Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse – the Austrian Postal Savings Bank building – is an architectural icon of world renown. It ranks among Vienna’s most prominent buildings and is rightly regarded as a key milestone in the transition between historicism and modernism. Built in two phases between 1904 and 1912, the Postsparkasse became one of the most celebrated buildings designed by Wagner (1841–1918) and epitomized in its key elements – from the façade to the interior design – the architect’s vision that “what is impractical can never be beautiful”. An ideal combination, he would argue, of the functional and the aesthetically pleasing.
SIGNA acquired the architectural showpiece of Vienna’s historic centre, known as the “first district”, at the end of 2013. After the present tenant BAWAG P.S.K. leaves, the plan is to have an appropriate occupancy mix, which may include, among other tenants, a hotel. SIGNA is currently conducting a comprehensive assessment of the property, working in close collaboration with the Federal Monuments Authority Austria. Given its past as the head office of BAWAG P.S.K., office space is likely to play a part in the Postsparkasse’s future as well.
History of the Postsparkasse
The Österreichische Postsparkasse, which was founded by Georg Coch in 1883, started a major expansion of its branch network at the turn of the 20th century and the subsequent growth made it necessary to relocate to a larger building. An open tender for the design of the “k.k. Postsparcassen-Amtsgebäude”, as the building was then known, launched in February 1903. The jury met three times to evaluate the 37 projects submitted and quickly tapped Otto Wagner’s design as the winner. Legend has it that at the opening ceremony for the main hall in 1906, Emperor Franz Joseph remarked, “It is uncanny how well people fit in the building.” Rare praise from an emperor who was known to prefer the traditional architecture of Vienna’s Ringstraße boulevard.
An iron-clad treasure chest
Achieving functionality without sacrificing high aesthetic standards became Otto Wagner’s modus operandi. His design of the interior of the Postsparkasse building bucked conventions with an entrance hall bathed in natural light. The façade design succeeded in conveying a symbolic message as well: the iron-clad treasure chest as an archetype for safe storage of the clients’ money.
Otto Wagner’s architecture
Compared to the other buildings Wagner completed during this period, the style of his Post Office Savings Bank is rigorously modern and functional. The facade is clad in weather-proof granite and marble panels, and non-rusting aluminium is used inside and out: for the railings and the decorative figures on the roof and for the hot air vents in the main banking hall. When the Post Office Saving Bank is compared with the two private residences that Wagner designed, it quickly becomes clear that the eclectic Austrian art nouveau style has been supplanted by Wagner’s vision of a new, functional world. The Post Office Saving Bank, part work of art and part commercial premises, continues to provide an inviting and attractive working environment more than 100 years after it was completed.
The bank as a backdrop for culture
Art and culture have always been closely linked to the Postsparkasse. On the 100th anniversary of the building’s unveiling in 2005, the BAWAG P.S.K. opened the permanent exhibit “WAGNER:WERK Museum Postal Savings Bank”. The exhibit in the smaller hall displays historic photographs, documents, blueprints and an architectural model. As the new owners of the Postsparkasse building, SIGNA is committed to keeping the WAGNER:WERK Museum Postal Savings Bank open for the hundreds of people who visit the museum every week as well as the many art history and architecture students from all over the world.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Otto Wagner’s death, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art hosted a special exhibit entitled “POST OTTO WAGNER: From the Postal Savings Bank to Postmodernism” in 2018. A number of items on loan from the Postsparkasse – as well as the actual building itself – featured prominently in the exhibit.
Pop-up photography festival
The Postsparkasse building will once again be the site of a major (albeit temporary) cultural happening during the new photography festival in Vienna: FOTO WIEN. As the lead sponsor of the festival, SIGNA has allowed FOTO WIEN to use the Postsparkasse as the main location for the two-and-a-half-week event. Activities from photo exhibits and installations to a photobook market, portfolio reviews and an awards ceremony will take place at the Postsparkasse starting 20 March 2019. The festival will also host an international forum with workshops, symposia, lectures and discussion panels on various themes associated with photography.