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PRINT April 2002

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Austrian Cultural Forum

MANY BUILDINGS, over time, are given colloquial labels that distill their symbolic freight, mediating between an architect's intentions and the mystification of a public confronting new forms. But it is rare for a building to debut with any caption other than the designer's own. By the time it opens to the public later this month, the Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan—a twenty-four-story tower tucked into a town-house lot on East Fifty-second Street—will have been compared variously to an Easter Island megalith, a Gillette Mach 3 cartridge, and a bit of Secession ornament writ very large.

The Forum's architect, Tyrol-born New Yorker Raimund Abraham, has his own pet reference. Asked whether the sloped glass-and-steel facade, with its pantomimed thrust and parry of aspiration and collapse, is a play on the great tradition of allusions to rising and falling in Art Deco skyscrapers (the fountainlike buildings of Rockefeller Center are just around the corner), Abraham protests: “It is in the great tradition of the guillotine.”

Though clearly relished as one source of the Forum's mock-hostile urbanity, the jagged edges of the edifice—chamfered overhangs at the second, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth floors—are at root a response to Midtown zoning. They occur where the building encounters the site's maximum legal envelope limit that also dictated the steep angle of attack. If this strikes you as something of a tired trope, it may be because that aspect of the Forum's design has been so widely copied since its well-publicized unveiling a decade ago. But the events of last fall put a new spotlight on the implications of these tumbledown games—morbid readings that the architect does not shun.

A longtime professor at Cooper Union and a provocateur in that school's best tradition, Abraham has frequently speculated on the intersection of architecture and death. The cover of the March 1981 issue of this magazine reproduced his design for a memorial competition: Under blue skies, a model 747 crashes into a wall. Deploying architecture to probe the darker emotions is at the heart of the Cooper Union project as propelled by the late architecture school dean John Hejduk, whose projects include material meditations on suicide. Hejduk's eldritch spirit is also evident in the occult anthropomorphism that Abraham applies to the Austrian Cultural Forum. The ingenious concrete-tube scissor stair that stacks up at the rear of the structure is, per Abraham, “The Vertebra”; the evocative but hard-to-place facade is, fittingly, “The Mask.”

Behind the mask, Abraham has packed more prime space than one would expect on a dark, narrow, mid-block lot. The projecting cube on the seventh floor—part of the director's office—opens up some of the city's most exceptional low-altitude views. On the ground floor and below are surprisingly dynamic galleries; the second floor houses a tight little boîte of a concert hall. All of these spaces will be broken in hard during the Forum's inaugural program, “Transforming Modernity,” which will bring a heavy rotation of a hundred imported artists, authors, musicians, and designers through the building from mid-April to June.

Philip Nobel is a New York-based design writer.