Peter Cook remembers the Austrian phenomenon and ‘truly good bloke’
Austria has seen some of the most creative and progressive architecture during the last 40 years: the strangeness of some of it has fed into every crevice. And yet Günther Domenig, as a seminal figure, is in danger of disappearing into the mysterious crevices of lost reputation. Back in the 1960s he was an exotic and brilliant student: developing megastructures and city projects that still resonate with audacity and expertise. Then he started to build, along with his friend Eilfred Huth, and their high school in Graz was fearless in its use of unadulterated concrete.
If Brutalism has been ascribed to the Smithsons and some German and Dutch architects, it is this school that should be studied as the key reference. Yet just down the street, the pair created an even more adventurous structure: a meeting hall-cum-refectory for a convent, hidden from the street in a courtyard. This armadillo-like structure with oval ‘eye’ rooflights can be clearly stated as the start of the ‘Grazer Schule’ − a conglomeration of somewhat expressionist architects, which included Szyszkowitz and Kowalski, Klaus Kada, Volker Giencke and some others.
Toshio Nakamura (editor of the Japanese magazine A+U) caught a glimpse of the ‘Z’ Bank in southern Vienna and naughtily chose it for the magazine’s cover. For many years this extraordinary structure, with its tumbling metal facade, its twisting ventilation tubes, and its giant sculpted hand on the wall, remained an essential part of Vienna for student tours. Domenig would flit in and out of the capital city: never really part of it but somehow bypassing its rivalries and paranoias. Indeed he would flit in and out of other European cities: admired by select coteries, but never mastering speaking English so remaining apart from international stardom.
The AA’s Alvin Boyarsky did nonetheless stage a really evocative show in London, complete with original drawings and an exotic ‘bird’ piece. At that time (the late 1980s), Domenig was embarking on his life’s dream: the construction of the Steinhaus (stone-house) on the lakeside site outside Klagenfurt that he inherited from his grandmother.The wherewithal for this undoubtedly came from some very substantial commissions: a large (rather Modernist) hospital and a composite two-block ‘megastucture’ for Graz University as well as a building for Graz Technical University, where he was Professor. In his first months in the post, he brought Cedric Price, Raimund Abraham, Coop Himmelb(l)au and me down to the school for one-week workshops. It says something about the man that he invited such rivals down to his school.
A fair crop of original structures can be found around Austria: museums, hotels, lakeside port buildings and probably a load of stuff that we don’t know about. Yet in the later years it was the Steinhaus that seemed to haunt him, somehow intended as, not so much a ‘house’, but a shrine to architecture. Characteristically generous with hospitality he would almost dare you to walk down the precipitous garden walls, only one day to fall off himself − with serious injuries. He lived life seemingly as a dare, smoking like a chimney and driving his red Maserati like a demon through tunnels beneath the Alps. He was the essence of the Austrian phenomenon and a truly good bloke.