Yikes! Peter Cook's and Colin Fournier's
perkily animistic Kunsthaus in Graz recasts the identity of
the museum and recalls a legendary design movement
© M. Nicol / Artur
For more photos click on 'photos
& drawings' above.
To see the people and products
behind this project click on 'people & products.'
Archigram is back, judging by the Kunsthaus,
the museum in Graz that one of its founders, Peter Cook, has
designed with Colin Fournier. If ever there was a movement
that everyone dismissed as hopelessly utopian and absolutely
unbuildable, it's the one initiated by Archigram in 1961.
This is when Cook, with Warren Chalk, Ron Herron, Dennis Crompton,
David Greene, and Michael Webb, got together at the Architectural
Association in London. The group seemed about as close to
the lunatic fringe of the pop phenomenon as one could get.
As the Beatles of architecture, Archigram broke down the dreary
conformity of the 1950s, sweeping aside sclerotic convention
with their antics, and served up a madcap architectural cocktail,
mixing new information technology with Buck Rogers popular
mechanics and imagery right out of Cape Canaveral.
It has taken 40 years, but now it seems
the world has finally caught up with where Archigram's head
was in the early 1960s. The Kunsthaus in Graz, which Cook
and Fournier call the "Friendly Alien," came about when Cook,
the chairman of the Bartlett School of Architecture at University
College in London, and Fournier, a professor at Bartlett who
had worked with Bernard Tschumi on Parc de la Villette in
Paris, entered the Kunsthaus competition in 2000. Under the
name Spacelab Cook-Fournier, they won the commission, forming
a joint venture (called ARGE Kunsthaus) with two German firms,
Architektur Consult and engineers Bollinger+Grohmann. With
the museum's fall opening, Archigram's wildest flights of
imagination have finally landed on Earth. And in the most
unlikely place, too: Graz, almost three hours by train from
Vienna, is one of the prettiest towns you'll ever see [for
more on Graz, see RECORD, May 2003, page 123]. Literally popping
out amid three- and four-story, 18th-century pastel-colored
Baroque buildings straight from a Mozart opera, the new building
is a whopper of a big, bright, blue bubble with a shiny, scaly,
acrylic-glass skin that not only has a serious case of goose
bumps but that flashes and glows in the dark.
You've just got to love it, nozzles and
all. The people of Graz do. But then they're not boring, "cool"
folk. One fall morning the place was just bursting with jovial
people dressed up in their Sunday best Tyrolean hats with
feathers or tassels, and boiled wool jackets. This is High
Archigram—not a wimpy, fizzled out, aesthetically correct
version of it. The nozzles, for example, are touted as devices
for catching light, equipped as they are with electronically
controlled louvers. They come with quirky,spiral-tube light
fixtures, looking like fluorescent springs, for dark conditions.
Functional though they may be, these protruding sci-fi windows
are straight out of Ron Herron's series of drawings, Walking
Cities, of 1963.
The rectilinear glazed shaft precariously
cantilevered on top of the billowing form serves no purpose
whatsoever from the curatorial point of view. But the "needle,"
as it's called, offers a sweeping panorama over the city.
It is right out of the lookout atop Peter Cook's Montreal
tower project of 1963.
And then there is the "pin," a travelator.
Archigram's first magazine, dated "May 61," and only one page,
had some declarations in verse about the terrible state of
contemporary architecture, and some words in bubbles floating
between the poems. Flow comes back several times on
that cover. And fun. The pin is a particularly enjoyable
way of flowing from the ground floor to the second and third
floors. This innovative circulation device is totally integrated
into the exhibition space. It starts where Frank Lloyd Wright's
Guggenheim Museum left off. Whereas Wright's circulation system
was meant for paintings, this one is better adapted to contemporary,
large, multimedia installations, allowing them to be taken
in from different angles. Thanks to the pin, in viewing the
current show, Perception, which features paintings,
sculptures, photographs, and installations, you feel as if
you are slowly flying over the exhibition pieces. This sense
of an overview is in the best Archigram tradition. At the
same time, the travelator is a feature that the late Cedric
Price, teacher and idol at the Architectural Association during
Archigram's years, introduced in his Fun Palace project of
The translucent, blue, acrylic-glass
skin is also textbook Archigram. In that first Archigram issue
of 1961 are other little bubbles with the words plastic
and skin!. Because the Kunsthaus's exterior is conceived
of as a double-layered skin, it is also used for what the
architects call "Communicative Display," derived from the
belief that the facade of the spectacular building should
be a membrane hinting at activities within.
This digital display was carried out
by Realities: United, a firm specializing in architectural
lighting, directed by two brothers, Jan and Tim Edler, former
students at the Bartlett. The system they developed for this
project, called BIX (a cross between big and pixel), is a
field of 925 standard, circular, fluorescent tubes placed
under the outer skin of the building [RECORD, March 2003,
page 177]. All the lights can be controlled individually with
a computerized system, so not only can they be switched on
and off, but their intensity can be changed at an infinite
variability 18 times per second. In this way, the east facade
of the Kunsthaus has been turned into about a 148-foot-wide
and 66-foot-high, low-resolution "gray scale" display that
is highly integrated into the complex, double-curved facade
structure. Simple messages, animations, and film clips can
appear and disappear within the skin.
True to the pop aesthetic, this skin
looks like it must have cost a fortune: It did not. The materials
involved—the acrylic-glass skin, the standard circular lighting
features—make the whole enterprise exceptionally economical,
according to Cook, as does the unadorned exposed concrete
structure seen inside.
The building is just as friendly up close
as it is from practically everywhere else it can be seen in
the surroundings. Despite its gestalt from afar as an opaque
structure, it is actually glazed at ground level, with total
visual contact between inside and out, and accessible from
multiple entrances on both its street sides. For all its apparent
zaniness, it is a serious, porous, urbane architectural creature.
Moreover, the Kunsthaus, according to
Cook, was designed to relate to the specific site, occupied
partially by the historic Eisernes Haus. The program called
for integrating this 1852 structure—the first cast-iron building
imported from Sheffield, England, into Austria—into the museum.
In Cook's view, the English derivation makes it extremely
germane to his own buildinganother equally high-tech experiment.
Last but not least, it is successful as urban renewal. In
what Cook describes as a run-down, red-light district, the
Kunsthaus has now managed to stimulate the spread of cafés
This building is bound to become a classic,
despite the fact that Archigram once tried to subvert the
architectural canon. Ironically, it took 40 years for a utopian
idea to become reality in architecture. But perhaps the ultimate
reason for its appeal is that it comes from a time when a
ludic, optimistic mood characterized our culture. Precisely
because it is an anachronistic creation of early 1960s' cultural
optimism in a world now so terribly different, it is arresting
and strangely moving.
See the January 2004 issue of Architectural
Record for full article.
Formal name of Project:
141,007 sq. ft.
City of Graz
8010 Graz, Austria
phone: ++43 316 81 41 42 0
fax: ++43 316 81 41 42 28
is the joint veture between:
spacelab cook-fournier GmbH
Architektur Consult www.archconsult.com