»Anything you can do, I can do better.«

In the Studio

Wolf D. Prix

Vienna, Austria

“Anything you can do, I can do better.”

When setting out in 1968, the architectural studio COOP HIMMELB(L)AU intended to rethink architecture and create buildings for a better future. Almost 50 years later, the spirit of its cofounder Wolf D. Prix is still strong. The architect is not yet interested in retrospection; on the contrary, even the Cloud project, the visionary, mobile model for living created long ago for documenta 5, was part of the tradition of COOP HIMMELB(L)AU. We met Wolf D. Prix to talk about utopias — the importance of failure, architecture as a tool to make things possible, and today’s visionary "cloud-like" architecture. Don’t look back!

The first projects by COOP HIMMELB(L)AU were accompanied by actionist performances or presented as pneumatic prototypes that were implemented mostly in an art context, in galleries or museums. Did you also consider yourselves artists at that time?
No. We always saw ourselves as architects, and also referred to ourselves as such. We did, however, use artistic methods in our projects, just like art adopts methods from other disciplines — but I would never define myself as an artist because of that. In fact, we have at all times stated that "architecture is art". Artists, in turn, did not like that back then.

What does the statement "architecture is art" mean for architecture and for the art scene? After all the boundaries were blurred; projects were not built, but exhibited, for example at Galerie nächst St. Stephan.
In those years, Galerie nächst St. Stephan was not a classical art gallery, but THE avant-garde gallery in Vienna. Therefore, it was also the place where the avant-garde of Austrian architects met. All of us, who tried to defy society’s constraints and introduce new dimensions into Austrian thinking, could be seen there. I showed my first ever project, which I had designed at the University of Technology, in the exhibition Urban Fiction. My project, Die Stadt im Raum [The City in Space], pointed out that we have to believe in things other than those we were told to believe in back then. As a matter of principle I cannot separate the concepts of architecture and art — I wasn’t able to do that in the past and I can’t do it now. Instead, I believe that architecture at that time influenced the art scene and vice versa.

But it was your goal to build something…with the aspiration to create a new, different kind of architecture. Was art a means to achieve that?
We wanted to change architecture at once and radically. And we actually believed that this new kind of architecture should come into existence, not the day after tomorrow, but as early as tomorrow or, even better, today. That may have been an artistic aspiration. We always knew that if you exclusively think in terms of architecture, all you will ever get is architecture — that’s why our aim was to expand architecture and transcend its limits. In English, there is a very suitable phrase, "pushing the envelope". That is a rather accurate description of our intentions.

A national — or international — discussion of architecture was irrelevant for you?
We were not so much interested in the kind of architecture that existed, was implemented, and discussed in these days; other things were far more important, for instance Cassius Clay’s boxing style, permissive education, political opinions, or the open tuning of the Rolling Stones’ guitars. We cared about that!

Does the art world still take notice of the work of COOP HIMMELB(L)AU? After all, some of it was bought by the Province of Lower Austria. Are museums interested in your work, too?
Musealization is an appropriation that is very convenient for increasing the objects’ value; however, I would prefer the projects to be implemented! Unfortunately many art curators are terribly conservative. We just had an exhibition of our drawings at Galerie Ulysses in Vienna. It is quite interesting to look at your own evolution over recent years. Actually that is not something I like to do. I don’t like retrospection. Don’t look back!

Let’s look back just one more time: a marked difference between architecture and art is that art does not need a client — or were you commissioned by documenta to further develop Cloud, your visionary model for living?
No. Back then we kept seeking answers to our own questions — nobody commissioned us. We did not wait for clients either. We took the initiative and made proposals for projects. By means of persistence and continually making proposals, we managed to be invited for interviews. That was always our goal. Competitions as a procedure can be a wretched thing. With the Cloud we were going to build for documenta, we dreamed of depicting the heartbeat as a room. I maintain that we have put the ideas from this era into practice today. The various spatial situations, created by means of movable platforms like back then in Cloud, are a feature we are actually building nowadays. Today, we are building Cloud.

