Interview with Raimund Abraham, Architect of the ACFNY Building

November 2001

Raimund Abraham was born in Lienz, Tyrol in 1933. He studied architecture in Graz and had an architectural studio in Vienna in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Abraham emigrated to the United States in 1964 and first taught that year at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1971 he moved to New York, where he has taught at Cooper Union ever since. In addition to his professorship at Cooper Union, Abraham has taught at Harvard and Yale, and at prestigious universities in Graz, Houston, London, Los Angeles, and Strasbourg. This academic life has enabled Abraham to pursue his artistic and scholarly interests in architecture with an emphasis less on building than on thought expressed through an extraordinary body of drawn work, sometimes accompanied by poetic texts. In the words of Dietmar Steiner, Director of the Architekturzentrum Wien, "In his drawings and models, Abraham has not only suggested new architectural solutions, but has also presented them in an autonomous reality. Over the decades, he has built a comparatively small number of structures. His architectural drawings and unrealized winning designs for various competitions, however, reflect the roots of a concise architectural theory, that centers around the unchanging archetypal condition of humankind."

Abraham has received various awards for his architectural designs, among them first prizes for the Rainbow Plaza in Niagara Falls, NY, the International Building Exhibition in West Berlin, for the Times Square Tower, NY, and for Lungo Lago, Ascona; and second prizes for the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Opera Bastille, Paris, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and The New Acropolis Museum, Athens. In 1985 he was awarded a Stone Lion at the third Biennial for Architecture in Venice. In New York City he was architect for the reconstruction of the Anthology Film Archives with Kevin Bone and Joe Levin.

In 1992, Abraham made international news when he won the competition to design the new Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Manhattan. On the eve of its Spring 2002 inauguration, the building was already considered a landmark. Raimund Abraham's work has been the subject of numerous international exhibitions, articles, and books, including the 1996 monograph, [Un]built.

The following interview was conducted in November 2001 as the Austrian Cultural Forum tower was nearing completion.

Q: You recently said that irony is one hallmark of the Austrian personality. Can you elaborate on this from your perspective as an architect?

RA: It's practically genetic in Austrians. It's in their literature. Austrian literature of the 20th century especially is a document to irony. The great poets and writers always question the German language, not in terms of content but the language itself. So irony is a mechanism to question, to become a critical device. In its final formulation, irony has to disappear in one's work like any metaphor. Take for example the project Adolf Loos presented in the competition for the Chicago Tribune tower in 1922. His response to the problem, the inherent conflict between modern technology and the tradition of aesthetics, was to make the whole shaft of the skyscraper one gigantic Doric column. There was such a deliberate arrogance to his proposal! On the other hand, the column was executed to have so powerful a presence that the irony was not entirely predominant. The irony could be there and that is the potency of the work. Irony needs to be present but never clearly so. It's like tightrope walking for the artist.

Q: Do you walk that tightrope in your own work?

RA: Any artist walks the tightrope. When I am working, I try to eliminate speculation entirely. When I have completed the work, then I speculate about my own intentions like anybody else does. But the whole truth is only in the work itself.

As an architect I simply try to solve the problem at hand. My father was a winemaker. He just tried to make a very good wine. I look at bakers or shoemakers and I don't see that much difference between them and myself. I never liked the notion of "fine art." An artist is primarily a worker. Take Jackson Pollock: He was a worker. The action of his work became a new language of painting.

Q: How did this approach -- working without speculation -- play itself out with your design for the Austrian Cultural Forum building?

RA: When I started to develop my first ideas in the competition for the project, it quickly became evident to me that the smallness of the building would cause an incredible, almost inconceivable increase of cost. The Austrian Cultural Forum is a tower 25 feet wide and 24 stories tall on a site less than even 100 feet deep. These are remarkably restrictive conditions that demanded ultimate formal reduction. It would have been totally irresponsible to just engage in an architectural gesture of grandeur without trying to provide the utmost use of the building. That immediately became my problem to solve. 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.

Q: What inspired your design beyond these specific limitations of the site?

RA: You never know about how ideas can come into being. Maybe from looking at the sidewalk or from what one has eaten for lunch. So I can't say what the inspiration was. But I can tell you what my intention was with the building: to resolve the extreme condition of smallness of the site, its void, its lateral compression.

Q: Among the 226 architects who competed for this commission, you were the only one whose scheme placed the emergency fire stairs at the rear of the site. This was a remarkable move that nevertheless seems so obvious in retrospect.

RA: 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. And at the same time this solution enabled me to transform an element of sheer utility into a decisive architectonic component. 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. Whether or not it will continue to function in that capacity I will leave to the future users. Architecturally it has become the Vertebra of the Austrian Cultural Forum tower, striving for infinity as does the endless column of Brancusi. Architecture ought to transform the profane into the sacred, that is its ultimate challenge.

Q: In attempting to resolve this essential conflict, in making ideas material and the profane sacred, is there a moment when construction -- actualization -- compromises your ideas?

