Artwork of the Month, May 2019: The Berghaus on the Hahnenkamm by Clemens Holzmeister (1929-1930)

Less than 100km east from the Tyrolean regional capital Innsbruck is Kitzbühel, a town with a reputation for expensive ski tourism in the Austrian alps and the related Hahnenkammrennen, an annual fixture in the men’s World Cup since 1931.

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Johannes Troyer: Tyrol (Poster), c. 1930 – photo: www.austrianposters.at

Kitzbühel rose to prominence as a hotspot for wealthy tourists in the mid-1920s, initiated to a large part by the painter and architect Alfons Walde (1891-1958), who helped to develop the town as a ‘brand’ for glamorous winter sports. Along with the rising number of tourists also came the necessity for hotels and holiday homes to host them, offering varied work for architects, from modest family homes to large hotels for mass tourism. And while within Kitzbühel the Heimatschutzbund (‘the organisation for the protection of the homeland’) did not allow the realisation of modernist building projects to protect the town’s traditional image, on the Hahnenkamm mountain architectural production was much less restrictive: made accessible by a funicular railway, planned by Walde in 1927, a private retreat on the mountain top, built according to the latest standards, could become a reality for those able to afford it.

The Berghaus (mountain house) by the architect Clemens Holzmeister (1886-1983) represents one of the best-known examples of these alpine retreats, joining modern living with local building traditions at the hands of Austria’s most prolific figure of conservative modernist architecture.

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Clemens Holzmeister: Berghaus on the Hahnenkamm, Kitzbühel, Tirol, 1929-1930 – photo © Archiv für Baukunst, Universität Innsbruck

Born near Innsbruck, Holzmeister first rose to prominence in the early 1920s, when his plans were chosen for the construction of Austria’s first Crematorium in Vienna in 1923. Holzmeister’s longstanding commitment to the Norica Burschenschaft, a Catholic-conservative student organisation with a vast network to the highest instances of government, subsequently secured him prominent professional positions. By 1934, he was intimately linked to the Austro-fascist regime. In the course of the interwar years, Holzmeister not only built a reputation as church architect, professor at Vienna’s academy, and stage designer (most notably for the ‘Fauststadt’ at the 1933 Salzburg Festival), but also organised the International German Catholic Day in Vienna in 1933 and, from 1927 onwards, completed several projects for the new Turkish government led by Kemal Atatürk.[1] While Holzmeister is barely known outside Austria today, his contributions were significant in relation to both public and private building projects of interwar reactionary modernism, a facet of modernism that still sits uneasy within the narrative of modern art for its precarious politics. In this light, Holzmeister’s Berghaus should be understood not only as an example for modern alpine architecture, but also as a model for a conservative politics, which permeated all aspects of life.

Initially, the Berghaus was conceived as part of Walde’s ambitious plan to establish an artist’s colony on the Hahnenkamm, named ‘Hochkitzbühel’, which, however, never materialised.[2] Built for his own family between 1929 and 1930, the Berghaus showed Holzmeister’s interpretation of modern life in the Alps. At once located in a natural landscape at 1800 meters above sea level and well-connected by means of the funicular railway, it invoked skiing holidays and tourism as much as closeness to nature and an escape from the pressures of urban life. More than just a holiday home, it represented an ideal of modern alpine living that stood for harmony with nature, for belonging – and for a comfortable standard of living amid a bucolic landscape that matched a conservative, bourgeois way of life.

Holzmeister’s design combined local forms of building with the functionalist tradition of modern Viennese architecture of the pre-war era. As early as 1913, Adolf Loos wrote: ‘Do not build in a picturesque manner. Leave this effect to the walls, the mountains and the sun. A man dressing in a picturesque manner is not picturesque but a buffoon. A farmer does not dress in a picturesque manner – but he is.’[3] Built almost two decades later, the Berghaus translates Loos’s description into architectural form.

