words Justin McGuirk
Legendary Austrian architect Hans Hollein was in London for a conference on hotel design. Icon went along for a chat about inventing the Bilbao effect, building underground and the problem with the Venice biennale.
I didn’t know you were into hotel design.
Well, I remodelled the Vienna Hilton and we’re doing a hotel now in the Austrian alps – so I also came to get some ideas. But I spend at least a third of the year in hotels. I have, let’s say, an ambivalent attitude to them. My visual memory goes blank in hotels. If the police asked me what was in my room I couldn’t tell them.
I hear you’ve just finished a public sculpture in Genoa.
Yes, it’s called The Golden Calf, and it’s an oil tank on a railway wagon in the square in front of a late Romanesque church.
It sounds like that collage you made in the 1960s of an aircraft carrier in the countryside.
It does relate to it. The collage was more about the transforming of an object with a different meaning; here the meaning is actually this is transport for oil, and oil is the most valuable commodity in the world – at least, we have wars about it. It’s not just an aesthetic thing.
In the 60s you and Archigram and Superstudio were playing with utopian visions. Is that still in your work?
Well, architecture is not only a question of finding a solution to a problem, it has always been a statement about life. Man has always built both for survival during life and survival after life (even now if you look at some of these people who blow themselves up so that they can come into heaven). It’s why people put energy into the pyramids instead of having a little tombstone. On the one side architecture is about preservation of body temperature and on the other side it’s a kind of ritual thing.
Haven’t we given up on the grand ideas of the Sixties?
Today’s younger generation is more pragmatic. It’s a question of what the client wants. But I come back to old ideas; I still have them in my mind and now I’m developing them.
But they are less romantic.
Well it’s a question of cost that we took the organic forms of the rock megastructures [Superstucture Over Vienna, 1960] and made them rectangular [Monte Laa towers].
Your megastructures were in some ways comments on the city. What are the biggest problems with our cities today?
This is a question I have to deal with a lot because I am the chairman of the city planning commission in Vienna. There are two types of city. Vienna is a city that is expanding, but it expands for reasons of comfort. Before the First World War, Vienna had 2.1 million inhabitants and now it only has 1.7 million, but it is still growing because people want bigger apartments and there’s better public transport. We’ve also worked in Lima, where in two decades the population grew from 1 million to 10 million, and that brings completely different urban problems. Some cities, like London, are in between these two problems. Also, especially in Europe, you have historical cities and the question is how much should we preserve and what can we tear down. This is a problem that we have in Vienna. A living city is in constant transformation so certain things have to change but to make the right transition, the right kind of intervention, that is the task for many of the European cities. Not so much for many of the Asian cities.
You’ve become associated with underground buildings.
Well [in the 1970s] I did this museum in Mönchengladbach in Germany, which actually started a new idea about museums. When I did that, no architect was interested in museums, they were considered outdated operations you shouldn’t be concerned with. But at Mönchengladbach I introduced a new idea of the museum as a concept building – I even used titanium zinc and since then museums have been clad in metal.
So you started this notion of the museum as the signature piece of architecture?
Very much so. Frank Gehry said at the press conference for the opening of Bilbao that without Mönchengladbach Bilbao couldn’t have happened.
You’d already designed a Guggenheim museum.
The Guggenheim in Salzburg was actually the forerunner of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. There was nowhere left in the old city to build a museum, so I suggested putting it in the Mönchsberg, which is a rock in the middle of Salzburg – of course you couldn’t put apartments or offices in there but a museum was okay. Salzburg was a little slow and the Bilbao people were faster. But Salzburg is still on the agenda – it’s still not decided that it will not be built – and it’s still a valid proposition.
Do you think we need to do more building underground?
Well I did a 60% underground museum in France, Vulcania [a volcano museum in the Auvergne]. Nobody had any idea how a volcano museum looks, and I had the idea to put the theme descent to the centre of the world – Jules Verne and Dante’s inferno – so I put more than half the programme into an old lava stream. Building underground for me is a different spatial concept. Building above ground is tectonic, you put things on top of each other; underground you can develop in every direction like you swim in a swimming pool. So you can create a completely different spatial concept.
Do you think it’s a solution for overcrowded cities?
It’s a solution for buildings that don’t need daylight. In our research for the underground museum we found that a lot of military and research places and organisations are underground. Underground – look at the Moscow subway – the architect is completely responsible. You can’t rely on sunshine and a nice view and so on, you really create an artificial environment. In Delft, in Holland, they have a special course in underground building and I was invited to lecture there. But I have also built high-rises so it’s not an obsession of mine, but there’s a sort of sympathy for me to see what you can do with this situation.
You’ve also directed the Venice architecture biennale. What did you think of it this year?
Well the problem is that it shows absolutely too much. It shows that there are a lot of things going on and a lot of things that are in the same vein. I would have appreciated a much clearer selection: there’s good architecture and not so good architecture and there’s bad architecture. I thought it was a little overcrowded.
Was there one thing you would have liked it to focus on?
Well, when I was director of the biennale the topic was the architect sensing the future – the architect as seismograph – so I selected about 35 established architects, 35 emerging voices and I think that was a clearer way of conveying what is the future.
But what specific issues interest you?
Well, mental issues. Issues of new approaches and new ideas. It’s certainly important to address the influx of the computer into how architecture evolves.
Isn’t that more or less what they did this year?
Much of it you could have done without a computer. To me it was more the question that it was not put into a framework where you make a comment on importance or on background. It was just there and it all looked alike.
There are interesting things happening in Vienna. Do you see a new group of Austrian architects emerging on the international scene?
Well since several decades we have been able to create a very lively scene with a lot of debate. There’s my age group then there’s Coop Himmelblau and those people and then a number of younger architects with very strange names like Alles Wird Gut (“everything’s getting better”) so it’s a scene which animates each other even though they go in quite different directions, some are more conceptual, some more fun.
What are you working on at the moment?
We just finished a high-rise building in Vienna and we are working on a second one now. I’m doing a project in Italy in a historical city, San Giovanni Valdarno, near Terranova – it’s Prada country, all their offices and workshops are in the vicinity. We just did a small but very interesting building in Vaduz in Liechtenstein and we are doing a second one there, and we’re doing a masterplan for a part of Vienna.
[Hans Hollein was speaking at the Design Hotels Future Forum of Design]