The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
It was in late September 2013 that I first encountered the building. It sat staking its claim to the streetscape between Madison and Fifth, its curious facade jutting out from a narrow lot
between two nondescript buildings on East 52nd Street. Its character appeared somewhat aggressive and wholly totemic, with personality manifest not only in the dynamics of its facade but in the anthropomorphic distribution of the weight of its form. To encounter it was a discovery – evidence of a kind of portal through to another world never quite inhabited by an architecture – and even though it had been completed just over a decade before, it transcended both the immediacy of its particular situation and an awareness of contemporary time. Raimund Abraham’s Austrian Cultural Forum in New York was the second building I had visited that operated at once in the realm of the built and the realm of that intangible ‘other,’ and jaded as I was by the relentless confrontation with hollow facades and deceptive veneers that stalk so many of the streets in midtown, it instilled a sense of a possibility that buildings – not architectures – and a particular kind of architectural sensitivity could be reconciled.
The Austrian Cultural Forum resides on a lot 25 feet wide and 81 feet deep, wedged between two towers in the middle of a block characteristic of the American corporate downtown. Despite its distinctive form the building is easily camouflaged, its bilateral ‘mask’ composed from an assembly of vernacular materials – concrete, glass and steel – manifest as a total entity that is recognisable but not quite familiar. The sudden materialisation of the alien against the expected requires a second look as it emerges from the block on the approach, resolving itself as a building that wants to strike away from its neighbours despite appearing characteristically at home. The Austrian Cultural Forum is of New York yet essentially apart - not because it is a product of the city, but because it chose the city.
This kind of sensitivity is apparent in the unbuilt work of John Hejduk – Abraham’s contemporary and close friend – in particular Hejduk’s sketchbook collection Architectures in Love, in which volumetric bodies reveal themselves as singular entities; characters that ask not to be inhabited but rather, demand to inhabit. Their influence lies in their willful provocation outside of themselves, probing the city and questioning beyond any nebulous notion of ‘context.’ Architectures in Love are driven by the search for love; not a romantic or nostalgic love, but a desire that craves “architectural intercourse on every level” – a chromosomal exchange. Despite an inherent primitivity, this want speaks of a coupling, an exchange at the level of one-to-one between character and character, between building and building and, perhaps most significant of all, between building and individual.
Like of a Hejdukian architecture manifest in steel, the Austrian Cultural Forum solicits exchange. From the seamless steel cladding around the central service core that seduces through association, bringing to mind the sleek functionality of the subway, to the acute visibility of joints that allow for a grasp or caress, the non threatening arrangement of the four openly accessible levels encourage exploration. This invitation is extended via the linear axis which traverses the depth of the building, drawing visitors from the lobby to the rear and weaving back and forth, calling attention the extreme width of the site that is further exemplified by the skylight at ground level, above the building’s backend. This unusual vantage point affords a worm’s eye view up the height of the building through the zoning gap – a monumental slice of air restrained by the neighbouring buildings – and highlights the vertical reaches of the building to which there is no visible means of access other than by elevator.
Elevators are the ultimate facilitator, and the elevator at the Austrian Cultural Forum is no exception. Its shaft occupies the core and, limited by its extreme width, accommodates no more than two passengers at a time. I was fortunate therefore that my transit acquaintance was the new librarian, barely two weeks into a four year term and undoubtedly enamoured with the building. She showed me the scissor stair – that enigmatic ‘spine’ that allows the building to occupy the width of its lot – and the restricted roof terrace; an oasis that appears to hover at the highest habitable point, with a view down the cross-street and through two unglazed cut-outs, each offering a view across an opportunistic zoning avenue that transects midtown. However it was the librarian’s office that generated the most unexpected discovery; the admission that despite her admiration for the building following an encounter 14 years prior, the reality of working there elicited disappointment. Inadequate natural light, corporate ventilation and a linearity of circulation that restricted most human encounters put her at odds with the place. It should come as no surprise that the inter-subjective intimacy of a relationship with a building will include those practical frustrations – subsequently fixed – but the terms in which she spoke felt like a betrayal, not dissimilar to the feeling occasioned by a third party revelation of a friend’s minor flaws.
I would not have encountered the Austrian Cultural Forum had it not been for the urgent enthusing of a such a friend, whose adoration of neighbourhood buildings only heightened the sense of academic detachment I have often felt whilst passing through cities, my own included. Perhaps the pervasive sense of pride that the building provokes in those that know it – a collective secret – is able to transcend any flaws that might detract from its generous personality. However this form of relationship is only possible with a building that communicates with the city; one that takes pleasure in its surroundings, and demands that the city and its inhabitants take the time to revel in them in return.