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2004 March: Alien Encounter

Clad in a pulsating skin, Graz’s new Kunsthaus is a spunky modern interloper that adds both to the life of the city and to it s historic fabric

As second city of Austria and capital of Styria, Graz’s cultural significance is greater than its 250000 population would suggest. Separated from Vienna by the Austrian Alps, it looks south to Italy and the Balkans, but also east across the Hungarian plain, a European crossroads. Once the royal residence, it has an old university and other places of learning. It was the birthplace of astronomer Johannes Kepler, and has produced other scientists of world renown. In recent decades it has enjoyed a leading role in literary culture as well as hosting an energetic and progressive architectural movement that has been admired across the world.

The need for an art gallery and museum was debated for decades, and at the height of the Graz architecture movement in 1989 one very nearly happened, with a major competition held by the regional government for a so-called Trigon Museum in the Pfaugarten. Won by a radical contextual proposal from Schöffauer, Schrom and Tschapeller, this would have been an impressive building, but it was cancelled for political reasons.

A later proposed Kunsthaus carved into the Schlossberg, the acropolis, was again the subject of an architectural competition and also came to nothing. It took Graz’s impending elevation to European City of Culture in 2003 to provide the final impetus. The competition was announced in 1999 and was judged in April 2000 by an international jury chaired by Volker Giencke. It attracted 102 entries including submissions by Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau, Klaus Kada and Morphosis. The sole prize-winner was the proposal by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, the remaining prize money being divided equally between eight commendations.

The new site could hardly have been more prominent. Graz grew up around the Schlossberg, a steep defensible outcrop of rock next to the wide, fast-flowing river Mur. The main market place developed immediately south of this rock, connecting westward to the first bridge. Just across this bridge on the north side lies the Kunsthaus, fully visible across the river and enjoying some of the best views of the old city.

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The west bank has always been the less fashionable side, starting as a medieval suburb just like the south bank of the Thames, and placing a major cultural institution here is, as in London fifty years ago, a bid to redress the balance. The site’s frontage to the street crossing the bridge was occupied by the Eisernes Haus (Iron House), a listed commercial building of 1847 with an iron facade of castings from Sheffield. This was to be restored and retained, along with some other old buildings to the west which preserve the traditional frontage to Mariahilferstrasse. The north half of the site had long been a car park, and a busy street lay between the site and the river bank.

The competition programme called primarily for flexible spaces in which to mount changing exhibitions of contemporary art (there is no permanent collection), offices for meeting, curatorial work and publication, a workshop and areas for reception and refreshment. A public garage was to be provided beneath the building, part of the deal with the department store Kastner and Ohler across the river who had owned the site. A lifespan of over a hundred years was mentioned, with some stress on the changing and unpredictable nature of artistic production, but the presentation of the submitted projects suggests that the greatest importance was placed on external image, for competitors submitted a model which became the sole vehicle for publication as photographed looking towards the corner connecting with the bridge. An outspoken building was evidently expected, and some had Gehry’s Bilbao in mind.

Respect for Cook and Fournier’s design, and for the wisdom of the jury in choosing it, increases as you examine the other proposals, many by highly talented architects. The context was irregular and complex even before the need to incorporate the existing buildings, making it impossible to impose an independent set-piece and precluding any straightforward symmetry. In addition, many competitors were obsessed with the problem of the road cutting off the building from the river bank. The conditions rather suggestively allowed cantilevering over it with a clearance of five meters, but it was forbidden to close the road or to interfere with the services beneath it.

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Cook and Fournier kept within the site boundary, and their amoeba-like form allowed them to follow the irregularities of the site while still producing a recognizably unified form. The continuous surface helped by removing the requirement for distinctions between wall and roof, eliminating all need for ridges, eaves and even changes of plane.

Crucially, this also produced the convex underbelly, which makes the amoeba readable from below, in contrast with the flat open entrance platform. The strong form remains dominantly there, yet the glass walls allow the public to filter through, to wait and meet, to buy tickets and catalogues. They can even enjoy a meal in the trendy café Les Vipères, which is set between the river view and the visitors rising to the galleries on the great diagonal travelator. It is a real public place, convincingly transitional and anticipatory.