RA: All this depends upon the ability of an architect to translate his own idea into built form. For example, if I talk conceptually about sheets of glass which are suspended and are more falling than rising, then I have to find materials and methods of construction that satisfy this condition when I build. If I don't succeed in that first, then I don't succeed at all, even if I have the most striking designs. I succeeded at the Forum building with the glass Mask because it achieves that quality of suspension. It expresses the condition of the site, the gravitational forces that are represented by what I call the three towers of the building -- the Vertebra of the stair tower on the north, the structural Core tower at the center, and the Mask glass tower, which is the curtainwall on 52nd Street.

Q: Must an architect actually build his ideas in order to achieve something "sacred"?

RA: I believe architecture doesn't have to be built. There are equally important projects I have drawn that have never been built. When you build, you enter the public realm and that is a different kind of architecture. I don't need to build in order to verify my ideas. But building is the most difficult type of architecture, I must say, because the whole process of translation is exceedingly complex. It engages you completely. You have to become a street-fighter, a lawyer, and a detective to succeed. It encompasses the risk to entrust your work to others for its final implementation.

Q: Is a perfect translation possible in the evolution from drawing to building?

RA: Perfect? No. Perfection is like truth. You can strive for it but you never reach it. Building in New York is extremely difficult. The architect has no true authority here and that is frustrating. The authority lies with the contractors, the builders. I'm just a war reporter on the scene every day. If it is true, what some critics claim, that this is the first real architecture to be realized in New York in 40 years, it would mean that for 40 years builders in New York have not been challenged to the highest degree of precision. You must have that precision to have real architecture.

Q: Returning to your comment that artists and architects are workers, why do you think we need to make distinctions that elevate artists above the status of worker?

RA: These are simply devices to make art and architecture easier to consume. The whole construction of history is simply a structure for people to consume the past. And history -- or about 99% of it -- is all wrong because there is no continuity in history. Every invention is a break in time. That's true of architecture as well of all other disciplines. There are influences obviously, influences that carry over. But the influences are devices of comparison and that comparison never provides a true critical argument. You cannot, for example, compare Frank Lloyd Wright with Le Corbusier. Each work can only redeem itself, illuminate itself. You can only take projects by one artist and have them confront each other, then see which one is stronger in terms of a detectable vision within the body of work of that individual artist.

Q: Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, has described yours as 'a career without compromise.' How do you respond to that description?

RA: In terms of my own work, unwillingness to compromise is not a virtue. I simply cannot compromise because my nature does not let me. So I am lucky. But I observe that architecture in recent years has generally been promoted through stardom and spectacle rather than respect for structure, precision, and a real commitment to social issues. It was not always like this. Think about the pioneers of modern architecture of the 1920s and 30s. Architecture was then very much engaged in social issues. The most important projects of that time were either for workers -- factories, housing, churches -- or projects that identified cities, civic work. And now ironically it seems that just when art has more or less disappeared as a critical device in our society we have more museums than ever before and more new museum architecture. That's particularly interesting when you reflect upon the pioneer artists of the post-War era in America. They were so socially committed that they couldn't really separate their art and their own existence from being part of the larger society and engaging in critical arguments about the state of affairs of our society. In my opinion this has almost completely disappeared.

Q: Do you think the building for the Austrian Cultural Forum has a social or societal role to fill?

RA: In terms of what goes on at the building, I believe the Forum as an institution exists outside of the commercial world, a commercial world that is rather orthodox in New York nowadays. The Forum is autonomous from the power structure of the art world and if the director and the staff and involved outsiders can succeed in attaining a high level of quality in the programs, if they introduce work that is not part of the existing power structure, then the Forum could be a very, very unique place for this city and actually very influential. I believe they intend to be also an outlet for American and international artists working in collaboration with Austrians, a place for new ideas, new forms. If this is really going to be the policy and the practice of the institution, I will be extremely happy because then architecture has succeeded in inspiring and challenging its use.

Q: In the wake of the events of September 11th and the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, there is a great deal of discussion and even debate about how architecture can and should satisfy the need for beauty while honestly acknowledging the dangers of modern life. But for years you have declared that beauty and danger are inextricably linked in architecture. Do you think such ideas take on new significance in these times?

RA: If I did not include the anticipation of terror in my architecture, it would not be worth anything. Ultimately you become conscious of your own existence and accept the truth we are born with: the knowledge that we are going to die. If such anticipation is not part of your spectrum of thought and feeling as an architect, your work is meaningless, without authenticity.

Adolf Loos wrote, "When you walk through the woods and come upon a hole two feet wide, six feet long, and six feet deep, you know that is architecture." This is what I am talking about. Death has to work, it must express itself and its meaning somehow just as do hope or desire. Maybe it's a problem of a technocized, urban society that death becomes very much removed from our lives. I grew up in a small town in Austria where there were funerals all the time. It was part of life.

Q: This was during the Second World War?

