Architect, craftsman, sunglasses designer: Hans Hollein will be remembered as a Postmodern pioneer in the Viennese polymath tradition, writes Sean Griffiths
During a conversation in New York with some architectural bigwigs, who shall remain nameless, one of them lamented that Postmodernism had taken the Venturi trajectory and not the Archigram line. Far from merely bridging this imaginary divide, the multiplicity of Hans Hollein’s works, comprising poems, furniture, tea sets, jewellery, art, furniture, interiors, sunglasses, conceptual architecture and buildings big and small, refutes by its very existence, such narrow dualities.
Hollein was a true Renaissance man whose collages, spaces and drawings, full of contradictions, displacements and ambiguities, refuted the Renaissance conception of space itself. For Hollein, ‘Alles ist Architektur’ – everything was indeed architecture.
Born in 1934 in Vienna, and so a child of the traumatic experiences of mid 20th-century Europe, maybe this attitude had something to do with his subsequent engagement with America. As a student, he drove to every town called Vienna in that vast country. He studied at Berkeley, met Frank Lloyd Wright and encountered the European avant-garde in exile in the person of Mies van der Rohe, who taught him at Illinois Institute of Technology. And so commenced a direct connection with a radical architectural lineage, which can be traced from the influence he had on Zaha Hadid, through Postmodernism, to Archigram-esque indeterminacy and Dadaist collage.
In 1964, the same year as Ron Herron’s Walking City, Hollein produced Flugzeugträger in der Landschaft (Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape). While the former drew on pop fantasy, the latter had more sinister overtones, recalling a giant Tiger tank marauding across the countryside.
In contrast, the 1969 Feigen Gallery in New York was endowed with wonderful chromed columns, which reappeared as palm trees in the surreal Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro in Vienna of 1979.
If that interior looks like something Jeff Koons might have designed, small interiors of immense sophistication, such as the Dalí-esque Schullin jewellery shop and the Retti candle shop, with its penis-shaped doorway inspired by Ledoux, exhibit jarring but exquisitely detailed combinations of marble, brass, plastic, aluminium, mirror and wooden panelling. Hollein was a craftsman as well as a conceptualist, placing him in a Viennese tradition going back to Adolf Loos.
The bigger buildings are like slices of Viennese cake (almost literally in the case of the Frankfurt Museum of Modern of Art), and do not skimp on the rich ingredients. Haas House, a commercial development in Vienna, is controversially sited so that the polychromatic roof tiles of St Stephen’s Cathedral are reflected and distorted in its bulging mirror-glass facade. But its rotund interior reveals a consummate and dramatic handling of architectural space, articulated through the layering of curved staircase and balconies. The building is like a self-portrait – rotund, cheeky, funny, a bit rude, but highly refined.
But not everything was brash. The Guggenheim project in Salzburg and the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach display a playful attitude to the landscape of the sublime: the former, a dramatic underground ravine, the latter, an abrupt glass escarpment.
However, despite being a Pritzker Laureate, he was never particularly influential in the UK. Perhaps it was the over-exuberance, which never sits comfortably with the British sense of decorum, or our insular perception that Vienna is a backwater these days. Whatever the case, he never built here and there are remarkably few publications in English about him and his work.
I only saw him lecture once. It was at a conference at the Royal Academy in 1996, and the alcohol flowed freely. I fell asleep in his lecture and missed it. I’m sure he’d have understood and forgiven me, and perhaps enjoyed the story.
It was my loss but the death of this amazing talent is a loss for us all.
Sean Griffiths is professor of architecture at the University of Westminster and co-founded FAT
Hans Hollein: Everything is Architecture
Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany,
Until 28 September