Architecture Between East and West

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Architecture between East and West: The Emergent Practices of Arbeitsgruppe 4 in Cold War Austria

The Third Man immortalized post-war Vienna, creating the architectural images most closely associated Austria’s geopolitical position at the time. Physical destruction served as a constant reminder of Austria’s immediate past and its bleak outlook for the future. The decay also served as a material manifestation of the guilt and repression associated with Austria’s role in the war (Figs. 1-2).[1] Historically, a time of “reeducation”, “collective forgetfulness”[2] and rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure, the desire to meet quotidian needs and subsistence overshadowed any concern for renewing aesthetic expression or reinvigorating the discursive strategies that made Vienna central to the development of early modernist architecture For Austrians in general, as well architects, artists and designers in particular, there was an ominous realization that the country could not return to its heroic history and did not want to relive its immediate past. As a result, the dynamics of the Cold War, as a comedy of errors with the Soviets and the Western allies as fortuitous occupiers, became a de-facto driving force behind the dynamics of architectural production, consumption and expression. The exhaustion and cynicism of post-war Vienna and its foreign occupation serve as the standard focus of Cold War histories of Austria. However, its unique position between East and West, as well as the gradual emergence of a small group of progressive students, artists and architects, developed promising discursive and architectural practices that challenged the reductive expediency of much post-war rebuilding efforts throughout the decade following the end of World War II and made Austrian architecture once again relevant to a regional and global audience. The experimental and collaborative pedagogy at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna influenced the collective work of Arbeitsgruppe 4, a team of young Austrian architects whose projects produced the most significant and underestimated strategies for addressing Austria’s political and aesthetic circumstances. More than any other Austrian architects during the decade following the Second World War, Arbeitsgruppe 4 used the social constraints of history and the disciplinary autonomy forced on them by the Cold War as opportunities for a dynamic engagement with advances in the arts, technology and cultural production and for reimagining Austria’s built environment, simultaneously developing an expressive sense of agency within their own, as well as Austria’s, architecture. Arbeitsgruppe 4 (A4) unofficially formed in 1950 when Wilhelm Holzbauer (b. 1930), Friedrich Kurrent (b. 1931), Otto Leitner (b. 1930) and Johannes Spalt (1920-2010) were all students at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of Clemens Holzmeister (1886-1983). Holzbauer, Leitner and Kurrent knew each other from the city business school from which all of them, as well as Spalt some years earlier, had graduated (Figs. 3-5). Between 1950 and 1970, A4 produced more than 140 proposed and built works, which despite (or because of) the historical, social, cultural and economic constraints of the Cold War in Austria, revealed radically new approaches to programming, tectonics, architectural historiography and aesthetics. The generic (if slightly Teutonic-sounding) anonymity of their name (literally translated as “Working Group 4”) expressed a belief in collectivity, teamwork and expressive pragmatism,[3] which informed their early participation in competitions. A4 depended entirely on competitions during its early years, because commissioned work was rare and uninspiring. Commissioned work was also a constant reminder of the bleak environment in Austria, as well as its dubious recent history. Following the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria,[4] Nazi Germany considered Austria a constituent part of the Reich. However,...
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