How a Group of Postwar Austrian Architects Forged a New Vision for the Built Environment

Rob Sharp
Aug 27, 2015 2:33PM

Austria after World War II was a hotbed of influences. The Allies occupied Vienna until 1955, steeping the city in American culture—including its art—that melded with local religious traditions, all beneath the long shadow of the Iron Curtain. In this context, Austria was reconciling itself with the fading recollection of its part in the Anschluss. Architects coming of age after the war were unlikely to spend much time studying designers of the past—even those who had died earlier in the century. Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos were two of those who fell by the wayside.

Rocketing into this stultified environment came a groundbreaking period in the life of Bau: Magazine for Architecture and Urban Planning. The magazine had been founded in 1925 as a trade publication published by the Central Association of Austrian Architects, but in 1965 a group of pioneering editor-cum-designers took charge. Their number included Hans Hollein, Walter Pichler, Günther Feuerstein, and Oswald Oberhuber, and they looked to expand the remit of architecture in Austria from the built environment into politics, visual art, education, and beyond.

The effects of this nexus of creativity are explored in the first major showcase of Bau in Britain, a modest display at London’s ICA. The exhibition comprises a series of cabinets containing original copies of the magazine—many of them on loan from the Architectural Association in the capital—alongside blown-up covers; an odd translation of Bau’s original manifesto, stuck in the simple present tense, “We bring architectural theory and critical thinking to architectural activity”; and a single video screen playing a series of short films.

The venue in question, the Fox Reading Room, is not the ICA’s best display center. There is no natural light, and it feels claustrophobically squirrelled away beneath the ICA’s bar. Nonetheless, one wonders why it’s taken so long to vaunt Bau’s obvious appeal. Its covers, for one, which are graphically stark and full of experimental typography infused with Pop Art, lend themselves to exhibition. On the flipside, lovers of print will want to flick through the products, thumb the paper, squint at how the ink has bled into the page. With magazines hidden beneath so much glass, there is scant opportunity to do that here. 

The ICA has, however, secured many of Bau’s most important issues. The publication’s inaugural edition among them, with its gridded cover containing a Roy Lichtenstein diptych alongside flyovers and pyramids, flirts with the future and history alike. Equally, the show devotes space to Hollein’s famous 1968 article “Alles ist Architektur,” including the psychedelic imagery surrounding it: a close-up of some lipstick, looming up the page like a monument; a cube of cheese dominating the Viennese cityscape. This latter example of photomontage was, in fact, a joke—“Emmentaler” also being a local expression for bad design.

In a sequence of 27 pages of writing and imagery, Hollein was declaring war on what he saw as the “limited and traditional definitions of architecture.” To put this into action, the issue employs montages of formally dissimilar objects: photographs of Che Guevara; Niki de Saint Phalle’s giant, supine “Nana,” which viewers entered through the vagina; a page full of binary.

Such a lack of contiguity does not continue elsewhere. Another early issue juxtaposes pictures from Viennese oil refineries—all metallic, towering and spiralling—that are not a world away from Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in London. Meanwhile, Sokratis Dimitriou’s photo essay “Buildings for the Great Number” explores how architecture might allow escapism for the masses, and features monochrome imagery of the mollusk-like ceiling of Max Berg’s Centennial Hall in Breslau alongside Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome. The black-and-white photographs are severe but artfully curated through consistency in geometry. 

Other highlights include a 1969 spread on rethinking architecture to relate to education, featuring an illustration of American architect Charles Colbert’s 1966 design for a “Shoulder Carrel,” described as “an electronically controlled helmet that produces information for people to read.” All good fun, though it is something of a cliché to overstate people’s seer-like qualities; the label’s comparison of Colbert’s design to Google Glass is a bit glib.

A contemporaneous article by British architect Cedric Price on the “social usefulness of universities” is much more successful, however, given it chimes directly with present day debates. Price’s claim that “university should not only satisfy society’s immediate appetites but must create conditions for long-range work whose relevance to contemporary social, scientific, cultural, educational, operational patterning is to question it,” would win him many friends among contemporary academics, though perhaps not politicians.

Bau succeeds, then, as platform for experimentation, and in that sense it is easy to see why it has been so influential. This show is a useful, immediate introduction to some of Bau’s ideas, always much better expressed visually, as opposed to in endless blocks of text. The words might often remain frustratingly distant, but luckily, many of the relevant articles are still available online.

Rob Sharp

Everything is Architecture: Bau Magazine from the 60s and 70s” is on view at ICA, London, Jul. 29–Sep. 27, 2015.

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