Cook and Fournier also managed to treat the Eisernes Haus, which seemed forgotten or overwhelmed by many competitors, quite gently. It had been much reconstructed over the years, so all that could be restored physically were the elaborate cast-iron facades to south and east (constructed without cold-bridges in I 847!), but the original floor heights could be readopted, and also the flat roof to regain the original terrace and railing. The complete contrast between the Eisernes Haus’s trabeated form and the bulging, fluid amoeba simply serves to clarify their relationship.

The amoeba form contains galleries at two levels, irregular in shape with the intention of accommodating any kind of arrangement for pictures, sculpture or installations. They are reached by the two travelators, called ‘the pin’ in the competition version, which define two crucial diagonals through the building. These vertical connections offer themselves clearly, and the view of disappearing entrance and appearing gallery as you penetrate the underbelly is spectacular, enhanced by the fact that you stand still as you are carried up. Even so the experience is soon over and is not easily repeatable, since there is no down travelator. With a stair or ramp you can dally and retrace your steps, and so retain control: on the travelator speed is already dictated and you are captive.

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The second travelator connects well with the first and conveys you diagonally through to the upper floor and the big main gallery space. Again, the visual experience is a revelation, opening the full effect of the roof, but the only way down from either floor is a dog-leg stair in one of the bunker-like concrete service cores which must rank as a disappointment. The upper travelator heads towards a corner with a balcony leading to ‘the needle’, another crucial element in the project, but you have to use the bunker stair to get up to it. From outs de, this horizontal glazed gallery with rounded ends makes an effective contrast to the amoeba and a convincingly neat formal transition with the Eisernes Haus. From within, it offers spectacular views of the Mur, the town centre and the Schlossberg. Most of the time it serves as a lookout space for a continuing file of visitors to enjoy the view, but for openings and other social events it is used as a bar, with a mobile servery brought in and coupled to a service point in the floor, water and all, a detail amusingly reminiscent of the Archigram project ‘Rockplug and Logplug’.

The competition presentation made much of the nozzles in the roof, a series of tentacle-like projections which face north and bring daylight into the upper gallery: one of them also highlights a view from within of the clocktower on the Schlossberg. The amoeboid form is unthinkable without them, and not only for their zoomorphic suggestiveness. They show an intended relationship with the world outside and they also change the scale, making a lively roofscape. Gallery architects usually try to provide daylight, for its colour, its lively variability and its connection with the world outside, for, as Louis Kahn put it: ‘We were born of light. The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light… Natural light is the only light, because it has mood… it puts us in touch with the eternal. It is the only light that makes architecture.’

But today’s curators often reject daylight, partly for conservation reasons, partly because artificial light allows more control and easier scene-setting, and partly in reaction against the Modernist ‘white box’ as a special ghetto for art. Cook and Fournier wanted daylight but ended with a compromise. They managed to retain their rooflight nozzles in the upper floor, but the money ran out and the intended reflective surfaces within the nozzles were omitted, leaving only the black painted structure, so there is hardly any reflection of the restricted amount of light that enters. Adding insult to injury, in a move to revive the nozzles’ intended prominence under artificial light, spirals of naked fluorescents were placed within their volumes creating an effect that is much too harsh. The lower gallery depends mainly on artificial light, but there too the number of windows to the outside world was reduced, and the intention of retracting the edge to the intermediate floor so that the outer skin could unfold into the upper level had to be scotched due to fire risk.

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Gallery spaces are therefore less impressive than one had hoped, but the first exhibitions have probably not shown them at their best. The relationship between art and architecture is in any case fraught with problems, for any kind of purposely designed art-container is bound to seem institutional, and the currently widespread use of old factories and warehouses is liberating for artists precisely because they carry memories of another life and are therefore ambiguous in their framing of the work. The amorphous shapes of the Kunsthaus are better than a so-called neutral box which tacitly imposes a strong frame, and the diagonal travelators add some drama, but it remains for the curators and artists to discover ways for the work to interact significantly with the building.

