Hans Hollein, Pritzker-winning architect, dies at 80


Looking at a model of the Frankfurt city center in 1983 are, from left, Gustav Heichel from Vienna, Hans Hollein, and Frankfurt's culture department head Hilmar Hoffmann. (Goettert/AP)
April 26

Hans Hollein, an Austrian architect and designer who combined an appreciation of the past with bold, futuristic elements in his buildings and who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1985, died April 24 in Vienna. He was 80.

The Associated Press confirmed the death through a family spokesperson. The cause was not immediately available.

Early in his career, Mr. Hollein built his reputation with small-scale buildings, including a 12-foot-wide candle shop in Vienna. He worked in what is called a postmodern style, freely mixing elements from the past with futuristic designs and materials, often draping his buildings with metal or glass.

In an early declaration of artistic intent, Mr. Hollein wrote in 1963, “Form does not follow function,” turning away from a century-old architectural maxim. He believed that developments in technology and artistic expression had led to an age when “man is master over infinite space.”

For his first significant work, however, Mr. Hollein’s space was hardly infinite. His assignment was to design a candle shop for a 12-foot-wide space on a Viennese street.

When it was completed in 1965, the Retti candle shop was a revelation. Mr. Hollein sheathed the building in aluminum, with street-front windows set at an angle, slanting toward the interior.

The doorway was a shaped like a giant key, with lights shining through the wide aperture at the top. The effect of the building, observers noted, was like stepping inside a sleek, futuristic jewel box.

Although Mr. Hollein lived in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, he did relatively little work in this country. In 1969, he designed the Richard L. Feigen Gallery in New York City, placing polished chrome columns in the doorway. Progressive Architecture magazine praised the building, which now houses a boutique, for combining “an architect’s sense of space with a goldsmith’s sense of craft to produce an exquisite ambiance for art.”

Mr. Hollein won first place in a design competition for his work on a subway entrance for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Elements of his design were used throughout the Olympic Village.

He later designed museums in Florence, Cairo, Tehran and outside Dusseldorf, Germany, where he was an architecture professor from 1967 to 1976. He later directed the Institute of Design at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna and was a visiting professor at several U.S. universities.

In his home town of Vienna, Mr. Hollein designed jewelry stores and offices of the Austrian Tourist Bureau, complete with fanciful reproductions of palm trees and classical columns. He was also known for his dramatic interiors, sometimes with gold-leaf ceilings lending a jewel-like effect to a building lobby.

In 1983, Mr. Hollein won a commission to design the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. He created a bold triangular design to fit into a wedge-shaped space, with stepped-back structural blocks that, from some angles, make the building resemble a locomotive.

“Mr. Hollein’s work is not easily characterized, although it might be described as having a highly eccentric kind of elegance,” New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in 1985, when Mr. Hollein won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest international award. “His designs tend to merge modernist and historical elements, mixing classicism with industrialized sleekness.”

One of Mr. Hollein’s greatest architectural achievements, the Haas Haus, was built in Vienna from 1985 to 1989. An ordinance requiring that new structures match the style and form of existing buildings had to be changed to allow Mr. Hollein to put up his eight-story mixed-used building.

Facing the medieval St. Stephen’s Cathedral in one of Vienna’s oldest city squares, the Haas Haus cleverly mimics older buildings while pointing toward the future. The curving outer contours of the Haas Haus evoke long-vanished Roman fortifications that once existed on the same spot.

A façade of pale green granite seems to peel away to reveal a sleek, reflective glass front that flows toward a cylindrical tower. Positioned to reflect the ancient cathedral across the square, the cantilevered glass tower has the compact dimensions of a classical building, tying past and future together.

“It’s nice to know that this is not an accidental curve but it has a history and a reason,” Mr. Hollein told the Independent, a British newspaper, in 1990. “I think it’s something which a work of art should have . . . you have occasion to penetrate deeper into a situation, physically and mentally.”

Hans Hollein was born March 30, 1934, in Vienna and graduated from the architecture school of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1956. He then came to the United States on a fellowship and traveled the country by car. He studied with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, with Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin and with his fellow Viennese, Richard Neutra, in California.

Mr. Hollein received a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, then worked in the United States and Sweden before opening an architectural practice in Vienna in 1964.

His wife, Helene Hollein, died in 1999. Survivors include two children.

Like many architects, Mr. Hollein was known among aficionados for designs that were never built. He was one of six finalists for the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a commission that eventually went to Frank Gehry. In 1999, he was hired by Harvard University to design an office, but his plans were rejected for being out of step with nearby historic buildings.

Mr. Hollein considered almost any man-made object to be a form of architecture, and he tried his hand at designing museum exhibitions, furniture, sunglasses and coffee-makers.

In 1990, he unveiled a resplendent new piano design for Bösendorfer. When the electronically operated lid was opened, it revealed an interior of bright red lacquer. The fall board, or the wooden piece just about the keyboard, was also red. The sturdy legs were made of brass.

“I did not want to redesign the musical part,” Mr. Hollein told the Independent, “but the legs, or so-called lyre, where you have the pedals in the traditional piano, are very clumsy constructions.

“It’s hard to believe that an instrument that has existed in its present shape for 600 years still has these unresolved problems.”

Although Mr. Hollein was relatively unknown when he won the Pritzker Prize, the award was seen as a validation of his view that architecture was a supreme form of artistic expression — more like sculpture in space than a series of ingeniously solved engineering problems.

“I have always considered architecture as an art,” he said after winning the prize. “To me architecture is not primarily the solution of a problem, but the making of a statement.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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