February 11, 2007
"Where the Winery Itself Is a Little Tipsy"
by CHRIS COLIN
HISTORICALLY American fans of the wildly eccentric artist and designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser have had to board a plane to get their fix. But for those who do make it to his colorful, biomorphic public housing masterpiece in his native Vienna, or to his sparkling, off-kilter incineration plant in Osaka, Japan, his revolutionary aesthetic tends not to disappoint. Trees are considered tenants and grow out of their own windows. Flat floors are forbidden; an uneven walking surface is “a melody to the feet.” Residents can lean out of their windows and paint anything within arm’s reach. The roof? A minor wilderness.
Starting this weekend Americans can get a taste of that aesthetic when the Quixote Winery in Napa Valley, the only Hundertwasser building in the country, finally opens to the public. Another place to swirl a glass in Northern California would scarcely be news, but this is not just another place. Tucked up in the golden hills, away from the stately villas and incongruously ornate mansions, sits what might seem the creation of a beautifully demented child.
“People either love it or they think it’s the nuttiest thing they’ve ever seen,” says Carl Doumani, owner of the Quixote and the man responsible for bringing Hundertwasser’s vision to California. “But I watch them coming up the path, and I can see them smiling. And that’s the whole idea.”
Or at least much of the idea. The whimsy of a Hundertwasser building belies a strident philosophy of ecology and personal freedom. Born in Vienna in 1928, Hundertwasser began exploring these themes as a painter in the late 1940s. It wasn’t until the 80s that, as an influential artist and thinker, he began bringing his revolutionary notions to life in architectural form. He lived his later years in New Zealand, where he died in 2000 at 71. He was buried under a tulip tree. Just a handful of buildings had been built.
If “the straight line is godless,” as Hundertwasser famously said, the Quixote is a megachurch. Floors curve and roll. Trees rise from the 30 inches of soil covering the roof. No two windows are alike. Found material and assorted organic forms cover the surfaces. Outside, starlings nest atop the majestic dome over Mr. Doumani’s office. (Where they proceed to sully the German gold leaf, he likes to point out, “Birds have absolutely no respect for Hundertwasser.”)
With the Quixote as with Hundertwasser’s entire oeuvre, the aim is to show us that our structures, and by extension our lives, needn’t fit so tidily on the grid nor exist so far afield from nature. When Mr. Doumani, founder of the Stags’ Leap Winery, began considering designs for a second, smaller operation in 1988, he didn’t have this concept in mind. Then, while sitting in the office of a San Francisco architect one day, he spotted a calendar of Hundertwasser’s prints.
“You know,” he recalls saying, “this is more what I’m looking for.”
Mr. Doumani tracked Hundertwasser down that summer and arranged to meet him in Vienna. What he found was an activist as much as an artist, his causes ranging from public transportation to public toilets in New Zealand, license-plate beautification to peace in the Middle East.
He was, as the artist’s manager, Joram Harel, put it, “a completely free person.” He had given himself a new name. He was born Friedrich Stowasser — Friedensreich translates as “liberty kingdom,” Hundertwasser as “hundred waters” — and later tacked on Regentag, or “rainy day,” for good measure. He had delivered lectures in the nude. He had spent several years on a 60-year-old wooden freighter he had purchased in Sicily. He lived on mush made from 100-pound sacks of wheat.
Mr. Doumani, himself one of Napa’s freer souls, took to him instantly.
The two began discussing what the winery might look like, and the job was under way. Since Hundertwasser lacked formal training, an architect in Vienna helped coordinate plans with another in Napa. (Hundertwasser’s initial suggestion of burying the whole thing underground did not go far. “This is California,” Mr. Doumani told him. “We have sunshine, we like to be outside.”)
In the years to follow Hundertwasser and Mr. Doumani each crossed the ocean to see the other four or five times, in addition to sending numerous notes and revisions by mail. The job, executed somewhat sporadically, took almost a decade, and in 1999 Quixote produced its first vintage.
Mr. Doumani says he has since long since lost track of what the entire project cost. “Certainly twice as much as a regular winery,” he’s willing to guess. Nothing was simple.
