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Architecture is the Art of the 21st Century

Interview

THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT: COOP HIMMELB(L)AU IS A TRAILBLAZER WHEN IT COMES TO ARCHITECTURE. ITS INTERNATIONAL CLAIM TO FAME CAME WITH THE COMPLETION OF THE ROOF EXTENSION IN THE FALKESTRASSE IN VIENNA (1987), THE FIRST-EVER WORLDWIDE DECONSTRUCTED PROJECT. WE MEET WOLF D. PRIX IN HIS ATELIER IN VIENNA. WHEN PRIX FOUNDED COOP HIMMELB(L)AU WITH HELMUT SWICZINSKY AND MICHAEL HOLZER, HE WANTED TO MAKE ARCHITECTURE AS LIGHT AND CHANGEABLE AS CLOUDS BY TAPPING INTO CREATIVITY. 50 YEARS LATER AND WE’RE NEARLY THERE.

Has the original vision of Coop Himmelb(l)au developed since its start?

At the time, we wanted to build clouds, and are still following that dream. The perfect cloud – insofar as we’ve conceived the perfect cloud, that is – we haven’t built that yet. ‘Yet’ being the key word here. I still firmly believe we can posit that, one day, there will be such a thing as suspended architecture, one that actually flies like a cloud, and that may very well be our next step. Architecture still hasn’t become flexible and pliable for many different technical reasons. I think the next step will be to build buildings using robots, 3D printers and 3D mortising machines; I believe we’re getting ever closer to the aim of achieving a changeable and flexible form of architecture.

Coop Himmelb(l)au was founded on 8 May 1968: a symbolical day for its significance in the student revolution. How was Vienna back then?

We didn’t experience anything of the student revolution in Vienna. We only watched, full of longing, how ideas were forcefully presented. We wanted the same for architecture, i.e. radically change architecture right away.

Did you have any role models?

Our role models were music, film, literature, and philosophy, but also our education which at the time was being radically changed from an authoritarian model to an anti-establishment model. We didn’t only want to build buildings, but also contribute to society and its development. We also gave a name to our movement because we wanted to become just as rich and as famous as the Stones. Well, in hindsight, I admit that was an error in judgement. You’ll never reach the same scope of music with architecture.

The Tower of Babel is a recurring element in your biography, just as the wish for a self-determining, open architecture. Are you close to your goal right now?

Politics and architecture contain a totalitarian thought which reels us back into the fold. It’s just how it is, a trend of the time. The Tower of Babel and the myth of Icarus are a symbol of a punishment for man’s self-determination. The Tower of Babel should never have been completed, because God’s authority was dead set against it, and Icarus plunged to the sea because he flew higher than his father had told him to. However, let me clarify something: had Icarus used silicone rather than wax, he would still be flying around to this very day. The development of inventions gives us the opportunity to rebel against these totalitarian motions.

Which is the most decisive parameter for creating a demanding architecture which doesn’t pander to mediocrity?

The collaboration between the client and the architect. Trailblazing architecture comes to life, against all odds, as it were, only on certain occasions if these two figures are in synch: the client has to choose the right architect, one who doesn’t only think about buildings.

Unfortunately, architecture has become very arbitrary, and aesthetics don’t seem to be the benchmark of everything as in the past. Is that so?

Yes. If aesthetics are moulded by the needs of a society, they become a political tool. If you’re content with superficial beautification and want to fill architecture with social contents, then it ceases being architecture and becomes social building.

You build all over the world, finding different societal and political frameworks. Is architecture free from their influence?

No, it’s easily influenced by these conditions without throwing out the essential elements that we represent. We build public buildings in China without following Chinese taste. One thing always holds true: in the anonymous network of a city, landmarks and buildings you can recognise are essential; they’re there to be etched onto the mental map of its inhabitants and users. It’s extremely important for people to describe where they live and what relation this ‘golden roof’ has for the city.

 

Why are your buildings so harmonious and ‘right’, and have such a relaxing and positive effect on their visitors?

Providing you with a rational answer won’t make much sense, I’m afraid. Our projects are always rejected at the beginning, but as soon as the building is in place and people feel how it works, that‘s when unconditional trust blossoms. The synthesis between form and content actually works. I always wanted to make architecture which was different, one which would awaken emotions, similarly to music – which is naturally more emotional than architecture can ever aspire to be. Maybe that’s the reason people feel well in my buildings.

You speak a lot about music. Does that mean that music plays a role in your architecture?

It’s very associative. I don’t believe that you can translate Bach into architecture. However, I believe that certain methods can be transposed. Take Keith Richards, for example, and his open G tuning. The same happens in football, too, when Guardiola adapted basketball tactics to football. Incidentally, that aspect really fascinates me. You’ll see bridges and arches in our buildings which remind me of Keith Richard’s riffs. There are tones which remind me of many other building materials, but these are personal associations I‘d rather not disclose.

Do you consider yourself more of an artist or an architect?

Architecture is the art of the 21st century.

Which criteria do you use to select your projects?

What we care about are client specifications. The location isn’t relevant, neither the size nor the budget, but the theme of the client is of the utmost importance. There is one location-specific dream of mine: I would like to build in Rio, but certainly not military barracks. If I can build a beach Hotel in Rio, that would be very interesting for me.

The topic of this edition is ‘revolution’. What do you think about when you hear this word?

The fall of incumbent paradigms, that’s what a revolution is to me; the gradual rethinking of existing compulsions is evolution. I always ask myself: how does a butterfly develop that black spot on its wings? Evolution creates the black spot, it sticks and becomes bigger and bigger. A Revolution would capture the butterfly and paint the black spot on it. Our work sways between the two in architecture.

Did Coop Himmelb(l)au spark a sort of revolution?

You better ask that to an art historian. What we first dreamt of back in the day could be successively built. Partially. Why? Because I insisted on playing this game of cards to the very end.

Tenders and competitions are quite a common feature in architecture. How does an architect experience such a selection process, for example the one of the new ‘Haus der Musik’ in Innsbruck, which you participated in?

I generally think that these tenders are somewhat offensive for an architect, a waste of energy and money. Why? 120 firms participated in this tender. It costs a firm around €50,000 to do so. If you multiply that per firm, that’s 6 million Euro. That was 1/3, I believe, of the overall building budget. The jury had two 10-hour days, so €300,000 were wasted per hour, to select and discard the other firms. Can you imagine 120 surgeons lining up, like inflatable dolls, showing what they can do, and the patient walks by them and then just says ‘Ah yes, you’re the best’. Nope, not a chance in hell. That’s when you notice that architects are just a school of sardines Swimming in a shark tank of investors, lacking any sort of swarm intelligence.

And what do you believe of the winning project?

The winning project is ideal for Innsbruck. (Longer pause). But Innsbruck should have deserved something better.

Would you like to give young, ambitious architects a parting thought or idea, or even recommendation?

Sure (laughs), stay cool and carry on! We live in troubling times: as we saw in this year’s wretched Biennale edition, architects have just dug their own grave, walked right inside it, and the press is shovelling the soil back on top of them. There’s no building culture anymore. This isn’t me trying to be polemical, it’s the truth.

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