Architecture as Experiment for One's Own Needs

written by Vera Grimmer

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Modern age architects' own houses, from Wagner and Wright to Gehry and Zumthor, represent some sort of manifesto, materialized principles and visions of their authors. A somewhat different case is Le Corbusier’s cabin/shelter in Roquebrune near Cap Martin. The man, who was building the world, built for himself the smallest house in the most beautiful place – a rock above the sea, in the shadow of a fig tree. And it was exactly from this single-space log cabin, dimensioned in minimum proportions according to Modulor, that he set out on a journey from which he did not return.


An architect and explorer of life standards, the modernist Bernard Rudofsky, claimed that the issue is not in finding a new way of building, but a new way of life. The works of architects, assembled in an exhibition by a Viennese theoretician of architecture, Christian Muhr: ‘Scale 1:1 – Architecture as Experiment for One’s Own Needs’ (Maßstab 1:1 – Architektur im Selbstversuch – Kunsthaus Mürz, 2007-08) show this tendency. Christian Muhr explains his choice: ‘Pleading for an architecture which is primarily defined as a social and not formal art, whose domain is elasticity and not a static state, which forms processes and not only realizes plans, which communicates to all senses and not only to the eyes, which is aware of its temporary character, as well as of its position in the entirety of social and natural environment.’


From seventeen projects presented in the exhibition, we chose five because of their radicalism and the diversity of their positions. Two projects experiment with ready-made elements of a city domain, while the other three are significant because of the extremity of their material presence and exposure to natural environment.


A wooden tower on a steep hill
Lanzinger Family House, Brixlegg,
Tyrol, Austria
Architect: Antonius Lanzinger On a steep slope of 35º, architect Lanzinger decided to build a tower to get better insulation and because of the small building pit and foundations resulting from the form, all leading to an economically viable building. This concept implied complete openness and freedom of the interior. The architect says: ‘This also means a clear decision on the way of family life. I could not care less about everybody retreating somewhere when a conflict arises. We also have problems, but we are forced to find some agreement together.’ The parameters that define this house approach the boundary of possible. Architect Lanzinger: ‘The sizes of the rooms and openness of the spatial concept are approaching marginal values. This primarily affects children, less the smaller ones, because they like to sleep together. Our fourteenyear-old daughter is the only one who would like to have more privacy, but this problem is temporally restricted.’ The wooden house is subject to extensive thermally conditioned changes, and it is also not entirely structurally stable. Referring to the instability of the house, the architect says: ‘The house possesses its own dynamics. In the literal sense of the word, it is very elastic. If someone makes a little jump, you immediately feel it swaying. During a storm, this swaying becomes rather frightening. As an architect, you need to establish trust into a house after all, as well as into its properties of solidity, stability and protection.’ Luxury is present in its atmosphere and vistas, while technical equipment is greatly reduced. We find here only what is necessary. It is about togetherness, while all that is redundant or representative is cast away in order to allow other, sensual features which in this house mainly come from the materiality of wood. The architect wants to further develop already traditional things by using intelligent methods, which he then places in a context that is able to respond to the present time.


The luxury of the minimal
t.o. Penthouse, Vienna, Austria
Architects: pool Architektur
A former dairy (Alpenmilchzentrale) in the centrally situated fourth district of Vienna is an example of successful revitalisation of a manufacturing building. Here, several younger entrepreneurs moved into 6000 square metres, among them pool Architects who designed a minimal flat of 18 square metres for the manager of the entire area, Johannes Rudnicki. The flat is placed in a former water tank on the roof of the building. The basic idea was to leave the space empty, and to move built-in furniture into space when necessary. All that is unnecessary at a certain moment is integrated in the walls and remains invisible when not used. With the help of additional elements, the space is transformed into bedroom, dining room or wardrobe, without simultaneity of functions. About the very design process, architect Evelyn Rudnicki says: ‘We wanted to explore where we could make reductions, although we wanted to have it all.’ The impression of a small dwelling is reduced by the active role of the terrace continuing the floor surface of the space behind the glazed door. Johannes Rudnicki: ‘The space itself, no matter how small it is, leaves an impression of great luxury because it integrates the entire city, the entire sky. It is not only the case of the actual floor surface of 18 square metres under our feet. On the contrary, one experiences a huge space.’