He recalls trying to find a craftsman who could produce Hundertwasser’s trademark tile columns, which in shape and color resemble giant necklace beads. Nobody in the United States could meet the specifications because the lead paint that gave his colors their earthiness was prohibited. Mr. Doumani’s search took him to Germany, where he at last found someone to do the job. The designs were sent off, the elaborate columns were built and shipped, and, miraculously, the fragile creations arrived intact. Mr. Doumani installed them and proudly showed them off at Hundertwasser’s next visit.
Hundertwasser promptly picked up a hammer, stepped up to the nearest column and shattered it. Doumani’s jaw hung at roughly knee level.
“If they don’t see we use broken materials, they’ll never know,” Hundertwasser said. The hammer would later go to work on a few of the floor tiles too.
While Hundertwasser’s creations grew out of precise theories — that mechanization was killing modern homes, for instance — he specialized in buildings that didn’t require a degree in architecture to appreciate. It generally helped not to have one.
“Architects hated his buildings,” said Nicholas de Monchaux, assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, whose work focuses on the intersection of ecology and design. “They were preoccupied with function and urban redevelopment” in the 1980s, he added. “Furry, dirty buildings don’t fit into that.”
Reinforcing that disdain was the impression that Hundertwasser was a kitsch populist (he took issue with those who belittled the so-called low desires of the people), a flouter of popular Modernist ideals (he likened conformity within the movement to slavery) and an unschooled interloper.
“The critics said, ‘This is not architecture, this is a three-dimensional manifesto,’ ” Mr. Harel said. “Well, Hundertwasser agreed. He just wanted to show that the soul perishes in all these traditional buildings, and it’s especially dangerous because you don’t feel it happening. He felt the hidden longing of people to live differently.”
His efforts to make these points occasionally misfired. In 1982 Hundertwasser found himself speaking in the San Francisco offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of America’s largest architecture firms. Illustrating a point about how tenants should be free to leave their own mark on their dwellings, he grabbed a knife and began carving a design on the nearest wall. His point was not appreciated, and he later received a sizable bill for the damaged plaster.
(Mr. Doumani insists architects even threw food at him during one of his lectures, but Mr. Harel disputes that: “Who brings food to a lecture?”)
Meanwhile the public — in Europe, anyway — couldn’t get enough. But Hundertwasser shunned the praise, insisting he was a dilettante and not an architect. “I’m not good,” Mr. Harel recalls him saying. “It’s just that the others are so bad.”
He was rebuked mercilessly for suggesting that architects should put their egos aside and work instead to coax out their clients’ personal visions. He was equally emphatic about drawing out the creativity of the laborers on his projects, Mr. Doumani said.
He continued: “The genius of the guy is, he brings the craftsmen into the process. He always asks, ‘What would you do here?’ And they’d be proud of their choices. On weekends the carpenters, tile guys and plasterers working on the job — they’d be here with their wives or girlfriends, showing them what they’re working on.”
The Quixote, which recently received a land-use permit allowing visitors, isn’t likely to see the million or so visitors that the Hundertwasserhaus, his Vienna public housing project, receives each year. The winery is considerably smaller and lacks the social resonance. More environmentally sophisticated architecture can certainly be found. Still, after viewing any of his creations, one tends to wonder why more buildings don’t look like this.
“Builders will tell you it costs too much, but they’re just looking at its up-front costs,” said Harry Rand, senior curator of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution and author of “Hundertwasser,” a biography and consideration of the artist’s work. “A Hundertwasser-type building is built with an indefinite lifetime.”
Mr. Rand also asserts that the contentment of such a building’s residents translates to other economic benefits. Tenants of the Vienna housing project get sick less often, and their children perform better in school, he says.
Mr. de Monchaux, the Berkeley professor, contends that contemporary architecture has taken steps toward Hundertwasser-like irreverence. With the digital manufacturing of architectural components and computer-controlled steel-bending machines, wacky shapes are suddenly possible, he said.
Still, he concedes this isn’t quite what Hundertwasser was agitating for. His enthusiasm for rounded and irregular forms grew out of a desire to connect with nature and to tease out the natural creativity of builders and dwellers.
Teasing it out of a computer might well have him rolling over under his tulip tree.