In the spring of 2010, the Austrian-born, New York–based architect Raimund Abraham, best known for his tall, thin, and menacingly powerful Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown Manhattan, was invited to give a lecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. During the talk, he encouraged the students in the audience to stay faithful to their own visions of professional success. “You don’t have to become a slave in a corporate office or a groupie of a celebrity architect,” he said. “All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and the desire to make architecture.” Later that night, as he was driving from a dinner in his honor to his hotel, he collided with a public bus on the streets of downtown L.A. and was killed almost instantly.
Since Abraham finished so few buildings during a long career that was also spent writing and teaching (at Cooper Union as well as SCI-Arc), speculation turned almost instantly to the fate of a partially built project he had designed on an artist’s colony near Düsseldorf, Germany, known as the Hombroich Museum Island. Construction on the building, meant to hold practice rooms, performance spaces, and living quarters for four musicians at a time—each living in a separate quadrant of the circular structure—had begun in 2009, and by the time of Abraham’s accident it was roughly two-thirds complete, with the concrete frame already poured. Abraham called it the “Musikerhaus,” or “House for Musicians.”
When I went to see it late last summer, more than two years after the architect’s death, it was in essentially the same condition. The building still lacked doors, windows, and interior finishes. With its wide concrete base sliced at a dramatic angle and covered by a kind of concrete crown, it looked at once like an artwork, a building, and a ruin—a very powerful ruin, but a ruin all the same.
As Roland Eckl, Abraham’s former associate, pointed out when we talked later by telephone, the pause in construction has left the Musikerhaus looking more like sculpture than architecture. Before Abraham died, Eckl said, the architect was pushing to get the building fully enclosed, seeing that step as a crucial one in keeping construction from stalling entirely.
The delays that have plagued the project can’t be blamed solely on Abraham’s sudden death. The building’s client was the German developer and art collector Karl-Heinrich Müller, who founded the 62-acre Hombroich art colony in the 1980s. When Müller died in 2007, the future of the entire colony became uncertain. Abraham’s death was a second blow. The colony has an energetic new director, Ulrike Rose, but Eckl told me that finding the money needed to complete the Musikerhaus looks unlikely. Abraham’s daughter Una, a chef who lives in Vienna, has been working with Eckl and Rose to keep the project alive, but at the moment none of them seems especially optimistic.
It’s telling that Abraham was unhappy about seeing the Musikerhaus stalled on the wrong side of the divide between sculpture and architecture. There is a reason you don’t hear much about posthumous paintings, canvases waiting to be completed after an artist’s death. In art the line between inspiration and production is often—though of course not always—very thin. In architecture it is a huge gap, a chasm that defines the complex appeal of architectural practice.
Abraham, who fought political, financial, and aesthetic battles for more than a decade before seeing the Austrian Cultural Forum completed in 2002, understood that better than most architects. Even as he stressed the value of so-called paper architecture, he knew that seeing unusual buildings through to completion was the rarest and most important skill of all, and that a design without an architect to fight for it is like a plane without a pilot: not exactly impossible to land safely, but nearly so. “Building is the most difficult form of architecture,” Abraham once said. “It engages you completely. You have to become a street fighter, a lawyer, and a detective to succeed.”