View of the exhibition “COOP Himmelb(l)au” at the Architekturforum Aedes in Berlin, photo © Markus Pillhofer
Project “Busan Cinema Center” in Busan, South Korea (2005-2012), photo © Duccio Malagamba
Project “Busan Cinema Center” in Busan, South Korea (2005- 2012), photo © Duccio Malagamba
View of the exhibition “COOP Himmelb(l)au” at the Architekturforum Aedes in Berlin, photo © Markus Pillhofer
Project “European Central Bank (ECB)” in Frankfurt am Main, Germany (2003-2014), photo © COOP Himmelb(l)au
View of the exhibition “COOP Himmelb(l)au” at the Architekturforum Aedes in Berlin, photo © Markus Pillhofer
Project “Dalian International Conference Center” in Dalian, China (2008-2012), photo © COOP Himmelb(l)au
Project “Dalian International Conference Center” in Dalian, China (2008-2012), photo © COOP Himmelb(l)au
Still crazy after all these years
by Mathias Remmele
Jan 17, 2013

Creating buildings that are as light and changeable as clouds – this aspiration, this ideal has been the key maxim at Coop Himmelb(l)au since its inception and remains so to this very day. Or so said Wolf D. Prix, the only remaining founder and now director of the Vienna-based firm, at the opening of the new exhibition at Architecture Forum Aedes in December. The show, rather cumbersomely entitled “Wolf D. Prix & Partner: 7 + Projects, Models, Plans, Sketches, Statements” (clearly in homage to the grand old master on his 70th birthday), offers a kind of mini retrospective of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s work.

Prix selected seven of the approximately 600 (!) projects completed by the office during the 40-plus years of its existence – those that are particularly close to his heart and those that play an important role in the firm’s oeuvre. Chronologically, this begins in the 1980s with the rooftop remodeling on Vienna’s Falkstrasse, which has long been considered an icon of Deconstructivist architecture. Then we see the first major projects, the UFA Cinema Center in Dresden (1993-98) and BMW World in Munich (2001-07), which ensured the studio its rightful place in the international league of star architects. These are swiftly followed by some of their most recently completed works such as the Martin Luther Church in Hainburg on the Danube (2008-11) and the Dalian International Conference Center in Northeast China (2008-12). Two projects still under construction complete the assortment: The “Musée des Confluences” in Lyon and of course the new European Central Bank towers in Frankfurt – indisputably the firm’s most prominent commission to date. Watering down the exhibition concept somewhat, and simultaneously rounding-off the overall image, these high-profile projects are joined by a baker’s dozen of additional Coop Himmelb(l)au projects, including much earlier works such as the “Cloud” and “Villa Rosa” from 1968 and a series of on-going plans, an illustration of the firm’s outlook for the future.

In contrast to the formal extravagance of the themes it addresses, the presentation concept adopted here is a little conventional and somewhat sedate. Large-format photos or renderings are combined with models, which are certainly impressive if only by dint of their sheer size and richness of detail. In many cases, it becomes abundantly clear that these are intended as an indispensible aid to render the complex structures of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s creations more or less comprehensible. Info packs with sketches and construction plans provide additional, in-depth information and offer insights into the geneses of the respective buildings. Though these are likely to be of greatest interest to the die-hard Coop Himmelb(l)au fans among the audience. However, for the skeptics (and their number prevents us from discounting them here) the exhibition is a must-see for a very different reason: for it exemplifies how a radical architectural utopia can be translated into a constructed reality and what actually happens during this process of transformation.

To think how it all began for the firm that is today masterminding the new European Central Bank HQ, thus indisputably securing its place in the establishment! After all, it was founded in 1968, that legendary year replete with revolts and protest, a year of awakening, of flourishing utopias… it almost sounds like something from a fairy tale! Coop Himmelb(l)au were just a troop of irate youngsters touting a revolution in architecture, positioning themselves as radically anti-traditional, anti-functionalistic and anti-commercial. The Viennese young blood soon had everyone talking. Not with what they built or even what they planned to build but with a wild rhetoric (“Architecture is not accommodating” or “The end of space is the beginning of architecture” or “Architecture must burn”) and with projects that had more in common with Happenings and Action Art than architecture as it is generally understood. Some saw it as visionary, provocative, poetic and humorous, others as just plain odd – but one thing’s for sure, at this point in time, no one would have believed that these architectural anarchists would ever come to build such grand architecture as we see today.

They went on to successfully withstand the allure of Post-Modernism in the 1970s and instead became the trailblazers of Deconstructivism in the 1980s. The abovementioned rooftop remodeling in Vienna became proof that the frenetic lines and fragmented surfaces (and they have since become firmly established as the studio’s calling card) really can at least on a small scale be made an architectural reality. From then on, in a similar way to their contemporaries like Zaha Hadid or Frank O. Gehry, they would have technological developments on their side. The digitalization of planning and construction enabling them to live out the complex architectural fantasies now considered the epitome of Coop Himmelb(l)au; naturally they had to lower their sights a little and often racked up enormous material expenses, but all the same. And so, this company received its “big break”, directly or indirectly. Since then, the formal expression of their designs has been continually shape-shifting in step with the zeitgeist. The often brusque jaggedness seen in 1980s has now given way to an almost malleable, sleek-looking dynamism. On occasion some of their modern-day constructs really are is cloud-like. But in light of the sheer weight and heaviness of the matter, conveying these mutability and lightness is still easier said than done.

You can think what you like about Coop Himmelb(l)au, about their ideas and buildings, but one thing is indisputable (and this what the Aedes exhibition really drives home): this firm has enhanced the architectural aesthetic of the past decades and produced some remarkable buildings in the process. However, utopia remains that which it should be – utopia. Wolf D. Prix has succeeding in bringing it to fruit. A great achievement in itself.

Coop Himmelb(l)au: 7+
Aedes am Pfefferberg, Berlin
Dezember 12, 2012 until March 3, 2013