We spoke to Wolf Prix, one of the founders of the Deconstructivist movement.
At Coop Himmelb(l)au, Wolf Prix’s 5th district Architecture studio, the walls are lined with what hundreds of prints, renderings and models of dreamlike structures. Most are glass and silver buildings, grand and futuristic, with diagonal lines supporting rounded bodies, seemingly ﬂoating above the ground. Some were realized, some not but each speaks to Prix’s approach: a fragmented whole, devoid of harmony, continuity and symmetry.
In Deconstructivism, a movement that arose in the 1980s under the inﬂuence of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, shapes disrupt our expectations of pure, clean lines with asymmetry, impossible to predict. It feels arbitrary, like controlled chaos.
Prix is counted as one of the founders of the deconstructivist movement. His breakthrough came with the invitation for Coop Himmelb(l)au to the exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” at MoMA New York in 1988. Since then his inﬂuence on the world of architecture has been profound.
Influences and influencing
“My father was an architect and we were a cultural household. My uncle was a composer, our family doctor was a poet. I’m related to a family of actors. It was clear that I would go in that direction, art and architecture.”
His father involved him in his work from the very beginning. Handing him a big sketchbook, he told his son to draw everything he liked and, if possible, measure it, to keep track of the dimensions he found the most comfortable.
Decades later, the Albertina expressed an interest in buying the sketchbook. Prix agreed but decided to hold onto it a bit longer and ﬁll the last two pages. As Prix and his family were standing in line at Heathrow airport, he set down his backpack to pick up his daughter and turned back to ﬁnd it had been stolen, taking the documentation of his inspirations with it.
“If you want it or not, that inﬂuence is present,” said Prix with a smile. “That’s also strongly connected to Deconstructivism because Derrida says that an unconsciously written word or an unconsciously drawn image rules the whole text or picture.” He sees architecture as an expression of the conscious or unconscious: “The three-dimensional depiction of a society.”
Now 75, Prix is concerned about the direction architecture has taken.
“I fear for our future. Many of the architecture projects remind me of a kind of medieval vocabulary of towers with barbicans in the facades. Or even fascist tendencies. It comes from what of our society is expressing and at the moment, it’s quite conservative.” In the 60s, 70s and 80s architecture was concerned with liberating spaces. Today, that has been shifted to the background.
Prix taught architecture for many years, at the Architectural Association in London, at Harvard University and was an adjunct professor at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. In 1993, he began teaching architectural design at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts and beginning in the late 1990s, he became a faculty member at Columbia University in New York and a guest professor at UCLA. “Today I recommend that students not study architecture, because our profession is going south.” Everyone gets involved and puts in their two cents, but if something is oﬀ “it’s always the architect’s fault.” But architects let themselves be used. Take the competitions. They cost €50,000 or €60,000 to pitch and there are 100 entries and 99 end as paper airplanes.” While these are the realities of the profession, Prix longs for more innovation, that the profession doesn’t stagnate in repetition of an existing theme.
He also warns against navel-gazing, of being satisﬁed with becoming “Weltberühmt in Wien”, world-famous in Vienna. “If you’re not a founder of a movement, you’ll have trouble making it on an international level.”
He looks at Viennese work in the context of the larger inﬂuences in the art world. Cubism began in 1906 in Paris with Picasso and in 1911, Kandinsky painted the first abstract painting, while Klimt was painting his half-erotic and Schiele his fully erotic works. “With all due respect, the art world has been shaped much more by cubism.”
The most important thing is to keep “extending” the concepts, looking beyond what exists and beyond the boundaries of contemporary art.
“If you don’t test things in the wind tunnel of reality outside of Austria, you’ll never get any better.”
Wolf Prix’s Wishes for Viennese Architecture
- “That the contracting parties of new landmarks know more than just Vienna.”
- “Critics that understand something about architecture.”
- “Courageous architects who can resist anticipatory obedience and internalized constraint.”
- “Political openness. That we don’t create boundaries and that we invite foreigners and make use of their knowledge. That we aren’t’ afraid of foreignness.”
Check out Wolf Prix’s vast body of work on his bureau, Coop-Himmelb(l)au’s website.
We also spoke to the director of the Archtekturzemntrum Wien, Angelika Fitz as well as architecture professor Baerbel Mueller about how far the West has to go to become cutting edge.