The prescient experiments and interventions of Viennese architectural group Haus-Rucker-Co
In an opening scene of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 family drama-cum-space thriller Interstellar, a school teacher berates the protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey, for wanting to educate his daughter about the history of space flight. ‘If we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the twentieth century’, she insists, ‘we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.’ Yet as McConaughey tries in vain to ‘mansplain’ throughout the movie, fantasies of exploring and colonizing outer space are integral to the cultural history of planet Earth, particularly indicative of and intertwined with its concurrent dystopian fears. Given the increasing awareness in recent years of just how drastic the effects of the human impact on the planet has become (the premise for Interstellar is climate catastrophe), the mania for space-travel has returned at the highest pitch since the Space Race days of the 1960s which exemplified the Cold War fears of impending planetary destruction.
Any account of humankind’s grapple with its impact on the planet should include mention of the five-person Viennese architecture-art collective Haus-Rucker-Co. Many of their projects throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s – designs for inhabitable inflatable bubbles, bodysuits, and space-age helmets – have been so fully subsumed into the collective imagination of retro-futurism that it can be hard to trace the ideas back to their source. A prime example might be their iconic work Flyhead from 1968, a green double-bubble headpiece that looks like a protector against nuclear fallout, but could easily be a costume prop from any number of sci-fi movies. In fact its stated purpose was to alter the wearer’s perception to the point that a new relationship with the environment would be forged – an architectonic alternative to psychotropic drugs, perhaps. The driving concept behind this and many other of Haus-Rucker-Co’s works was to expand the cognitive abilities of the user, leading to a heightened understanding of the interrelationship between body and environment. In turn, the thinking went, attuned comprehension and sensitivity would lead to behavioural change. As founding member Günter Zamp Kelp remembers in a 2014 interview1: ‘we wanted to expand consciousness not by drugs but rather by new, unprecedented spaces, objects and utilities.’
Haus-Rucker-Co was formed by Viennese architecture students Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner and Klaus Pinter in 1967 – the same year Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle (Society of the Spectacle) was published in France and Buckminster Fuller realized one of his most famous geodesic domes, the Montreal Biosphère for the World Fair Expo. The name they gave their burgeoning project had a double meaning: Hausruck is the region of Austria where they came from, and the German verb ‘rücken’ means to move or be mobile – referencing the modularity and mutability of their creations, as well as the desire to constantly change with the times. In 1970 they relocated their base to Dusseldorf, and opened a studio in New York (Haus-Rucker-Inc.). Laurids Ortner’s brother Manfred joined the Dusseldorf studio in 1971 and a year later artist and writer Caroll Michels joined Pinter in the New York studio. Though the New York studio and the European arm were operating relatively independently throughout the 1970s, and Pinter and Michels pursued seperate projects from 1977, Haus-Rucker-Co did not officially disband until 1992, on the occasion of their homecoming exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna.
A recent resurgence of interest in the group – as well as their contemporaries such as the group Archigram, formed out of the Architecture Association in London, UK, and Superstudio, an architecture firm founded in 1966 in Florence, Italy – might be chalked up to three driving factors. First is the sharpening crisis rhetoric across disciplines in the face of environmental destruction. Second, the ensuing knee-jerk recourse to technology in search of answers. And third is a profound cognitive dissonance emerging within the discipline of architecture: while major commissions continue to be given to a handful of big-name architects with little regard for ethical or environmental concerns, a growing faction is calling for participatory and sustainable methods and regulations.
A notable survey exhibition on the group at Haus am Waldsee in Berlin with the blockbuster title Architekturutopie Reloaded (Architectural Utopia Reloaded, 2014–15) provides as much a charming retrospective of an influential practice, as a sobering, timely reflection upon how long architecture has been struggling with the question of its social and environmental responsibilities, and yet how little has changed over the last 50 years.
If there’s a central element to Haus-Rucker-Co’s projects it’s the bubble. Besides their helmets and visions for domed cities, their early work involved numerous installations of interactive pneumatic structures. The Haus am Waldsee exhibition shows three of these recreated inflatables, including the famous Ballon für Zwei (Balloon for 2), a giant transparent balloon they inflated from the window of a Vienna apartment building in 1967. Inside the bubble were two seats made from a sawed-in-half bathtub, creating a perch for brave participants to overlook the Apollogasse from their hermetic cocoon. Other parasitic structures ballooned from buildings over the next decade; in 1972 the popular Oase Nr. 7 (Oasis No. 7) was installed on the façade of the Fridericianum in Kassel for Documenta 5, this time encapsulating a hammock strung between two palm trees.
It speaks to the experiential nature of the work that the recreated balloons, removed from original contexts and without the possibility for interaction, are not nearly as compelling objects by themselves as the photographs of gleeful young people – often a man-woman couple – posing inside them. The attitudes conveyed by the participants in these documented interventions are silly, flirtatious and provocative. The provocation is exemplified in body-centric works like the Electric Skin outfits (1968), groovy, brightly coloured, skin-tight PVC suits that gathered electric charge and gave a shock to anyone who came in contact with the (attractive female) wearer.
