Austro-Hungarian architect, one of the leading figures of the Vienna Sezession. A pupil of Hasenauer and Sitte, he worked in Otto Wagner's Vienna office (1894–8), contributing designs for the Vienna Stadtbahn (City Railway) stations. Gradually his style moved away from Wagner's dignified and simplified Neo-Classicism and began to incorporate Art Nouveau motifs. He made his reputation with the Club House and Exhibition Gallery he designed for the artists associated with the Sezession (1897–8). The building had something of Wagner's Neo-Classicism on the outside, but with Jugendstil decorative effects and a gilded wrought-iron dome-like ornament held between four battered pylon-like forms crowning the composition, a motif suggesting the Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring—the title of an influential Sezessionist publication) heralding a new era of art. For the Max Friedmann House, Hinterbrühl (1898–9), Olbrich, influenced by the English Arts-and-Crafts movement, designed not only the building but all the furnishings and fittings.
In 1899 the artistic Ernst Ludwig Charles Albert William, reigning Grand Duke of Hesse (1892–1918), invited Olbrich to the new artists' colony at Mathildenhöhe (Matilda's Hill), Darmstadt. There, Olbrich designed the communal studios, the Ernst-Ludwig-Haus (1899–1901), with a pronounced Art Nouveau entrance flanked by two large Neo-Classical figures looking forward to the 1930s in style. For his own house (1900–1) Olbrich drew on Austro-German vernacular forms, but enlivened with blue-and-white tile squares (a motif used by Wagner and Mackintosh) set in the elevations. Seven of his houses and one by Behrens (all fully furnished) at Mathildenhöhe were ready for public inspection in 1901, the intention being to awaken a sense of modern design in Hesse: it was the first exhibition of its kind. He added further buildings to the Mathildenhöhe complex, including the Hochzeitsturm (Wedding Tower—erected partly to celebrate the Grand Duke's second marriage (1905) to Princess Eleonore Ernestine Marie (d. 1937) of Solms) and Exhibition Building (1905–8). The tower had a top reminiscent of North-German medieval stepped gables but with semicircular upper parts to the ‘steps’.
In 1907 Olbrich became a founder of the Deutscher Werkbund, and his work became more severe and Classically inspired, including the handsome Leonhard Tietz Department Store, Düsseldorf (1906–9), now the Kaufhof. His Joseph Feinhals House, Cologne (1908–9—destroyed), showed the way in which his architecture might have evolved had he lived: it was a powerful Neo-Classical composition with two severe wings between which was a Greek Doric colonnade, the whole topped by a mansard roof. Wasmuth published a sumptuous set of volumes, Architektur von Olbrich (1901–14).
H&K (1988);H&K et al . (1988);Latham (1980);Lux (1919);Schreyl (1972);Tschudi-Madsen (1967);Veronesi (1948);Wasmuth (ed.) (1901–8);Zimmermann (ed.) (1976)