Escapes and dreamscapes

Everyone should be able to build,” wrote Karl Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), “and as long as this freedom to build does not exist, the present-day planned architecture cannot be considered art at all.”

Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1964

Hundertwasser was a singular artist, a proto-environmentalist and what could best be termed an “anti-architect”. He believed mankind was living under a tyranny of straight lines (he suggested being caught with a ruler should be reason to be fined), and that our environment was imposed on us by a bureaucracy intent on stripping away our ability to express ourselves. He proposed that we should all have the right to alter our environments, to build our own houses, to paint our own external walls or to mosaic our paths. Someone living in a banal apartment block, he suggested, “must have the freedom to lean out of his window and, as far as his arms can reach, transform the exterior of his dwelling space. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and ... paint everything pink, so that from far away, from the street, everyone can see: there lives a man who distinguishes himself from his neighbours, the pent-up livestock!”

A fountain at the front of Hundertwasser house

Hundertwasser looked to precursors including Antoni Gaudí, the architects of art nouveau and, perhaps most important of all, Le Facteur Cheval. Cheval (1836-1924) was a postman who spent 33 years of his life building his “Palais Ideal” in his native Drôme. The building has become a symbol of outsider art, a mad cocktail of concrete palm trees and clunky sculptures, of intense detail and naive ambition. This is architecture without architects, a kind of anti-modernist ideal in which instead of decoration being stripped away, decoration is all that’s left. It is quite a brilliant concoction, a building that seems to exude a kind of universal architectural spirit that encompasses, somehow unconsciously, motifs from gothic, Buddhist, Mughal and Hindu temples, classicism and Renaissance and, more than anything, a dripping grotto of stalactites and stalagmites. It is artifice meeting nature minced through geology.

Ferdinand Cheval's 'Palais Ideal', which he spent 33 years building

The surrealists loved the work of the moustachioed postman. His creation became a manifestation of their ideas of building as a concretised dream. There are sculpted, attenuated giants, urns, inscriptions, columns, grottoes and carved temples, it is escape and dreamscape.

Cheval himself attributed the building’s genesis to a strange-shaped stone he stumbled upon by accident. That stone, a curiously layered, stratified lump, is stuck to the side of the building and its status as an object of contemplation reflects the Chinese tradition of scholars’ stones (gongshi) as a focus for meditation. In this way, the building becomes an extension of the object for contemplation and it is all about exterior. And of course, this is not a real house; it is a pavilion, a sandcastle, an art object but a fantasy palace nevertheless.

A postcard showing his 'Palais Ideal'

The Hundertwasser House in Vienna is very much a dwelling, or rather a block of dwellings. Hundertwasser has been consistently dismissed as kitsch, and he is noticeably absent from architectural histories. Instead, his place has been in tourist brochures and on bastardised designs for ugly scarves and jewellery. Yet, like Cheval, his message is that building can be wrenched from the professionals and creativity brought back in.

A statue of Ferdinand Cheval

The building is in Vienna’s Landstrasse district and was designed by a conventional architect with Hundertwasser’s involvement from the outset (and he was suitably alarmed at its squared-off windows and walls). The floors are crooked and undulating like a colourful river, the roofs are covered in grass and trees. There are the artist’s signature columns with bulbous silvered bellies and ceramic rings; there are patches of mosaic like outbreaks of architectural acne; there are wonky stairwells and onion domes as well as painted plaster and raw brickwork blended into a patchwork of colour and texture.

Central staircase in Hundertwasser house

This is the Vienna of Adolf Loos and Ludwig Wittgenstein, of the origins of serious modernism and the stripping back of decoration and its condemnation as an aberration. What both Cheval and Hundertwasser have so successfully done is to engage with joy. Both these buildings embody a pleasure in creativity that can be lacking in conventional architecture. There is a strand in design – or perhaps in anti-design – of the kitsch and the explosively creative that constitutes an alternative history. It embraces a few more mainstream figures, most notably anything by Gaudí and Terunobu Fujimori’s wonderfully whacky tree houses, but it also crops up in sites that have become shrines across the world. There is, for instance, Cano’s Castle in Antonito, Colorado. This Munsters house, with its towers covered in beer cans and hubcaps, is a kind of American dream of a culture built from the remnants of consumption. It was conceived by Vietnam veteran Donald “Cano” Espinoza as a shrine of thanks for Espinoza having survived the war and, as it sparkles in the harsh western light, it is as sophisticated an artwork and a critique as you will see in any gallery.

Bottles sealed into the wall at the entrance to Hundertwasser house

France seems to be particularly susceptible. There is Raymond Isidore’s crockery-covered house in Chartres, the wonderful work of a graveyard sweeper who, when released from mental hospital, set about decorating his house with broken ceramics and creating a magical microcosmic dream city. Then there is Robert Tatin’s mosaic house, a sculpture park in Cossé-le-Vivien, a fantasy landscape cobbled together from Pacific and Colombian motifs and huge Mannerist monsters. But the postman’s palace remains the main attraction. It is, along with Hundertwasser’s wonky urbanism, one of the wonders of an alternative architectural history.

The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln (£12.99)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.