Althan Quartier Vienna 9
1st prize, Viennese Housing Award 2019
Bettina Götz, ARTEC Architekten
Lecture held at the Festwochen Gmunden, 2016
“Having reasons,” says Franz Schuh, “is the pride of philosophy.”
Architecture, in contrast, has ever fewer reasons – both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense that means, considering that potential building sites will soon be short in supply, that enough has already been built and that in future it will, by and large, suffice to make adaptations to the existing building stock.
And architecture lacks good reasons, the motivations, the justifications, why a building is as it is.
But architecture needs content. One could now say that that’s obvious, of course in the case of architecture, the content is always also the brief, in other words, it specifies surface areas and functions, which, as a consequence, allows for the quantification of size, and, in turn, the costs of the building as expressed in cubic meters.
Otherwise a building would only be an expression of the functional diagram and our built environment would be extremely dull.
Josef Lackner’s explanation of why a building has significance over and beyond its function: “Ideas should determine our deeds. Architecture expresses ideas – and even though these are often lacking, one builds anyway. In this case, the idea not to build would be the best one.”1
We architects, in other words, also need a theory, a basic concept, or put differently, content in the sense of a program, of a vision, of renewal of existing rules.
Only when such a background exists can something come into being that we treasure and love – namely the emotionalizing quality of space. That is why we travel to foreign lands and cities and have a penchant for visiting what has been built there – be it churches, museums, apartment buildings, squares, or what have you.
But the uniqueness and noteworthiness of spatial manifestations always also has to do with desires and demands – in other words, with content – but also, of course, with the mentalities of the architects and the users.
Because built architecture is always tied to a public or private need, working with architecture’s content is essential. Particularly when the commissions are public, the guest to define the content over and beyond the simple schedule of functions, though demanding, is crucial.
Exceptional architecture only comes about when the architect and the client can communicate on equal footing. But to accomplish that, the client also must have knowledge of the field – in particular, when he or she represents the public sphere. Not only in a whodunit does the storyline play a decisive role, but also in the case of architecture, a radical program is already half the battle.
And policymakers must (also) take part.
Because, according to Hermann Czech, “Architecture cannot place itself outside the system; realizations require it to have a powerful segment of society on its side.”2
Building sites come into being today in a realm situated between politics and regional planning. But city planning is lost to us architects. Regional planners without a – content-oriented – plan, not to mention a theory, administer political needs and investors’ interests. Expedited urban growth at the global scale occurs without a concept – or with concepts from yesteryear.
And that at a time when the planned city expansion areas are to become the cathedrals of the twenty-first century. We need new city centers of the highest spatial quality where we will enjoy spending time and which we will go out of our way to visit – like, for example, Salzburg’s historic center.
Let’s take New York as an example: a simple grid with clearly defined public space, superimposed on
site-specific conditions – for example, Broadway and the minimal urban design specification of a possible development of the parcels led to unexpectedly independent results: the only modern urban configuration that has thus far been brought about. Hence, simple principles and simple rules can yield quite complex and useful results.
That leads us to believe that all complex and highly appreciated buildings were brought about by way of simple basic structures and principles – and not by way of form-giving. City planning is, in other words, not a matter of defining building massing, but rather consists of rules, like a game of chess, that are open to the future and incomplete. To reconcile the two constituent components of the city – the memorable quality of the public realm and housing – we must begin to look at questions about density and urbanity from a different angle.
By the way, it is not only city planning that has been lost to architects, but also, at the other end of the spectrum, furniture design – the mobili – in other words, establishing the large scale on the one hand, and movement at a small scale, on the other. What remains is the formulated and solitary individual object. Not a cruel twist of fate, because in the history of architecture the exemplary individual object is of immense significance.
“11 Zufällige Schlagworte,” in: Architekturforum Tirol (ed.): Josef Lackner, Anton Pustet Publishing, Salzburg, n.d. (2003), 234.
Interview with Hermann Czech conducted by Matthias Dusini, in: Falter 16/2004, 14.