This previously unpublished interview with Hans Hollein was conducted in July 2009 by Sanam Samanian (in collaboration with Parisa Kohbodi); Hollein passed away in 2014.
It was 2009, my first time in Vienna and I felt at home—as if I knew the city, its elegant architecture and its profound understanding of life. Vienna is quiet. It doesn’t make any noise about itself or ask for validation from the world; and when I walked into the studio of Hans Hollein it became clear that neither does he.
A a recent graduate of architecture school, I was trying to make it as a writer in the industry. With a bright friend, colleague and then-student from Waterloo University, we hopped on trains and traveled from country to country. In retrospect, I was probably looking for conversations with those I respected. I was looking to understand how they started their careers and what they were exploring. And I had no idea then that this may be the last interview with Mr. Hans Hollein, the man responsible for some of architecture history's key postmodern buildings: the Austrian Embassy Building in Berlin, the Glass and Ceramics house in Tehran, and the Retti Candle Shop in Vienna. His Pritzker Prize was given to him before I was born, yet he began answering my questions as if I were an old friend.
Sanam Samanian: The Pritzker focuses on humanity in architecture; has the award changed anything in your architecture since receiving it?
Hans Hollein: It is the most important award in architecture; it is the Nobel Prize of architecture. I was the seventh award winner at that time and it was on its way to becoming the leading prize in architecture. Actually I may have been the last Pritzker award winner to receive a sculpture by Henry Moore.
[He points at the sculptural piece sitting on his mantel.]
For me it was certainly important, but I have won many more important prizes before.
SS: Which one has been most memorable?
HH: My very first building, a candle shop in Vienna, won an award three months after the opening of the building. It was $25,000 which was bigger than cost of the building. I didn’t get a big fee for the shop, so the award helped and also people were just fascinated that you could get an award that is more expensive than the building.
SS: Tell me about why you became an architect.
HH: I started working in architecture very early. When I was in Chicago I was very interested in skyscrapers, and had new ideas about skyscrapers , and I first started my own practice in 1964—one year prior to finishing my first commission. And then of course the Pritzker was given to me not much later.
SS: Did it coincide with any specific project?
HH: As you know, the Pritzker is not given to any specific building, but I got it right after I finished the Abteiberg Museum. I tried a new approach to architecture in that project, and I think it was honored by the Pritzker, as Frank’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain was honored for his Pritzker prize.
SS: Did it change anything regarding how you practice architecture?
HH: It was encouraging. I immediately wanted to start an enormous new office.
SS: How did you go about that?
HH: I established a great connection with the United States and tried building in different parts of the world.
SS: Kenneth Frampton has stated that you were always comfortable in the theatrics of architecture. What do you think about that?
HH: Not really, I mean I am sort of in agreement and disagreement with him, and it’s not a question of theatrics.
SS: What about art?
HH: In the Venice Biennale—the first time I was there—I participated as an artist, not as an architect, which was long before I began working as an architect. I was an Austrian commissioner for the arts.
SS: How did that role did influence your architecture practice?
HH: I have always tried to look at architecture through an artistic lens. Art is the link between an era to the next. Modern art had a big influence on postmodern architecture.
SS: That’s right. Your work, particularly, seems to be a link between traditional and postmodern architecture. Do you think it’s because you were trained in a traditional manner and practiced in the postmodern era?
HH: My academic years were spent in Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, as well as Illinois Institute of Technology and Berkley University. In Berkeley I completed my masters’ degree. There was a rather strong future-forward period there. There was also a very strong emphasis on traditional architecture and values. I also remember that during my time at Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, there was small group with a very interesting tendency for exchanges between between Eastern and Western approaches.
SS: What kind of exchanges?
SS: How did you take part in that?
HH: I went to Sweden which was, at that time, a very progressive country in architecture; and it was also a country that didn’t suffer through the war. Vienna was a devastated city. During that time you didn’t have easy access to information as you do today. I mean there were books and magazines, but in that way I was looking to not continue the traditional curriculum.
SS: How did you explore the non-traditional?
HH: It came to be a question of city-building and architectural interventions.
SS: Any specific cities?
HH: We explored London, Tokyo, not New York but Chicago; and of course we looked at Vienna.
SS: How do you explore architecture these days? Do you have a method?
HH: I sit and think. It depends on the project, the specific site, the specific situation.
SS: Do you still enjoy it?
HH: Yes. I never wanted to be an architect that would drop his buildings anywhere in the world, but wanted to understand their situation, relationship to the site, to the history and the culture of the people. So, I have built in many countries and different civilizations.
SS: How do you choose your projects?
HH: Well it’s complicated. In the United States the client comes to you and wants a building by you. But many important buildings in Europe, even if they are privately funded, need to go through a public competition. In Europe I have difficulty getting direct commissions. In United States, however, there are better opportunities where the client and architect meet each other before and discuss the project. In a competition format you never meet the client beforehand.
SS: You have had a long and successful career in architecture. What do you find has evolved in the past 30 years?
HH: Well one thing is the amount of the information. 30 years ago you had to meet someone like Philip Johnson by accident in an office of a magazine and then make connections. So, I think access to information has changed things. Also time had become faster somehow, if that makes any sense.
SS: Time is relative. I get that.
HH: It also slows down sometimes, doesn’t it? Depending on the cultural and financial situation of a place. I think it also changes when you leave your hometown.
SS: Was that challenging?
HH: Yes. Very early in my life I tried to get out of my hometown and traveled to Scandinavian countries and the United States for two years. My first professorship was in the United States and the Vienna Academy. At that time communications over a long distance was very costly.
SS: As a practitioner and professor, do you think architectural education is missing anything these days?
HH: In North America, there are some very good universities and some not really good ones. Because of communications and access to information, some students are very informed these days. Same with Europe, I guess.
SS: Are there any architects that have impressed and influenced you?
HH: When I was in Chicago Mies Van Der Rohe really inspired me. He was maybe why I went to Chicago. At that time, in Europe there was only one book about his work.
SS: Are there any contemporary architects whose work you enjoy?
HH: A lot of friends from my generation in the United States, I know many of them well.
SS: If you look back to the buildings you have designed are there any of them you enjoyed more than others?
HH: That’s like if you ask a father or mother which one of their children they like more.
SS: I know. The difference is you can probably be honest whereas parents won’t be able to be.
[He laughed for a few minutes.]
HH: There are some key projects and buildings that unfortunately never got realized. I have no regrets for any of them. To me, the candle shop in Vienna is very dear. I also worked on a Guggenheim in Iraq, it never got built unfortunately.
SS: Are there any projects that you wish to do still?
HH: I’d like to transform a medieval castle to be used for all kind of strange purposes like a museum, an auditorium or concert hall.
SS: What do you think your projects, the spaces you create, do for people?
HH: At the ten year anniversary of one of my buildings all these people, children and teachers and parents of the children would come to me and tell me how they enjoyed the building in different ways throughout the years. That was very important to me. It was a great day and a testimony to what a building could do for people.