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From the archive: Woodworking School in Murau, Austria, by Ernst Giselbrecht

While not a factory, many carpenter’s works could learn a great deal about working conditions and civic presence from this little building

Originally published in January 1994

At 42, Ernst Giselbrecht is one of the younger members of the architectural movement in Graz, and appears here in AR for the first time. As the result of competition successes in the late 1980’s, he is just completing his first large commissions.

Although he worked for some years in the Syszkowitz-Kowalski office, his work is more sober than theirs, and feels closer in both style and spirit to that of Klaus Kada (for examples of both see AR November ’93). This is perhaps due to the priority Giselbrecht gives to tectonic issues- construction, its order and its expression- which may reflect his training as mechanical engineer before he entered architecture. The carpenter’s school, based on competition-winning design of 1987, was a fortunate vehicle for his tectonic sensibility, for not only did it need to represent the discipline of carpentry to the town and outside world there was also every reason to develop the building as a didactic example for the students training in it.

Murau is a small town in central 3 western end of Styria. It lies in mountainous country near the head of the Mur valley, the surrounding slopes covered in coniferous trees which reflect an economy dominated by forestry. Logs and sawmills are much in evidence, and the addition of a carpenter’s school seems highly appropriate, demonstrating not only a continuing commitment to timber and timber processing, but also pursuit of the most up to date techniques. The school has been given a prominent place just east of the old centre, set between an existing secondary school, a church, and the Rentenbach, a small stream on its way to join the river Mur.

Carpenters school Austria01

Carpenters school Austria01

There had to be ample space on either end of the building to take large pieces of wood in and out, space to carry it around the back, and parking also had to be provided. Even so, the building still seems closely knit into the fabric of the town, and it integrates well in distant views despite its uncompromising modernity. The programme called for a woodstore, a machining room, and an assembly room for timber structures as well as minor rooms for formal teaching, offices and services. Giselbrecht’s strategy was to make a big open hall for the major spaces, with both top light and clerestory glazing. The strong daylight is both practical and inspiring, for rather than feeling shut in a box under rows of dismal fluorescent lights as so often in this kind of building, one is made aware of the sky and the outside world. In the evening it works in reverse, for the illuminated glass roof gives the outside world a hint of activities within.

‘The structure depends on continuous diagonal bracing and requires complex joints at which several timbers intersect at different angles’

The roof of the main hall is supported by an elegant timber structure, the overall dimensions being determined by a square grid which is also the structural module. It is four bays wide, and is carried by four pairs of columns placed equidistant between centre and edge. Tree-like in cross section, it spans like a girder bridge at 45 degrees, gaining full depth in the centre where the inner diagonal branches project up above the flat roof to meet under a continuous glazed rooflight. Two longitudinal spans of four bays each cover the assembly and machine halls, while two central bays cover the woodstore, and a bay is cantilevered beyond the building at each end to provide covered loading areas. The structure depends on continuous diagonal bracing and requires complex joints at which several timbers intersect at different angles: these are carefully detailed with steel connectors and prominently displayed. The 45 degree changes are taken up in the main longitudinal members which are sawn to angled sections.

Carpenters school Austria02

Carpenters school Austria02

On both sides of the main structure are lower projections treated as separate satellites with their own roofs and white cladding panels instead of the weatherboard of the main halls. These mediate between the central body of the building and its surroundings, bringing an almost domestic scale to the parts, which face the town. The two projections at the back contain technical and storage rooms, while the one on the front has changing room. lavatories. service spaces, office and classroom. The taper of the site produced by the skewed alignment of Steingasse, the street to the south, is picked up and dramatised in the front building, which becomes in plan fully triangular. its roof extended leftwards to develop the full drama of the apex. Seen end-on. the front building seems almost to dissolve in favour of the more substantial hall behind. but the two are separated by a narrow gap with a lower roof and a door into the end of the entrance hall. Internally the skew in plan is convincingly resolved with a conveniently tapered classroom and some unusual changing facilities. Externally it is the key gesture in relating building and site, for it breaks a symmetry which might otherwise have proved too insistent and introduces an ordering which departs from the strict homotypic rhythm of the main structure. 

‘Unlike those of most buildings in the town, roofs are almost entirely flat, but there is no lack of expression of roof as a sheltering element’

Asymmetry is further stressed in the front by varied cill heights of windows: low for office and classroom, high for the lavatories and changing area. Structure and rooflight set up a strong longitudinal axis through the major spaces. But there is also a clear cross-axis on the plan which links the main entrance, woodstore and wood delivery doors at the rear. In practice, students do not move along this axis but have to take a diagonal path to the side. for it is broken by the principal’s office. Centrally placed and panopticon-like so that he or she can overlook both teaching halls and woodstore. The circulation is direct and compact, and windows in the entrance hall allow views into the main spaces on either side so that visitors can orientate themselves immediately to the activities of the school. So the overall plan organisation is very clear, and the strong daylighting of the main halls in contrast with the ancillary rooms helps to assure their dominance.

Unlike those of most buildings in the town, roofs are almost entirely flat, but there is no lack of expression of roof as a sheltering element. In distant views, the central projecting rooflight provides a clear pitched figure to fit in with neighbouring structures and the effect is doubled inside the building and at its gable ends by the downward continuation of the supporting structure. From nearby, its upper surface is quite invisible, so the main roof is presented (as so often in the work of Graz architects) as an underside.

Carpenters school Austria

Carpenters school Austria

Looking up, one sees the primary, secondary and tertiary timber structure supporting the roof decking. There is some fascination in the way that the triple triangle of the structural cross section is neatly bisected by the main roof plane. the latter carried across the centre as a series of horizontal ties. The structure treats its upward and downward projections symmetrically, but one is exterior to the implied volume, the other interior. The enclosure implied by the roof plane and that suggested by the structure do not agree, and one’s perception flips from one to the other. To introduce more daylight. and to make it clear that the main roof is carried only on its columns, a glazed clerestory separates the roof of the main hall from its timber-clad side walls. For lateral stability, the columns of the walls need to be tied to the roof. So Giselbrecht exchanged the emerging timber member for a thin (and clearly non loadbearing) blade of steel which engages with a steel rod running from one secondary beam to the next. This elaborate detail might be considered pedantic on a building dedicated to another purpose. but here it enhances the allimportant legibility of the structure. It even draws attention to the difficulty of maintaining structural clarity, for the student carpenters will look at it and wonder why the timber was not allowed to carry simply through.

‘It seems ideal as an educational instrument: disciplined and logical, but complex in form and unwilling to yield all its secrets at first glance’

Carpentry is clearly not what it used to be: the joints of this building are made of steel and bolted together, not morticed tenoned and pegged as they would have been a century ago. The timbers are treated as homogeneous and cut to high precision with machine tools, their flat surfaces echoing the machine’s milled bed. The assembly process is also much more like engineering than traditional woodwork, but this is the reality of the modern world. Giselbrecht has not chosen to show us wood nostalgically in any wild or rustic form. There is little visible evidence of the tree and its growth: even the timber weatherboarding is cut with precision, though it does display its knots through the stain.

The technology has changed, and with it our phenomenological understanding of wood. What has changed less is the need for the carpenter to have a clear understanding of three-dimensional geometry and of the distribution of structural forces. After an education on paper, this is not so easily learned, and it makes good sense to present the building as an example, as Giselbrecht has made every effort to do. It seems ideal as an educational instrument: disciplined and logical, but complex in form and unwilling to yield all its secrets at first glance. Certainly the staff will refer to it as an example, but it also presents something of a puzzle, teasingly there day after day inviting contemplation.