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Experimental Architecture and an Avant-Garde Spirit

Raimund Abraham

ARCHITECT RAIMUND ABRAHAM (1933–2010) WAS BORN IN LIENZ AND BECAME A HOUSEHOLD NAME THANKS TO HIS SUPERB SKY-SCRAPER COMPLETED IN 2002: THE AUSTRIAN CULTURE FORUM IN NEW YORK.

When compared to American ones, this 7.5 m wide and 84 m high Building comes across as minute, although it will still win you over for its sculpted front as well as its ingenious rear emergency fire stair system which makes the back façade of the building quite unique. Abraham crossed the independent stairways with another, making them into a double fire stairwell. This allowed him to comply with building restrictions exploiting a minimal space while at the same time creating enough of it for the development of other rooms. But to truly understand Abraham we have to take a step back in time. Raimund Abraham’s claim to fame stems from his rejection of building..

He was one of the first architects who analysed the essence and structure of anonymous rural architecture and in 1963 published ‘Elementare Architektur’ (Elementary architecture) together with photographer Josef Dapra (who also had him build his first house). The publication highlighted the functional, alpine rural architecture which wasn’t subject to any passing fads. The featured examples range from hay racks and woodworking joints to barn stairways. Up until then, Austria had only published another seminal publication two years before called ‘Anonymes Bauen Nordburgenland’ (Anonymous Building in the Nordburgenland) by Roland Rainer. While the latter was conceived as a reaction to the incipient destruction of old buildings in mountain villages, highlighting the positive traits of traditional buildings and forms, Abraham, as suggested by his title, researched elementary structures in architecture.

Raimund Abraham moved to America during the mid-60s and became Professor after giving just one guest speech at the age of 31 at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design. At the time, the architect, together with Hans Hollein and Walter Pichler, counted as one of the co-founders of the Austrian Phenomenon, a loosely experimental architectural movement. In 1967, they exhibited at the MoMA in New York and made a splash with their futuristic architecture and city structures. In those years, Abraham dedicated more and more time to drawing, a skill which went on to become his signature piece and secured him world fame. His main belief was that architecture didn’t have to be built – the drawing of the sketch was just as important as the actual building process. He explained this belief during a conversation with Christian Reder and Dietmar Steiner, saying that, ‘the drawing is Independent and shouldn’t be seen as a preliminary stage. The piece of paper represents a place, while architecture represents the physical intervention to that place.’ Raimund Abraham belonged to that group of architects who contributed to the elevation of architectural drawings, so much so that his drawings became an integral part of his creative endeavour.

Among other things, the architect developed a series of idealised houses which are reminiscent of the work of Neoclassical French architect, Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736–1806). The standalone houses are developed via underground entrances, and their names refer in some way to their specific traits or natural phenomena. These ‘talking names’ include ‘House with Curtains’, ‘House with Path’, ‘House with permanent Shadow’ or ‘House with two Horizons’.

Furthermore, he also developed models for these houses on top of the finished drawings completed in the 70s. Raimund Abraham developed a landscape specific to one building, made up mostly of square units which could be freely combined. He then placed these in different ways and took Pictures using dramatic lighting. Normally he would use such models as a point of reference to then build a house, but in this case the models were already a completed building. Stairs were always a central element of his architecture in his drawings, models, or finished buildings. Another element which stood out were how his houses were deeply anchored into the ground, some going as far as being deeply sunk into the soil. This wound inflicted upon nature was the responsibility of the architecture according to Raimund Abraham’s philosophy, as ‘this guilt could only be alleviated by a reconciliation of sorts, provided by cultural and artistic improvement.’

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Christoph Freyer studied History of Art at the University of Vienna. He is a freelance art historian and web designer. Between 2013 and 2015, he collaborated on the inventory of the estate of Raimund Abraham for the Architekturzentrum Wien. He is the curator of the exhibition ‘Architekt Raimund Abraham. Back Home‘, which runs from 16 July to 26 October 2016 at the Museum Schloss Bruck/Lienz. The exhibition is a joint project of the museum and the Architekturzentrum Wien.

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