A Commentary by Bettina Götz and Richard Manahl (ARTEC Architekten)
In: „Werkgruppe Graz. Architecture at the Turn of Late Modernism”, ed. by Eva Guttmann, Gabriele Kaiser, HDA Graz, Park Books, Zurich, 2013
As soon as we converse about Graz (where we studied and thus know very well) and the buildings there (which have “accompanied” us ever since), the discussion turns very quickly to the Gothic double spiral staircase in the Graz Castle. But the Terrace House Estate of the Werkgruppe Graz, which is gigantically large in comparison, is also sure to come up in each of these conversations. That is no wonder – both are not simply “buildings,” but rather “structures” whose design principles feature a universality that is applicable far beyond the individual edifice and continue to be essential references for our own work. Observed as such, these buildings are naturally not directly comparable; what is interesting about both, however, is the stringency and rigidity of their basic conception. So it is no wonder that the architects of the Werkgruppe Graz also intensively dealt with the analysis of this staircase prior to their work.
The Terrace House Estate was planned and erected over quite a long period of time: between 1966 and 1978. When one considers the situation in Graz during those years, it becomes apparent that the crucial conditions for a further, specific architectural development (the “Graz School”) also arose in this region precisely in the 1960s. A number of extraordinary architectural personalities of different generations worked here on the very same program: urbanity.
This exceptional interest in all types of megastructures is clearly “the” international theme of this era (e.g., Archigram, superstudio…). Here, however, it was surely a natural counter reaction to the basically provincial situation in Graz. In Vienna, the Austrian metropolis to which – seen from Graz – a “critical distance” always existed, one was very gladly and thoroughly concerned at this time with the small(est) form, impressively demonstrated, for example, by Hermann Czech’s Kleines Café (first construction phase in 1970). There was also a rather artistic preoccupation with the large scale, where the projects were not worked through in detail (see, among others, Hans Hollein’s Flugzeugträger in der Landschaft, 1964, photo collage).
Two positions particularly strike out in the context of the Terrace House Estate’s time of origin: the Überbauung Ragnitz, 1965–69, by Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth, and the profound, theoretical examination of “Structuralism” by Bernhard Hafner, still a student at that time.
This generation-spanning work, involving the intellectual student body from the drawing studios of the Graz Technical University and including the respective spontaneous discussions at inns, long was the trademark of the Graz architecture scene. Hafner was interested in “urban architecture,” in the development of an everyday city structure. “It is not about beauty, also not primarily about function, but rather about the separation of the long-term from the short-term. The structure is long-living; it provides the hardware for the expansion, which can be replaced over time. The structuralist never has an end state in mind; every end is the beginning of something new. According to Hafner, that is urban architecture – pluralistic and undetermined. The complexity arises in the interplay of structure and expansion.”
In the 1966/67 exhibition Urban Fiction, held at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan in Vienna, Domenig and Huth presented their project Neue Wohnform Ragnitz, an architectonically detailed megastructure project worked out with a close relation to constructive practice. In a secondary system that serves to house the supply system and create a basic spatial structure, individually customized living elements as well as access routes can be integrated on several levels. “The project for Ragnitz, however, not only settles for the constructive aspects of an urban megastructure, it intends instead to create space in the room structures for a renewed and more flexible society.” In an interview with Gerhard Steixner and Maria Welzig, Günther Domenig says: “The first group that could also have actually built a superstructure in Austria, which was certainly derived from us, was the Werkgruppe Graz with this Terrace House in St. Peter.” However, the Werkgruppe Graz had already begun in 1962 to programmatically concern themselves with housing construction in the scope of a competition entry for a large-scale complex in Innsbruck-Völs. The competition was lost, and the realization of these universally valid contents first succeeded with the Graz Terrace House.
In our view, the architecture of the Terrace House Estate is of lasting effect far beyond zeitgeist and regional significance: a typologically developed large-scale and multi-story housing construction. For us, it is the opposite of the horizontally laid out Gartenstadt Puchenau by Roland Rainer, the icon of Austrian housing construction per se. Today, through the way nature has reshaped them, both are more a part of a landscape than of a building.
The generous opening and the respective common areas, always publicly accessible up to the top floors, have decisively influenced our stance towards housing construction. It was there where we learned that housing construction first becomes usable and urban through the combination of an – also spatially – robust structure and a “corresponding void” as leeway for sustainable, unforeseeable changing and further building.
A large number of different apartment typologies are accessible through completely open stairwells (with an elevator), which are connected on the fourth floor by a five-meter-high, spacious “communication level” and feature general leisure areas on the top floor. What is exemplarily realized here is not a “gated community,” but rather the threshold-free usability of public access areas as social meeting spaces of a city structure.
Having gone out of style, so to say, after completion (the time for large-scale structures was over), it took some time until generally undivided appreciation of the Terrace House Estate once again prevailed.
It is also remarkable that this housing conglomerate with 522 apartments resulted from a direct commission – unthinkable today due to the completely altered political attitude and commissioning structures! Not only does the current state of architectural competition hinder a structural urban development, but also the momentarily prevalent (mis)belief that larger heterogeneity and, therefore, “city” can be generated solely through a division into smaller units under complete utilization of the possible maximum density.
