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The Legacy of the Austrian Avant-Garde

A Discussion Paper on the Identity of the Faculty of Architecture of Innsbruck University

By Bart Lootsma and Alexa Baumgartner

The identity of our school as a whole was never really discussed. It has a history, of course. It was founded in 1969 and grew from series of tenures, discussions, agreements and fights. The most radical and profound of the latter was the divorce of our faculty from the engineers 12 years ago, bringing together and bonding a group of professors and staff who did not believe architecture was just a technical discipline.

Today, in 2017, we find a largely new faculty, which – surprisingly – is more homogenous than any of the earlier teams. It finds itself among the 50 best architectural schools in Europe for already several years in a row. It is time to reflect on that position and consider further strategic development to maintain and improve it. What singles out the Faculty of Architecture of Innsbruck University today among other schools culturally? This presentation intends to provoke a contemplation and debate on this cultural identity by emphasizing only one particular aspect. The occasion is that we have been invited by the Biennale d’Architecture d’Orléans to present the faculty and to select works from the great collection of the FRAC Centre in Orléans that relate to it. The latter question in particular coincidentally gave us a completely new insight in who we, the Faculty of Architecture of Innsbruck University as a body, possibly were, are today and might want to be.

This essay may seem a little bit like science-fiction, that may often be more interesting because of the implicit view it gives on the time it is written than on the explicit view on the time it is set in. Certainly, as any view on history or curated selection that wants to make a point, the particular view presented in this essay does not do complete justice to all individual protagonists and to a few not even at all. Some protagonists seem to be side-lined whereas in another story they could take central stage. Stefano de Martino, with his particular biography in London, the Netherlands and the United States, and his crucial role in early OMA, for example, does not want to be part of this presentation and we can respect that. Klaus Tragbar, as a building historian with a completely different background was difficult to feature in this spectrum. This does not mean they are not crucial members of our faculty, who enable it to proliferate in a wider perspective instead of narrowing down to tunnel vision. Equally, staff, students and alumni have shaped the identity of our school. And, of course, there is no reason that what has been in the past should inevitably continue in the future. We hope this presentation will enable us to make more conscious choices toward such a future in the different democratic agoras that are designated for that.

Tyrol is known for its conservative insistence on a regional identity, which in reality always was an artificial reaction to phases of modernization and has been re-constructed over and over again depending on the shifting geopolitical situation. These developments were however always mirrored and alternated by individuals and groups who desired a more ambitious, international and future-oriented approach. When it comes to the founding of the Faculty of Architecture in Innsbruck - or the Building Faculty as it was originally called – the dominant forces were clearly ambitious and future oriented. In tune with the fashion of the period, the faculty was still considered to become a Technical University and brought engineers and architects together. The design of the campus by Hubert Prachensky in 1967 was a clear hint of what they wanted. It was clearly inspired by the Kagawa Prefectural Government Hall from 1959 by Kenzo Tange, one of the leading Japanese Metabolists, which were the first architectural avant-garde outside of Europe.

The central figure in the early years of the faculty was Josef Lackner, who produced an oeuvre that was as singular as it was spectacularly modernist. The economic climate in Austria until 1989 was not such that it allowed for many extra-large projects to be realized, but notably in a series of unrealised projects from the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties one can recognize more than a sympathy for the megastructures as they were explored by the international avant-gardes in that period. Lackner’s Antistadt from 1967 can even be regarded as an original, Tyrolean, Alpine landscape based take on the cell structures of the Metabolists.
The founding architectural fathers of the Innsbruck Faculty clearly wanted to push their orientation on the future even further by increasingly hiring colleagues who had been in immediate contact with those avant-gardes. Leopold Gerstel’s Ziggurat had been published in Archigram Magazine and several of the professors, notably historian Rainer Graefe as well as Eda Schaur, professor for Structural Design, came from the avant-garde construction laboratory of Frei Otto in Stuttgart, the legendary Institute for Lightweight Structures.

One of the most remarkable things connecting most of the professors at the Innsbruck Faculty of Architecture today, even if most of them are not Austrian themselves, are their intimate ties to the Austrian avant-garde of the nineteen sixties and seventies. In the rare case, they do not have these immediate connections, they continue the themes that the Austrian avant-garde singled out from other avant-gardes, like questions about nature and artificiality as well the body and technology. Thus, the Austrian avant-garde of the nineteen sixties and seventies still represents an important reference for the teaching and research at the Faculty of Architecture in Innsbruck as a whole.
An absolute key figure of the Austrian avant-garde, Günther Feuerstein, is still teaching at our faculty. As assistant of Karl Schwanzer at the TU Vienna, he influenced Austrian avant-gardist collectives and individuals such as Haus-Rucker-Co, Coop Himmelblau, Zünd-Up and Angela Hareiter. In the same spirit of his Seminar Club or the Experimental Study course, he is still able to fascinate students at Innsbruck University for experiments in architecture, intervention in public space and other topics related to the Austrian avant-garde today.

