WOLF D. PRIX 75: "IF I STOPPED MOVING, I’D BE DEAD"
In an interview on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Wolf D. Prix talks about architecture, taste and aesthetics, working on the PANEUM and why he became an architect.
You are a world-renowned architect. What is architecture to you? Wolf D. Prix: A building is not a priori – from the beginning or at the end – described as architecture. If a building does not reach a meta-level in some way, by having a philosophical, conceptual, innovative background, be it in the shape, the organisation of the building, in the materials or the construction, then it is and always will be a building. The more these levels are played through in the completed building, the more one can call it architecture.
... then the architect’s task is to reach this meta-level? Yes, that would be the task, but there are many constraints in the construction industry, for example, from the client, building standards, as well as laws and regulations. They often do not want to allow what I have just mentioned.
Does this requirement for architecture apply to all buildings, even bakeries? Certainly, everywhere. If an architect who is aware of his responsibility designs a building, he must try to get as far as possible on at least one of these levels. But, to be clear, if a bakery sells bread, it must do so in spite of these meta-levels. And, if the architecture is good, it will sell even more bread.
How was it with the PANEUM? When we first met, the founder of the PANEUM, Peter Augendopler, spoke in depth about his project. It immediately reminded me of a Wunderkammer. There is a picture of a Wunderkammer, full of exhibits, displayed on the floor, on the walls, and even on the ceiling. Sometimes it reminds me of catalogues that still exist today, where everything is all muddled together. I have not seen anyone put one down yet. Rather, one rummages through to find something interesting. So, I told Mr. Augendopler, “What I can create for you is a Wunderkammer.” From that moment on, we agreed.
Architect and client on the same wavelength? Architecture can only exist when the client and the architect work together. I have almost never experienced a client as intense, optimistic and trusting as Peter Augendopler. As a result, the building has become optimistic, intense and different.
Does this happen often? Rarely, very rarely, and I can tell you why. When it comes to major contracts, it is usually a committee that decides, and only rarely a client who is committed to and enthusiastic about being able to design the building with the architect. I think that is a mistake and a great loss to what we call building culture.
Back to the Wunderkammer… The Wunderkammer was designed as a space where there is something to see everywhere. The idea was to create a very specific atmosphere around the exhibits – not clinically white, but almost like Noah’s Ark, in shipbuilding style.
Was the original idea that the shape should represent dough or bread? No, not at all. But I think it is okay that some viewers have interpreted it in this way. I appreciate nothing more than nicknames for our buildings. It shows that people can identify with them.
Is it important to you that people recognise something in your architecture? Is that your intention? No, but it is important that people can name a building. It serves as identification for people who live in the area, be it in the city or in the countryside. In essence, it is about creating identifiable buildings.
The local fire department wanted to have a new fire truck photographed in front of the PANEUM, for example… Yes, things like that happen to us often. I’m glad it does not meet with rejection. Like all things foreign, new forms with new aesthetics as the meta-level behind them, encounter resistance at first. We know that only too well. You can see it on an interpersonal level too but, once you are used to it, it is often an asset to the district and to the culture.
Would you like more of these types of projects? I would like to build a university, an art school, a school or a kindergarten in Austria, and not only in Los Angeles. To create spaces where an unconscious feeling of well-being comes into play – that’s the important thing. I also like building offices where people enjoy working. All that. By the way, I have to say that all our projects are very well received by the public.
Then it is also sustainable… Yes, also in the sense that, if everything is immediately understandable at a glance, you forget it after five years. But, if there are differentiations and contrasts, you spend more time on it and it stays in your memory longer. In the best case, that is a very, very long time.
The materials that we have used in the PANEUM are also sustainable. The stainless steel shingles could be used again, the concrete could be crushed and, of course, there’s the wood. It is easy to forget that – when used properly – concrete, steel and glass are quite sustainable products. It’s not just wood, clay or grass. These building materials have the advantage of having a longer lifespan than clay buildings.
Where does the PANEUM rank amongst your many works? How important is it to you? I can tell you exactly. First of all, the current or next project is always the most interesting to me. The PANEUM is all the more interesting because the intensity with which it was planned and built is very rare. I like to relate it to our big projects. It makes no difference whether it has 1,000 m², 40,000 m² or 80,000 m²; our intention is always the same. People see and feel that too. It’s not for nothing that the BMW World has millions of visitors; it doesn’t have a boring museum atmosphere and it is also an information building.
A question you may have been asked many times: Miles Davis said there are only two types of music – good and bad... Correct.