RA: Yes. And there were bombs, of course. I had horrifying experiences that shaped my aesthetics. I saw buildings disappear that were supposed to be permanent. I saw the entire sky covered with airplanes. But do you have any idea of what a beautiful sight that is -- an iron sky? It was magnificent. So in terms of the power of a moment of destruction, walking through the completely destroyed center square of our town as a 12-year-old was as monumental for me as what happened on September 11th here.

Q: What do you think we will build down there on the Trade Center site?

RA: Right now it's just too raw, of course. There are still several thousand people buried on that site. And the question of a monument, a memorial seems absurd. Think about the fact that no Holocaust memorial ever succeeds in the end because no monument can ever be more monumental than a concentration camp. For the most part these museums and memorials to the Holocaust are, for me, trivializations. It's always the case that the place of the actual horror itself is by far the more powerful manifestation of memory than anything you try to artificially impose. No building can match the terrifying empty spaces of these original sites.

Q: Can an architect ever really succeed with such projects? Can you build memory?

RA: No, you cannot. But you can build to evoke memory, to manifest absence. For example I think the Austrian Cultural Forum building will provoke different kinds of memories through association. You look at the building now in a particular way after what has happened on September 11th. Because of its iconic presence it evokes totemic qualities. Just recently I looked at the building and recognized a figure, a totem. This was not at all intentional. If I had planned to make a totem, a piece of memory, the building would not have the same strength. The inspiration for the design came completely out of seemingly trivial circumstances of the site, zoning, codes. And then other things triggered, unconsciously. I think the only time one is really conscious is when one works. When I work, I concentrate completely, totally on the problem at hand. When I draw a line, that is the most honest moment in my life. Everything else in my life may be confused, but that line is true.

Q: Drawing has been essential to your career, probably the dominant route of access into your thought process for other people.

RA: When I draw, the drawing is not a step toward the built, but an autonomous reality that I try to anticipate. It's a whole process of anticipation, anticipating that a line becomes an edge, that a plane becomes a wall; the texture of the graphite becomes the texture of the built. That is the dialectics of drawing. Now, when you translate the drawings, one also has to distinguish between the drawings you make in this autonomous process where the drawing is the ultimate reality. I draw first for myself, not for somebody who is building, which means there has to be an absolute clarity in my mind, and the ability to retain the idea that I've established in the drawing, and furthermore, the anticipation that this idea will be buildable. Of course, it's a highly complex process. I'm talking about the first stage, which is a dialectical confrontation of whether what I draw will be built. From the moment I know that something is going to be built, my drawings have become something else. And at that point I draw less, and build models immediately. One really has to distinguish between those different phases.

Q: Is recollection important? You grew up in the mountains of Austria. Do memories of those places of childhood have any presence in your architecture now?

RA: Yes. I even published a book called "Elementare Architektur" (1963) to celebrate these memories. It has just be reissued, in fact.

Q: What sort of house did you grow up in?

RA: In a house with a large garden and a view of the Dolomites. I spent a lot of time with my relatives in South Tyrol, which is Italy now. They had a huge farm and an inn and animals. I always identified more with this place, the birthplace of my father where we still grow wines.

Q: And now you are building a house in Mexico.

RA: Never in my life did I dream I would design a house for myself! But just in the last three years I have had the desire for a place where I could cook. And in this village in Mexico they have wonderful fish, so that is what triggered the idea for building a house there. Cooking is a device to define your home. Without cooking, without a hearth, you have no home. A friend of mine owns spectacular land there. We walked around and there was one very special place to which I immediately felt a special attraction. We walked further and a bit later encountered a sign that said, "You are entering sacred ground." There is a hill surrounded by ancient fragments of what must have been huge walls. The village does not even allow archaeologists to dig there and it is completely pure. I think it is the only manifestation of real architecture on the entire Pacific coast of Mexico! And it is the most southern point of the North American land mass. When I saw this site I knew I wanted it. It was meant to be. That was three years ago. We are beginning construction of the house in early November.

Q: Did you take the same level of pleasure in building the Forum tower that you are clearly taking in constructing the Mexico house?

RA: Well, the adventure of building in New York City is still going on. You are confronted every day with the enormous challenges of getting it right. I have to force myself to enjoy the privilege of building the Forum tower because as I have said, I do not look beyond the process or think about how it feels while I am working. So I suppose I don't really take pleasure in the building yet. I will take great pleasure when the building is in use, when programs and artists and audiences take it over, and when I'm celebrating the fact that I was finally able to give something back to New York City, which has been my home for three decades and is the city I love.

Q: Is the whole notion of presenting Austrian culture in America relevant to you? Do you relate to the idea of being an Austrian architect, an Austrian artist?

RA: Do I feel Austrian? Well, I was born there. Maybe childhood is the most important memory one has. Undeniably it influenced my personality. Am I Austrian today? I carry its culture, its sensibility. I am still an Austrian citizen. But I have no clue how Austrian my work is. I have become a New Yorker and maybe the memories of ones origins are reignited in a new place. And this place feels closer to me than the place of my origins. Except the work, everything is fluid, everything moves, everything changes, my work is my life and ultimately my real and only home.