An early pioneer of modernism, Otto Koloman Wagner was born in 1841 in Vienna. At the age of 16, he began his architectural studies at the Technical University in Vienna. After returning from a six-month stint studying architecture in Berlin, he enrolled in Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts under architect August von Siccarsburg and Eduard van der Nüll—both of whom are credited with designing the Vienna Opera House.
In 1886, Wagner constructed a summer residence known as Villa I in Vienna. The building features a clean, modernist silhouette adorned with exuberant and rich details. With an interest in urban planning, Wagner designed a new city plan for Vienna in 1890. However, his Statbahn, including the now famous Karlsplatz Station, was the only design that was realized. Other notable buildings include the Majolica House (1898) and the Church of St. Leopold (1903-7) in the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna.
In 1896, he published Modern Architecture—inspired from his inaugural lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna two years prior—which advocated for the abandonment of 19th-century, "Belle Epoque" eclecticism in favor of a forward-facing attitude in line with modern lifestyles. Often viewed as a battle cry, Wagner had declared war on traditional, historical architectural aesthetics. His book outlines a design approach that has become synonymous with 20th-century practice, while simultaneously launching Wagner into a leadership position among the avant-garde of fin de siècle Vienna.
Anticipating the trajectory of the modern movement, Wagner’s designs harmonious synthesize form and function. Respected by high-society, Wagner’s new aesthetic was met with anger by some of his contemporaries who found his pared-back use of ornamentation to be far too austere. The Österreichische Postsparkasse, or Austrian Postal Savings Bank, (1904) is arguably Wagner’s most well known building. An excellent example of his brand of minimalistic, neoclassicism, the building took nearly a decade to plan, design, and build. The architecturally clean style of the façade is decorated only with iron studs.
Wagner passed away in 1918 in Vienna, but he forever changed the architectural landscape of Vienna and left behind a legacy that inspired many worldwide. He—along with other pioneers of modernism like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Adolf Loos, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright—forged a new path that changed the course of design history.