Is it the same with architecture? Yes, I would ascribe that to architecture too. I would follow his words by saying there are two types of architecture – good and bad, but then bad architecture is not architecture anymore. That means there is only one type of architecture.
With bread, shape and appearance come first, and only later aroma, texture and taste come into play. The latter, however, determines the success of a bakery product. Is taste a serious factor in architecture? Yes, but there is one word that bothers me, because you can argue about taste. That does not apply to aesthetics.
That means aesthetics don’t come into the taste debate? Only the banal taste debate, because one needs to know a lot in order to judge architecture. You have to know a great deal about the sociology of the society you are in. You have to know where the boundaries are that extend the shape of a building. That is also a feature of good architecture, that it redefines not only the content but also the boundaries of aesthetics. That’s why I don’t like many buildings that are so revered. They are a look back, not forward. And, when you look back all the time, you stop and are no longer moving forward. I have nothing at all against progress. To progress means to be alive and to live. If I stopped moving, I’d be dead.
Is that, so to speak, the “artistic aspect”? Yes, that is also what makes architecture an art.
Could one then say that an architect must also be an artist? Correct. And if an architect has no idea of art – that is temporary art – then he is retrospective. The “meta-level” is achieved because one is well educated, because one is interested and because, as a young architect, one forges a path that is different from conventional construction. These are prerequisites that then flow into every design. I would almost say that I attend more art exhibitions or that, here in Austria, I am friends with more artists than architects. Artists set up more interesting theses than architects who constantly talk about construction costs. That is certainly an important part, but an artist should not be led by obedience.
Are there any parallels to bakery? I always like listening to Mr. Augendopler when he talks about the development of bakery and how it is constantly changing. He insists that no human today would eat the bread from “the good old days”. Development always has to do with change and creativity. It’s like that in every profession. Even lawyers need to be creative. Good craftsmen are “super creative”. They are often faced with problems that were previously not considered because only hands-on craftsmanship brings solutions on a construction site.
In your creative history, have you ever dealt more closely with the topic of bread? No, but a friend of mine – the late Hans Hollein – had an exhibition about bread a long time ago. How it was related to the development of culture impressed me very much back then. At the time, he showed me, as a student, that architecture is not just a building, but that a good architect must also deal with the background. Building a bread factory would be easier than the PANEUM.
Has your view of bread changed as a result of your work on the PANEUM? Yes, it’s quite scary how much I enjoy eating Kornspitz now. Seriously though, my relatives in Germany can’t understand it at all, but the whole family eats Kornspitz. I really enjoy a Kornspitz with butter for breakfast. Even just the smell of bread is good. I also used to bake a bit, so it’s not entirely strange to me – although I’m not a cook.
But you like to eat? Yes, but I like to eat little.
You savour… Actually, yes.
You enjoy food, enjoy architecture… It doesn’t get more enjoyable... That sounds too much like comfort now, and that’s not what I’m about. I’m not leisurely or patient.
But enjoyment is also something active, right? Yes, for example a restaurant with good food and a good wine.
Do you have a favourite food? Beef with dill sauce, like my mother and grandmother made it. It hardly exists anymore.
And do you have a favourite building? All of ours, I must say. Then, of course, “La Tourette” by Le Corbusier. That was the impetus to me becoming an architect. My father was also an architect, so I looked over his shoulder as a child in the office. It was only when I went to the buildings of Le Corbusier in France that I realised: If that’s architecture, I’ll be an architect.
This interview was conducted by Jürgen Reimann, Head of Communications PANEUM – Wunderkammer des Brotes
Wolf D. Prix, born in 1942 in Vienna, is co-founder, Design Principal and CEO of COOP HIMMELB(L)AU. He studied architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, the Architectural Association of London as well as at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles. Wolf D. Prix is counted among the originators of the deconstructivist architecture movement. COOP HIMMELB(L)AU had its international breakthrough with the invitation to the exhibition ”Deconstructivist Architecture” at MoMA New York in 1988. Over the years Wolf D. Prix/ COOP HIMMELB(L)AU was awarded with numerous international architecture awards.
COOP HIMMELB(L)AU was founded in Vienna in 1968 and has since then been operating under the direction of CEO and design principal Wolf D. Prix in the fields of art, architecture, urban planning, and design. Another branch of the firm was opened in the United States in 1988 in Los Angeles. In numerous countries the team has realized museums, concert halls, science and office buildings as well as residential buildings. Presently COOP HIMMELB(L)AU is working on various projects in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
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