x”The inspiration for my work comes from anonymous constructions, everyday machinery, landscapes that I meet whilst walking or the poetic vision of a literary text”.

Born in 1933 in Lienz, Austria, Raimund Abraham has been living and working in New York since 1971 where he teaches at the Cooper Union School and the Pratt Insitute. He studied architecture at the Polytechnic in Graz and from 1960 to 1964 he worked in Vienna with Walter Pichler.
In the sixties and seventies, Abraham was one of the leaders of the Austrian radicals. His “Elementare Architektur” (1963) was one of the movement’s first publications. His departure for the US in 1964 was to provide an important contribution with the meeting of the experimental avant-garde from both Europe and America.
In his professional activity, Abraham has always considered the autonomous value of drawing in architecture to be fundamental. “the drawing is one of the tools we have available for the realisation of an architectural idea”.

From 25 October 2001 to 19 January 2002, the Aam Gallery in Milan is holding an exhibition on Abraham. One of his most recent projects, the Institute for Austrian Culture in New York, will open in 2002.

Raimund Abraham: photo Nathalie

The design by Raimund Abraham, chosen from 226 entries as the winner of a competition held by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992, saw the building of an 80m high building (in 11 East 52nd Street in Manhattan) on a fairly small piece of land: measuring only 7.60m along the street front with a depth of 28.30m.

The building reflects the design language of Abraham which seems to carve out space to create an architecture characterised by marked graphic and figurative signs. More specifically, Abraham divides the body of the building into three towers which – seen from the street – are lined up one behind the other: the spine holds the stairwell; the robust central nucleus offers itself as a support for the other two towers; the glass mask is raised up along the street front.

In an interview about the contextuality of his work, Abraham answered: “What is context in New York?
On one side of the Institute there is a horrible post-war skyscraper. On the other side there is a hotel, no less horrible from before the war. People love to call New York a collage. But a collage would imply some kind of plan. New York instead resembles much more an anarchic imponderability”.

The spine, the nucleus and the mask
left:The Institute For Austrian Culture In NY right:The Institute For Austrian Culture Plan (1992-2002)

By chance the land on which this building was built – situated in the historic centre of a small Tyrol town – had the same proportions as the New York project: 7.60m wide with a depth of 36 metres, linking the main piazza of the city (towards the south) with a parallel road (towards the north). The design was made up of two distinct facades and the possibility of accessing the bank office from both parts of the building.

Bank at Lienz Drawing
An architectural sculpture in a medieval area (1993-98)

Towards the main piazza, the design blends into the context of the adjacent residential houses, respecting the level of the eaves and the horizontal alignment of the entrance area. There is no attempt however to imitate the context. The south elevation, in white render, is without windows with the exception of a long narrow opening on the vertical axis from which natural light enters.

On the north side, in absence of a homogenous architectural context, Abraham has built a large prismatic element whose triangular lines form a dialogue on one side with the tower of the nearby church and on the other form symmetrical glazing which continues inside bringing natural light into the adjoining rooms.

Bank at Lienz, conference room
An architectural sculpture in a medieval area (1993-98): photo Heinz Grosskopf/Domus

The diversity of the two elevations is part of a game which is developed both in the interiors of the building and in the upper part where instead of a traditional roof there is a sequence of volumes in movement.

The structure which unites and co-ordinates this volumetric landscape is made up of a skeleton in wood which on the north side, clad in zinc, also includes the roof glazing; the south side – where the caretakers house is placed in a raised floor- is clad in concrete with a layer of white render.

At first glance the inside appears to be low and narrow. Soon, however, the space begins to breathe thanks to openings up above which introduce natural light also from the ground floor. Inside, Abraham creates a correspondence with the volumetric landscape on the roof offering unusual impact with double height spaces, such as in the case of the meeting rooms on the second floor.

Bank at Lienz The basement safe
An architectural sculpture in a medieval area (1993-98): photo Heinz Grosskopf/Domus

Set in 1985 as part of the “Internationale Bauausstellung Berlin” (Berlin international architectural expo), Abraham won the competition for building a complex of housing, shops and offices in Friedrichstadt – an area built in the first half of the 18th century as a Baroque extension to the city centre and relegated after the building of the Berlin Wall, from a central to a more peripheral area.

The building is made up of a total of six floors. The street elevation consists of an accentuated graphic design with diagonal and rectangular elements which form a grid placed directly in front of the body of the building. Inside the block a circular courtyard opens out around which the building is shaped, folded into a hemisphere.

The grid, as well as creating the marked effects of light and shade which underline its role as a dominant graphic element, also has a building function: some of the lines are the metalwork which holds up the symmetrical balconies of the floors above the shopping area and offices.

Friedrichstrasse 32-33 (1985-88)

“Metaphorical houses” is a theoretical project in which Abraham translates into his own personal and contemporary language, the intense experience of the exploration of some of his own places of origin in the mountains, where he has found – in the shape of barns, walls, sheds – a simple architecture, spontaneous and unpretentious but also strong, expressive and beautiful. An architecture which, according to Abraham, is a mix of:

dreams flames illusions mountains death abysses
birth flowers metamorphoses changes festivals odours
spices ritual contemplation clouds conflicts stones
contrast rivers destruction wind sun stars
love the moon execution hate furore gestures
soft memory metallic stony desires wounds
wooden paralysis satisfaction crystalline glass intimacy
faces distance movement penetration grief ecstasy
density openings absurdity isolation funerals womb
sleep walls resurrection sensuality protection reawakening
spheres intestines coldness flesh cubes voids
morning day depression transparency light places
night squares anticipation transcendence spring buildings
winter skies summer autumn fire horizon
ice infinite water earth

The destruction of objects
“Chair”, Performance (with Alan Wexler), 1971

Between the sixties and seventies, a period in which the radical movement was in full swing, Abraham dedicated himself not only to architectural research but also to work inherent and current in experimental art such as conceptual and body art.

For Abraham, choosing to work and communicate in the field of the arts does not mean altering the aims of his work. Rather it allows him to explore and highlight more strongly the behavioural dimension of the situations found in architecture and urban design.

Work such as the performance, “Chair” consist of an object ‘mise-en-scene’, with a sequence of actions which illustrate in the meantime alternating formal principles (symmetrical axes, the movement of opening and closing, the variation of angle). The combined effect – the object handled, the sequence of actions, the formal principles -in turn constructs a metaphor which acts as an exploratory and empirical element alongside everyday design.

Unlimited space
Metaphorical Houses (1970-72)

The megastructures of the first half of the seventies represent city utopias based on an unconditional use of technology available to man. The utopian aspect of these theoretical works regards the services that technology can provide, their presumed independence with respect to traditional urban structures and the immense aesthetic potential of the formal elements which transform themselves from simple technological surroundings to architecture “tout court”.

The Infinite City
Megastructures (1962-65)

Utopias similar to those of Abraham were developed, during the same period, by many of the protagonists of the radical movement. As well as provoking the establishment and “workers”, they had an important function in terms of giving the possibility of visualising and discussing various threads regarding the political, social and technological evolution taking place.

Text: Hans Hoger from Domusweb

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