Hans Hollein: Creative Force of Postmodernist Design

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Hans Hollein, artist, designer, theoretician and Pritzker Prize-winning architect from Vienna, who breathed postmodernist life into everything from buildings to furniture to tableware, died recently. Julie Iovine writes on this multi-dimensional creative force, particularly known for his museum design, including Vienna’s Haas House and Frankfurt’s Museum of Modern Art.

Hans Hollein Architecture, Vulcania Museum, France

Situated within an extinct volcano at an altitude of 1,000 m (3,280 ft), Hollein’s Vulcania Museum in Saint-Ours, France, educates visitors on the primeval forces that created the planet. Mostly underground, the complex of buildings surrounds a ramp descending into a sunken plaza dominated by a conical structure sliced in two, representing a volcano. Photo By Sina Baniamad.

Hans Hollein, the Art-Minded Architect

By Julie Iovine, Published in The Wall Street Journal

Architecture that was merely functional bored Hans Hollein, the Austrian architect who died this May at the age of 80. He gloried in the archetypal, the monumental, the irreverent and the intellectual.

Hollein’s was never a household name beyond his home base in Vienna, where several of his buildings are local landmarks. Nor did he attract much public attention following the heyday of postmodernism, the breakaway movement with which he is most often associated, and dismissed, by today’s earnest practitioners.

Mr. Hollein’s buildings, which have been erected around the world, were, by design, beyond category, commingling Modernist and traditional aesthetics in sculptural, almost painterly ways.  — Margalit Fox, New York Times

But Hollein is overdue for more careful consideration. He represents an endangered species, the art-minded architect. Raimond Abraham, John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi, the London provocateurs Archigram, even the young Frank Gehry—to name but a few—were architects and academics energized by the cross-disciplinary winds that blew through the 1960s and who refused to narrow the scope of what architecture might be. By questioning modernism’s verities that structure must be transparent, free from historical taint and in literal ways functional, these architects fanned an imaginative spark that set the profession on fire and invigorated generations of students whether they agreed on principle or not. “We must liberate architecture from building,” Hollein said in a typical 1960s manifesto-style statement.

After studying architecture in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts and earning his architecture degree at the University of California, Berkeley (his thesis: “Space in Space in Space”), Hollein—who also edited magazines and curated exhibitions—opened an office in Vienna in 1964 and promptly started promoting radical schemes.

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postmodernism architecture, Germany, Hans Hollein

Hollein’s postmodern building housing the Museum Abteiberg (Abbey Hill) in its steeply sloping location sets a striking counterpoint to the nearby historic abbey and parish church. Completed in 1982, the sprawling campus helped tip the Pritzker scales in his favor three years later. Photo from DornRose.

Liberation of Architecture from Building

Among his widely published proposals in the 1960s were an inflatable office and the Nonphysical Environment Comfort Kit with “architecture pills” that would materialize an experience of the desired surroundings, and a makeover spray that would recast interiors at a spritz. For a 1970 exhibition in Graz, Austria, he installed an archaeological burial ground and invited artists to bury and dig up artifacts; Joseph Beuys participated. Before Hollein started building, a favorite medium was the collage. His collages of a hulking boulder-cloud skyscraper for Vienna and of a monumental Rolls-Royce grill as Wall Street office tower were widely admired—including by Claes Oldenburg, who was then working up his own ideas about monster-size everyday objects.

Hollein was not, however, a so-called Paper Architect working in visionary never-builds but a practicing designer with a flair for derring-do. A candle shop he designed in Vienna with interiors covered entirely in aluminum and mirrors and with a shiny metal façade looking something like a die-cut candlestick drew international attention and remains a pilgrimage stop for traveling architects today. Equally celebrated was the Austrian State Travel Agency of 1978 with a grove of palm trees with brass fronds and the fragment of a classical column in chrome. His conceits for fusing the sci-fi and the historical made him a fellow traveler with postmodernism just as the movement was gaining momentum, and in spite of his own dismissal of the movement as too vague.

When Hollein learned that there were seven towns and cities in the US named “Vienna,” he set out on a cross-country trek to visit all of them. During these years, he studied and met some of the most important architects of the 20th century including Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Richard Neutra, among others.  — Metropolis Magazine

His first large-scale building, the Abteiberg Town Museum in Mönchengladbach, Germany, was controversial. Completed in 1982, the museum juxtaposed classical and seemingly jerrybuilt elements, including a marble temple-like entrance pavilion, zinc-roofed sheds, and an angular sandstone tower with mirrored-glass biomorphic cutouts. Arranged in parts to address a terraced hillside, the museum combines high artifice with an intimate understanding of the natural landscape.

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Vienna, Hans Hollein, postmodern architecture

Haas-Haus in Vienna, 1985–90, in the postmodernist style, considered controversial owing to its contrast with the adjacent Stephansdom cathedral. Photo Mathias Ripp.

Postmodernism and the Juxaposition of Artifice with the Natural Environment

Hollein’s Haas Haus, a shopping mall in central Vienna, is a poster work for postmodernism. On a prominent corner directly across from the Gothic spires of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Haas Haus is a bulging drum of mirrored glass skinned partially in a coffered grid of metal squares with a bulbous Ottoman-inflected tower at the corner and interiors with hurtling staircases arcing through space. Visitors love it or hate it, but the Viennese have proudly embraced Haas Haus as a landmark though it is only 24 years old.

Hollein also designed furniture with Memphis, the Italian-led group known for a sofa in the shape of big red lips, squiggly shaped bookcases, and all things primary colored and emotionally toned. His Schwarzenberg desk is made of briarwood with gold-leafed legs but seems to owe as much to the Secession movement as to Memphis. Eight years before Guggenheim Bilbao opened, the Austrian government approached Thomas Krens, then the museum’s director, with the idea that the Guggenheim build a satellite museum in Salzburg with a Hans Hollein design. Though never realized, his idea for a subterranean museum buried deep beneath the Mönchsberg with a lacework of skylights and no façade, only a small entrance down the street from Mozart’s birthplace, has entranced many architects with its subversive charms.

“Hollein’s idea of the crack impressed me and led me to the ideas of fragmentation, explosion etc. A true innovator of the discipline in a time when architecture had to radically reinvent itself.”  — Zaha Hadid, London Architect in Dezeen

Hollein’s name does not turn up much in the indexes of contemporary architecture. Currently, casual neglect seems to be the fate of several 20th-century architects with postmodernism in their past: Michael Graves is arguably more famous now for his Target tablewares than for his Tuscan-hued postmodern architecture. It’s a surprise to learn that Hollein was at one time acknowledged to be a major force; in 1985, he was just the seventh architect to be awarded a Pritzker Prize, the highest architectural honor in the U.S. In their citation, jurors described Hollein as “a master of his profession—one who with wit and eclectic gusto draws upon the traditions of the New World as readily as upon those of the Old. An architect who is also an artist.”

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Hans Hollein, museum architecture, Paris, postmodernism

Sammlung/Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art modern/Centre de création industrielle.

Twelve days before he died, a retrospective of his work as architect, artist, curator and writer, called “Hans Hollein: Everything Is Architecture,” opened at the Abteiberg Museum, his first major building, putting on display a full array of known works and unfamiliar surprises. Hollein reveled in mining the past in order to flesh out a more exciting future. It is his turn to be the one explored.

Ms. Iovine writes about architecture for the Wall Street Journal.

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