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Wolf Prix: Gravity? No, thank you!


Architects are always eager to discover new ideas because they desire so much more than to simply follow traditions. They refuse to obey rules imposed upon them. This is nothing new. The architects inherited this wonderful urge to reinvent the way things are from such celebrated masters as Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. They were all rebels and inventors. Unfortunately, there is one major obstacle that everybody must deal with and that is the law of gravity. Still even this unavoidable phenomenon would not stop the most stubborn architects to doubt and to rebel against it. There is one architect who has been on this quest for over forty years.


“Our architecture has no physical ground plan, but a psychic one. Walls no longer exist. Our spaces are pulsating balloons. Our heartbeat becomes space; our face is the façade”. These are the words of Wolf Prix, the famous Austrian architect who in 1968 together with his friends Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer founded the architectural studio Coop Himmelb(l)au in Vienna, Austria.

Wolf Prix was born in 1942 in Vienna. He studied architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, the Architectural Association (AA) in London, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles. Since 2003 Prix has been the Dean of the Architecture School at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. In 2006, he was made the commissioner of Austrian Pavilion at the 10th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. The architect’s firm Coop Himmelb(l)au is widely recognized for such projects as Rooftop Remodeling in Vienna (1983-88), UFA-Cinema Center in Dresden (1993-98), Akron Art Museum in Ohio (2001-2007), High School #9 which is expected to open this year in Downtown Los Angeles and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, which is slated to be completed by 2014. BMW Welt, a vehicle delivery center in Munich (2001-2007) features a giant double cone central element. This elegant and dynamic structure is perhaps the most successful example that fulfills the architect’s lifelong ambition to create architecture that would appear to be floating and perpetually changing like clouds.


The practice won numerous awards and currently maintains several international offices to keep up with the steady demand for daring experimental projects all over the world. Even in the midst of the economic downturn, just during the days I was writing this article, the architect has won several new international commissions, including 50-storey Headquarter of China Insurance Group in Shenzhen. In 2008 Coop Himmelb(l)au celebrated the work of its astounding 40 year career with a major retrospective called “Beyond the Blue” at MAK Center in Vienna.


My conversation with Mr. Prix took place on the day of his inspiring presentation to a large diverse audience at the Cooper Union in New York.


Vladimir Belogolovsky: Was architecture something you always wanted to do?


Wolf Prix: When I was 18 and ready to go to university my father sent me to see Le Corbusier’s Monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette near Lyon, France. It is an extraordinary building. When I saw the monastery’s chapel I was speechless. I decided – if this is architecture – I want to be an architect.   


VB: You studied at the University of Technology in Vienna and graduated from AA in London in 1968. You opened your own firm Coop Himmelb(l)au in the same year. Does this mean you never worked for other architects?


WP: Well, my father was an architect and I worked in his office since I was 10 or 11 until I went to university. I literally was brought up with architecture. I felt ready right after I finished my studies at the AA and besides, I wanted to do a new kind of architecture, not the one I was taught at school, which at that time was primarily dominated by postmodernist ideology. 


VB: What kind of architecture did you want to invent?


WP: 1968 was a great time. Everything exploded – not only architecture but also music, philosophy, education, politics – the whole society. It was the time when students around the world went to the streets to demand change. Our motto was – power to the fantasy! And of course, music was very important and we wanted to be as famous and as rich as Rolling Stones. We didn’t name our firm “Prix and Swiczinsky”, as would be expected. We came up with a team name Coop Himmelb(l)au (Cooperative Blue Sky), not as a color of the sky but because we wanted to create architecture that would change like clouds.


VB: How did you start imagining such architecture?


WP: First – there is a big difference between what was then and what is now. Today every young architect wants to get paid, wants to have a client, a program and so on. What we wanted the most was to change architecture. We wanted to change it radically and now!


VB: OK you didn’t have clients and you didn’t have real projects for many years. How did you survive?


WP: There are many ways to survive, including driving trucks… We did teach and we did a lot of research about future living, participated in competitions and did a lot of independent projects. We received grants for investigating various forms and shapes and how they influence peoples’ mood and in which way. For example, blobs are very good for relaxing. Also life was not as expensive then. The main point is that we survived. We survived, as you can see. You have to trust yourself.


VB: You teach at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Is there a particular approach you have for teaching architecture?


WP: I am the Dean of Architecture School at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna where we have such professors as Zaha Hadid, Greg Lynn and Peter Eisenman. In my studio the future architects learn to develop ideas and to argue them conceptually. They learn to shape their ideas not conditioned by the reality of constraints and clichés but by the reality of possibilities. The point of departure is to develop space with the multitude of dynamic forces. I am also trying to teach them to be self-confident and imagine various roles of the architect in the future. Now is a great time technologically. What we only dreamed of in 1968 is finally possible to do now. So we are developing new spatial possibilities.  


VB: Take me through your office evolution – in terms of size and what type of projects you have done initially and what type of projects you are working on now?


WP: The very first project was called “Cloud”, because a cloud is a synonym of “himmel blau”, which means blue sky. It was a fantasy project that imagined a new way of living in the future – pointing to such possibilities as creating interactive inflatable spaces that could be controlled with your heartbeat.

We didn’t have a client. We just said – living in concrete houses is over. Forget it – this is how the future will be.


In 1980 we built an installation called the Blazing Wing, which was suspended and ignited in the courtyard of the Technical University in Graz. We also amplified the sound of fire cracking through audio dynamics to intensify the experience. We wanted to create an architecture that bleeds, that breaks, that lights up and tears under stress – alive or dead – if cold, then cold as a block of ice; if hot, then hot as a blazing wing. Architecture must blaze!

