PRINT April 1990


The performances of sacrificial rites and the erection or nomination of sacred places are one of the prime occupations of man. Directly obvious or camouflaged, they help to constitute life. Some civilizations today have lost their capacity e.g. for death rites. It is a sign of loss of capacity for living.
—Hans Hollein

FOR HANS HOLLEIN, architecture is a metaphysical instance of community rather than the result of some moment of intellectual grace. Designing and building are conditions ritual and magical, rooted in the fabric of a collective belief. Referring to an “elsewhere” apart from ordinary existence, they are situations in which to celebrate the forces of metamorphosis, the forces that oppose the inertia of the everyday. In architecture, the fury of life is cleansed and purified. Here the entire community can gather the strength to renew its dedication to the difficult exercise of living. The building, a sacrificium of matter and energy, can be considered in terms of the exchange between the officiant and the initiate: form, color, and line, light and movement, space and volume, are brought as offerings to be burnt on its altar table, where the obscure powers that dominate the universe transform them into sacred places—museums, public buildings, churches. And since the sacrifice always consumes the offering, the creation of a political, artistic, physical, and prophetic body—a building is all these things—must recur, in order to elevate the collective life and let it prosper.

The theme of the offering has appeared in Hollein’s work from the beginning. In the cross and in blood, in the tomb and in ashes, in the table and in the ritual meal, he has identified the symbols and metaphors of design with a transformation from death to life. For this Austrian architect, in fact, living draws its energy and force from its own negation. Life is regenerated in the body’s burial (Tomb of the Racing Driver, 1970), its dive into decay and gloom to find the light. Inertia becomes active, fragments become a continuum, only in the abyss of stasis, of interment. And it is here that Hollein solicits a play between Thanatos and Eros, transforming a cemetery into Paesaggio con architettura (Landscape with architecture, 1958), and relics of war into a sculpture, Potemkin, 1959. Such projects for underground cities as Kopenhagen, 1964, also describe the vitality of the buried, the potential in darkness.

The crossing between death and life is revealed clearly in a mixed-media work on paper of 1959—a Christian cross running with blood. (The heart and hands of the sacred victim remain on its beams.) But the sacrifice here is the Architect of the World, whose gift of self-immolation is one of the foundation stones of Western culture. The blood in the drawing is the symbol of emotion, action, and idea, and for Hollein, this is the beginning of totemic architecture; this is the source from which bursts the magma of design. Around this sacrifice to the numen of art and architecture are gathered consecrated objects, gifts, fruits; officiants and acolytes meet, oracles are pronounced, and a symbolic ray of light fans out to distinguish the new creation from the multitude of common forms and spaces.

Hollein moves between the concrete and the spiritual, the daily and the sacred. He knows that whoever seeks to enact magical rituals, as the artist does, or to create solemn places, like the architect, must perform the devotions of faith. The typological model of Hollein’s architecture is the temple, where the sacred fire was preserved, and laws were determined. This was once the site of our participation in extrahuman power. Furthermore, the management of the mana of the world that took place in the temple allowed the control of life and death, or, rather, the mediation between the two. The ancient rituals of the temple strike a chord in Hollein’s imagination. “On a travel to Mexico—many years ago,” he writes,

I was greatly impressed by the relationship there between life and death or rather by the relationship to blood. Blood signifying both life and death and spilled all over. The various crucifixes and castigations (all looking very real) were covered with it. At the ruins of the ancient Indian civilizations one knew of the rites performed. Now everything was silent and empty there: a sacrificial altar still shows grooves which led the blood somewhere. Blood grooves. . .are a strange thing. Blood runs in it in a very formalized way. Because blood runs, is it alive?

A Hollein installation at the old Mönchengladbach Museum in 1970 described an archaeological excavation of ruins, with objects of Hollein’s design that seemed to have been taken from tombs and sarcophagi. Half art, half architecture, the project suggested a ritual revival of the relics of a culture, and presupposed a participation in the sacred as a collective civil rite. Lavoro e comportamento. Vita e morte (Work and behavior. Life and death), in the Austrian pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale, established a ceremonial route or passage between two environmental and architectural poles: one was a solemn, cold, silent interior room; the other was a marquee like construction outside—on piles, in fact, sunk into the water at the edge of a canal. In the relationship between life and death set up by the title, life was represented indoors, by instruments of everyday existence (bed, chair, table), death by a human form wrapped mummylike in blankets and set on a platform in the marquee, as if awaiting the great voyage of mortality, for which a raft floated ready, a few feet away.

