The 21er Haus, a milestone of the post-war period in Austrian architecture

Written by Arminé Maksudyan
Images by Arminé Maksudyan

Week 30

The 21er Haus, Museum of Contemporary Art of Vienna, is considered to be one of the milestones of the post-war period in Austrian architecture. From the moment of its erection the building went through various transformations including change of site, reinforcement of structure, adaption to functional use and the consequent spacial rearrangement. Despite all modifications the building managed to preserve its identity and remain true to its original idea – a lightweight one room exhibition space presenting Austrian present-time tendencies and contemporary art exhibitions.


The floating cube made of steel beams covered with glass envelope is firmly positioned on the urban ground of Vienna’s Schweizergarten by means of four load bearing pylons and hosts temporary and permanent Austrian art collections of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Initially designed by Karl Schwanzer in 1958 as an Austria pavilion for the Brussel’s World fair the building conveys till now the motto of EXPO 58 “Technology in the service of Man—Progress of Man by Progress in Technology” thanks to constructive design solution and an extensive use of steel girders manufactured at Austrian VOEST, one of the leading producers of steel elements up today.


Months before the project’s final realization and obtaining the Grand Prix 1958 award at the Brussels World’s Fair, the Austria pavilion was meant to be later used as the Vienna Museum of Modern Art. Similarly, in 1962 the building was reopened again, and this times as a museum of 20th century art.


Karl Schwanzer took an active part in the adaption of the newly transferred building to the site and to its current functional use by enclosing the open area bellow the floating volume into the glass walls that would preserve overall perception of indoor and outdoor spaces together with sculpture garden as cohesive whole and by introducing an additional right-angled volume including entry hall and the cinema originally designed for the pavilion with a lower level used for bathrooms, common room and cafeteria.

A particular attention of the architect was focused on the interior furniture which would complete the image of a floating spacious volume and convey the uniqueness of each area of the museum.


The museum’s sunlit exhibition hall housed the 20th century art, from classic modernism to international postwar modernism, and was hence named as 20er Haus. An important role was given to the 20th century sculpture collection exposed in the outdoor premises of the museum enhancing the established approach to the museum’s spacial organization. Permeability and flexibility of the space made it possible to present the sculpture holdings as an embodiment of recent art landscape beyond the bounds of panel painting. One of the most significant pieces among the sculpture collection was Wotruba’s work Figure Relief (1958) originally commissioned for the Brussels World’s Fair as a part of architectonic concept of the pavilion.

Right in the beginning of the 21st century the museum’s collection was moved to the Museum of Modern Art – Ludwig Foundation. In 2002, after being transferred to Belvedere, the building was in need of prompt refurbishment of the support system and an adaption to the contemporary norms of fire protection together optimization of energy use. The competition for a redesign of 20er Haus won Adolf Krischanitz, a student of Karl Schwanzer.


The major changes in the design solution can be noted from the Arsenalstrasse where a plaza on the building side got excavated to stress the entrance area and integrating the overall collection of Fritz Wotruba into the basement area. Another innovation was the construction of six-storey tower, a vertical axes which would drive a ones attention from the museum’s surrounding redeveloping urban area. Thus, in 2011 the building opened up its doors again and now as the 21er Haus, a new museum of contemporary art inviting visitors to explore Austrian art from 20th and 21st centuries contextually sheltered in the refurbished masterpiece of modernist architecture.

During photo documentation the following exhibitions were taking place:

• Edgar Knoop “subway 813”
• Oswald Oberhuber
• Abstract Loop Austria (Marc Adrian, Richard Kriesche, Helga Philipp, Gerwald Rockenschaub)