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05.21.2014
Obit> Hans Hollein, 1934-2014
Eva Branscome considers the legacy of the visionary architect.
Hans Hollein.
Courtesy Estate of Hans Hollein

Hans Hollein, architect and artist, has died aged 80 in Vienna, Austria. His was an exceptional interdisciplinary practice and the ideas that he developed from the late 1950s were truly visionary, anticipating virtual learning and working environments, for example. Hollein’s drawings and collages were already being included in collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York by the 1960s, and he won the prestigious Reynolds Memorial Award for his first building, a small candle-shop in the heart of Vienna, in 1966. From 1965 to 1970 he was a co-editor of Bau magazine. His output was infused with an intense preoccupation with visual communication and the human body. By 1967 he was proclaiming “Everything is architecture.”

Born in Vienna in 1934, Hollein became an architectural student at the Academy of Fine Arts just after World War II. The city he grew up in had been devastated. He was able to go to England as a post-war initiative of exchange, living with a family there. Then, as an architectural student, he travelled to Spain and worked in Sweden. In 1958 he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to study and travel in the U.S. This experience proved decisive for his later development as an artist and architect, allowing Hollein to rethink his whole approach to architecture. While he went to America in search of Modernism, meeting several distinguished European émigré architects there, times were changing radically. The Cold War and the arms and space race were bringing with them new ideas about environmental design. Architects were no longer dreaming, like Le Corbusier, of ocean liners, but of the possibility of living on the moon. Materials being developed for space travel were also exciting for their direct application in architecture as well.

Hans Hollein became particularly interested in the space suit as a minimal environment. It had everything the human body needed to survive in isolation, yet was connected by new communication technologies. This inspired him to develop a polyester cellular capsule that allowed the user to control their body temperature, nutrition supply, and disposal of human waste. This basic shelter also prevented boredom. It was connected by means of a screen and a sound system to the outside world, as well as to other capsules. The units could be lined up together. In the event of death, they could be tipped over and buried like a coffin. While this project may initially remind one of similar projects by Archigram, it was not really at all: their capsule designs were fun, disposable environments but lacked the grimy realities of having to deal with an actual human body.

From his capsule project, Hollein went on to conceive of a pill as the ultimate small piece of architecture, because it too could allow you to control and change your own environment. It could make things less painful, or make you feel like a king, or let you tolerate stress, or increase your creativity, or bring you happiness, or death, or keep your body temperature at 36.4 degrees Celsius, and, even in the 1960s, let you make love without fear of conception. In Hollein’s view, the acts of dance, trance, and orgasm were also to be understood as spatial experiences.

While many artists and architects were playfully experimenting with pneumatic structures in the 1960s, Hans Hollein created the Mobile Office. This was a portable environment that could be inflated as part of a busy jet-set lifestyle in which no moment was to be wasted. It came complete with its own drawing board, typewriter, and telephone for work on the go.

Much of Hollein’s early work was for artistic productions, manifestos, and exhibitions. He was closely associated with the avant-garde Galerie St. Stephan in Vienna run by the Catholic priest, Otto Mauer. This was an interdisciplinary venue where Hollein was able to test out his proposal that architecture was not just about providing things such as houses, but also about politics, religion, science, technology, psychology, performance, the human body, fashion, and sex. Architecture could be anything and as he declared openly, everything was now architecture.

Hollein participated in the 1968 Milan Triennale, which was closed down as a reaction by the authorities to that year’s student protests. He had designed and installed a striking pop environment. Later, in 1980, he took part in the first Venice Architecture Biennale, which famously launched Postmodernism as an international style. In 1982 his first truly major project, the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany, was finished, providing a remarkable space conceived for the collection of avant-garde art. In 1985 he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Hollein developed his architectural ideas over the decades, often revisiting early concepts and revising them for a contemporary context. Perhaps his most successful recent structure is the SBF Tower in Shenzen. It was based on a sketch from 1958 and will be finished later this year, bracketing Hollein’s career as an architect. It consists of a 650-foot-tall vertical office structure that alternates between glazed office boxes and contrasting sky gardens with organic planting and media screens. It is conceptually about allowing for globalized building practice in which the architect is the designer but does not need to manage the construction process. Hence the SBF Tower is not about exact specifications and details; instead, it sees itself as having moved beyond such matters, embracing less precise building practices. Any future addition of satellite dishes, climatic controls, air-handling systems, and digital screens will only enhance the design. As a 21st-century media tower, it both celebrates and acts as a stage for the notion of perpetual change in technology.

Two retrospective exhibitions were already conceived to take place this year to mark Hans Hollein’s 80th birthday; now they will honor his life. The exhibitions rework Hollein’s oevre in tandem: one in the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, opened on April 12, addressing his early ideas and projects; it will be followed by a show at the MAK Gallery in Vienna on June 25, which looks at his furniture and interior design. It is regrettable that Hollein should pass away just at the point when his career is being reassessed in a serious way.

Eva Branscome