors, local requirements, and so on.

In the same way there will be buildings which are suitable only for particular wards, such as warehouses and factories, the larger workshops, markets, bazaars, etc.; and finally such establishments as must be located. at a distance from the city, such as cemeteries, depots, balloonsheds, barracks, fields for sports of all sorts .( including aviation ) . Cemeteries are, on certain days of the year, so frequented as to tax all means of transportation to the limit, so that it is obviously better to have two or three. Distance in this case counts for nothing, for every large city will soon be in a position to limit the transportation of corpses to railroads, and it seems therefore proper to provide each ward with a mortuary station for this purpose.

It cannot fall within the limits of this article to clear up all questions pertaining to city design, especially that of the grades and levels of particular cities. This, however, is certain: That present way connections must in the future be either elevated above or depressed below the street level, and that present water supply systems cannot. be altered. In the same way it can only be suggested here that it is the duty of the city administration to obtain control of all transit facilities.

This being granted, rapid transit must be provided for in such manner that there shall be a constant circulation through the zones, and a constant movement to and fro through the radial streets, so that any desired point can be reached with a single change of cars. Elevators should provide the means of connection between elevated, subway and street car lines at points of intersection.

The carrying out of the proposals herein set forth insure to every city, through systematized regulation, an untrammeled development for all time, and the ominous "too late" vanishes from view.

There is one point, however, that must be emphasized in this connection. Art and the Artist must be governing factors, in order that the beauty-destroying influence of the engineer may be forever destroyed, and the power of the vampire, Speculation, which now makes the autonomy of the city almost an illusion, may be reduced to a minimum. The means of realizing this, and the way in which it may be effected are illustrated in the following discussion of the proposals:

If the systematization outlined above, and the desired amelioration of the great city are to be realized, the undertaking demands abundant means. Economy in such an undertaking it not to be thought of, for the best is in this case scarcely sufficient. One might suggest a sort of competition of administrations in relation to the regulation and amelioration of the city plan. The late able mayor of Vienna, Dr. Karl Lueger, pointed the way most clearly, in that under his regime the city took over the ownership and operation of a number of public utilities, such as gas and electric plants, high-pressure water service, street railways and control of burials, from which it received large returns.

A further resource is suggested in the following remarks:

A continuous increase in land values follows the growth of a large city. It is therefore logical that this increase should accrue to the general weal; that is, to the city. Movements towards this end have made the question of taxes on the increase of land values a living issue, and this tax has already become law in Germany. It is doubtful, however, whether the question can be solved in that way at all, for it is hard to find the right place to apply the lever with success, unless the taxes, as is already the case in Vienna, are to be raised to an enormous figure.

A simple method of attaining this end of raising sufficient funds for the city is offered by the very increase of the city itself, in the city's buying surrounding land which is little or not at all built up, and holding it until it is ready to be built on and incorporated into future zones. It is obvious that this land by being farmed out or leased immediately after its purchase can furnish a sufficient interest on the investment, while at the same time its increase in value will be in favor of the city.

It is certainly to be expected that the value of such lots, even if they at first paid scarcely sufficient interest, will in a short time have increased to such an extent as to far surpass the original investment and its interest, and to bring in a profit amounting even to hundreds of millions.

All the unoccupied land in the neighborhood of a city it may be fairly assumed, can be obtained at a comparatively low price. The increase of population indicates, however, that a part of this land will have been built up certainly within fifty years and will therefore have reverted to private ownership again (it is assumed that the city has obtained ownership by condemnation). This procedure is followed again and again. It is possible for the city by regulation of prices, allotments, etc., to direct its growth in certain directions, to reserve the necessary public lands in each ward, to limit the present flourishing speculation in real estate, and with the resulting profits to carry out plans for city improvement on a large scale. According to the accompanying illustration, the future twenty-second ward of Vienna has, for example, 5,100,000 square meters;(3) 50 per cent of this is held for public purposes and hence there remains 2,500,000 square meters (one square mile), which represents, at an increase of only 20 kroner per square meter, a gain of 50,000,000 kroner.

This total may be still further increased, for the city administration is in a position to regulate the building up of the ward in such a way as to encourage apartment houses of many stories, whereby the land values will, of course, increase.

The possibility of maintaining municipal apartment houses and lucrative municipal establishments, such, for example, as city brickyards, is opened up--establishments which will be a further source of revenue to the city. Two things are necessary for the carrying out of such scheme by the city:

First: a suitable condemnation law, which is the more easily obtained since every city will support a movement for its own development into a metropolis; such a law is moreover the best and surest of tax-reducers.