Architecture as a manifestation of attitude — is that the way it should be seen?
Hermann Czech, whom I hold in high regard as a person, once said, "Architecture is only allowed to answer if it has been asked a question". We subsequently exchanged the term architecture with "our children", in order to show that we did not agree with this attitude. Therefore, we also answered without being asked; some people found that quite annoying. You must not only answer when you are asked a question — that won’t help us in our present situation! In order to cope with current problems, we need true utopias. With our mind-set, we won’t be able to overcome these problems. We need true utopias of how to protect our open society. Airstrikes are no utopia.

07 Wprix

Thus, we should talk about utopias.
I like that. The issue of utopia or visionary thinking has fallen into disrepute. Unfortunately, visionary thinking does not really exist any longer, even though we are direly in need of it right now. Utopia as a means of mastering the future is incredibly important, as life, of course, cannot go on without progress.

Why is that the case?
The defamation of the gifted by those lacking talent plays an ever-increasing role in our times. Instead of saying, "No one is allowed to be greater than me", it should be something like, "Anything you can do, I can do better". That would be an optimistic, discursive development for society. The contrary is what we see today, when certain groups say that the Western world is not allowed to go on like that. As romantics who know nothing we are about to fail. 

Isn’t failure a part of a utopia, too? And not really a subject that architects enjoy…
In a fundamentalist sense, it is! Trial and error are decisive aspects of a utopia. Quite simply, far too few things are being tried out in architecture. It’s different with art.

You have worked as a professor for a long time. What is to be expected from the next generation?
From what I’ve heard, today’s young ones are a bit more critical than earlier generations. Nevertheless, they spend nine weeks out of ten learning some computer program instead of thinking about architecture. Everything they do looks incredibly good; it has nothing to do with reality, though. 

Can architecture actually contribute to a solution of today’s problems?
Architecture is not a living being; it cannot promote anything, but it can prevent a great many things. Sitting in a beautiful, bright studio does not make you any more talented; in a dark cellar, however, you won’t be able to paint well. Even though people always say that teachers are much more important than a school’s architecture, you have to use a lot more energy as a teacher if the school building is inadequate.

04 Wprix

Even though architecture is not a living being, it can nevertheless be used as a tool — for example in urban development or as a symbol.
That’s right. I was intrigued by the fact that even community facilities, schools, and cultural centers were immediately destroyed in the French banlieues. In a way, that was not surprising, as they looked like "anonymous boxes". Mentally, the people who lived there did not own these places. I don’t think it is possible to change society by means of architecture, though: that would only work if politics and architecture were to cooperate closely. It is, however, fascinating to see how naively architectural languages are often used, and what they trigger. This kind of language prevents us from enjoying the future. What we need is an aesthetic of openness.

Transparency — or, once again, the concept of the "cloud". What about the moral aspect? Are there any clients for whom you would not work?
That is a matter of double standards: it depends on what you build for the client. In my opinion, the double standard of people who say, "I must not build in China, but I can build for Apple any day", is not appropriate. I think that building something in China the way the Chinese like it is questionable. That will result in elevators in red and gold with a religious touch. It is hard enough to build our kind of architecture in these countries, as it is neither axial nor authoritarian and cannot be used with a central perspective in mind. You need many local supporters. What I am sure of is that I am never going to build nuclear power plants or prisons.

What visionary developments are there in the field of construction?
For a project in Shenzhen we are constructing parts of a building with eight instead of 180 workers. The rest is done by robots. Like it or not, that is going to be the future of architecture. We are in favor of such a development, as it has become possible to construct complex types of buildings within the budget. So much for utopia.

Interview: Manuela Hötzl, Silvia Jaklitsch, Michael Wuerges
Photos: Maximilian Pramatarov, Clemens Fabry (portrait)

documenta Archive
documenta 14

, #COOPHIMMELB(L)AU, #Utopie, #documenta14

Books we like

UTOPIE documenta
Editor: Harald Kimpel and Magistrat der Stadt Kassel, Kulturamt
Text: Eckhart J. Gillen, Simon Großpietsch, Claudio M. Iglesias, Harald Kimpel, Gerd Mörsch, Rolf Ricke
Design: GREAT, Vienna
Language: German/English
Detail: Swiss Broschure, 21 x 28 cm, 224 pages, numerous ills.
ISBN 978-3-903004-36-8
29,00 Euro

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