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Review> First Measure
Nancy Goldring on Raimund Abraham and the Austrian Culture Forum New York.
Light installation NYSTAGM by Judith Fegerl, 2010.
Robert Polidori

Raimund Abraham and the Austrian Culture Forum New York
Edited by Andreas Stadler and Andreas Lepik, Hatje Cantz Verlag, $45

Many thorny obstacles remain to be confronted in summarizing Raimund Abraham and his work. And this slim volume is one of the earliest to hazard a reckoning. With its darkly dramatic cover, it seems oddly small-scale—as if a model of a coffee table book. But unlike its larger, sleeker cousin, this publication is a collection of short essays and interviews cobbled together—each of interest, yet never melding into a whole. Nonetheless, one can commend the impulse and the ambition.

It opens with the story of the cultural center by Andres Lepik, architectural historian and curator and Andreas Stadler, who has been director of the center since 2007.  They provide a brief account of the forum’s expansion made possible, more or less, by Abraham’s architecture from a gathering place for Austrian émigrés into a noteworthy venue for contemporary arts.

North facade of the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York City (2002).
Robert Polidori

Lepik’s biography of the architect, appropriately entitled “Against the Tide,” manages to give a sense of Abraham’s history in a short space, encompassing many years from his early research and drawings to his major architectural projects. Lepik’s chronicle sets the stage and prepares us for the essential section of the book: Raimund Abraham in conversation with Gerald Matt, on September 8, 2009. Here is the most compelling segment of the book, because the text proves keenly revelatory for understanding the building’s sources. Coming upon the architect’s voice amid the historical material is moving, particularly in light of his tragic early death. Matt, who is currently director of the Kunsthalle in Vienna, elicits Abraham’s characteristically terse eloquence as he leads us to the fundamental concepts that permeate his work, from his early publication, Elementare Architektur (1963), through his built projects, and specifically the Austrian Cultural Forum. Abraham asserts: “I’ve never been a utopian thinker. For me, everything is real.” In reading his words, one doesn’t sense that he has contrived a language to describe or justify his work but rather one begins to fathom the intensely personal way he found of realizing—or rendering tangible—his notions, whether as drawing or structure. The conversation touches upon the use of the term “radical” in relation to his work: “What I mean by radical is the ability to offer resistance to what is obvious. And we live in an obvious time…. In any case, you just have to regard yourself as your own opponent, which is what we are anyway.” Here we see set in high relief the forces that impel his work and perhaps his life, for it is his antagonistic posture that seems a consistent thread running through his entire production and determining his vision.

Lebbeus Woods’ short essay offers further insights into both building and architect. He writes about the architect’s public persona: “The idea of authenticity, which issues from an individual’s self-conscious uniqueness, was at the core of his philosophy. This demand for authenticity made him, in many people’s eyes, an overly severe critic.” Here Woods transcends the image to grapple with the more complex nature of the interior man and his work: “To grasp Abraham’s aspiration and achievement, it is necessary to understand that he was a humanist who, in his discourse and concepts, put the human condition at the forefront of his concerns.” Woods thus suggests how one might achieve a profound understanding of the building and “the difficult nature of originality,” as he constructs a solid platform from which to survey Abraham’s entire architectural production.

The brief exchange between the authors and British architect Kenneth Frampton addresses specific design issues. Frampton identifies Abrahams’ signature in the structure, his “mask-like axial form.” And finally, the book provides an exquisitely sensitive photographic survey that helps us understand the structure from plan to final edifice. Some of the shots appear to be the typically elegant views found in an architectural presentation, while others give real insight into the way one experiences the building. The focus on specific moments—the way light filters into a brief passage in a stairwell, for example—reveals the powerful attention to detail, from the tiniest of elements to the general plan. The many photographs from the inside looking out also convey a sense of the building within the surrounding city, as aspect that figured significantly into Abraham’s original concept.

While unwieldy as book, Raimund Abraham and the Austrian Cultural Forum New York proves a valuable record of the architect and this project while we await a comprehensive monograph on his life and work.

Nancy Goldring

Nancy Goldring is an artist and writer based in New York.