September 16, 2022
Who Was Günther Domenig, the Unknown Deconstructivist?
So, who was Günther Domenig, the forgotten deconstructivist?
He was born in 1934 in Klagenfurt to parents who were both die-hard fascists. His father was a judge, who ranked high in the national-socialist movement, until he was killed by Partisans in 1944. His mother remained a fascist all her life. In Domenig’s own words, he endured a “radically national-socialist education” against which he would rebel for all his life. He became an avowed antifascist, developing a sturdy spirit of doubt and contradiction that would stick with him. “To comprehend his work”, says Thom Mayne, a close friend since the 1970s, “one must understand his complex character: contradictory and contentious. He embodied a complex history, which produced the richness of his character and his resistance to authority, rule-making, and anything foreign to his person, his search, his insistence, and his demand for freedom of thought and action.” This became the source of his enormous and intense energy and commitment to his work as an architect.
During his architectural studies in Graz from 1953 to 1959, Domenig first grew fascinated by the sculptural concrete architecture by Le Corbusier, Gottfried Böhm, and Walter Förderer. But soon he discovered his first true love: Brutalism. When he set up an office with his fellow student Eilfried Huth in Graz, they worked in two fields of interest: On the one hand large-scale utopian schemes like Floraskin, Zellflex, or their competition entry Neue Wohnform Ragnitz (new housing form Ragnitz) from 1967, where they proposed a multilayered megastructure in which people would plug-in their private home capsules. These works all remained unbuilt but were fully in the spirit of their time, connecting them to Archigram, Yona Friedman, and the Japanese Metabolists.
Yet in parallel, very early in their career Domenig and Huth had already won two competitions for large-scale commissions by the catholic church. First, they won the competition for a catholic academy in Graz, and in 1966 another one for the transformation of a church into a cultural and social center. Both projects were breathing the spirit of Brutalism in full scope with massive, sculptural walls of exposed concrete, floors of asphalt, exposed technical systems, polyester roof windows and brightly colored plastic furniture. Both projects were finished by 1969, catapulting Domenig and Huth to the top of a new generation of young and wild Austrian architects, that Peter Cook once described as “The Austrian Phenomenon.” Though just in their mid-30s, Domenig and Huth already were reference points for others. Yet they didn’t simply continue on the brutalistic path, but quickly developed further.
When they were to design a temporary pavilion restaurant for the Olympic Games 1972 in Munich, Domenig and Huth developed it as a rounded, organic structure, wherein all load-bearing elements were painted in a strong blue, all technical elements in a glossy red. The small project became a sculpture of pop art and received lots of attention. After that, they made a canteen for a nun’s congregation in Graz (1972-1977). In the cloister’s rectangular courtyard, they placed an organic form like a fish or an internal organ. It was made of concrete sprayed onto a steel grid, a construction method that was highly experimental and caused significant rainwater leakages. Finally, a copper roof of hand-hammered panels had to be put over the entire building. But these structural troubles only enlarged their fame as true pioneers of architecture. And ever since the repair—until today—the unusual canteen has been in constant use by the nuns.
In 1975, Huth and Domenig split up. Huth became interested in a more participatory architecture, while Domenig received the commission for what would become his most prestigious project: to design a branch building for Vienna’s thrift bank, the Zentralsparkasse. In this building, he brought together his interests for brutalism, pop-art, expressionism, organic architecture and deconstructivism (which of course wasn’t a term then). While over in Santa Monica, Frank Gehry hadn’t even started on his style defining Gehry Residence, construction on Domenig’s bank building was already under way. It is an organic building with almost no right angle inside. With its facade of hand-hammered, reflective aluminum panels, it appears to melt into the street in front of it, creating a fluid transition from public space to the foyer and along the organic stairs upwards into the offices. Inside, all technical installations remained visible: Domenig spoke of bones, cords, skin, and flesh of the building. He spent most days on the construction site, sweating over particularly problematic spots of his construction and spontaneously developing many details in dialogue with the workers and engineers. Elements such as the giant hand on one of the walls, which is said to cover up an “unsolvable” problem where a handful of tilted surfaces meet. Legend has it that the idea for this radical, humorous, almost kitschy element struck him like a lightning late one night when he was stuck on the construction site.
The Z became a turning point in Domenig’s career. His first project in Vienna brought him to the peak of his fame. But at the same time, the entire construction process had been so exhausting that he started to withdraw from architecture. Obviously, he grew tired of the many struggles and compromises which were needed to turn an artistic vision into built architecture. By the mid-1980s, he had restructured his office. For the larger commissions he now received, he set up partnerships wherein he was responsible for the artistic ideas while the partners had to deal with daily business on the construction sites. This led to a series of large-scale projects which were still good architecture, but certainly less dramatical, less radical and less thought-through into the smallest details than his earlier works. With three exceptions.