The major buildings of the Werkgruppe emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the spirit of a regionally-oriented approach committed to the immediate structure. Werner Hollomey co-founded the Forum Stadtpark in 1960 and planned and carried out the ingeniously simple building (constructed at the lowest cost) for the association – a spatial concept in which exhibitions and events took place at the highest international level over many decades, where culture and life came together in a self-evident manner, until internal quarrels and peculiar additions put an end to it.
In the years between 1970 and 1990, Graz took up a type of vanguard role in Austrian architectural development. In contrast to the solitary figures of Josef Lackner and Othmar Barth in Tyrol, a heterogeneous scene with reciprocal influencing and rejection was at work here. At the beginning of the 1970s, the situation in Graz was still distinctly characterized by Ferdinand Schuster, who had just passed away back then. His late works, influenced by Mies van der Rohe, are spatially and structurally elaborated in an extraordinarily graceful way. With almost archetypically formed technique for the power plant construction for STEWEAG in Graz he had already anticipated the plasticity of the succeeding generation.
Back to the Gothic double spiral staircase, the outwardly inconspicuous stairwell addition in the Graz Castle, a small space, a “functional structure” that shows, like a charter carved in stone, the added value architecture can be capable of achieving if it is understood not as a “service provision,” but as a “cultural achievement.” A 1973 visit to the Walfersam school in Kapfenberg, which had just been completed, left a lasting impression. A new, dynamic concept of space spirally connects the levels into an open space in a simple way that still inspires today. Here the staircase concept, duplicated into endless space, classrooms attached to its exterior, is extended by a middle section occupied by functions, pulling the double staircase quasi apart.
The basic character of prominent Werkgruppe Graz buildings is monolithic – the material for it is (exposed) concrete. North African mud brick constructions are likewise the reference and the inspiration, as is the structural composition of Le Corbusier’s habitations – at any rate for Hollomey and his teaching at the Technical University. This approach could no longer be maintained after the Oil Crisis of 1973. Multi-layered building envelopes and structural differentiations with material utilization according to need gained acceptance. The completely different design attitude of the Ragnitz structure compared to the materialization in the Terrace House Estate is shown by a small building by Domenig and Huth in the immediate vicinity of the Estate: a single-story apprentices’ center on Hans-Brandstetter-Gasse. Since we were geographically situated exactly between both of these contrary buildings during our studies, the spectrum of this period’s architecture was very present for us. The notion of space, the relation to the surroundings and the construction of the envelope point a way of “plastic materiality” that was consequently developed further, particularly by Domenig.
The Graz Terrace House Estate also needs not shy away from comparison with the international icons of this time (e.g., Robin Hood Garden, 1972, by Allison and Peter Smithson or Habitat 67, 1969, by Moshe Safdie). As constructed reality, it is a prime example, meanwhile 35 years old, of a successful, future-proof experiment of inestimable value for any housing construction research. Experiments are a crucial building block for any further development of architecture. In Austria we are sadly missing them today.
 The project was originally presented by the Werkgruppe as the “Terrace Estate.” Both terms are established.
 A term coined by Friedrich Achleitner (cf. id., “Aufforderung zum Vertrauen, Architektur seit 1945,” Otto Breicha & Gerhard Fritsch [eds.], Aufforderung zum Mißtrauen. Literatur, Bildende Kunst, Musik in Österreich seit 1945 [Salzburg: Residenz 1967]), which he then questioned again in his text “Gibt es eine ‘Grazer Schule’?” (1993) (see id., Region, ein Konstrukt? Regionalismus, eine Pleite? [Basel: Birkhäuser 1997]). For the architects of the Werkgruppe Graz, this term is associated with the show and catalogue of student works already put together by Prof. Karl Raimund Lorenz in 1951, entitled “Architekturschule Graz – Architecture School Graz,” which was shown at M.I.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
 Cf. Bernhard Hafner, Architektur und sozialer Raum. Aufsätze und Gespräche über Architektur und die Stadt (Vienna: Löcker 2002).
 Martin Grabner, “Bernhard Hafner: Vom Himmel zur Erde und zurück,” 5 May 2010. Available: http://www.gat.st/en/news/bernhard-hafner-vom-himmel-zur-erde-und-zurueck.
Furthermore, cf. Hafner, “Strukturale Architektur,” Architektur und sozialer Raum, l.c., pp. 299–344: “The form of the city is composite (collective). The architecture of the city is structural. It is time-dependent; it takes place in the long-term. It is pluralistic: Many take part in its construction at the same time and time-delayed. It is contextual: Each architecture, each air architecture, is a stimulus for others, makes a gesture that can assimilated or discarded, which the architect deals with. It is spatially diverse and multifaceted in the usage of the space […].”
 Maria Welzig and Gerhard Steixner, Die Architektur und ich: eine Bilanz der österreichischen Architektur seit 1945 vermittelt durch ihre Protagonisten (Vienna: Böhlau 2003)