Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1951), the philosopher, was a perfectionist in all things. From 1926-28 he helped to design a large, modern house on Kundmangasse, Vienna for his sister, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. Although the initial designs were by his architect friend Paul Engelmann, Wittgenstein gradually took over and completed the project with the same obsessiveness he displayed in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations.
Interest in Wittgenstein has grown in recent years, largely because he epitomises the role of the tortured genius. To his careers as aero-engineer, war hero, primary schoolteacher, hospital porter and of course, philosopher, we can now add architect. A new and richly illustrated book by Paul Wijdeveld, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Architect (Thames and Hudson, pounds 45), examines the house that Ludwig built.
On the surface, the crisp, white house seems calm, ordered and logical. Looked at more closely, it is as manically obsessive as Wittgenstein's moral extremism. It eschews, for example, all forms of decoration. Wittgenstein abhorred ornament, a revulsion he shared with the hugely influential Viennese architect Adolf Loos.
Loos was very much a part of the Wittgenstein family's circle in Vienna and the philosopher was much influenced by the ascetic architect's famous essay Ornament und Verbrechen, in which he linked ornament with criminality. Wittgenstein's views on the same subject were uncompromising to the point of unkindness. He condemned the flower arrangements of the only woman he had anything like a mature relationship with. He also made her give up painting (he told her that she was not good enough) and persuaded her to get a humble job in order that she might think about the way she ought to live.
He was hard on himself, too. Indeed, the chance to design the house for his sister rescued him from a deep moral crisis following his failure as a schoolteacher (he was too strict with the pupils). …