Yet the Venice piece, in addressing the iconographies of life and death, also reversed them, in symbol and in material, as if for Hollein the function of architecture were to effect an exchange of roles and meanings, to confuse opposing energies. The room of the living was a homogeneous, inert network of lifeless forms. All signs of the vital and sensual were absent; the objects were cold, inanimate, cataleptic, as if they’d lost consciousness; they were made of ceramic modules, suggesting moments of life serially mass-produced and frozen. This was a sort of domestic crypt, referring to everyday situations but evoking a peaceful stillness. The pavilion of death, on the other hand—through a bright doorway and along an outdoor boardwalk from the interior space—was built over rippling water, in the organic media of wood and canvas. Its roof swelled sensually with the wind, as if to surround the body exposed on its altarlike table with movement. Water is the symbol of birth and rebirth. The raft was also of rough wood, but on it stood a chair or throne made of the same white-ceramic modules we had seen in the silent crypt of the everyday. Thus the piece proposed a cycle in which the mute goddess of death was embodied both by her own silence and immobility and by the processes of work and activity; as if all the objects of dailiness harbored reverberations of death, and were nurtured by it. “A throne. / A sacred well. / Penetrable walls. / Departure. / Everyday situations: You have a house, a room, a bed, a table, a chair. You come by boat, you leave by car. You rest, you work, you eat, you pray, you live, you die.”

For Hollein, cold forms and rigid materials become positive forces in the register of death—the only elsewhere remaining to us, offering a countervailing power of mystery to the factuality of contemporary life. This understanding of the energy of the inert explains his pleasure in marble, metal, granite, and glass, which he folds and curves, puts on display, makes ardent and alluring. It is almost as if he were trying to give these immobile materials the flow of the carnal. This impulse is apparent in the impatient fullness of the surfaces and volumes, the sense they give of an intense inner nature, in the two Schullin jewelry shops in Vienna, 1972–74 and 1981–82; in the tactile and visual richness of the Austrian town of Perchtoldsdorf’s town hall, 1975–76; in the broad, unobtrusive, but seductive outer skin of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach,1972–82; and in the 1981–83 Ludwig Beck shop in Trump Tower, New York (since destroyed). All these projects reveal the sensual vitality in solemn, inert materials, which Hollein has brought to blossom, exalting their smooth, voluptuous surfaces. This Austrian architect, working in the tradition of Jugendstil, has played a cunning game: dead materials are made to announce action, pleasure, a subtle eroticism.

The same ardor for materials is everywhere in Hollein’s furniture designs: his sofas, beds, wardrobes, doorways, armchairs, and tables (for Alessi, M.I.D., Cleto Munari, Poltronova, Memphis, and Franz Wittman), with their curving forms and iconic references, are static yet somehow deeply animated objects. Wood or metal becomes warm, even tender; images of radiance suggest a cult of the sun. An unnerving fertility seems to issue from the object’s dark interior substance, its hidden, almost Medusan petrification. The feeling is anticipated as early as the Freud Armchair, 1969 , where the suffering of the patient has suggested an armchair-cum-altar-cum-triclinium, the multipartite Roman couch. An esthetic shiver seems to run through this object; the mind projects a transport of images onto its soft surfaces, with a complexity that ought to have led to the creation of the Sigmund Freud museum that Hollein planned.

Further links between the design force and the voluptuousness of death appear in the long metal-tile tunic Hollein created for Kriemhild’s Revenge, an installation at the Folkwang Museum, Essen, in 1972: “A man thinks he is invulnerable because he is protected by a skin, impregnable—but one tiny imperfection and he died.” Here the hero’s death notice is an announcement of life for the object: the horror of blood is transformed into a visual elegy, in a moment of romantic exaltation. The same dramatic effect appeared in Hollein’s installation for “Umanesimo/Disumanesimo” (Humanism/inhumanism), an exhibition in Florence in 1980, where what seemed a river of blood ran below an enormous embankment of sandbags suggesting the trenches of wartime. Hollein’s work seems to intensify, to gather power, when it is sited in the territory between death and life. It expresses a love for the dream: moving along the intangible, aleatory boundary of mortality, the architecture becomes a possible location for the marvelous that lies sleeping in the invisible continent between here and the unknown elsewhere. The office of the Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro, the Austrian travel agency, in the Opernringhof in Vienna, 1976–78, is a dreamed, theatrical zone of suspended reality. It opens onto an indefinite territory of wonders, a geography of the imaginary that can be traversed only by abandoning oneself to the dizzy vertigo of the images embedded in the space. These solicit a fantastic journey among exotic pavilions, an oasis of palm trees, a pyramid, the flight of birds.

