Josef Frank

Architect, Austria
Josef Frank was among the leading Austrian representatives of the Modern movement.
He was a founding member of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne
(CIAM), and, as vice president of the Austrian Werkbund, he oversaw the planning and
construction of the 1932 Vienna Werkbundsiedlung. In the early 1930s, however, Frank
emerged as one of the most important and vocal critics of what he saw as the totalitarian
orthodoxy within the various strands of modernism. For the remainder of his life, until he
stopped practicing in the early 1960s, he sought alternatives to what he perceived as the
banality and uniformity of much of the building of his time.
Frank studied architecture with Carl König, Max Fabiani, and others at the Vienna
Technische Hochschule, graduating in 1910 with a dissertation on the churches of Leon
Battista Alberti. While still a student, he flirted briefly with the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil),
but he soon abandoned the style in favor of the renewed historical eclecticism that
dominated much of Central European design in the period after 1905. Around 1909 Frank
formed a partnership with two of his former classmates from the Technische Hochschule,
Oskar Strnad and Oskar Wlach. Together, the three young architects specialized in
houses and interiors for the city’s haute bourgeois ie. In the period just prior to 1914, Frank realized
several houses, mostly notably the Scholl House (1913–14), which, despite its lingering
neoclassicism, showed marked parallels with Adolf Loos’s stark pre war villas. Frank,
however, was much more radical in the composition of his facades and furnishings,
which often relied on complex and asymmetrical arrangements.
After World War I, Frank devoted himself to finding solutions to Vienna’s severe
housing shortage. In the early 1920s he designed a series of housing projects in and
around Vienna that were based on the ideas of reduction and repetition. Frank’s early
postwar works continued to draw on historical precedents, but by 1921 he began to
develop a simplified form language, one that reflected the growing development of s achlich
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 890
(objective) architecture throughout Central Europe. This was especially evident in
Frank’s designs for several apartment buildings for the Vienna municipality, including
the Wiedenhofer-Hof (1924—25) and the Winarsky-Hof (1924–26). The housing blocks,
which were published in many of the leading international architectural journals of the
time, brought Frank increasing notoriety and led to an invitation from Ludwig Mies van
der Rohe to participate in the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart.
Frank’s contribution to the Weissenhof exhibition, a double house, was widely lauded
for its straightforward appearance and innovative constructional ideas. Frank’s colorful
and florid interiors, however, which included furnishings and textiles from his shop Haus
and Garten (House and Garden; founded in 1925 with Wlach), drew strong criticism from
many of the other participants and observers who condemned them for being
“conservative,” “feminine,” “obtrusive,” and “middle class.” Frank responded to the
charges in an article titled “Der Gschnas fürs G’mut und der Gschnas als Problem”
(“Frippery for the Soul and Frippery as a Problem”), in which he argued that the strippeddown,
functionalist style of the radical modernists simply did not respond to most
people’s psychological needs. He repeated these criticisms in his book Archi tektur als Symbol: Elemente deuts chen Neuen Bauens (1931;
[Architecture as Symbol: Elements of German Modern Architecture]). Many of Frank’s
subsequent designs similarly constituted immanent responses to the modernist vanguard.
Because of the poor state of the Austrian economy in the postwar period, Frank was
able to realize only a handful of residences for private clients, the most import of which
was the Villa Beer (1928–30) in Vienna. Like Loos’s famed Raumplan (space plan) houses of the
1920s and early 1930s, the three-and-a half-story residence consisted of intricate
arrangement of inter-locking volumes on different levels, and it stands, along with Loos’s
Müller House and Mies’ Tugendhat House, as one of the most significant modernist
explorations of the possibilities of a new spatial ordering.
In 1933, in response to the Nazi seizure of power in Germany and the growth of anti-
Semitism in Austria, Frank immigrated to Sweden and settled in Stockholm, where he
became the chief designer for the interior design firm Svenskt Tenn. He continued to
produce designs for houses into the early 1960s, but increasingly after 1937 he devoted
himself to furniture design, churning out hundreds of ideas for chairs, tables, and cabinets
as well as textiles, rugs, and other objects for the home. The softened, cozy eclecticism
that Frank developed in his designs for Svenskt Tenn was widely admired and imitated
throughout Scandinavia and contributed to the rise of what later became known as
Swedish or Scandinavian modern design.
From 1941 to 1946, Frank lived in New York City, but he was unable to establish
himself in the United States, and he returned to Sweden and resumed his work for
Svenskt Tenn. Frank continued to reflect on the problems of modern architecture,
however, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s he produced a series of designs for houses
based on the principles of nonorthogonal geometry and chance ordering. He spelled out
these ideas in a manifesto titled “Accidentism,” which was published in the Swedish
design review Fo rm in 1958. By that time, Frank was largely a forgotten figure, and his bold
proposals attracted little attention. Many of his ideas for an architecture of complexity
and contradiction, however, presaged the rise of Postmodernism in the 1960s.

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