Our very first realized project was Rooftop Remodeling in Vienna in 1988 for a small law firm. It was impossible to get a building permit because the project was too radical – right in the heart of the historical city center. So we went to the mayor of Vienna. He saw the project and said: “This is not architecture!” We asked: “What is it?” He said: “This is art.” So we said: “Mr. Mayor we agree with you, can we get this in writing?”


With this document we got all the necessary permits for construction – as an art project. Since then more than 20 years passed. During this time the project became a recognizable landmark.


In the beginning our practice had just the three of us, then five and now we have 150 architects and not just in Vienna, where the main aircraft carrier is, but in Los Angeles, Lyon (France), Guadalajara (México), Baku (Azerbaijan) and in the Middle East. Not including competitions, we are currently working on 25 projects all over the world from a tiny church in Europe to a giant stadium in China.     


VB: What is the percentage of projects that you were able to realize over the years?


WP: In 40 years we did about 380 projects and we realized about 80. Now we realize almost all projects but we still take part in some competitions by invitations.


VB: You studied at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles in the late 1980s after getting your degrees in the late 1960s. By then you had your own practice and were teaching for a number of years. Why did you go back to school?


WP: Because I love to study and I wanted to get a Masters degree. Even now we continue to do a lot of research in both my office and in school. For example, we are working on a comparison between growing of a city and growing of a human brain.


VB: You are originally from Vienna, which is known to be a beautiful and charming city. Is your architecture trying to oppose that notion?


WP: The background of every architect is very much influenced by the environment in which he or she was brought up. For me, Vienna was always a very restricted city because of a very strong power of historical preservation movements. Naturally, we were opponents of that and worked against such environment, which inevitably produces a lot of mediocre architecture. I am tired of seeing historical masks. But now I can see that we (Austrian architects) are unconsciously very much influenced by Viennese traditions, namely – the Baroque. We are not like the Dutch or Swiss architects, who are known for developing architecture based on diagrams. We are more like Borromini. Austrian architecture is based on space sequences. Take such Austrian architects as Adolf Loos, Frederick Kiesler, Raimond Abraham, Hans Hollein. We might not even know it, but subconsciously that is what we are doing.    


VB: Do you mind when people compare your buildings to insects, wings, hurricanes or acts of violence?


WP: I like it. It is not intentional, but what is intentional is that we want to make identifiable and readable buildings. I love when people give buildings nicknames. A city, in order to be experienced, must be describable, meaning it should feature identifiable and iconic buildings.  


VB: When people visit your buildings, what is it that you want them to feel or notice?


WP: No. This is not how I work. This would be manipulative.


VB: You want them to be taken by surprise?


WP: Not even that. I want people to remember my buildings. That’s all.


VB: You said that architecture should be built like Formula One race car. Could you elaborate?


WP: There are three main objectives: form, function and speed. I think the building industry is very slow. If car builders were as slow as the building industry we would be still riding in carriages. That’s why in my practice we are using technology as a symbol for development.   


VB: Your buildings are meant to look like clouds. There is a passage from Moby Dick that comes across in your writings: “I wish the wind had a body”. Where did the idea of a building as a cloud and a city as a field of clouds come from?


WP: It is about changeable environment. We said that it is not the building environment that should change human beings but the human beings should be able to change the environment. These liberal ideas come from the sixties. Everyone can make a difference, pushing the envelope, going over the borderline… Or Jimi Hendrix’s famous song – “Scuse me while I kiss the sky”. Trying new things is very important. This is evolution, otherwise we are dead. We constantly need fresh ideas to overcome our problems and move forward.   


VB: Who would you name as your major influences other than Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stones?


WP: Corbusier, Kiesler, Borromini, Piranesi, Brancusi...


VB: In 1988, your work featured in “Deconstructivist Architecture” show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Do you see your architecture as deconstructivist?


WP: Very much so. Derrida’s deconstructivist ideas are related to Freud who was Viennese. So I feel personal connection there. Again, working intentionally with the subconscious is very important. Starting in mid 1970s we began working with the subconscious – by destroying the rational way of thinking in the moment of design, drawing with the eyes closed and other methods that could liberate space from rational and economic structure and refinement. Intoxication is essential to all art. In our projects we are working on forms, shapes and images that are based on other things than just architecture. Unrestrained imagination is very important. Forget gravity, forget columns. We said: “Gravity? No, thank you!”


VB: You are essentially a rebel. Do you think being rebellious is an essential quality for a true artist?


WP: When I was 10 or 11 my father took me to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and showed me the famous painting by Pieter Bruegel of the Tower of Babel. I was thrilled by this picture, but it bothered me that the tower didn’t have a spire. In other words it was unfinished. I think the duty of every architect is to finish the Tower of Babel. But how could you want to finish the Tower of Babel if you are not a rebel? I still feel I want to change architecture.


Even today, after having built a successful international practice with projects realized all over the world, Wolf Prix engages himself with experimentation that continues to redefine built space. Almost 40 years ago he imagined a project called “Astro Balloon – Feed Back Space”. Its premise was to reverse our relationship with the environment and to assume total control of the space around us. He believed that one day it would be possible to create such technologically advanced architecture that would be able to react to our body temperature or a heartbeat. In other words, we would be able to liberate ourselves through new and direct ways of controlling the built environment.

In 2008, at the 11th International Architecture Biennale in Venice this spatial experiment was finally realized and tested by thousands of people. The rebellious architect made his point: architecture can be created not just with concrete, steel and glass but with sound, light and even with our own body. It took Wolf Prix 40 years to prove that he was right. It also gave other architects confidence that any obstacle can be overthrown, even if it is such a phenomenon as the law of gravity, because Earth is pushing but heaven pulls.


November 2008, New York