Mies van der Rohe Award 2007, nomination
2.440 m² Culture
645 seats in the theater
2.870 m² Parking
1.840 m² Offices and Retail
Text de Matthias Boeckel, Architektur Aktuell 7-8.2005
Art, Technology, Future
The district capital of Weiz in eastern Styria represents a successful model of responsible collaboration between politics and business in a region undergoing a process of radical structural change. Despite globalisation, despite the massive attacks on developed economic structures by a finance market divorced from reality, and despite the threat of inner city decay that is widespread throughout Europe, Weiz has managed to steer a socially acceptable course in difficult and uncertain times. Exemplary and instructive for the architecture scene, this urban conversion is supported by a public culture function that confronts the citizens with an advanced aesthetic – and it works!
From Industrial Dinosaur to High-tech Motor
The headlines in recent months suggested the worst: the old industrial town of Weiz with a population of 10,000, embedded in the attractive hilly landscape of eastern Styria was threatened by the loss of several hundred jobs. Bitter battles fought on the capital markets had led to the takeover of the most important local employer, the old ELIN AG, more recently known under the name VATech, by Siemens Austria - that, however, due to regulations regarding fair competition had to divest itself of part of this electrical and environmental technology concern. For a town where more than a third of the population has the same employer this massive dependence on a single industry was a major political challenge. A tripartite strategy was developed in response to this challenge: first of all the old electrical industry was developed into an internationally successful high-tech provider and, above all, developer that can offer jobs with a secure future. Secondly, emphasis was laid on networked training in the future-oriented field of "energy" and the town was developed into a regional school centre. And thirdly, despite the limited budget, considerable investments were made in culture and in animating the core of the town, which led directly to its emancipation from traditional industry. The new Kunsthaus (literally Art House) combines all these developments and offers a new public space as well as commercial areas that form part of the town centre, which remains very much alive.
Woven into the Urban Mesh
Despite its size this community lacked an adequately impressive meeting hall. Through the erection of a new fire station at the edge of Weiz a site at the heart of the town became available, directly opposite the headquarters of the local industrial giant. The location is marked by small, two-storey Baroque and 19th century buildings, the street grid and the squares of the immediately adjoining old town are essentially mediaeval. The company headquarters opposite is extraordinarily restrained in terms of dimensions – with a company of this size one would expect at least an office tower block. Feichtinger's response to this situation is subtle and intelligent. At the centre he places the core of the public hall – named after the best-known native son of the town, Austro-Canadian industrialist and co-sponsor of the Kunsthaus, Frank Stronach. Even seen from a distance it emerges at roof level as a "hard" cubic volume. Around this functional and semantic centre Feichtinger positions the buffer zones of the foyer, the exhibition spaces and the open spaces, while at an appropriate distance (the width of a lane) he has placed an additional office building. The dimensions of the new building are integrated and translated into this historic urban mesh by modelling from this mass of "soft" elements. This is most strikingly shown at the side elevation of the building (which is actually the main façade, as it is where the entrance lies). Here the building lines a newly created small side street on the opposite side of which Feichtinger has erected an attractive office building that in turn absorbs the impetus of the impinging small town microstructure at its rear and channels this energy into the new side street through an opening in an otherwise hermetic façade. On the other side of the street, on the facade of the Kunsthaus, the dominant motif is that of a "wave" that formulates the change in height from the two-storey neighbouring building at the rear to the three-storey ELIN building opposite the front of the Kunsthaus and makes it an aesthetic theme at cornice level. All these mediating elements of the building are made of glass, while the "massive" parts on the west side of the building are clad in copper.
The internal structure of the Kunsthaus is generous, relaxed and borne by an industrial flair that harmonises well with local traditions. The most amazing thing is that no one in Weiz rebelled against this urban and extremely contemporary aesthetic, for it is often the case in small towns of Central Europe that such halls become a plaything for the aesthetic foibles of local dignitaries. This did not happen in Weiz, where the mayor showed admirable commitment in making it his business that the competition-winning project should actually get built. That as a result the cool lines of French rationalism came into play is simply sensational and a major achievement for local cultural politics. However, it should be said here that since 1987, when the Bärnbacher Glass Museum by Klaus Kada (on which Dietmar Feichtinger worked at the time) was built, Styria has had a regional tradition of advanced industrial aesthetics – even for local cultural functions. At any rate, the interior of this building with its continuous full-height glazing, its generously broad foyer, its glowing bar at first floor level running around the central events hall (capacity 645), and with its attached exhibition areas speaks a nonchalant language that employs succinct precision and, at places, is minimalist in terms of form. The entire ground floor is reserved for a supermarket that is intended to attract numbers of visitors who will also animate the old town. For this reason (a supermarket at first floor level is practically unknown) the large hall is positioned above the supermarket and is directly reached from the side street by an imposing staircase (plus lift). On the basement levels there are car parking spaces of which, locals maintain, there are far too few, adding that this is the main problem with development of the inner town. As yet no patent solution has been found here or elsewhere to this primary urban problem.
The hall itself is equipped with a small stage, a gallery and a high-tech booth but offers above all an aesthetic experience. The black walls are additionally covered with a metal mesh that can be illuminated in different colours by light diodes in the floor. A realisation, many decades later, of the colour visions of avant-garde cinema designers in the 1920s but in perfect harmony with the structural idiom employed by Feichtinger which is derived from the models of classic modernism. The Kunsthaus as a whole a building is that creates a sense of community at the highest aesthetic and urban levels under difficult circumstances (for several years it was uncertain whether the building could be realised at all) but ultimately under the auspicious constellation of a ambitious client and an architect who was equally determined and who has here overcome what is most likely the last obstacle on his way to international renown.