In 1993 he won the competition for a large exhibition hall in Hüttenberg, a remote location close to his hometown of Klagenfurt. On top of the ruins of a large ironworks plant in the mountains, he laid a system of metal rooms and walkways that would run through, by and over the ruins, forming bridges, balconies, canyons, and cut throughs. Called Heft, this new system opens up the dark ruins and results in a structure that leads visitors on a journey into dark caverns and bright lookouts with breath-taking vistas and new perspectives through and on both old and new structures. Exploring the building feels just like a great hike in the mountains. The exhibition opened in 1995 for half a year only, and afterwards the building remained unused and fell into oblivion a second time. Shortly after, Domenig was invited to the highly prestigious, international competition in Germany to transform the unfinished remains of the monumental Congress Hall of the former Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg, Germany.
The Rallying Grounds was one of the most important locations of the Hitler regime. It was there that the national-socialist party drew nearly a million people in their choreographed and staged mass rallies between 1933 and 1938. Many of the massive buildings—which the fascists liked to compare to those of the Roman Empire—were never finished because of shortages of labor and materials before and during the Second World War. The congress hall, too, is an enormous, unfinished building. After the war, it remained empty until in 1994, the city of Nuremberg decided to transform it into a documentation center for “fascination and terror” of the Nazi past. Domenig won the architectural competition with a bold, significant, and of course highly symbolic gesture. With brutal passion, he rammed a passageway of glass and steel through the northern part of the building, creating a harsh diagonal cut through the building, the courtyard, and the orthogonal grid of the entire compound, which had been designed by Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer. Demonstrating a particularly Austrian penchant for dark humor, Domenig himself called his design “Einen Speer für Albert Speer,” a spear for Speer. Luckily, the politicians and conservationists on the competition jury understood the fantastic power of this brutal proposal, as this was the only architectural possibility that didn’t shy away in front of the monumental Nazi architecture but had enough strength to break its spell. For Domenig, this was also a confrontation with the dark spirits of his own family history—and a direct development from what he produced with the much less politically contaminated ruins of the ironworks in in Klagenfurt.
Domenig’s last project saw him return to spending most of his days at the construction site. It would be his most personal and radical building. His own house, the Steinhaus on Ossiacher See was built by the lake’s shore on a large property that he had inherited from his grandmother. Domenig started the design in the late 1970s with obsessive drawings of the surrounding mountains. Very slowly, until the mid-1980s, he developed his idea for a house that looks much like a rock formed by tectonic movements. To both sides, formations of concrete resembling walls or hills rise from the flat green meadow. In between, a canyon draws a direct line from the mountains to the lake. This void forms the center of the building. Here, Domenig dug two stories into the ground and placed another two stories of glass and metal above the ditch. From all sides, diagonal cuts run through the building, rip open the concrete walls, creating wild and surprising connections between inside and outside. Ladders, stairs and ramps in all forms and sizes take various routes through this sculpture. The Steinhaus is a house that is neither made of stone nor does it resemble anything close to the conventional ideas of a house. Being his own client, Domenig was well aware that this house would be his manifesto, defining his legacy. The construction started in 1986 and—with many financial and statical problems solved—was finished in 2008. “I have reached the limit in every respect,” he noted. “There is no way back. This is where it will show, what I am actually capable of achieving in architecture after all.” Four years later, he died.
While the little village of Steindorf fought the construction of Domenig’s Steinhaus for many years, almost immediately after his death it was put under heritage protection. Today, it’s a museum open to the public and visited by many. It is also one of the four locations of the ongoing Domenig Dimensional exhibition, which takes place in four locations across Austria and runs until October 16, 2022. Another venue is the former ironworks plant Heft, which is open to the public for the first time in years. Another very good reason to visit this exhibition. But even if you can’t make it in 2022–just remember, next time you are planning your trip to the International Architecture Biennale in Venice: just a quick two-and-half hours’ drive north lies the Steinhaus, the manifesto of Günther Domenig, the (almost) forgotten Deconstructivist.
To mark the 10th anniversary of Günther Domenig’s death, there is a huge exhibition Domenig Dimensional spread over four different locations in Austria including the Steinhaus and the exhibition hall Heft on the former ironworks plant in Hüttenberg, which is opened to the public for the first time in nearly a decade. The exhibition is open until October 16th, 2022.
The exhibition features an extensive program of public debates, walks and tours. Of special interest: On September 23rd, there will be a debate bringing Greg Lynn, Thom Mayne and Wolf D. Prix together in Günther Domenig’s Steinhaus.
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