Hans Hollein: Architect who won the Pritzker Prize for work that fused an appreciation of the past with bold, futuristic elements


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The Independent Online

Hans Hollein combined an appreciation of the past with bold, futuristic elements in his buildings. In 1985 he was recognised with the Pritzker Prize, one of architecture's most prestigious awards.

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, 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, 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. 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.

Hollein lived in the US in the 1950s and 1960s but did relatively little work there. In 1969, he designed the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York, 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."

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 a 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 US universities.

In his home town of Vienna, Hollein designed jewellery shops as well as 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, 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 train.

One of Hollein's greatest architectural achievements, the Haas Haus, was built in Vienna from 1985 to 1989. An ordinance requiring new structures to match the style and form of existing buildings had to be changed to allow 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 mimics older buildings while pointing toward the future. Its curving outer contours evoke the Roman fortifications that used to be on the same spot.

"It's nice to know that this is not an accidental curve but it has a history and a reason," Hollein told The Independent 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."

Born in 1934 in Vienna, graduated from the architecture school at the city's Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. He went to the US on a fellowship and travelled 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. He worked in the US and Sweden before opening an architectural practice in Vienna in 1964.

Hollein considered almost any man-made object to be a form of architecture, and he designed museum exhibitions, furniture, sunglasses and coffee makers. In 1990 he unveiled a new piano design for Bosendorfer. When the electronically operated lid was opened, it revealed an interior of bright red lacquer. The sturdy legs were made of brass.

"I did not want to redesign the musical part," he 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 he 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."

Hans Hollein, architect: born Vienna 30 March 1934; married Helene (died 1999; two children); died Vienna 24 April 2014.

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