The founder of deconstructivism, a passionate underminer of the foundations and one of the most famous architects of our time, the head of the Vienna agency Coop Himmelb (l) au, Wolf Prix, spoke in an interview with Kultura about the fantastic objects he creates for Russia.
How did you come to deconstructivism?
“First I decided to become an architect. It was natural: all my ancestors were involved in architecture or construction. I studied this subject in London, and in Vienna and in Los Angeles. The end of the 60’s is an interesting time for art and architecture. There was a spirit of protest in the air then. Young people were looking for new ideas, new forms … In the past, the concept of harmony was associated with symmetry and always corresponded to the laws of gravity. But since humanity began to conquer outer space, violations of the laws of attraction have ceased to be something impossible. And there is no symmetry in outer space. Therefore, the old approaches in architecture, which I called monocentric, have lost their relevance.
1968, my friends and I (Helmut Swichinsky and Michael Holzer, who then left the Office. – “Culture”) decided to become as famous as the Rolling Stones and created his own architectural firm Coop Himmelb (l) au. The development of our design language – and we believed that everyone is right, but nothing is right – was later called deconstructivism. This is an international trend in architecture and we are one of its inventors.
– You said in your lectures that you are well acquainted with Russian culture. Has she influenced you?
– My grandmother was a teacher of literature, when I was six or seven years old she told about famous Russian poets. Then I started reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but Pushkin was always my favorite author. He seemed very brave to me, even a bit of an adventurer, and he died in a duel. Then I decided not to become a poet, but an architect, but it was Alexander Pushkin who remained an example for me to follow. In the sense that it takes a lot of courage to be an architect.
When it comes to Russian architecture, as a student, my idols were Russian constructivist architects. I used their ideas when I created the architectural concept for the sports and concert complex SKA Arena, which is currently being built in St. Petersburg.
– You design your buildings for cities with a long history and an established urban environment. How appropriate is deconstructivist architecture in them?
– We build a lot in historic cities and always show the deepest respect for their traditions and culture. I was born and raised in Vienna, and this is an old city, built by the Romans, but today you will not see old buildings there. As the face of the city changed from century to century, and this was not a problem, Vienna simply adapted to new realities. At the same time, respect for heritage permeates the entire Austrian capital: on the street, under glass, you can see excavations with archeology from Roman times. And nearby are modern buildings with cafes where city dwellers or tourists sit and enjoy Viennese pastries. Respect for the historical and cultural heritage and, at the same time, the creation of an innovative comfortable environment – that is probably what characterizes modern Vienna. All new buildings there are beautifully inscribed in the urban environment.
– In Sevastopol you design a complex of buildings on one of the city’s main vantage points, how will it fit into the current panorama of the city?
– You must understand that architecture is a dynamic process, it is always an evolutionary process. Take, for example, a city as old as Rome. For a long time it was dominated by the architecture of the Roman Empire, then the Gothic, then the Baroque and Classicism. There is always movement. It is always development. And our projects fit nicely and harmoniously into the existing historical landscape. I am sure that the new theater and museum complex in Sevastopol will decorate this wonderful city.
Your agency has developed a project for a museum and theater complex in Sevastopol (GK Stroytransgaz is responsible for the construction of the facility. “Culture”). Do you think the region needed it?
– Every culture building is very necessary for people! Especially when it comes to a large cultural cluster. At the beginning of autumn I had the opportunity to fly over the Crimea in a helicopter, I saw this beautiful country from above and was amazed at the beauty of Sevastopol. I can easily imagine that I live here. I know that there are many highly educated specialists in Sevastopol who love good art, theater and who want to provide a high quality education to their children. It is obvious that such a wonderful city with its glorious historical and cultural traditions really needs a modern cultural complex.
An opera house and a museum will be built in Sevastopol, I think they will be in demand by the inhabitants of the whole of Crimea. Our company has already designed many opera houses, so we are well aware of the functional properties and features that a modern theater building should have. For example, we have designed a concert hall in Denmark, one of the best acousticians in the world. The London Philharmonic Orchestra has an agreement that they must record music in this hall. And we took full advantage of this experience in Sevastopol.
– What will this opera house look like?
– The very location of the future theater, the combination of coast and sea inspired me to trace the image of a ship or a seagull in the theater’s appearance. You know, we did a lot of research before we created the project. We carefully studied the history, different cultural and historical nuances. Therefore, the theater will be in harmony with the historical and cultural sights that are there. It will host ballet performances, so in our project we wanted to embody the idea of a light-flying flight, which we were inspired by ballet dancers. The main metaphor here is: “We are moving forward, into the future!”
– And the museum?
