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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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