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Langer, Karl (1903–1969)

by Ian Sinnamon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Karl Langer (1903-1969), architect and town planner, was born on 28 July 1903 in Vienna, only son and elder child of Karl Langer, locksmith, and his wife Magdalena, née Loitsch. Karl senior's manual and technical skills fostered his son's interest in design. Young Karl attended the Staatsgewerbeschule until 1923, worked for various architects and became a member (1926) of the Austrian Guild of Architects. Professionally and intellectually restless, he undertook further study and entered architectural competitions. He consolidated his skills through his association with leading progressives, including Heinrich Schmid and Herman Aichinger, on those public housing projects which established the socialist credentials of 'Red Vienna' in the turbulent postwar years.

Peter Behrens, pioneer modernist and director of the Wagnerschule, had admitted Langer (in 1923) to his renowned school of architecture within the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Wien (Vienna Academy of Fine Arts). Langer's work appeared in the catalogues of a school exhibition which toured Europe in 1926. He graduated in 1928. That year Behrens employed him to head his architectural atelier in Vienna. Langer was responsible for some celebrated buildings attributed to Behrens and his partner Alexander Popp, most notably the massive tobacco factory at Linz and additions to the historic St Peter's group at Salzburg. In his spare hours Langer studied at the Technische Hochschule (later Technical University of Vienna) for the qualification of zivilarchitekt (1931) and at the University of Vienna for his doctorate in art history (1933).

In Vienna on 14 May 1932 Langer married a fellow doctoral student Gertrude Fröschel; they were to remain childless. He left Behrens' firm in 1934 and began a small practice, assisted by his wife. His work, modest in scale, was well reviewed in Austrian and British journals, but it was not an auspicious time to launch himself as an architect. The rise of Nazism generated a cultural climate inimical to creative expression and threatened the Langers personally. He was a social democrat; she was Jewish. Kristallnacht (November 1938) confirmed their determination to emigrate, a difficult task for Karl who was eligible for military service. Adopting a ruse, they travelled to Greece whence they sailed for Australia. They reached Sydney in 1939. About this time Karl's former student contemporaries and lifelong professional confidants Rudi Baumfeld and Victor Gruenbaum emigrated to the United States of America; Gruenbaum founded the firm of Victor Gruen Associates at Los Angeles.

There was little demand for avant-garde architects in Sydney, though Langer's peers received him cordially. He found temporary employment with the architects H. M. Cook & W. J. Kerrison in Brisbane, where he and Gertrude settled. Under wartime manpower regulations, he was soon transferred to a mundane post with the Queensland Railways. Brisbane was then a mixture of provincial city and strategic centre. The Langers' modernist achievements and sophistication contributed considerably to the city's cultural life, and a youthful literary and artistic group gathered around them. Karl lectured part time in architecture and architectural design at the University of Queensland, studied the local landscape and flora, and published his short but influential Sub-Tropical Housing (1944). Gertrude gave public lectures for the Queensland Art Fund and later became art critic for the Courier-Mail.

In 1944 the Brisbane City Council offered Langer the position of assistant town planner. His selection in preference to a returned serviceman became a political issue and manpower controls were invoked to block his release from his railways job for the duration of the war. The protracted, nationwide publicity attending this episode brought him an impressive waiting-list of commissions that ranged from revising the town plan for the city of Mackay to advising on the site for a civic centre in Perth.

Langer also obtained a consultancy with the Cumberland County Council (the planning authority for Sydney) which commissioned him in 1947 to examine the development of the city, and advise on a comprehensive list of civic and regional planning issues. He was able to find two periods in 1947 and 1948 for this work, totalling four months; his fee was set at six guineas a day, plus a guinea a day for living expenses. His proposals included a plan to replace the Fort Macquarie (Bennelong Point) Tram Depot with an opera house. On his way to Australia, one of the last places in his beloved Attica that he had visited and sketched was the ancient temple of Poseidon on the tip of Cape Sounion—a combination of landscape and landmark which remained with him when he thought about the Sydney Harbour of the future.

Projects for Darwin, for Ingham, Toowoomba, Yeppoon, Kingaroy and Mount Isa, Queensland, and for the National Capital Development Commission, Canberra, were among Langer's other town-planning tasks. He advised Senator Ian Wood, his old friend and mayor of Mackay, in his work with the Senate Select Committee on the Development of Canberra (1954-55) and the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Australian Capital Territory (1957-68). In the controversy over where the new Federal Parliament House should be located, Langer advocated the Capital Hill site: in Architecture in Australia (1959) he pondered over the problems of placing a building there, particularly how to make the flagstaff topping W. B. Griffin's design appear significant in the scale of that landscape.

Commissions which Langer undertook included economical domestic buildings, the first Gold Coast canal developments and coastal tourist projects. The best known of these was Lennons Hotel (1956) at Broadbeach, Gold Coast, then generously set in wilderness between highway and beach. His favourite building was the chapel (1966) at St Peter's Lutheran College, Indooroopilly, Brisbane. Built on the edge of a small hill, it embodied the lessons he had learned from classical Greece.

Langer's reserve and courtesy accompanied a deep belief in community responsibilities, particularly in cultural matters. His campaigns for more creative use of the Brisbane River as a civic asset, for a Queen Street mall and other facilities for pedestrians were rejected, not always politely; when they were later adopted, others received the credit. After being naturalized in November 1945, Langer was deemed eligible to join professional bodies. He was active in the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, first president (1952) of the Queensland division of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, a founder and chairman (1966-68) of the Queensland Association of Landscape Architects and a member (1963-69) of the National Trust of Queensland. The Queensland Art Gallery Society elected him its president for 1961-62 and 1967; Gertrude held the same office in 1965-66 and 1974-75.

At the University of Queensland, Langer lectured in town planning; he also taught at the Queensland Institute of Technology. Both institutions were to award student prizes in his memory. In 1968 he was appointed to the Australian Council for the Arts and elected vice-chairman of its music board. He died of myocardial infarction on 16 October 1969 in Brisbane. Following a service at St Peter's chapel, he was cremated at Mount Thompson crematorium, another of his buildings. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Bittman (ed), Strauss to Matilda (Syd, 1988)
  • M. Jurgensen and A. Corkhill (eds), The German Presence in Queensland (Brisb, 1988)
  • Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, Nuts and Bolts, or Berries, 1993 Annual Conference (Perth, 1993)
  • Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Landscape Australia, vol 7, no 1, 1984, p 48
  • I. Sinnamon, Karl Langer in Queensland (paper presented to the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand Conference on Modernism, Perth, 1993, copy held by author)
  • Langer papers (University of Queensland Library and State Library of Queensland)
  • Langer architectural drawings (State Library of Queensland)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Sinnamon, 'Langer, Karl (1903–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/langer-karl-10783/text19123, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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