– The museum complex will be located in the city center next to the Opera and Ballet Theater. Both objects are designed and conceived as a single ensemble, but at the same time each building is individual in itself. The building complex of the museum complex is integrated into the environment and becomes, so to speak, a continuation of the theatre’s dynamic form, it symbolizes the open hands that meet visitors.
There will be a lot of light in the building: we tried to make its facade as transparent as possible. Of course, this does not apply to showrooms, as natural light should not enter them. People on the street will see the flow of visitors inside the building. And it will create a kind of dynamic effect.
The main part of the building – the “exhibition cloud” – seems to float over the museum area and form an open space below it. A breathtaking view of Sevastopol and the bay opens from here. The museum complex’s premises have a fairly simple geometry, so exhibitions can be effectively held in them, all conditions have been created so that visitors can see all the exhibitions they are interested in without disturbing each other. By the way, 700 visitors can be in the museum at the same time.
– Do you collaborate with architects from Sevastopol?
– Of course yes! During the discussion on the museum project at the Architecture Council, an architect from Sevastopol drew attention to the fact that the sites of two objects – the theater and the museum – were “cut” by a motorway, and expressed a wish that a solution be found to combine these spaces. We will definitely consider this issue and find a solution. In addition, the complex we are designing is part of a large cultural space, some of the objects – the monuments “Bayonet and sail”, “Soldier and sailor” – already exist and are dear to the inhabitants of the city. Some of them – for example the Pantheon – have not yet been designed. Around all existing and under construction buildings and monuments, the city authorities plan to equip a large park. All this work is carried out by Russian architects, with whom we work closely.
– Did you design a similar art center for Kemerovo?
– Pretty right! Just like in Sevastopol, the museum and theater complex in Kemerovo (which is also being built by Stroytransgaz. – “Culture”) is built on one of the city’s viewpoints and will, after the completion of the construction, become one of the architectural sights in the capital of Kuzbass. The complex will be connected to a network of public spaces, including the future embankment. It will combine the Opera and Ballet Theater with large and small halls, there will be premises for a museum and an art center – a public universal room. The appearance of the building fully reflects the name of our company Himmelb (l) au – sky blue. It will be formed by the images of a graceful, floating cloud, where the theater will be located, and two crystals – a museum and an art center, placed around the atrium. The heart of the project will be located in the center of the building – an auditorium theater hall with 950 seats and rehearsal rooms.
– You said that the ideas of Russian constructivism are close to you …
– Yes! My idols were and remain the constructivist architects of the early 20th century. Especially Lissitzky, Melnikov and Tatlin. Tatlin Tower was a dream building that I wanted to build myself. When the construction of the stadium SKA Arena in St. Petersburg is completed, there will be many references to my idols in its appearance.
– Is not it too bold for such a conservative city as St. Petersburg?
– I love St. Petersburg very much. It is a very beautiful city, but a little modern architecture might be good for it, and that is exactly where the SKA Arena is built. It will be the largest ice hockey stadium in the world and will have a capacity of 23,206 people. Like the city’s founder, Peter I, I was brave enough in this election. I hope to see hockey in this arena.
How do you see the architecture of the future?
We live in a very interesting and quite uncertain time. There is a change of eras: the old is leaving, and the new is just about to emerge. And something new will definitely emerge in architecture! Progress is rapid, we must understand that in the foreseeable future buildings will not be built by humans, but by robots, innovative materials and technologies will be used in construction, the latter being called artificial intelligence, and we call it architectural intelligence. Today, the younger generation has to invent the most incredible things, things that may seem impossible at first glance. They are the ones who will be able to add a new stream to the architecture. Yes, architects can not save the world, but they can at least make it more interesting and beautiful. Therefore, we will not allow art to disappear from architecture, and therefore there is a mandatory element of art in all our projects.
Will the buildings float in the air?
– Sooner or later…
Wolf D. PRIX is a founding partner, chief designer and CEO of Coop Himmelb (l) au bureau (Austria), and also an experimenter and creator of the most radical architectural projects.
Born in Vienna in 1942, he graduated from the Technical University of Vienna and studied at the School of the Architectural Association in London and the Architectural Institute of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1968, together with Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer, he founded Coop Himmelb (l) au. In the 2000s, Priks invested heavily in developing international standards in architectural education.
Considered one of the founders of deconstructivism in architecture. This style is part of the postmodern avant-garde art. He opposes the rationality of geometry and advocates a non-linear design. You can be convinced of this by looking at his works – Museum of Anthropology and Natural Sciences in Lyon, European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main, BMW Center in Munich.
In 2020, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office initiated criminal proceedings against Coop Himmelb (l) au for participating in construction in Sevastopol.
Photos: Alexander Galperin RIA Novosti.