Despite its heritage as a technical college and a rigorous curriculum, the Graz approach recognises architecture as a highly personal thing
Few agree on exactly what it was that brought about the 1980s flowering − or rather the explosion − of architectural innovation in Graz, Austria’s second city and capital of the federal state of Styria, but none would deny the international impact of that moment. All eyes were on a city that, for most engaged in architectural debate, came to represent what Peter Blundell Jones called the ‘seedbed’ for a wider phenomenon.
The energetic spirit of Graz, a momentum characterised by extravagant diagonals, daring cantilevers, and rebellion against both the strict lines of Modernism and the toy-town games of Postmodernism, ricocheted through the design periodicals and end-of-year exhibitions of the times. Although associated with wider dynamics of formal experimentation, the city − and its school of architecture, led by recently deceased maverick visionary Günther Domenig for some 20 years − became a laboratory for new ideas.
‘The energetic spirit of Graz, a momentum characterised by extravagant diagonals, daring cantilevers, and rebellion against both the strict lines of Modernism and the toy-town games of Postmodernism, ricocheted through the design periodicals and end-of-year exhibitions of the times.’
The role played by powerful figures such as Domenig in the narrative of what Blundell Jones called ‘New Graz Architecture’ should not, according Hans Gangoly, Dean of the School of Architecture at Graz University of Technology, be underestimated. ‘It is the personalities and their attitudes that influence you in the course of your study … confrontation with these personalities was vital to my own development as an architect.’
Despite its heritage as a technical college and a curriculum that consciously seeks to address the ‘fundamentals and givens’ of architectural knowledge−historical study, understanding of technological and material basics, environmental awareness, programme and patterns of occupation−the Graz approach recognises, according to faculty member Andreas Lechner, that ‘in the end, designing architecture is a highly personal thing’.
It is in our encounters, as individuals, with the challenge of design that we bring buildings to life: ‘Architecture is both a craft and an intellectual endeavour, but to actually learn to design you have to do it; it is learning by doing,’ explains Lechner. There is nothing new in this concept − that architectural skill, which brings together the Vitruvian triad of concerns, is an embodied form of knowledge. And yet most schools today respond to managerialist demands, for quantifiable expertise and value-for-money, by prioritising knowhow over judgement, thereby breaking the synthetic practice of design down into bits. At Graz, this would not wash: ‘architectural endeavour cannot be reduced’.
‘Architecture is both a craft and an intellectual endeavour, but to actually learn to design you have to do it; it is learning by doing’
Pedagogical awareness of the need to foster individual creativity does not necessarily, however, translate into design briefs that indulge the urge for self-expression. A studio project set by Gangoly and visiting professor Kersten Geers challenged students to remake and rethink modern classics in a new context. Entitled Ziegelhaus (brick house), the brief offered 12 key precedents − each an example of large-scale urban form, such as Poelzig’s 1916 House of Friendship and Bofill’s 1974 Walden 7 − for reinterpretation by transplanting and modifying the original to provide high-density housing in Graz.
This manoeuvre, reminiscent of the ‘typological transfer’ method adopted by Christ & Gantenbein at ETH Zurich (Pedagogy, AR November 2011), invites both a critique of the role of architectural originality, and a strategic understanding of the architect’s duty to context.
Dora Jerbic and Simon Oberhofer took OMA’s City Hall in The Hague as their precedent, a competition scheme of 1986 in which the architects broke down the gargantuan mass of the 150,000sqm institution by profiling the building to simulate a skyline. Capitalising on the gesture towards urbanity that this represents, but recognising that if housing at scale is to satisfy its inhabitants’ social needs it must engage positively with the landscape, Jerbic and Oberhofer treated the architecture as an affirmative boundary between city and suburb. The wit of their proposal is summarised, in the cross section, as a stand-off between a row of trees, lined up like sentries, and the implacable superblock.
A project by three students, based on Hilberseimer’s colossal 1922 entry for the Chicago Herald Tribune competition, challenged the magnitude of the scheme assigned by reprogramming a coach house as a market hall, so reviving the tradition of the Graz farmers’ market. The preserved interior, with its time-worn timber structure, remains unchanged while inserted spaces for a restaurant and bakery invite dialogue between old and new.
The cavernous void of Henri Sauvage’s ziggurat Giant Hotel of 1927, in a proposal by another team of three, is reconfigured to offer exercise and sports facilities, responding to the culture of fitness at the heart of contemporary notions of wellbeing. Housing over a thousand residents, the flats are terraced to maximise exposure to fresh air and natural light.
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy