Charles Jencks looks back at how Hans Hollein shaped the culture of Austrian architecture through his texts, exhibitions and buildings
Hans Hollein, ‘architect professor’ as he styled himself, leaves behind an impressive body of work – buildings, exhibitions and polemical texts. As a sophisticate who was positioned between East and West, and an inheritor of the Centre of Europe – that is Vienna 1900, Freud, Wittgenstein, Schiele and Otto Wagner – there was not much contemporary culture that he did not imbibe, or try out architecturally. Starting off in the late 1950s with a kind of Pop polemic – Architecture is in Exile Now, or Alles ist Architektur – he drew amazing icons of very different species.
Landform buildings, an aircraft carrier collaged into the Austrian wheatfields, blob buildings out of Frederick Kiesler and the contemporary art of the time; calligraphic architecture foreshadowing Zaha Hadid, inflatable buildings predicting Archigram, a pill to take as architecture, beating Banham to the idea, and by 1965 the Retti Candle Shop in the heart of Vienna. This shop on one level, with its phallic entrance void, is a Freudian comment on the architectural ego, but it points down into the ground not up. On another level, it was a paradox, the smallest great building of its time, selling lumps of wax, a slick-tech temple to nothingness, or The Void as Adolf Loos had it, as did so many other depressed intellectuals. Hollein, by contrast, was energetic and sensual, if occasionally mordant.
The rest of his career was a variation on many of these early themes. The Perchtoldsdorf Town Hall renovation managed what no other architect in Europe pulled off at the time, an incision into a Renaissance context which was the equal of the old building in ornamental symbolism, craftsmanship and modernist necessities such as lighting. If only others tried to achieve such a bold resolution in a historical setting, of the past, present and future, then architectural culture would have held together. The creative resolution and detail of this work showed Hollein as an artist-architect, another master of Central Europe, or Old Europe (in the earlier phrase of Marija Gimbutas, not the condescending moniker of Donald Rumsfeld). Soon thereafter the Austrian Travel Agency established Hollein as the successor of Otto Wagner. Indeed the ceiling referred directly to the precedent in Vienna, suggesting that tourism starts at home.
The consummate ironies Hollein pulled off here used stereotypes of travel to India (a solar-topee adapted from a Lutyens hat), travel to Egypt (with metallic Nash palm trees), where to buy a ticket (behind a frozen metal curtain), and where to pay for it all (behind a Rolls-Royce radiator). All of this was brought off in a much funnier way and with more consummate details than the American Postmodernists were producing at the time. By 1982, and with the State Museum finished in Mönchengladbach, he had become the European leader of postmodern wit in architecture, a position which had been confirmed by the 1980 Biennale in Venice devoted to the movement. Here his entry to the Biennale, with one theme to bring back a ‘New Street Architecture’, used the existing columns of the Corderie in a contextual way; but transformed this element. The fundamentals of architecture, as Rem Koolhaas is setting the theme for this year’s Biennale, exist always as stereotype and cliché, as well as inventive departure. Hollein showed that this single element could morph from brick to concrete to tree to skyscraper to hedge – all with similar proportion – in a smooth transformation. Cliché was robbed of its banality, and unnecessary invention of its gratuity. James Stirling, Charles Moore and Arata Isozaki among others, learned from his example.
Yet there were other sides to his character and design: for instance, his tireless work as a professor, and promoter of the Austrian avant-garde. Or his occasional work as an artist-sculptor (not so successful) and curator (very effective). In these various roles he played a major part in furthering the culture of Austrian architecture, helping several others into the burgeoning field of international biennales. An aspect that struck me as different about Hollein’s position is one he probably shares with others from Vienna, such as Wolf Prix, in some ways his successor. That is, they have a commitment to the public role of the avant-garde, explaining it and justifying it to the society. In that way they go back to 1900 and the Pre-Modernists, to Art Nouveau, Jugendstil and the Secession.
I met Hans in 1966 at a Team X meeting in Urbino, and with Kisho Kurokawa the three of us Young Turks were slightly ostracised, and thus became good friends out of necessity. The friendship lasted many years, almost 50, through our mutual families and tragedies, our agreements and minor disputes (Alles ist nicht Architektur).
Hans always spoke slowly and thoughtfully, with extraordinary wit in the deeper sense of the word, and a kind or professorial precision. I expect his museum work will be evermore appreciated by successive generations, and his impressive pluralism will be understood as the key lesson for architecture today.