Sunday, July 27, 2008

Coöp Himmelb(l)au

The “maverick Viennese partnership” Coöp Himmelb(l)au (literally, the “Sky Blue Cooperative”) was established in May 1968 by Wolf D. Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky. Their architecture has been called expressionistic, spontaneous, irrational—all characteristic of the Deconstructivism that followed them. Why should they be included in an encyclopedia of architectural feats? Because they were the archetypal challengers, not altogether without success, of orthodox architectural thinking at the end of the twentieth century.

Until the late 1970s, when they took a “technological stance,” drawing “airy therapeutic machines,” their practice focused mainly on interior architecture. Twenty years later they unabashedly aimed to unsettle and create unrest, reacting mostly against the history-plundering aspects of postmodernism. Such contradiction of what were held to be architecture’s “eternal truths”—harmony, unity, and clarity—must be seen as neo-Mannerism, playing it for kicks, so to speak. Their interior spaces and elements of their facades, thrust through with girders, giant needles, or spikes, create esthetic emotions of discomfort and disturbance rather than once-prized beauty. Someone has described their work as “an architecture of the chest spiked by the steering column.”

Early designs of this kind included the Reiss Bar (1977) in Vienna, whose interior is split by a fissure ostensibly held together by massive turnbuckles. The front door is pierced by two huge spikes. The Red Angel Bar (1980–1981), also in Vienna, uses “tin, steel and glass block [to] embody the form and soul of the hovering angel, the wails of the sinners, and the protests of an antiestablishment youth.” To enclose the space, wings spread out from the diagonal spike that forms the structural spine—a frequent motif in their buildings.

This approach climaxed in a number of projects and buildings, including a prizewinning master plan for the new town of Melun-Senart, near Paris, France (1987), a proposed city center for St. Polten, Austria (1989–1990)—urban design schemes in which the excitement of polemic eventually gave place to the pragmatics of city bylaws—and a hilltop studio for Anselm Kiefer in Buchen, Germany (1990). It can be found also in the Funder Factory 3 in St. Veit/Glan, Austria (1988–1989). There, Coöp Himmelb(l)au “dissolved” what might easily have been a boring long-span industrial shed into “an amalgam of more sculptural, functionally differentiated elements,” with spectacular results: a main building with a red entrance canopy, a power plant with three 75-foot-high (23-meter) chimneys that lurch drunkenly, and an assembly-line building whose corner is an exploding structure of steel and glass. The same dynamism may also be seen in a strangely compatible penthouse addition (1984–1988) to a neoclassical building in Vienna. It has been described as “biomorphic … an exposed exoskeletal structure” whose boardroom looks like a “dissected ribcage.” Outside, it looks very much like a huge beetle with spread wings, scrabbling for a foothold on the roof.

In June 1989 Coöp Himmelb(l)au won (with locally based Morphosis and Burton and Spitz) first prize for a pavilion in a Los Angeles performing arts park. Opening an office in the U.S. city, they secured several commissions in southern California. In 1993 they won a competition for the Jussieu Campus Library of the University of Paris and were commissioned to design the east pavilion of the Groninger Museum, Groningen, the Netherlands, completed in 1995. The following year they represented Austria at the International Architecture Biennale in Venice. They have recently completed the eight-theater UFA Cinema Center in Dresden, Germany (1993–1998), and the SEG Apartment Tower in Vienna, a complex of residential and other towers and a school (1994–1998). Working with a staff of twenty-seven, they undertook a project to convert the shell of a former Vienna gasometer into a multipurpose building; another complex in Hamburg, Germany; an entertainment center in Guadalajara, Mexico; and a building for Expo 2001 in Biel, Switzerland, all between 1995 and 2000.

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