The side-lit photographic gallery in the first floor of the Eisernes Haus is less problematic. It works well in a traditional manner and makes a fruitful contrast with the others. The technical demands on the building were considerable. The concrete structure is unobtrusive, and the cantilevers of the needle, fabricated like a box-girder bridge, remove the need for props or struts that would have threatened the building’s clarity. Beneath the ground is a car park on four levels, well below the river surface and requiring constant (and intended) pumping of its sump. With so little free room above ground, there are also substantial workshops for building exhibition stands and for crating or uncrating works, serviced by a very large lift and fully enclosed loading dock at street level. The north end forms the access point for cars and servicing, and the flows created by the comings and goings happily inform the logic of the building’s plan.

A slight drop in street level away from the front corner produces a broadening flight of steps along the east side to separate people from vehicles, and this helps differentiate front from back. Heating and ventilating services are also largely in the basement, requiring ducts in service cores which must pass through the open ground floor.

These are successfully reinterpreted as curved bodies rather like ship’s funnels, a parallel made more explicit in places by marine details apparent in air-outlets and ventilation grills. But by far the most interesting technical aspect of the building is the external skin, with initial promises of transparency, variability, and softness. At the competition, the architects wrote of: ‘A laminated fabric incorporating a mesh of tensile threads and compression ribs enabling it to span the width of the roof without intermediate supports… The laminate consists of a mylar film incorporating anisotrophic carbon threads and kevlar/Nomex aramid honeycomb struts for compressive strength… Fluids, fibreoptic cables and other infrastructure elements are channelled through the fabric by means of laminated bladders.’ This Archigram rhetoric recalling the space race proved hopelessly optimistic, once again missing the point that buildings are large, so a cubic metre can cost only a fraction of a cubic metre of car, aeroplane, racing cycle, or computer.

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The saving due to mass production is also absent in a one-off building. So with the Kunsthaus, what really happens? The smooth blue external surface So seductively predicted in the competition proposal has become a series of acrylic plates individually heat-formed to follow the curve and retained by stainless-steel bolts at the corners. Rather than be ing sealed, they are divided by relatively wide gaps with the real weatherproof skin behind, a plastic membrane with sleeves welded-in where the frequent support struts come through.

Beneath is insulation and a supporting structure of steel ribs. On the inside you encounter a system of triangular panels of grey mesh with another void behind. The whole thing is relatively thick, solid, and completely immobile, and the problems of roof turning into wall have res ulted in wider gaps in the outer layer to increase ventilation, cone-like studs to retain snow, and careful design of individual drainage nodes. A sprinkler system needed to counter the flammability of the acrylic panels can be used for cleaning, and wiring has been incorporated for ultrasound apparatus that may be needed to eject nesting birds.

Far lower-tech than originally envisaged, all this was still a constructional headstand, and it depends on the continuity of the almost invisible real skin. From the start the architects intended to make the outer layer into a glowing sign, pulsating with colour like a squid. The technology surely exists, for every panel could be a bank of LEDs or even liquid crystal like a flat-screen TV, but the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, hundreds of circular fluorescent tubes have been installed in the void beneath the transparent outer shell, linked to a computer that combines them as a mobile array.

This brings the skin to life as promised and gives the building even more pres ence at night than in the day. It also brings potential for readable messages and artworks, though the pixel size is rather large. Despite some shortcomings, the Kunsthaus is a highly in novative building with potential for a new and exciting dialogue with artists. It takes a prominent place in one of Europe’s best preserved old cities, again throwing into question the popular wisdom that the politest response to historic context is to don fancy dress.

It vindicates a typically long process of architectural development via three competitions and much serious debate. For Graz architects the result is a fitting homage to Peter Cook, who helped inspire the ‘studio revolution’ of the 1960s with his magazine Archigram, and who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Graz movement ever since. It has also allowed the Cook/Fournier partnership, which began on the brilliant but ill-fated Monte Carlo project thirty years ago, to finally prove its worth in a realized building.

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