The private in the public
A flat in a street shop, Schadeckgasse,
Vienna, Austria
since 2000
Architects: ppag architects (Anna Popelka and Georg Poduschka)
The architects, who are also a couple, lived in the attic of a historical building and after some time, they wanted to establish direct contact with the city’s space. They found an abandoned electrician’s workshop with huge shop windows and sufficient height to put in a gallery. For such a specific dwelling, they had neither a model nor experience. Anna Popelka: ‘When we spent our first night here, I was very upset. It was exciting to listen to the sounds of the street for the first time before you fall asleep. At that time, we still did not know if the experiment was going to be successful.’ It turned out that passers-by would stop and observe what was going on inside. Because of this, the architects covered the glass surfaces with reflecting foils. Now, passers-by see their own reflections in the glass, like in a mirror – one cannot see inside anymore, but there is a free view from the inside to the outside. Anna Popelka: ‘We can look at passersby straight in the eye, and we are not seen. These foils function excellently in our opinion. In this way, we’ve preserved total privacy.’ Georg Poduschka: ‘We experience the city as a film. One part of it is very amusing because we can catch parts of conversations, as well as various other murmurs and sounds.’ Sometimes, they even consciously engage in confrontation of the private and urban. On the pavement in front of the shop (flat), they sometimes set table to have a meal or drink with their friends and so far, there has been not one unpleasant situation, on the contrary, the street space becomes even livelier when this happens. This experiment shows that initially unattractive spaces can obtain even more quality with new use.


Archaic can be contemporary
Rauch House, Schlins, Austria
Authors: Roger Boltshauser and Martin Rauch
Ceramicist Martin Rauch had been dealing with the theme of clay as material for years before he decided on his own house made of clay. Although clay is a very old building material, it is necessary to have trust in it, and this is gained only by experience and time. For Martin Rauch, to build with clay can be compared to walking on the edge of an abyss. The entire process of building was in fact a continuous series of experiments. For example, many experiments were carried out with the ceiling, resulting in the end in a sort of brick ceiling made exclusively in clay. During the excavation they discovered a wonderful rock which certainly should have been integrated, and therefore the basement spaces obtained a different significance. Everything on the house was constantly changing; the plans were changed almost fifty times. The idea of the house was contained in the intention to use the excavated material for the entire construction. The house was, so to speak, building itself. This is the case of a conscious, careful relation to natural resources. Roger Boltshauser: ‘Compressing was important to us as a process of refinement of very raw and non-spectacular original material.… Glazed ceramic tiles have therefore been made of the clay from the construction site.’ Martin Rauch is convinced that: ‘Natural materials that have a sufficient quality and appropriately short cycle of duration can be used for a healthy way of building to produce houses and household furniture, and this if the quality in terms of craft and know-how are satisfactory. The building process is part of the cycle. If the house collapsed, let’s say due to an earthquake, there would be no pollution of subterraneous water,’ and furthermore: ‘The notion of ecology does not imply lack of luxury, but a correct relation between nature and the building methods.’ In the house made of clay, the climate is pleasant and healthy, but since this kind of house reacts to climatic conditions, adequate building methods are required to prevent possible associated disadvantages. Therefore, for example, insulation of the foundation is executed in clay which contains fat, and not in artificial foils. This is an experiment in which both relationship to nature and a certain attitude towards life are expressed.


Building as an adventure
Maison Turquoise, Ölü-Deniz, Turkey
1984 until today
Architect: Walter Stelzhammer
A decision of the then young architect to build 2500 kilometres away from Vienna, on a steep slope, 150 metres above an idyllic bay on the Turkish coast of Asia Minor, was related to his family situation (his wife is of Turkish origin), as well as to the desire to step out of the narrow frames of architectural options in Vienna at that time. In his choice of plot, the architect consciously decided on an extremely steep slope because of its thermal advantages during hot Mediterranean summers, although the plot did not have any infrastructure as well as no access road. He was planning the terrain himself for three years with tools made by a local blacksmith, while spring water was found some 200 metres above the building site. The extreme conditions required a light, prefabricated type of construction. The original rectilinear floor plans, drawn in the Vienna office, gained an oval, almondlike form due to the conditions on site. This occurred for construction and technical reasons and not formal ones. During the construction works, in which the architect was the primary participant, it became clear that each individual intervention was conditioned by the landscape. Walter Stelzhammer: ‘Analogous architecture, that which does not reproduce already made images, emerges only after analytical and emotional dedication to a landscape. Only then does a building reach a high degree of authenticity and become thereby comprehensible.’ Each phase of building represented a unique adventure, starting already with the acquisition of building timber. All the building timber was, according to plans, made in a small Austrian sawmill and it was then transported in two trucks to the construction site two thousand kilometres away, in which process the time factor was crucial since the wood had to be green during the time of its assembly. Then, the entire project became jeopardized because of the inefficiency of the customs service in Istanbul, but the cure for that was found. The architect himself transported tools and machines which were needed for construction on several separate occasions over numerous borders and customs and then assembled the wooden frame structure with help of several assistants in three weeks. To completely equip the house, another ten years of work was needed. Walter Stelzhammer: ‘It was clear to me that this Fitzcarraldo building came into being under very unusual circumstances: without water, electricity, without support of expert craftsmen,’ but: ‘innovation always appears in places where there is resistance, where conditions are difficult. Building in nature – originally, there were only trees, rocks and few goats on the construction site – makes my heart beat faster. I need such catharsis.’