The Austrian Cultural Forum tower in midtown Manhattan provides a state-of-the art home for an institution devoted to international cultural exchange. The building is the first major United States project for Austrian-born New York architect Raimund Abraham, whose design was selected in an open competition hosted by the Republic of Austria from among 226 participating architects in 1992. Facilities of the Forum tower include exhibition galleries; a flexible theater for performances, screenings, and lectures; a library; loft-like presentation areas and seminar rooms; reception and meeting spaces; staff offices; a multi-level residence for the Forum's director; and an open-air loggia at the tower's pinnacle. Occupying the diminutive (25 feet wide by 81 feet deep) mid-block site of the institution’s former townhouse, the new building rises to a 24-story height with the authority of a landmark, expressing the contextual relevance of both the architecture and the Forum’s mission to connect European and American creative visions.
11 East 52nd Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, New York City
Construction commences: September 1998
Construction complete: January 2002
Dedication: April 18, 2002
Public Opening: April 19, 2002
Republic of Austria, Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs
The Austrian Cultural Forum building has been intended from the outset as both a home in America for contemporary Austrian culture and Austrian-American collaborations in the arts, and a significant architectural contribution to Manhattan's urban landscape. Abraham, who received the commission in 1992 in an international design competition hosted by the Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Austria, has described the building as "a deliberate manifestation of the utmost formal reduction, challenging the indigenous variations of the surrounding buildings." It is a 30,000-square-foot structure of concrete, glass, and steel.
The body of the Forum tower tapers as it rises, complying with zoning laws in levels that alternately step and slope. Glazed with dramatic glass panels that seem to be in a state of constant suspension, the forceful but mysterious image of the building has elicited comparisons to dagger blades and guillotines, thermometers and metronomes, Easter Island totems and pyramids of a future not yet imagined. The structure consists of what Abraham has dubbed "three elementary towers," defined by the extreme conditions of a site only 25 feet wide and 81 feet deep: The Vertebra is the stair tower at the back of the site; the Core is the central structural tower containing the Forum's functioning spaces within a meticulously constructed, interrelated arrangement; and the Mask is the glass articulation of the street facade, punctuated by a protruding, box-like volume that in fact accommodates an interior program area with spectacular views.
Abraham's crucial design decision was the placement of the pre-requisite emergency fire stair at the rear (north side) of the building. With this move the architect liberated the width of the site to be fully occupied by the most accommodating spaces possible from street level to pinnacle; he was thus able to resolve the density of the architectural program with an outstanding degree of clarity. Significantly, Abraham was the only architect among all 226 entrants to the competition to make this deceptively simple but essential choice.
"This particular solution of a stair, which would satisfy the functional requirements as well as the directives of the building code, emerged as a result of a rigorous and sometimes agonizing process to arrive at a solution within the severely restrictive spatial conditions," Abraham notes. "And at the same time this solution enabled me to transform an element of sheer utility into a decisive architectural component."
The architect adds: "If there has been any inspiration or reflection upon a particular New York condition it was my fascination with the simplicity and surprising complexity of the scissor stair, which I believe was invented in New York City in the 19th century in courthouse designs in order to provide independent access and egress for prisoners, their captors, and their judges. Architecturally it has become the Vertebra of the Austrian Cultural Forum tower, striving for infinity as does the endless column of Brancusi."
The main entrance to the Austrian Cultural Forum is situated on East 52nd Street, shielded from the elements by a quiet stainless steel canopy above a sleek glass plane that offers views from the sidewalk all the way through to the back of the building -- a gesture that captures the spirit of flexibility and openness characterizing the Forum's mission and programs. Glass doors admit the visitor into a double foyer and reception area.
Upon entering this double-height entrance volume, visitors are drawn by the architecture itself into the heart of the building: The reception area flows along the bulge of a monumental stainless steel-clad drum (containing mechanical support for one of the building's two elevators) directly into a New York bluestone-paved, floating stairway that both descends and ascends without interruption to connect public spaces of the Forum on five levels.
Moving down the floating stairs, visitors reach the Lower Mezzanine (an open area designed to accommodate exhibitions, installations, and other activities) and, further down the stairway, the Forum's 1,600-square-foot Main Gallery on Level -1. Ascending the stairs from ground level visitors reach the Upper Mezzanine, another flexible program space that connects via a sleek Bridge to the Lounge level and, up another flight, to the Forum's flexible, state-of-the-art 1,100-square-foot Theater.
Unifying all of these spaces is a grand 30-foot wall on the north side of the building's interior, washed with natural daylight from a skylight inserted at the setback of the tower's north facade. Through this skylight, visitors glimpse the soaring face of the structure's back side -- a rare view onto the poetic workings of architecture. "Light itself becomes the guiding factor in a visit to this building," Abraham explains. "You enter from the light of outdoors and move toward light filtering at the back from the north facade. Because of this arrangement of space and structure, a visitor can visualize the entire experience from the moment he enters the building; his path is dictated by the stair, the flow of space. The building tells you where to go. It is radical because it uses a new approach to the classical idea of procession that has existed in public architecture since antiquity."
