Top-drawer time bombs
by Jochen Stöckmann
Nov 25, 2014

Once upon a time there was a psychoanalyst who in his furious pamphlet attacked “the inhospitality of our cities”. Yet although Alexander Mitscherlich found many readers in 1965 – in the rainbow-colored Edition Suhrkamp – no one really listened. There was simply no ‘go’ in the gray concrete jungles of post-War architecture. Until two years later the windows flew open in a Gründerzeit building in Vienna: Every hour, “Ballon für Zwei” (Balloon for Two) popped out of the window high up on the building’s facade. It consisted of a pneumatic shell, a transparent, spherical living pod as a basic module for the city of the future. Such interventions in the streetscape in the late 1960s were sure to be the work of Haus-Rucker-Co, a Viennese architecture collective. Laurids Ortner and Günter Zamp Kelp were students of Karl Schwanzer, who encouraged them to think about unconventional architecture. With artist Klaus Pinter, the third member, the ideas that were often simply spontaneously sketched out assumed form, and hallucinated dreamy future spaces morphed into vivid sculptures.

Mind Expander and pop culture

Today titles such as “Richtungsgeber” (Trailblazer), “Urbantoy” or “Roomscraper” still allude to the cheeky irony with which the young artists-cum-architects rejected the impertinence of profane building projects. They preferred a radically renewed perception than the customary drawing board drudgery, and set out to do revolutionary battle for a new consciousness. As their weapon of criticism Haus-Rucker saw neither book nor pencil as acceptable, in fact nothing that wasn’t material. So the “trio inventivo” created the “Mind Expander”. Yet that which in colored pencil on paper recalled modern and yet mythically inspired figurations by sculptors such as Walter Pichler was forcefully made a reality in 1968. In the Haus-Rucker retrospective at Berlin’s “Haus am Waldsee” the hair-drier hood finished with acrylic, polyester und fiberglass, i.e. all materials of the blossoming Pop culture, has acquired a patina despite the metallic effect. And the DIY consciousness-expanding device arches up over a kind of hip bath, similar to the command chair on the “Raumpatrouille Orion” in the first German sci-fi TV series.

Utopia in the back room

Risen from a long since obsolete future, such “incunabula” in the hitherto largely neglected archive of Günter Zamp Kelp now take their place alongside plans, drawings and documentary photos and illustrate what the curators, in the rash joy of discovery, deem to be (and hopelessly overrate as) “Architectural Utopia Reloaded”. Visualizing the “emergence of the new”, as Director Katja Blomberg promises, requires subtler snare pictures.

For instance cultural-historical snapshots, which architectural sociologist Lucius Burckhardt captured in the 1960s: “Back then, every architect had a utopia in his drawer. If you went to visit him, he’d first show you the plans he was working on to earn his bread and butter, then he’d shrug his shoulders apologetically, and finally you’d both go into the backroom where he’d whisk you away to the secrets of the new ‘space city’: It was of course flexible, people lived in portable living cells, travel was by the pneumatic tube system, people gathered and floated back into their cells.”

Oasis in a bubble

Several of the missing links for a genealogy of the avant-garde could surely be found in the backrooms of architecture studios. Yet Haus-Rucker-Co never had these interfaces between ambitious utopias and small-minded construction business in mind, at least not in their young, wild years: Their “Oase No 7” (Oasis no. 7), an oversized soap bubble in front of the façade of the Fridericianum in Kassel, exuded purely pointless pleasure. And only an exclusive group of journalists was allowed to enter this miniature vision under dwarf palms – through an emergency exit in the museum. In this dose “utopia” wouldn’t have even had side effects on everyday life.

Yet all this was to be found in 1972 at the documenta 5 exhibition. And its director Harald Szeemann, like the Viennese architecture impresario Günther Feuerstein beforehand, would have been the ideal man for sustainable utopias. Yet the Haus-Rucker group in no way thought along such strategic lines. The quintette, which had now expanded to include Ortner’s brother Manfred, adopted a trial-and-error approach through the art world. “BIG Piano”, a tower with different sounding steps, its tip shrouded in artificial clouds, could not be readily financed for the next documenta 1977. So a steel structure was used, the “framework construction” as a visual frame for the Karlspark and Fulda Aue meadow. It was a pragmatic decision for Zamp Kelp: “If an installation didn’t work, it was taken down. And if an intervention was accepted, like for example the framework construction in Kassel, it was left standing.”

Bouncy castle as a hit

The architects did however preserve a hint of utopia. Besides “stimulating society”, the “participatory” aspect was always a must. Two “before and after” photos provide proof: Once a single person had conducted a test run, the masses stormed the “Giant Billiards Game”, a precursor of the bouncy castle with three life-size balls. The idea was marketed as a crowd-puller, with the City of Toronto just as much a client as New York dance club “The Electric Circus”. Basically though it was aimed neither at “society” nor potent(ial) developers, but collectors: Prints, fold-out sketches in standard LP cover format, as well as several objects which design museums exalt nowadays, were all sold.

The exhibition does not even have a hint of the status quo at the time. Lots of the exhibits come from Günter Zamp Kelp. And while he has provided much on loan, as the co-curator and a charming storyteller with a much tried-and-tested wealth of anecdotes he at all times has the say on how it is interpreted. As such the ramifications of postmodern architecture and the history of urban development are reduced to a simple bloodline, at whose scarcely branching ends Raumlabor’s “Kitchen Monument” and Tomás Saraceno’s air bubbles crowned with steel spider webs are the latest offshoots with Haus-Rucker DNA.

The third curator, futurologist Ludwig Engel, also falls for this one-dimensional imagery. His credo is: “Because your objects were so iconographic in terms of design and construction, they still convey the spirit of the time even today.” But what “spirit” do striking motifs such as the pneumatic shell embody? This “mega-structure of a light bulb” was initially used a living cell, from whose mass configuration new communal forms were intended to emerge. Post-1968 this technological euphoria turned into dreary dystopia: The same basic architectural form now serves as a sanctum offering protection from impending environmental pollution.

Simple genealogical tree

Even serious shifts in interpretation pale, however, in view of Haus-Rucker-Co’s (misguided) development, which is not even mentioned, let alone analyzed in the exhibition: From the group, which in 1968 staged itself as a Pop band with imposed environment transformers with helmet-like “sight atomizers”, the Ortner brothers emerged as “star architects” who were as good as gold. The Ortner & Ortner company nameplate has the word “Architecture”, but the company also has bulky concrete jungles in its portfolio, shopping malls from “Forum Duisburg” to “Boulevard Berlin”, not to mention the “Alexa” on Alexanderplatz, which a Berlin architecture critic recently put in first place in her spectacularly designed “Demolition Atlas”, as a “symptom of investors’ architecture”.

In the works by Haus-Rucker now being exhibited the same author sees an “atmosphere of sustainable design in a 1960s space travel–style that is in again. Here a horror story, there a modern fairytale – all the causes for the very present damp squibs in this “Architectural Utopia Reloaded” remain unexplained. But with their slogan “architecture must be inspired”, all those Viennese architectural utopians such as Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelb(l)au perhaps wanted precisely that. And the Germans fell for it again.

Architectural utopia reloaded-Haus-Rucker-Co

Haus am Waldsee, Berlin,
through February 22, 2015
The catalog, edited by Katja Blomberg,
published by Verlag Walther König,
76 pages, articles in German and English,
will appear on December 6 and costs € 24

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