VIENNA -- The Viennese have a tradition of baiting their architects. Even before the imperial Opera House opened in 1869, a local critic likened the building to an "elephant lying down to digest its dinner." One of the two men responsible for the neo-Renaissance structure, Eduard van der Nuell, felt so downtrodden by popular abuse that he hanged himself. His partner, August von Siccardsburg, is said to have died of despair two months later. The modernist Adolf Loos proved somewhat better at coping with vituperative attacks on his revolutionary simplicity, though he bitterly mused, "All Vienna has taste, only Loos has none."
Perhaps this is why it has taken nearly a quarter of a century for the city's most celebrated contemporary architect, Hans Hollein, to realize a major project in his hometown. Recipient of the 1985 Pritzker Prize for architecture, Hollein is at last receiving his due among the Viennese after designing half a dozen gemlike shops dotting the downtown area of the Austrian capital. Hollein's most important inner-city project opened this month in the heart of the historic First District, across from St. Stephen's Cathedral.
The eight-story building, known as the Haas Haus, contains shops and offices, with a coffeehouse and restaurant on the upper floors overlooking the cathedral's Gothic spires. Its marbled atrium, whose glossy detailing and tony tenants invite comparisons to New York's Trump Tower, has already become a favored meeting spot of local burghers. This is not to say that the Haas Haus has gained total acceptance among the conservative, often churlish Viennese. "I get anonymous letters saying I should jump off the top of the Haas Haus," Hollein said in an interview. "I got a postcard from the 'Storm Troopers Against Degenerate Architecture.' ... I reported it to the police and they said it was very dangerous."
At a ceremony dedicating the new building, Mayor Helmut Zilk noted that "turbulent altercations and venomous polemics about architecture are nothing new in Vienna. There is scarcely any significant structure in Vienna whose planners have not come under fierce attack."
Located at a corner where the posh Graben pedestrian shopping street meets the Stephansplatz promenade fronting the cathedral, the Haas Haus replaces a dreary 1950s building put up after a collection of 19th-century structures were destroyed during World War II air raids. Hollein's bold new design nearly never got underway. Its construction required a change in the municipal law that had long kept modern buildings out of the downtown area, giving it a museum-like air.
The law obliged any building within the protected First District to match its neighboring structures in style and form. But in the case of the Haas Haus, this ranges from Gothic to Baroque to turn-of-the-century, illustrating how arbitrary the conservation measures could be to implement. "It is good that Vienna has made this breakthrough," Hollein said of the legal modification. "Now there's a different attitude toward modern architecture ... not always looking to the past, but toward the future."
Hollein has used curved contours to recall the lines of the Roman fortifications that once stood on the Haas Haus site. Beginning with a straightforward facade of pale green granite matching the color of an adjacent post-war building, he switches to a brash reflective glass that curves onward until a cylindrical tower juts out from the end of the building closest to the cathedral. This tower cantilevers out in an effort to delineate a medieval square, long since vanished from the juncture of the Graben and the Stephansplatz.
"It's nice to know that this is not an accidental curve, but it has a history and a reason," said Hollein. "I think it's something which a work of art should have. ... It's not just on the surface -- you have occasions to penetrate deeper into a situation, physically and mentally."
In all of his projects, Hollein seeks to follow through on his long-held dictum that architecture has two foundations between which it has fluctuated through civilizations and over the centuries -- "one is that architecture is a ritual thing, and on the other side it is a means for the preservation of body temperature. ... In the Haas Haus, of course, the ritual component has partly to do with addressing the sense and importance of the place."
As if to draw attention to this "ritualistic" element, Hollein has placed an elegant classical temple atop the lively roof, which complements the silhouette of spires, pavilions and statuary crowning its neighbors. The multifarious roofscape and interplay of windows on the building's lone flat side wall place it clearly in line with his previous work.
"A building is a three-dimensional thing, beyond the mere part of the shape that comes from the envelope you create from the sight lines and the laws about cornice lines," he said. "But then within these restrictions and limitations you work out something which not only is the fulfillment of the necessary cubic meters but also goes another step beyond that. That's architecture."
A walk through the narrowstreets around the Haas Haus provides a quick tour of the past three decades of Hollein's career, during which he has also created museum installations, stage settings, furniture, a grand piano, tableware and sunglasses. The award-winning Retti candle shop, which Hollein designed in 1964 entirely of sheet aluminum, is two minutes away. The 1967 Boutique Christa Metek, in the then-fashionable colors of orange and apple green, is also nearby, as are his two jewelry stores of sumptuous metals for the Viennese firm of Schullin.
Next door to the Haas Haus is one of Hollein's idiosyncratic travel agencies, where he delighted in ironic allusions to exotic destinations. The largest was the state-owned Austrian Travel Bureau, opened along the Ringstrasse opposite the opera in 1976, outfitted with brass palm trees, a ruined Greek column and Rolls-Royce grillwork at the cashiers' counter. Unfortunately, these were furtively destroyed by the bureau last winter when it handed the premises over to a delicatessen.
"This was a blatant act of vandalism that showed that some of the top people in Austria have no idea about culture," said Hollein, "which is one of the key elements why tourists come here." Indeed, many architectural enthusiasts make pilgrimages to the city to see his work, invariably described as displaying a typically Viennese sensibility.
"Of course, I grew up in Vienna and I studied partly in Vienna, so I think you can't avoid having some Viennese elements in your thinking and your products," said the architect, who at 56 has spent more than a decade studying and teaching at American and West German universities. "But I've never made any conscious attempts to sort of recapitulate Viennese architectural history, especially turn-of-the-century history, or to give my architecture a specific Viennese content. So if it has one it's subconscious, which may be a very Viennese element."
Like many Viennese artists, Hollein has been obsessed with death in his work, notably in his installation projects. One of these entailed the construction of a mock archaeological site, for which exhibition visitors were given shovels to dig up remains and thereby get involved with the dead. At an installation at the 1972 Venice Biennale, he recalled being impressed during a trip to Mexico with the use of blood on crucifixes and on sacrificial altars of Indian ruins, as well as by the bloodstained uniform of the murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand on display in Vienna's Museum of Military History.
Hollein believes that a culture's capacity for death rites is linked to its capacity for living. And so he has decorated the top level of the Haas Haus shopping arcade, a glittering temple of late 20th-century consumerism built across from an ancient cathedral where tourists now outnumber worshipers, with a coffinlike sculpture. "Had I grown up in Duesseldorf," he said, conceding the morbid influence of his native heritage, "it might never have happened."
Outside the Haas Haus, Hollein hopes to heighten the ceremonial feel of the structure by setting a row of three pillars of green granite into the pavement leading to the entry. The pavement pattern echoes the building's curved facade, arrayed in ancient granite cobblestones accented with green quarzite and red granite slabs inset with flat lighting fixtures. But the plan for the towering pillars is opposed by some citizens and conservative city administrators who, relishing another esthetic debate, regard them as superfluous.
Mayor Zilk is pledged to support Hollein's wish to install the pillars as well as to design renovated facades for nearby buildings. "The Haas Haus of Hans Hollein is a symbol for the renewed international openness of Vienna," he said, "an important success in the tenacious struggle against a falsely understood historical consciousness, a provincial local patriotism and sentimental inertia. Those who want Vienna to emerge as a metropolis and world city should not stick merely to the imperial glory of bygone days, but also need to show the courage to confront the new."