The two below-grade levels of the Forum building contain mechanical support and storage (Level -2) and the Main Gallery (Level -1). The Main Gallery is an elegant, rectangular temperature- and humidity-controlled volume with bluestone floors and baseboards, a flexible cove and channel lighting system, and retractable projection equipment for screenings and special installations. At the north side of Level -1 are public restrooms and a catering kitchen adjacent to the elevator. At the south side of Level -1 is a concealed elevator to the sidewalk.
Ascending through layers of program and light along the floating stair from the Main Gallery, the Lower and Upper Mezzanines, the Bridge, and the Lounge (fronted on the south by a single, monumental window looking down into the entrance lobby), visitors arrive at the Theater. Like a small, wood-lined jewel box, this double-height facility occupies Levels 2 and 3 of the Forum building. A key feature of the Theater is an electronically-controlled pneumatic platform for a grand piano, moveable from floor to ceiling. The space was conceived for intimate performances, lectures, screenings, and installations. It is acoustically engineered and equipped with state-of-the-art communications systems, including for projection and broadcast. "The theater is in many ways the true heart of the Austrian Cultural Forum building," notes Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, former Director of the institution. "Its flexibility allows us to do programs that are not strictly limited by tight definitions of space or discipline. We do not need a 900-person performance hall: New York City already has those. We want instead to host events that are small enough in scale to allow for courage, experimentation, immediacy, and levels of intimacy you might not find elsewhere."
Levels 4 and 5 of the building hold the Forum's library and reading area, respectively. These are connected by interior stair -- a gunmetal-colored, sculptural intervention in a space lit by natural light from monumental windows on the south facade. The tower's massive steel crossbracing zigzags across these glass planes, reminding visitors of the workings of an architecture that stands in high contrast to surrounding buildings, including St. Patrick's Cathedral. Including multi-media desks (or "portals"), Library interiors on Level 4 are suffused also with soft incandescent light and fluorescent light from wall-mounted fixtures that divide custom-designed wood and metal shelves. Stacked with books, these rows of shelves are bisected by an open corridor of space leading directly to the base of the interior stairway to Level 5.
Level 6 holds the Forum's loft-like conference and seminar space, something of a transition to the more private areas of the building. Like all of the building's interiors, this one is characterized by pale white and gray walls, high-quality wood flooring, brushed aluminum and stainless steel detailing, a balanced mix of incandescent and fluorescent light, and a wash of natural daylight from windows on the south facade.
Level 7 is occupied by the director's office and the adjacent flexible space of the "observation tower" expressed as a protrusion on the street facade.
Levels 8, 9, and 10 are devoted to offices for the staff of the Austrian Cultural Forum. Spaces have been developed with an eye toward integrating both the open plan American-style office approach and the more European arrangement of work separate spaces. Floating walls of alternating transparent and translucent glass, bordered by brushed aluminum, define layers of space that are dedicated to group and individual offices while permitting maximum amounts of natural light to flow into all spaces from the monumental windows that front the south side of each floor.
Level 11 is fully occupied by a loft-like flexible space that will accommodate special performances, installations, seminar events, receptions and other activities of the Forum. "The loft allows us to do parallel programs that relate to the events and activities in some of the building's more formal public spaces," notes Thun-Hohenstein.
Level 12 houses the Forum's computer server, mail room, and mechanical support for the smaller of the building's two elevator shafts. Levels 13, 14, and 15 house storage and additional technical support spaces. Levels 16 through 19 accommodate the various functions of a residence for the Forum's Director and his family, with dining/kitchen facilities, living room, master bedroom, family bedrooms, connected by a cylindrical, wood encased stairway.
Level 20 is occupied by an open-air Loggia, paved in bluestone. Here, the Forum is able to host special receptions in temperate weather, offering guests singular views West to the Hudson River and East across the urban canyon of buildings and streets.
Levels above 20 are devoted to technical functions, including machine rooms, a mechanical bulkhead, and the building's water tower.
In summarizing the building he has designed and that has been so eagerly awaited by architecture aficionados, artists, and the public alike, Abraham is characteristically precise: "Architecture is the only discipline within the arts that has to confront itself with the issue of use. And there is not one formal decision in the Austrian Cultural Forum building that has not been contested with use. The use in this case is a very dense, complex program on a site where the space is compressed laterally by surrounding buildings -- a compressed void. I had not only to confront use in terms of the zoning envelope, the general functions of a building, but also in dealing with gravity, with materials, with the physical world. As the architect you must translate your idea into a drawing, then into the physical world."