Giacomo Pala. Hans on the Couch

In recent years, we have often read and heard about Hans Hollein as one of the European radical architects working in the sixties. Still, he is rarely considered as what he has become after the “radical years”: one of the most creative architects of late 20thcentury with an impressively large portfolio of built projects. Such a lack of deepening is partly understandable considering that, in Hollein’s work, the revolt against tradition tends to prevail over the definition of a systematic corpus of doctrines and methods. Given such a background, it is not surprising to learn that the main historiographies – with rare, though important exceptions – of 20thcentury architecture tend to either exclude him or consider him as a minor figure1. The most explicit case among these is Manfredo Tafuri’s and Francesco Dal Co’s “history of contemporary architecture”. In fact, they mention Hollein just once, and as follows: “Senza il realismo pop di Venturi non si capirebbero […] le dissacrazioni del viennese Hans Hollein, dietro le quali occhieggia il lettino di Freud2”; that is to say: Hollein is an architect who has to be understood by comparison to Venturi, otherwise he would appear as one who needs to go to Sigmund Freud’s couch. 

Notwithstanding Tafuri’s and Dal Co’s analysis, this short text is about two main issues. The first one is the need of analysing Hollein’s original contribution to contemporary architecture, while the second one is to pose questions in relation to architecture’s historiography and its analytical methods. Still, in order to do so, it seems reasonable to begin where Tafuri and Dal Co stopped: with a therapy session.

Hollein: Oedipus

As we know, a therapy usually begins with the reconstruction of the patient’s infantile life, in this case Hollein’s formative years. By the reading and analysing of the Austrian architect’s early texts and projects, we can easily discover a seemingly Oedipal attitude. All of Hollein’s projects, characterized by the use of exuberant language, quotations, ironic statements and allusions, seem to be continuous attempts of reconciliation between the radical critique of the architectural discipline (as when Hollein declares that “everything is architecture”) and its formalism. This fact can be considered as Oedipal in the sense that Hollein often seems to define his own position against some “otherness”. If it is so, who are Hollein’s Oedipal references? Looking at his early texts, we can find a certain number of architects he considers to be masters. We easily find Le Corbusier, Hans Poelzig, and – of course – the great early-modern Austrians: Otto Wagner, Joseph Hoffmann and Adolf Loos.3Among these, it is the presence of Loos – apparently an architect very different from Hollein – that demands our attention. Two examples. When, in 1967, Hollein defines architecture as an erotic art, he feels the need of introducing his thesis with a quotation from Loos: “Alle Kunst ist erotisch” (all art is erotic), to conclude with a very similar statement: “gute Architektur ist Kunst, und Kunst ist notwendigerweise auch sinnlich, erotisch” (Good architecture is art, and art is necessarily sensuous, erotic).4Three years later, in his preface for the first issue of BAU, he defines Loos and Hoffmann as important architects (“wichtigen Architekten”) who need a reconciliation.5As well known, both Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos were among the protagonists in the debate about modern architecture in the early 20thcentury Vienna. Hoffmann, as one of the founders of the Secession andWiener Werkstätte; Loos, as the author of “Ornament und Verbrechen”. The former believed in a language based on geometric compositions and surface decorations, the latter believed in geometry, of course, but in the value of traditions and in materials as the only means to have ornamentations. 

Given these premises, we can look at the Hollein’s early work as an attempt of reconciling the Austrian masters’ poetics and ideas. In other words, we can look at his work from the late sixties and seventies as the attempt of reconciling opposite values (such as “high” or “low”) and dialectical oppositions (like “abstract” or “figurative”). Explicit examples of such a reconciliation are the shop façades that Hollein designs and builds in the city centre of Vienna. Take, for instance, the Retti Candle shop (1966) and the Schullin jewellery (1974). We see a glittering metal façade in which Hollein cuts out the shape of a cartoonish ionic column (Retti Candle shop) and a monolithic façade of granite broken by a free-form geometry which cuts the entrance with multiple bronze curves and tubes for air conditioning (Schullin jewellery). In these projects we see a coherent use of materials, yet those are both mundane and refined (bronze, granite, laminates, marbles and sprayed plastics). Behaving like Loos’ and Hoffman’s illegitimate son, Hans Hollein designs refined and elitist ironies: “high” and “low” values become one6.

Retti Candle shop, Vienna, Austria, 1966

Schullin jewellery, Vienna, Austria, 1974

Hollein: Oedipus of

Yet, to understand Hollein’s work as a simple reaction to the Austrian tradition of modern architecture would be way more than reductive, if not potentially erroneous. In order to move on, then, we can go back to our psychoanalytic attempt. As well known, the “Oedipal complex” can be interpreted as something wider than just a reference to a single person, or a few people. In other words, the “Oedipus” signifies a certain particular patriarchal culture. The Oedipal complex is a problematic relationship with what the “paternal figure” represents: an indomitable “otherness”7. If this is true, then we can read Hollein’s work as a symptom of the Austrian architect’s relationship with what architects like Loos and Hoffman might have represented, that is to say: the origins of the modernist ideology. For instance, we can look at other two among his many projects: the “Carl FriedrichV. Siemens Stiftung” in Munich (1970) and the “Austrian Travel Agency” in Vienna (1976-1979). In the first one, we find a multiplication of heterogenous spaces (Gästespeiseräume): one is coated in orange plastic, another one is in wood; one is painted with blue and white stripes, another one is a marmoreal space for dinners. In the second one, we find the adoption of a myriad of materials (more than 60 just for the lobby), together with strange objects that reconstruct a sort of symbolic landscape inside the agency’s main space: “fake natures”, golden pavilions and statues.8

Carl Friedrich V. Siemens Stiftung, Munich, Germany, 1970

Austrian Travel Agency, Vienna, Austria, 1976-1979

Once again, we see Hollein’s playful formalism, made of multiple materials, colourful textures and contradictory shapes for the production of ironic and fictional meanings. Yet, instead of interpreting this design strategy as a way to come to terms with the Austrian tradition, we can interpret it as a comment – a critical comment – against modernist orthodoxy. Then, continuing our therapy, in this design we see that Hollein, by transforming the Austrian modern tradition in a way of producing ironies, is telling us something about (or even against) the idea of modernity as an aestheticized style of an epoch: modernity is not a white, abstract and austere space; it is rather pop and colourful, yet elitist. 

