WEEKEND — Home Front: The Art of Living in a Museum Piece — It Wasn’t Easy Renting Out a Building Designed by Eccentric Artist Hundertwasser
By Rhea Wessel
Dow Jones Newswires

The Wall Street Journal Europe

(Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

BAD SODEN, Germany — Iris Tarlatt and her husband Juergen are enamored by the work of late Austrian artist Freidensreich Hundertwasser. But they don’t own any of his paintings. The Tarlatts don’t need to. They live in an apartment house designed by the artist, and every time they peer out their living-room window, or breakfast on the balcony or step into their kitchen, they are treated to a personal Hundertwasser portrait.

Juergen, an electrician with his own company, and Iris, a designer, moved into the Bad Soden Hundertwasser apartment house three years ago. They are the first owners of the apartment, which stood empty for four years. Two-year-old Max has free rein in their 145-square-meter place, and Iris is hoping the sensory-enlivening Hundertwasser style is working its way into her son’s subconscious.

“I certainly hope it is affecting him,” she says.

Some people might actually describe the Hundertwasser style as child-like or child-inspired. Brightly colored with bumps and curves and crooked lines, Hundertwasser declared war on the straight line in his art and word. He considered straight lines and their half-sisters — the 90-degree angle perpetuators of anarchy. The soul needs to be close to nature, even in cities, and nature is imperfect, inaccurate and nearly void of perpendicular straightness, he believed.

As one might imagine, Hundertwasser’s philosophy causes a few problems when it’s time to build a house with unsquared corners or furnish a room with sloping walls.

Wolfgang Wachendorff, the builder of the house, says that Hundertwasser even got into a fight with one of the bricklayers working on the building. When touring the construction site, the bearded artist noticed the mason was using a level, and he grabbed it from him, banning it from the site.

Buyers’ regulations only prohibit changes to the facade, so Hundertwasser had to leave the interior design up to owners. The Tarlatts, unlike most of their neighbors, have done a fair deal of remodeling to the inside of their Hundertwasser home. The Austrian artist’s country heritage was particularly evident in his original choices. He placed wood-burning stoves in the family rooms, and walls wear rough-hewn textures, much like you would see at an Alpine lodge.

The Tarlatts wanted a more sleek style, so they finished the walls smooth and painted them in lightened primary colors. With Juergen’s skilled hand, they moved electrical heating units and painted them bright yellow and red to compliment the color-play outside. The kitchen was custom fitted to the slanted walls. And the family exchanged the rustic heater for a modern, wood-burning one, and set signature Hundertwasser tiles all around it.

The artist believed life is a mosaic — something complete that is made from shards of broken experience. Most of his works bring this philosophy into account.

Multicolored tile shards cover the steps of the stairwell leading to the third-floor Herman home in Bad Soden. Though made of cement, the stairs are formed to sag slightly in the middle, giving the impression they were crafted out of wood.

Last year, Aniek Herman, 13, was running up the stairs when she tripped, fell and cut her finger on a layer of grout along the edge of the tiled steps. She’s got a pimple-like knot of a scar to show for it.

Other than the tile and its rough edges, she can’t think of any other elements that make life in a Hundertwasser house different from elsewhere. Even the colors, onion domes and plants in unexpected places don’t strike her anymore.

“You just get used to it,” she said. Her family has lived here for six years, and grandma owns an apartment in a different stairwell.

The city of Bad Soden wasn’t willing to just get used to some elements of the apartment house, however. The city tried unsuccessfully to get Mr. Wachendorff to take up one of the signature bumpy pathways. It considers the uneven public walkway a hazard to pedestrians.

At one point, the Hundertwasser house was a pivotal part of the spa town’s plan to gain more tourism. The city agreed to let the builder erect the structure at the edge of the city park on land intended to be left undeveloped. But now the town seems somewhat disappointed by the lack of visitors.

Kurt A. Bender, Bad Soden’s Burgermeister, said some passersby stop to appreciate the house, but it isn’t drawing busloads of tourists from nearby Frankfurt.

“It didn’t fulfill our fears that we would have to deal with hundreds of thousands of tourists,” he said.

Some owners of the 21 apartments, which range in price from 500,000 marks (255,650 euros) to 1,5 million marks, aren’t so disappointed by the lack of tour-bus traffic. Living in a work of art comes with the hazard of gawking passersby, flash photography and pesty reporters.

As he watched his dream being built stone by stone, Mr. Wachendorff had to deal with more problems than upset city councilmen.

In the 1980s, he became fascinated by the apartment house Hundertwasser built in Vienna. In 1998, the builder began talking with the artist about another structure in Bad Soden. By 1991, plans and financing were finished and the ground stone was set. The house, finished in 1994, will likely see the last unit sold sometime this month. It is one of three commercial sites on the complex. Hundertwasser, who died last year, would have been pleased to see the last unit rented, Mr. Wachendorff said.

“I liked the idea of building something that fits with nature — a building that lacks symmetry and one that isn’t a mirror image of the others,” said Mr. Wachendorff.

The high cost of materials and labor pushed sale prices as high as 11,000 marks per square meter, and the builder got many nibbles but few bites from buyers. After he couldn’t pay the interest on his loans, Mr. Wachendorff’s bank took over the property, dropped the prices and sold the units for an average of 8,000 marks per square meter. The building cost 20 million marks, not including the property and interest on loans.

Mr. Wachendorff imagined that many people would be thrilled by the idea of living in a work of art. And they were. Renting the units would have been no problem, but selling them was a different story.

A representative from the bank, who asked not to be named, said, “The houses were poorly marketed, and they just couldn’t be sold at the right time and the right price. Old people often buy apartments to fit their furniture, and this was an obvious problem there.” Many walls curve around edges or slope from the ceiling to floor.

“The people who want to live here are individualists, and most of the renters are foreigners,” Mr. Wachendorff said. “Many of those who have the money to buy would rather live in an understated home. At the Hundertwasser house, you’re the center of attention,” he said.

The Tarlatts couldn’t have afforded their home if they had wanted to buy years earlier, they said.

Mr. Wachendorff also wanted those who moved in to subscribe to Hundertwasser’s philosophies. He was disappointed to find that some people saw the apartments only as investments.

During the building, Mr. Wachendorff lived in a refitted apartment on the top floor of a 270-year-old building that is integrated into the site. He oversaw every step of the way, and accompanied the artist on all his visits. After the bank seized the property, the builder began to put the project behind him. He eventually moved out and took a job with a Frankfurt building company.

“I’m not broken by the project because I reached my goal. I wanted to build that house,” Mr. Wachendorff said.