Especially through professors like Volker Giencke, Kjetil Thorsen and Peter Trummer, all former students and collaborators of Günther Domenig, the expressionism and experimental approach of the Grazer Schule have a strong impact on our school, while maintaining a crucial interest in innovative structural design and building technologies. Architects out of the Grazer Schule, like Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth, Raimund Abraham as well as Klaus Gartler and Helmut Rieder, still inspire young architects at Innsbruck Faculty of Architecture.
Karolin Schmidbaur, Kristina Schinegger and Stefan Rutzinger studied with Wolf Prix at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and later worked for Coop Himmelb(l)au as well. In fact, Karolin Schmidbaur still is one of the design partners of Coop Himmelb(l)au and has been responsible for some of the most remarkable projects and buildings this practice has realised over the last decades. Rames Najjar also studied at the University of Applied Arts but took his degree with Helmut Richter at the TU Vienna. Bart Lootsma is a former assistant of Haus-Rucker-Co’s Laurids Ortner at the Art University in Linz and a former professor at the University of Applied Arts, in the period that Wolf Prix, Hans Hollein, Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn were the most important professors there. The tenure of Gabriela Seifert of Formalhaut, the collective representing the German counterpart of what was called radical architecture in the nineteen seventies, is no coincidence in this context: the founders worked at Haus-Rucker-Co in Düsseldorf and later exhibited and taught in Graz on invitation of Günther Domenig and Marc Mer.

Unlike the rest of the international avant-garde, whose visions usually remained on paper or in models, Austrian avant-gardists designed and build 1:1 prototypes of their temporary installations in the form of capsules, suits, helmets, glasses, etc. before realising buildings. It allowed them to experiment with the latest technologies. The temporality of the projects was crucial, because – as Laurids Ortner said in 1976– the architects could physically simulate a possible transformation through architecture. After the visitor’s bodily experience, they could easily remove the installation and bring it to another place.
The tradition of realizing 1:1 prototypes we still see in the actual design and realization of installations and even complete buildings by students at Innsbruck Faculty of Architecture under guidance of Walter Prenner and Verena Rauch. Moreover, 1:1 installations realized by robots are experimented by Marjan Colletti, Kristina Schinegger and Stefan Rutzinger. In fact, working in a 1:1 scale remains one of the great strengths of Innsbruck University.

The theoretical aspects of the Austrian avant-gardes of the twentieth century have also been an important focal point for Bart Lootsma and the Department for Architectural Theory and History (architecturaltheory.eu) since the beginning of his tenure. Through research and research-based studio teaching, architecturaltheory.eu tries to understand the developments in Vienna in this period not just in their own historical specificity but, inspired by what Carl Schorske wrote about Vienna around the previous turn of the century, as a kind of laboratory: “a little world in which the big one holds its try-outs.”
This started in 2009 with the project Out of the Wild, on the continuities in thinking and theory between Otto Neurath, Friedrich Kiesler and Christopher Alexander. These are all Austrian-born architects and theoreticians who had a world-wide impact in exile.
The research continues since 2015 with an investigation into the avant-gardes of the nineteen sixties and seventies under the title Everything is Architecture. The goal of this investigation is to come to a new reading of this period. Since the nineteen eighties, with the return to disciplinary thinking, many of the interdisciplinary projects of the Austrian avant-gardes have been presented in either an architectural or an art context.
A re-reading of the Austrian avant-garde of the nineteen sixties and seventies from a cyber-feminist perspective is also theme of the dissertation by Alexa Baumgartner. She investigates the Austrian experiments from the perspective of the changing ideas about the body in that period because of social and technological developments, which anticipated the radical changes in the perception of the body today.

Haus-Rucker-Co, Coop Himmelblau, Zünd-Up, Hans Hollein and Walter Pichler, as well as Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth, seemed to be especially interested in the psychophysiological impact of their projects on body and mind. By experimenting with the latest technologies and media, including pharmaceuticals, they created series of architectural laboratories, testing the reactions of the bodies inside by making them undergo unknown experiences. The capsules, helmets, and suits show a soft and abstract operation, where the users get transferred into a new, self-conditioned and emancipated environment. Seen from this perspective, the Austrian avant-garde of the nineteen sixties and seventies becomes a laboratory anticipating experiments with post- and trans-humanism today.

Similarly, the Austrian avant-garde anticipated on the changing idea of nature in what we today call the Anthropcene, as the current geological age, during which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment. We can see this in early installations by Haus-Rucker-Co, such as the OASE Nr. 7 at the 1972 Documenta in Kassel and the exhibition Cover, literally covering Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Lange in Krefeld to quasi protect it from its polluted environment in 1971. 

Contemporary experiments in post- and transhumanism at the faculty we find in the research with robotics by Marjan Colletti’s RexLab (for example at the Ars Electronica and the fashion show of Iris van Herpen), as well as in the work of Kristina Schinegger and Stefan Rutzinger in soma, in which whole buildings become bionically interactive, as in the kinetic façade of their theme pavilion at the Expo of Yeosu from 2012.
Considering the imposing presence of the Alps in Innsbruck and the Tyrolean obsession with what many still think is a natural landscape, it is no wonder that an increasingly important part of the research of the Innsbruck Faculty of Architecture, particularly where the large scale is considered, is dedicated to design strategies for the Anthropocene. Here we find not only the research of Peter Trummer and Claudia Pasquero at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning, but also research of Bart Lootsma at architecturaltheory.eu and Marjan Colletti at the Institute for Experimental Architecture in their work on the Tyrolean landscape.