If every object can enter and exit from opposing worlds, does anything govern their metamorphosis? The most frequent mediator between internal and external, conscious and unconscious, birth and death, is light. Through the door of light, one can “see” the territory of the other—through the many doors leading to different environments, different experiences, at the 14th Milan Triennale (1968), or the door at the Venice Biennale. Light promises a different life, and a way out of darkness and silence. Hollein’s first building in Vienna was literally devoted to light—the Retti Candle Shop of 1964–65, a ceremonial space whose magic lies in the oscillation between distinct realities—between illumination and reflection, candlelight and electricity. Hollein’s use of light demands a response in the realm of the imagination. Passing through all the stages between the profane and the divine, light both materializes the open doorway and dissolves the hard surface. It is immaterial matter, cold but alive, and its fluidity opens views into the anonymous, inert magma of the preexisting buildings in the urban context.

Light acts as a matrix of excitement, its reflection creating dazzling interstices and fractures. The entrance for New York’s Feigen Gallery (now the Hanae Mori boutique), 1967–69, is an optical tear in the fabric of the street, an exemplar of radiant building. The same kind of rupture appears in the first Schullin store, but here the reverberation is material as well as luminous: a cracklike brass-and-steel opening in the store’s facade symbolizes light’s shattering force. The collaboration of matter and light in Hollein’s designs is integral to their sense of inner oscillation, of reverberating inner life, and of metamorphosis. Elements open up to other elements, so that metal, through the play of light, comes to represent rivers or canals of water or even molten lava, as in the rent facade of the Schullin store, or in the columns and the palmy oasis in the Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro.

Hollein also uses light to orient his architecture in the landscape, making it a focal point of the community not only symbolically but visually. At night, the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg is as magnetic as a firework display: it becomes a transparent body of luminous substance, almost like Venetian glass, with an infinite multiplicity of layered tones—a fantastic beacon luminously suffusing the city. The hill on which it stands appears to float miraculously in the air, and the architecture almost seems to be on fire, burning, consumed in some artificial flame. It is as if one were faced with a new cult of the sun—a secular, technologically informed cult, in which the tablets of the law have been replaced by the paintings and sculptures of Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg, Jannis Kounellis, and Yves Klein. In the exhibition halls and passageways, light shares in a dialogue with the incision-like settings of doorways and corridors; together, interpenetrating naturally, the two elements establish the architecture as an active frame for the art. In this setting, Pop art becomes passionate, Minimal structure is cooled, the painted canvas pulsates.

The way the museum shapes one’s perception of its works of art reinforces the sense of Hollein’s work as an architecture of sacrifice. For both temple and museum have their relics, on which their value depends; each in its own way is a sanctuary for the preservation of the remains of the saints. The large halls of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg are set in a four-leaf-clover form, the “leaves” grouped around a central intersection from which optical axes run through wide doorways into the different environments. The layout maximizes the usable exhibition space and sets the rooms on an angle rather than frontally, which activates them dynamically; also, of course, it is a cross shape, recalling the great sacrlficium. Downstairs, in the museum’s “crypt”—devoted to the historical work that underpins the present moment, from Nouveau Réalisme to Fluxus to kinetic and Op art—Hollein evokes the small underground sanctuaries of the early Church. The spaces are accessible by ladderlike stairs and catacomblike passages, and are made to seem chilly and distant in time through the use of artificial light.

