Christopher Benfey at the New York Review of Books:
What was it about handles—door-handles, axe-handles, the handles of pitchers and vases—that transfixed thinkers in Vienna and Berlin during the early decades of the twentieth century, echoing earlier considerations of handles in America and ancient Greece?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, as everyone knows, abandoned philosophy after publishing his celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1921. He took up gardening instead, in a monastic community on the outskirts of Vienna, where he camped out for a few months in a toolshed. It was in part to draw him back into “the world” that his sister Margarete (Gretl) invited him to join the architect Paul Engelmann in designing her new house, a rigorous Modernist structure that, much changed, now houses the Bulgarian Embassy.
Wittgenstein’s participation in the project was relatively limited, his biographer Ray Monk maintains (though Engelmann himself, from professional modesty or perhaps ambivalence about the final product, claimed the collaboration was more extensive):
His role in the design of the house was concerned chiefly with the design of the windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. This is not as marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly, house its distinctive beauty. The complete lack of any external decoration gives a stark appearance, which is alleviated only by the graceful proportion and meticulous execution of the features designed by Wittgenstein.