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Clemens Holzmeister: Berghaus on the Hahnenkamm, Kitzbühel, Tirol, 1929-1930 – photo © Archiv für Baukunst, Universität Innsbruck

Using the most dominant local building material, wood, and placing the structure onto a white brick wall, the building recalls the traditional housing of Tyrol’s farming communities without falling back on romanticising visions of a Heimatstil architecture. Instead, the geometric l-shape firmly references functionalist design, while the flat roof recalls Loos’ emphasis on the practical concerns of building in the mountains, permitting the safe clearing of snow in adverse weather conditions. The building exterior regionalises a functional approach to building design. Yet, while offering formal continuity between pre- and post-war approaches to modern architecture, the Berghaus was built in line with a view of life looking back rather than forward.

The use of a wooden structure was of particular importance for Holzmeister in his aims to create a modern architecture which related to a tradition through its reference to local conditions and building material. In 1934 he published Der Holzhausbau (‘Housebuilding in Wood’), in which he drew upon the Berghaus as a best practice example for using wood in modern architecture. Writing from a position of support for the Austro-fascist regime, he argued that the material held the strongest potential to rejuvenate building in an Austria shaken from the economic crisis, because it could feed and house a local population at little financial effort, if used correctly. In line with a reactionary modernism that responded to the state ideology of the Dollfuß regime installed in 1934, Holzmeister emphasised an updated use of traditional building practices to create harmony between architecture and nature. The Berghaus, in this sense, became an archetype for a modern and regionally-rooted style of building, whose significance was reassigned from representing regional Tyrol Modernism in the late 1920s to Austrian architecture at large during Austro-fascism.

In Holzhausbau, Holzmeister particularly praised the Wohnkultur (the culture of living) in Tyrol, which he based on the fact that difficult weather conditions favoured a homely and cosy interior.[4] In his own Berghaus, this ‘coziness’ took shape in the form of two bathrooms, electricity, a telephone line, and an intelligent heating system.[5] Despite its remote location therefore, the Berghaus was a bourgeois dream, where one did not have to do without any of the comforts of urban life.

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Photo Scherb: ‘Living Room for a Ski Chalet. Design: Architect Z.V. Baurat Prof. Dr. h.c. Clemens Holzmeister’, Die Bühne, Vol. 6 No. 265 (5 December 1929), p. 17. – photo © Austrian National Library, Vienna

Shown in the images by Julius Scherb, who photographed a number of Holzmeister’s building designs, the interior was strikingly simple and functional ­– and almost entirely made of wood, exemplifying how traditional building material could be used in an updated fashion. Importantly, the house also included a so-called Herrgottswinkel, a place in traditional Catholic households, where a rosary was kept, usually in a corner and decorated with a crucifix and icons. A bench below provided a place for prayer in the home. Representing both devout Catholicism and alpine tradition, the Herrgottswinkel realised Holzmeister’s emphasis on community in Catholic belief.

In 1933, he pronounced the importance of Catholicism to modern art in an essay for the magazine Moderne Welt, claiming that it was the architect’s duty to be led by Catholic sentiment to respond to ‘what the time and people required’.[6] Using monastery architecture as an example, Holzmeister suggested that a whole array of buildings should serve the catholic community to support an ‘education towards Christian culture’.[7] With an emphasis on a return to medieval Catholic traditions, Holzmeister argued that this spirit ought to be incapsulated into modern design to work for the new circumstances of the twentieth century. The Herrgottswinkel in the Berghaus thus served as an example of the way in which the return to an ‘essence’ of belief and of tradition could be incorporated into modern design. Physically bringing people together in a place of prayer outside a sacral building, it emphasised the place and importance of Catholicism in the modern home, forming conservative ideals of living that went hand in hand with an increasing tendency towards the political right in Austria by the late 1920s.

The interior of the Berghaus was shown at the Künstlerhaus’ Christmas exhibition in Vienna in 1929, emphasising its representative function as a modern interior within this context. In his review for Die Bühne, art historian Wolfgang Born noted:

Holzmeister exhibits the interior of the skiing hut that he builds for himself in the mountains. With this exercise, the down-to-earthness (Bodenständigkeit) of his talent comes to the fore at its most beautiful. One could not imagine anything more cosy, simple and warm than these small, wood-clad parlours.[8]

The emphasis on down-to-earthness, simplicity and warmth recall a cosy feeling reminiscent of contemporary ideas of Heimat as a place where one could feel safe and at ease. Down-to-earthness was a word used to describe Holzmeister’s work particularly frequently, combined with ‘simplicity’. These descriptors marked him as a rural architect, someone linked to local tradition – and someone who had the potential to construct an architecture of Heimat. Having brought the Berghaus interior from high up the mountains to the city at the Christmas exhibition, the architect’s qualities as someone deeply anchored in the rural traditions of his regional origins was emphasised and manifested.

