The first Hans Hollein–designed building I saw was his Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Built into the side of a hill, it was a landscape first, and then a fractured, peeling procession of façades that drew you down into a meandering lobby space and into modern galleries—most were top-lit, though some bathing in fluorescent light. I marveled at the complexity of the whole composition. I enjoyed the play of fractured emblems of monumentality—like arches and columns—that Hollein had strewn around what was otherwise an open space denoting modernity. It seemed an extension of the sensibilities of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and other pop icons the museum had collected.
I was there, however, to meet another architect, Rem Koolhaas. When that perennially-hurried Dutchman finally stormed in, he took one look around, exclaimed “Bourgeois [Dutch expletive]" and stormed right back out, me trailing behind in bewilderment. Postmodernism built on and with ruins had just encountered Postmodernism looking forward to data-driven abstraction.
Hans Hollein—who passed away last week, shortly after he was roasted by friends, former employees, and associates at a celebration for his 80th birthday—was a difficult man and an equally difficult architect. When he famously said “everything is architecture,” he seemed to indicate not only that all was subject to his protean talents, which he could apply to everything from tea services to office buildings, but that everything, from an aircraft carrier to a whole city, could become a constituent element in the recreation of a built culture whose forms and images placed us in a historical as well as a material context.
I preferred his provocations, such as that aircraft carrier, which he later turned into a tea set, and his smaller projects, such as the café whose entrance is a negative of an Ionic column, to the larger buildings he designed. When the projects reached a certain scale and civic importance, Hollein’s lack of interest in behaving overwhelmed them. Architecture as a form of analysis, a gesture, an elaboration, a juxtaposition of elements, a reversal of scale or material—this architecture was his forte. His exhibitions and his provocations, ranging from his 1996 Venice Architecture Biennale to proposing a Rolls Royce hood ornament as a worthy skyscraper for New York, had an immense influence.
Hans Hollein carried on the Viennese tradition of angst-fueled rebellion, one that seems to make monuments from that which it seeks to burn. Without his work, that of local firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, for instance, would not be possible. He leaves behind him several generations of architects whom he taught to fight authority with ornament and fragmentation. It is their achievements (and that of his son, Max, one of the world’s best museum directors) that for me is of even greater importance than those baroque and, yes, bourgeois elements.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.