Second: the creation of a general municipal sinking fund (Stadtwertzuwachsfonds) by which the house may be relieved of the risks and contingencies of protection, profit and safety. The advantages to be secured for the community by an expropriation law fall naturally into two categories:

I. The expansion of the city.

II. The improvement of the existing part.

With the proposed legislation to build on, the city authorities can seriously consider undertaking those projects which are in keeping with the development of the city and are imperiously demanded by a progressive culture.

The greatly increased income will put the city in a position to erect peoples' clubs and dwelling houses, municipal sanatoriums, city warehouses, promenades, fountains, observatories or belvideres, museums, theaters, waterside pavilions, valhallas, etc., in short, things which are now scarcely thought of, but which cannot be omitted from the plan of the future metropolis.


Although the scale of this study is only that of a general sketch, yet it may justly be maintained that in these proposals the means are presented of enabling the city to satisfy the enormous demands of administration, commerce, hygiene and art.

If one examines the plans and the picture presented here (they are not offered as models to be copied), even the layman will be convinced that houses built in city wards thus planned afford good, cheap and sanitary dwellings, and that the further needs and wishes of the city dweller can be fully satisfied. And one must admit also that only in this way is the problem of our future way of living to be solved.

The longed-for detached house in the still more longed-for garden city can never satisfy the popular need, since as a result of the pressure of economy in living expenses, of the increase and decrease in the size of families, of change of occupation and position in life, there must be constant shifting and change in the desires of the masses. The needs which arise from such changing conditions can be satisfied only by rented apartment dwellings, and never by the individual houses.

Last of all, it must be stated clearly and decisively that homes in buildings on city blocks divided into from four to six lots, each block fronting on a garden, square or park, and bounded on three sides by a street 23 meters wide, are in accord with the demands of our progressive culture, are healthy, beautiful, comfortable and cheap, and are better fitted to our demands, than those whose design is based on fundamentally false principles. To hark back to tradition, to make "expression" or picturesqueness the controlling consideration in designing homes for the man of to-day, is absurd in the light of modern experience. The number of city dwellers who to-day prefer to vanish in the mass as mere numbers on apartment doors is considerably greater than of those who care to hear the daily, "good morning, how are you" from their gossipy neighbors in single houses.

However, it is self-evident that the single dwelling will not vanish from the city plan: its presence, however, will be due to the wishes of the upper ten thousand.

The manner of life which our era has produced, will yet bring to maturity many things of which we can now form scarcely a conception; such as, for example, the movable house, the portable house erected on land leased from the city, and many others.

When it is considered that Vienna for example, in sixty years, in spite of the most favorable situation, has not produced a city plan of artistic value except Semper's outer Burgplatz (after the removal of the city gate and the remodelling of the castle) and the Schwarzenbergplatz, not altogether unobjectionable (the City Hall and Votive Church squares may be considered failures), while the Ringstrasse owes its existence to a lucky chance; and when one contrasts with this a future, artistic, rational planning and disposition of the several wards brought into systematic relations with each other, the thought must arise even in circles untouched by Art, that without that largeness of conception and breadth of vision suggested by these proposals, and without the constant hand and touch of Art upon every detail. a beautiful city can never be built.

It will not do to leave the expansion of a city to blind chance and artistic impotence as in the past, and to consider artistic efforts as superfluous, or to abandon the development of the city to the most miserable land speculations. The resulting injury to the inhabitants and government of a city is, from a politico-economical point of view, nothing short of colossal. It will continue to grow greater, for the onward march of time will make it ever more and more irreparable.

May the representatives of the people in city governments keep particularly before their eyes the fact that a great city can only fulfil its end--which is to be the satisfying dwelling place of a population counted by millions--when it is a beautiful city, and that this is only to be reached through Art.

1. "Es darf daher nicht Wunder nehmen dass die Stadtvertretungen das Anwachsen der Grossstadte fördern." I take this to mean that the representatives of every city desire the increase and expansion of their own city to metropolitan dimensions. (Witness the "Million Clubs" of certain sizable American cities).--Translator.

2. 1,300 to 2,600 acres, or about two to four square miles. This is equivalent to a population of from 58 to 77 to the acre.

3. 510 hectares, about 1,325 acres or two square miles . 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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