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Franz von Zülow: Haus Holzmeister am Hahnenkamm Kitzbühel, 1931, mixed technique with oil on wood, 25 x 19.5 x 3 cm (Private collection) – photo: https://www.mutualart.com

A particularly colourful visual interpretation of Holzmeister as a modern Heimat architect from the time is an expressionist oil painting by Franz von Zülow, who also produced a series of watercolours for the Berghaus interior. Titled House Holzmeister at the Hahnenkamm (1931), the painting shows the house as an ideal family home, in which Holzmeister’s wife Judith watches as a peripheral figure from the balcony, while the children Judith and Guido train animals and wax skiers amid an abundant natural landscape with freely roaming animals. Further aback, Holzmeister watches over the scene. Cheerful and in bright colours, Zülow’s painting confirms the idealised cultural context of the Berghaus. Traditional family life in harmony with nature, modern yet grounded in the alpine landscape, Zülow places the Berghaus into a Heimat scene that represented a reactionary fantasy, shrouded in modernist form.

Zülow’s interpretation thereby closely matched Holzmeister’s design of the house itself in that, formally, it was grounded in the early twentieth century, while its essence was determined by a sense of nostalgia and tradition. Both the building and its painterly interpretation emphasise tradition within rather than in opposition to modernity and modern life. Recalling a sense of Heimat and down-to-earthness, Holzmeister’s Tyrolean Modernism served as a reassuring place of renewal. Not least, however, this idealisation of a nostalgic homeland also gave rise to a conservative culture that could easily be adopted by Austria’s right-wing regime of the 1930s.

Julia Secklehner

[1] See: Wilfried Posch, Clemens Holzmeister: Architekt Zwischen Kunst Und Politik (Salzburg and Vienna: Müry Salzmann, 2010).

[2] Wolfgang Machreich, ‘Alfons Walde, der Architekt vom Hahnenkamm,’ Wiener Zeitung, 26 January 2019. Available online at:  https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/reflexionen/vermessungen/1014624-Alfons-Walde-der-Architekt-vom-Hahnenkamm.html?em_no_split=1 (accessed 16 May 2019).

[3] ‘Baue nicht malerisch. Überlasse solche Wirkung den Mauern, den Bergen und der Sonne. Der Mensch, der sich malerisch kleidet, ist nicht malerisch, sondern ein Hans-Wurst. Der Bauer kleidet sich nicht malerisch. Aber er ist es.’ Adolf Loos, ‘Regeln für den der am Berge baut (1913),’ in Loos, Sämtliche Schriften in Zwei Bänden, ed. Franz Glück (Vienna and Munich: Herold, 1962), p. 329.

[4] Clemens Holzmeister, Der Holzhausbau (Vienna: Österr. Holzwirtschaftsrat, 1934), p. 10.

[5] Peter Rigele, ‘Clemens Holzmeister,’ in 100: One Hundred Houses for One Hundred European Architects of the Twentieth Century, ed. Gennaro Postiglion et al (London: Taschen, 2004), pp. 172-75.

[6] Clemens Holzmeister, ‘Das katholische in der modernen Kunst,Moderne Welt XIV.12 (1933), p. 16.

[7] Op. cit., p. 17.

[8] ‘Holzmeister hat das Innere einer Skihütte ausgestellt, die er sich im Gebirge baut. Bei dieser Aufgabe kommt dir Bodenständigkeit seines Talents aufs schönste zur Geltung. Man kann sich nichts Behaglicheres, Schlichteres und Wärmeres vorstellen, als diese kleinen, holzgetäfelten Stuben.’ Wolfgang Born, ‘Weihnachtsschau im Künstlerhaus,’ Die Bühne, 265 (1920), p. 19.

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