Cloud Tower | icon 052 | October 2007

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The tall, angular, silver structure is poking its neck out from behind some trees as we enter the leafy grounds of Grafenegg, a park an hour’s drive outside Vienna. It is an outdoor concert venue built by local architects The Next Enterprise for a new annual classical music festival. Vienna trades heavily on its reputation as former home to Mozart and Beethoven, and tourism investment has now reached out to these public gardens, the site of a peculiar neo-Gothic castle.

Walking from the car park, the Cloud Tower looks awkward and unwieldy, its steel and concrete angles jarring the eye. Next to the 19th-century castle, it is defiantly new, and betrays a more contemporary influence on Viennese architecture than faux Gothic: the deconstructivist theories of Coop Himmelb(l)au and Peter Eisenman that flourished here in the 1980s.

The vast grounds offer many different views of the shiny mountain-like structure, and from each one it appears to be a different building. A bright green artificial mound forms the first layer, enclosing the 1,600 outdoor seats and serving as an acoustic barrier. This mound is cut by a generously wide and elegant concrete entrance, which leads through the open auditorium to the stage, then continues up and around to the back of the building, past the entrance to the backstage areas. The height of the stage on one side is over-extruded to create a rooflight and window that shower light on the dressing rooms buried into the ground behind the stage. From the east, the steel-clad tower and the concrete form that supports it look like they may be ready for take-off, casting dramatic shadows across the ranks of seats. But from the auditorium itself, the impression is weighty, yawning and serious.

This contorted concrete structure may be less intimidating when it’s filled with people, but empty it’s a sculptural curiosity. This is quite significant given that it is only planned to be “active” during the music festival, for three weeks a year – the rest of the time the building becomes a platform, a picnic destination, an impromptu bandstand – or a folly. No doubt it will be appearing on rubbers and plastic pens before long.

“We think of it as a pavilion,” says architect Marie-Therese Harnoncourt, who won the competition for the project with her partner Ernst Fuchs in 2005. “There is an ‘axis of seeing’,” explains Harnoncourt. “It’s very deliberate that it’s not symmetrical. We really like that when you move it’s always changing.”

The directions of the disparate facets on the facade respond to invisible lines of movement – pedestrian pathways and plays of sunlight – across these vast grounds. Acoustic considerations dictate much of the movement of the stage,
but the height is a response to the trees and a statement of presence in the grounds. The form itself is an amalgamation of these directions, the result of heavy diagramming and in no small part an assertion of the architects’ quite brutal aesthetic.

Despite this, standing on stage facing the currently empty stacks of concrete seats, it is clear that here is where the strengths of this project lie. The view the violinists have has been carefully considered, as has the impression the pianist makes while playing under this light-filled canopy. Every sound the orchestra makes is aimed directly back at the audience.

A powerful, angular set of steel acoustic panels as big as the hull of a ship, painted an ox-blood red, complements the lighter red wooden wall that divides the backstage areas. There’s light coming quite unexpectedly through the darker-coloured shade above. Behind that, a slanted window pours in more light.

The “cloud” label comes from the sky view cut through the tower. It certainly isn’t descriptive of the building’s form, which is a forceful rejection of proportion, symmetry, context and human scale. No doubt this will come alive to spectacular effect under the right conditions, yet you can’t help but feel that the building could be more refined. However, that seems to be the point. “We are not looking for anything chic or slick. This is not about smooth contours or glass and steel. We are more rough,” offers Harnoncourt.

The Next Enterprise is at its strongest here when playing with angles, light and shadow, in the interior and in the subtle gaps created by the window frames. The problem is the bigger picture. This auditorium will be waving the flag for contemporary architecture in Vienna, but for all its contortions there are no great structural innovations. There is no suggestion that they would have the budget, resources or construction know-how to pull off a Zaha, something that could really push some engineering or structural boundaries, inspire with ideas and spaces like Libeskind’s Jewish Museum or at least be a genuine representation of 21st-century architectural thinking in Vienna. It’s fantastic that these young architects have been given the opportunity to build in this way, to have such freedom, but it is difficult not to notice that this structure would be better suited to the kinds of playful installations the practice is known for. Like The Next Enterprise’s first major public project, a swimming pool in Kaltern (icon 040) completed last year, the practice’s early houses, installations and urban interventions demonstrate a more investigative, problem-solving approach than witnessed in Grafenegg.

Like most of the contemporary design practices in Vienna that are concerned with form – Delugan Meissl, Querkraft, Propeller Z, Liquifier, Wolfgang Tschapeller – Harnoncourt and Fuchs were taught by Wolf D Prix, co-founder of architectural co-operative Coop Himmelb(l)au and the main proponent of heavily formalist thinking in Austrian architecture – a fellow deconstructivist alongside the likes of Hadid, Eisenman and Libeskind.

Harnoncourt and Fuchs are committed followers of Prix, and speak enthusiastically of the new style of education he has brought to Vienna, which has established committed links with the Los Angeles architecture scene (see page 110). Interestingly, it is only in recent years that Coop Himmelb(l)au’s work has started being built, with a major commission from BMW completing in October and its first building in America completed in Akron earlier this year.

But these new Coop buildings are problematic. They look and feel as if they belong to a different time, when aesthetics, balance and subtlety are secondary to macho forms and iconic gestures. The generation after Prix should resolve his flaws and get over this idea that a building is a work of shock and awe. In this instance, his influence has been perhaps too strong. The result lacks the thoughtfulness of the Kaltern pool and has too many clunky moments. The architects’s reputation can survive this public project because it’s such an open site. Abstract sculpture on a lawn makes sense to people but it is clear that this would not be tolerated within the city.

images Lukas Schaller

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