With the irreverent and raucous energy of students just out of school, Zamp Kelp, Ortner and Co. drafted plenty of fantasy cities and unrealizable plans, but they also continued to monomaniacally intervene in public (and, as their career progressed, institutional) spaces. Their Giant Billard (LIVE) installation (Vienna/New York, 1969/70) was an enormous mattress-like pad on which people jostled with human-sized billiard balls and each other in a risqué spectacle. The Roomscraper (1968) began as a two-metre-high inflatable middle finger, which lit up like a lamp, and became a 14-metre version installed alongside the autobahn leading to the Nuremberg Airport in 1971 – a giant, jovial Fuck Off aimed toward the sky.
When compared with others such as Superstudio, the equally ambitious Italian architecture group that became active at the same time, Haus-Rucker-Co was decidedly less ‘conceptual’ (the concept as an end in itself) and more active. Their realized projects intended to establish a feedback loop between builder and user. Unlike the typical architecture-client scenario, Haus-Rucker-Co’s user was not a predefined subject. For them, as for other outspoken architects of the time, such as Cedric Price, subjecthood came through the interaction with ones environment. Morphing from Corbusier-era modernist utopias, which identified a building’s ideal user down to ‘his’ physical proportions, Haus-Rucker-Co’s architectural utopia was one in which inhabitant and structure built each other.
At Haus am Waldsee one could observe a transition throughout the 1970s, as the group’s middle finger bravado gave way to themes of isolation, estrangement and fragility. Melancholic collage-drawings show entire cities cordoned off from dead landscapes by Fuller-like domes (they themselves successfully entombed the entire Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld inside a translucent dome in 1971). An enclosure suspended from the ceiling (a recreation of Klima 2 Atemzone, 1971) that viewers could poke their heads into simulates a calming ‘clean air’ space in anticipation of a time when the atmosphere would be too polluted to breathe. Their emblematic transparent bubble, which only a few years before had been an observation post from which to contemplate the world, here becomes a sterile necessity, walling the subject off from the destruction outside. From an enthusiasm for technology’s potential for greater consciousness and connectivity, technology becomes a survival tool. As Zamp Kelp says: ‘after the founding of Haus-Rucker-Co it was mainly the influences of Pop Art and space travel that shaped the mood of optimism until 1970. Afterwards […] the work’s content became more critical.’2 This criticality was always tempered by a fun quotient however. In 1972, for a celebration of Central Park architect Fredric Law Olmsted’s 150th birthday, Haus-Rucker-Co baked a 6-by-24-foot scale-model cake in the shape of the park and held a feast for the public.
The Haus am Waldsee exhibition also displays three works by current practitioners influenced by Haus-Rucker-Co, evinced by their affinity for interactive bubbles: artist Tomás Saraceno, designer-artist Hussein Chalayan and architects raumlabor. Maybe it’s simply their lack of historical patina, but such sensory experiments today don’t always seem as daring or exciting as they did in the ’60s – just slicker, more controlled. That’s partly because, as Zamp Kelp points out, it’s a lot harder to get planning permission for precarious bubble structures dangling out of apartment buildings today. When planning Balloon für Zwei, he said in a 2014 interview with Baunetzwoche, ‘I went to a police station in the seventh district and said, we’re doing something out of a window.’3 The strategy was essentially one of ‘trial and error’, wherein each project evolved on-site and informed the next.
Today the reciprocal relationship between architect and client has calcified almost across the board into top-down structures of control – whether it’s the starchitect who dumps a pre-fab skyscraper into a city without any attention to the local landscape (isn’t a skyscraper also a giant middle finger aimed at the sky?), or the computer programmer who designs the back-end data monitoring systems used by millions without their knowledge or consent. Haus-Rucker-Co’s vision implies that implanted architectural systems, rather than ones ‘grown’ as a component of a living ecosystem, are part and parcel of the systemic destruction of the natural environment.
One of the inflatable structures on the ground floor of the show at Haus am Waldsee was intended to be accessible for visitors, but on the opening night a visitor slipped upon entering and badly injured her leg. It might be seen as a parable for what happens when experimental interventions from the past are imported into a gallery setting. But perhaps more to the point, and more in line with Haus-Rucker-Co’s legacy, it also serves as a reminder of why the discipline of architecture has become less and less experimental, despite the urgent need for experimentation. It is the very reason we may all find ourselves living inside bubbles someday: to protect us from what we ourselves have created. Yet an architecture curriculum based on Haus-Rucker-Co’s decades of experimentation makes clear the self-defeating nature of such self-protection: utopias are bubbles meant to be popped.
1 Katja Blomberg ed., Haus-Rucker-Co Architekturutopie Reloaded (Walther König, Berlin, 2014), p. 98 2 Ibid. 3 http://www.baunetz.de/baunetzwoche/baunetzwoche_ausgabe_4116519.html?source=hpt
First published in Issue 18