Hollein: non-Oedipus

In conclusion, we can look at another facet of the “story”, and perhaps the most interesting one. What if the production of ironic statements was not just a manifestation of some sort of unresolved relationship with some authorities? (whether it is an architect or a meta-language).

Going back to the “psychoanalytic” allegory driving this text, we can refer to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis. In fact, their work represents the attempt of turning upside down the psychoanalytic theory: where “desire” is seen as negative, they observe that it is our reality; where desire is seen as reactionary, they affirm it is revolutionary. According to them, the unconscious is the main creator of desire, not just one among the many factors of our existence. Consequently, our “desire” does not originate from an absence, nor it is the simple by-product of a dialectical opposition against an otherness. Desire is the producer of meaning in our society. In turn, the Oedipus , is nothing more than “a race for death.”9

Then, if it is true that we can interpret Hollein’s work in comparison to Loos, Hoffman, or to the cultural project of modernism; his work displays the production of a personal creative desire, as well. Let’s take his project for the Abteiberg museum in the small German city Mönchengladbach (1972-1982), as a final example. This project is a sort of small city made of juxtaposing grids, shapes, figures and forms. Those are multiple objects that, by sitting on several levels, reconstruct an intricate landscape made of bricks, bronze, brass, paths, steel, bushes and aluminium. 

Abteiberg museum, Mönchengladbach, Germany, 1972-1982

As proven by this example, Hollein’s architecture teaches us that architecture’s functions and practical needs can be used to produce meanings via abstract composition. A built architecture, thanks to the design of spaces, figures and forms can become meaningful and communicate something; particularly when its meaning cannot be easily pinned down. Then, Hollein’s provocations and use of materials show us a peculiar idea of modernity in architecture; an idea of architecture as the constant production of a creative instinct: a way to produce content. Architecture is the result of a creative desire, or, in Hollein’s words: “The shape does not develop out of a purpose, but from the essence of the purpose itself, from its spiritual meaning, from the meaning of physical reality. Spiritualization of the material leads to a materialization of the spiritual.10

Then, by looking at the specificities of the projects and architects’ work, we can find cultural and expressive values that allow us to get out of Tafuri’s and Dal Co’s trap. If Tafuri and Dal Co can only read Hollein’s architecture in opposition to the one of Venturi, we can look – now free from operative uses of dialectics – to Hans Hollein’s work as something original; as something that, as all great architecture does, tells us something about peculiar ways of understanding, interpreting and even creating the meanings of our world and culture. 

[Giacomo Pala]

1An example is Heinrich Klotz’ “History of Postmodern Architecture” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984) or, a more recent one is Eva Branscome’s “Hans Hollein and Postmodernism: Art and Architecture in Austria, 1958-1985”, (New York: Routledge, 2017)

2Manfredo Tafuri, Francesco Dal Co, Architettura Contemporanea, (Milano: Electa, 1976), p. 379

3Le Corbusier, Wagner and Poelzig are quoted in “TECHNIK” from 1965. See: Peter Weibel (edited by), Hans Hollein, (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012) p.68

4Hans Hollein, “EROTISCHE ARCHITEKTUR – WIE KÖNNTE SIE AUSSEHEN?” (1967), in : Peter Weibel, cit., p.30

5Hans Hollein, “Vorwort”, (1970), see:

6In this context, it is interesting to mention Günther Domenig’s critique to Hollein and the Viennese scene of architecture in the 80s: “Even though they [the Viennese architects] might want to, they cannot distance themselves from the influence of such giants as Hoffmann, Loos and Wagner. That’s their problem: they are trying to overcome this tradition step by step.” Quoted in: Alvin Boyarsky, Peter Cook, Günther Domenig and Peter Noever, “Drawing on dreams: GÜNTHER DOMENIG: STEINHAUS — STONEHOUSE”, in AA Files, No. 13 (Autumn 1986), p.100

7Here I refer to Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of the “Oedipus Complex”. Lacan’s interpretation of Freudian psychology is a kind of psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis itself, at first interpreted as a Freud’s obsession. In other words, for Lacan, the same need of defining a discipline such as psychoanalysis is a symptom of the modern subject’s state of being. In this context, the meaning of “the Oedipus Complex” is widened. As put by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Douglas Brick, Lacan’s interpretation of the Oedipus complex, “is actually a simple reflection of the modern family crisis”.See: Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Douglas Brick, “The Oedipus Problem in Freud and Lacan”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 277

8the number of materials are given in accordance to the “book of materials”consulted at the AzW’s archives (Architekturzentrum Wien’s archives) in Vienna, Austria. Moreover, I want to seize the opportunity to thank Lilli Hollein and Mechthild Ebert for the kind availability and help

9Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem Helen R. Lane (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p.333

10Hans Hollein, quoted in Heinrich Klotz (translated by Radka Donnell), the History of Postmodern Architecture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), p.345