The museum is most sensual in areas designed for the feast explicitly of the mind as well as of the eyes—the spaces for education and discussion. Since it is here that the discourses and dialogues of the occult sciences of art and creativity take place, the rooms’ construction seems almost initiatory. In the museum’s amphitheaters and auditoriums, which can be altered for the ritual to be performed in them (a performance, a lecture, a film), color and form are strong and definite. The values set in play are based on the allegorical figures of the circle and the column, and on rich color: if these are the qualities offered for sacrifice, they get the beautiful death that signifies successful rebirth and new life in ancient traditions from the Orient to Africa. The materials, on the other hand, suggest not so much the passage from one state to another as the timelessness of permanence. Perdurable marbles and granites imply an unshakable moment of immobility in time and space. Thus the rooms become mausoleums of materials, rooms of remembrance, niches in which are deposited a culture’s memories. These spaces suggest the shape of the ellipse, as if Hollein, like the great Baroque architects, wanted us to contemplate the double focus of existence: the paired centers of death and of life.

Other ceremonially charged images appear in Hollein’s work alongside these signs. The wedge and the axe, the thorn and the blade, indicate an insertion, a linguistic break, in the urban landscape, a cut that opens the way for a passage from one domain to another. This evocation of a cut appears explicitly in the knifelike entrance arch to the second Schullin store. The blade’s association with separation and differentiation-inherent functions of artistic creation—recalls the ancient role attributed to the goddess Athena. In the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst, 1983, its form is actually implicit in the plan of the building—a fan-shaped wedge penetrating the urban fabric. It appears again in the design for the New National Theater of Japan, 1985–86,but here the symbol is orientalized, adapted to the sign firmament of the Kabuki theater and of the culture of the samurai. A golden sheen appears throughout, the color of the hero and of power. The building is based on sequences of triangles—heraldic signs, with echoes of violence. But here triangles conjoin as well as fragment; they ornament and mark the passages through the building, and the stage is set in a kind of trophy of triangles, their points cut off, or as if transparent, to allow a view of the action. In its coloring, the auditorium is a ritual of excess, an apotheosis of gold and blood.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, 1987–88, designed for downtown Los Angeles but as yet unbuilt, is a symphony rich in movements. Hollein’s solution, based again on interwedgings and interweavings of disparate cultural and environmental elements, shows his desire to associate architecture with music, making it leap and explode in its harmonies and contradictions. The building is a sort of kaleidoscope of spaces and of technical solutions,which are refracted into a new identity yet at the same time maintain the historical and formal properties they carry as baggage. Disorder and movement become protagonists of a perfect event: music. The atmosphere is of architectural apocalypse. The double nature of the cut appears clearly in the Haas Haus, 1985–, in Vienna. On the facade, Hollein offers a play of opposites, an astonishing display of formal and architectural duality. Square and linear patterns, cement and metal building materials, natural and artificial colors intersect and clash as they revolve around the focal tower, which is itself made up of dissociated wedges and volumes. One finally arrives at the surprise of the top floors, an exploded elsewhere, a conglomeration of movements, spaces, and unexpected planes that is a sort of open musical score of architecture.

The Volksschule Köhlergasse in Vienna, 1979–90, is an inventory of the lexical materials of architecture, a catalogue of the effects and causes of architectural movement. Form breaks up and recomposes in this multilevel cluster of buildings and spaces, a mosaic of volumes and colors that appears almost classical in the harmonic osmosis among its parts. Fragmentation and interweaving are equally integral, and the elements—wall and temple, piazza and closed shell, now central, now displaced, now linear, now circular—have the radiant energy of an autonomous cosmos. The mixture between the harmony of the architecture and the anarchic and individualistic force of the buildings appears once again in the golf club in Ebreichsdorf, Austria, 1988–89, and in the design for the future Salzburg Museum (1989–). In this latter project, Hollein will excavate an abyss in the rock, suggesting an architectural vertigo or vortex pushed to the limit. Indeed, this museum carved into Salzburg’s rocky hillside will be virtually invisible from the outside; it will be perceivable only from within. The design is for a space of enormous pathos, then, because it will swallow up the energy of the art.

With this project, Hollein veers toward the “interior” cut, as if he wanted to possess the victim (the architecture) from within, to pass through the labyrinth of its exterior matter and cut into its womb. We have arrived at a watershed of creativity that celebrates the gesture of carving into the depths of life and death. Hollein opens wounds in the urban body only to insert temples and sanctuaries, the sites where the fruits of experience are collected. He is a shaman, a fatal narrator who carves, pierces, and practices initiations. It is his joy to plant architectural daggers in the body of the city, bringing forth a fantastic and astonishing blood.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

All quotations of Hans Hollein are from Toshio Nakumura, ed., Hans Hollein, Tokyo: A & U Publishing Co., Ltd., 1985, p. 161.