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Kunsthaus Graz
Graz, Austria
ARGE Kunsthaus

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.'

By Liane LeFaivre

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 1961.

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 and restaurants.

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:
Kunsthaus Graz

Graz, Austria

Gross square footage:
141,007 sq. ft.

Total construction cost:
$50 Million

City of Graz

ARGE Kunsthaus
Mariahilferstrasse 1
8010 Graz, Austria
phone: ++43 316 81 41 42 0
fax: ++43 316 81 41 42 28

ARGE Kunsthaus is the joint veture between:
– spacelab cook-fournier GmbH
–Architektur Consult


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