Raimund Abraham, 1933-2010
Lebbeus Woods recalls the inimitable New York architect
Courtesy the Austrian Cultural Forum

Raimund Abraham was an architect famous for his drawings and models of visionary projects, as well as buildings such as the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City and the Musikerhaus in Hombroich, Germany, now nearing completion. As a teacher, he profoundly influenced several generations of colleagues and students, primarily at The Cooper Union, where he was a major intellectual force for 30 years. Born on July 23, 1933, in Lienz, Tyrol, Austria, he died in a car crash in Los Angeles on March 4, 2010. His colleague, friend, and fellow visionary, Lebbeus Woods, recalls the pathbreaking architect lost too soon.

Let us not eulogize Raimund Abraham too quickly or too glibly. He was a deeply complex man, alive with struggles within and without, who cannot be summarized or comfortably contained in a few paragraphs. He affected the lives of many around him—students, colleagues, friends, a former wife, a companion, lovers, and his children—with the power of his vision, his work, and his presence. His charisma was not of any ordinary kind—that is, of the glossy sort that accompanies today’s ubiquitous celebrities. Rather, it was at once frightening and inspiring, heavy with moral weight, yet uplifting and liberating as an example of the creative potential of an individual.

“I’m a fundamentalist,” he liked to say, distancing himself from all transient forms of fashionable postmodern layering, allusion, and superficial complexity, in order to align himself with a mythic realm of origins. For him, “breaking the earth with a plow was the first act of architecture.” At other times, the implement was a shovel, or a stick. In the same way that such a supposedly simple act was originally accompanied with rituals, prayers, and deep feelings about the troubled bond between the human and the natural, making architecture was, for him, always sacred. Building, he believed, necessarily violates nature’s wholeness, and must be done with a full awareness of consequences. Working with a consciousness of origins endows architecture with a sense of those consequences, but also with an enduring meaning, and a certain kind of severe beauty characteristic of all his work. Knowing the origins is not, however, a matter of scientific or scholarly study, but rather of poetic imagination, the basis of all mythic worlds, shaped by long and deep reflection on the nature of things. His life was devoted to originality and its inherent authenticity.

Raimund’s creative output was not vast. In a published interview, he was once asked what he was working on. “Nothing,” he said, “I spend a lot of time sitting in cafes, reading the newspapers.” This was not altogether untrue. He worked when he had a project, or an idea, worth working on. He liked to read, talk with friends, cook, and watch baseball. He never ran a corporate office that he would have to support by chasing after building commissions. When he did work on a building project, a well-chosen competition, or a series of drawings, it was with great intensity and focus. If he needed help he would enlist the most talented and dedicated of his students, scrupulously paying them but also embracing them as members of his extended architecture family. Those periods of intensity were glorious for him and he would invite colleagues to his studio, excitedly showing them the latest work. It never disappointed in its originality, precision, and visual power.

“Architecture,” he said, “must always confront a program,” by which he meant particulars of the human condition, from the project site, to the prescribed uses of space, to the nature of the materials for building. “Confront” was the keyword in this statement, because he believed that architecture was not merely the attempt to satisfy people’s desires or needs, nor the conventions imposed by history and culture, but what he sometimes called “a collision” between these and the architect’s worldview and poetic vision. None should be compromised; rather, they should coexist in a state of creative tension. “Architecture is not a profession,” he would say, “it is a discipline.” He knew that in the crisis of creative work, it is discipline alone—an adherence to hard-won personal principles—that guides the architect through uncertainties and doubts to a decisive conclusion.

Raimund’s was a life exemplary in its integrity, its commitment to architecture, and its extraordinary achievements, one that will resonate far into the future. His sudden death is tragic because he was in his prime, with much great work remaining to be done, and the resources to accomplish it fully at his command.


Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods is a professor at the Cooper Union School of Architecture.