Missing Link

19 / 04 / - 28 / 06 / 2002
Exhibition / Discussion

Overview and documentation of the work from Vienna-based
Arbeitsgemeinschaft (working group) "Missing Link" (1970-80)


29 Lotus International. Quarterly Architectural Review

During January, an exhibition at the Austrian Institute in New York City introduced us to the strikingly fresh research and design of two young Viennese architects, Otto Kapfinger and Adolf Krischanitz. Calling themselves "Missing Link," Kapfinger and Krischanitz have set out to establish ties with the architectural and social traditions of Vienna. Their purpose is to rediscover the essentials of a local language and to transpose key words and images from that language into their own work. principles derived from past architecture become the basis for Current solutions to local problems; yet the issues with which Missing Link is dealing radiate beyond Vienna to take on international significance.

One starting point for Missing Link's studies is the public housing - the so-called Wohnhöfe - erected by the municipal government of Vienna between 1923 and 1934. Part of a program of social democratic reform in the wake of World War I and the breakdown of the Austrian monarchy, the Wohnhöfe have only recently been included in accounts of the modern movement. Eighteen distinct complexes provided some 64,000 workers' flats organized around large landscaped courtyards; most attention is given to the largest, Karl Ehn's Karl-Marx Hof, built between 1927 and 1930, and containing playgrounds, gymnasia, day nurseries, laundries, medical clinics, and libraries. Perspective views (and some site plans) are presented on a series of boards comprised of twenty-five separately framed renderings. Executed with exquisite precision and detail, these images provide a synoptic view of the housing units and, together with a brief discussion in the exhibition catalogue, begin to place them in historical perspective.

This analysis of the Wohnhöfe reveals a recurrent irony of architectural history: progressive deals may be open to the form-language of a time or a tradition which those ideals seek to surmount. The linguistics of the Wohnhöfe center on the transformation of the Baroque palace (associated with the old monarchy) into public housing (a product of the new Republic). (Precedents for such mutations of the Baroque exist in the social utopian architecture and planning schemes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.)

The semiological information which Missing Link has derived from their analysis of the Wohnhöfe and which they apply to their own designs is in the form of typologies: the Baroque palace, the tower, the gate, the door, the street corner, the courtyard. They extend their typological studies forward and backward in time from the Wohnhöfe and derive inspiration from additional types: the compact living units and terrace houses built for the Werkbund Siedlung in Vienna (1929-1932), and earlier projects by Adolf Loos that demonstrated the same principles of roof terracing and spatial elaboration within a restricted volume. A final type of non-Viennese vintage also holds an attraction for Missing Link: Le Corbusier's volume elevated on pilotis. Thus, the types range from whole buildings to single components, from spatial considerations to structural ones, from exterior to interior. The Austrian source for the typological study and linguistic analysis of architecture is, of course, Gottfried Semper, whose ideas had a considerable effect upon Otto Wagner. Missing Link reaches back to continue a venerable lineage.

Missing Link's own work is the outgrowth of their detailed studies and semiological syntheses, but the result is neither stiff academicism nor a garble of ideas. What emerges is an inspired body of work in which each project expresses a range of carefully considered social and aesthetic meanings through a rich and lively vocabulary of forms.

Two Wohnhöfe projects, of 1977 and 1978, do not represent commissioned solutions to a specific urban situation, but ideas about a housing type which in Vienna has a special identity and which the architects believe should be considered seriously as a model for public housing. Similar to the earlier Wohnhöfe, both projects are developed as compact blocks in conformity with an existing street network. The architects eschew the solution of housing-in-rows popularized by the Siedlungen of the 20s and 30s, but they develop an openness to light, air, and green spaces-amenities associated with the Siedlungen The earlier study is for a complex of 500 apartments organized into four square blocks with separate landscaped courts and a central unifying plaza. The later is for a block of 110 apartments in a single square unit enclosing a central court. Dwellings in both projects are organized into four different systems: (1) the "arcade house,' a horizontal sequence of duplex apartments with a living room facing the inside courtyard and a connecting exterior corridor open to the street; (2) the "terrace house," a vertical unit with shops on the ground level. apartments above, a roof garden and a central, skylighted stairwell; (3) “Zweispänner," pairs of apartments vertically linked by a central stairwell and oriented to courtyard and street; (4) "rue intérieure," a central skylighted street-corridor connecting a sequence of duplex apartments. Three of these systems are signaled by prominent exterior features - the street corridor for the "arcade house," groundlevel shops for the "terrace house," and recessed lower stories and exposed pillars that create a colonnaded walk for the Zweispänner.

Both projects are also characterized by their facades in which layered and interlocked forms achieve lively syncopated effects. Vigorous by an ever-present human scale and by a clarity of expression so that each element has an identifiable meaning within the whole. In the later Wohnhof study the outside corners of the block are not treated in the standard way as closed and impenetrable, but are interpreted as open volumes that accommodate circulation and are designated as places where cafes and pubs might be located. Here the idea of another type, the open cafe-corner of Vienna, is united with the housing block to create a dialogue between the vitality of the public street and the sequestered intimacy of the private court.

Missing Link's "Hat Object" is their only design to date that has been built. An open-frame pavilion shaped like a bowler, it was first created in 1976 in Vienna's fruit market near the Sammelkanal as part of a "Super Summer" festival sponsored by the city. It was moved in 1977 to a children's playground in the Prater, Vienna's amusement park. By adopting the hat shape, Missing Link has made a wry social comment on the structure's locale: after 1900, a time of artistic ferment and negligible social and political change, hundreds of tramps lived in the sewer tunnels of the canal beneath the fruit market. The pavilion is a monument to those forgotten denizens for whom the roofs over their heads were the hats which they invariably wore. An enlarged version of a photograph taken in 1908 showing one of the tramps graciously acknowledging the viewer with extended hat was originally exhibited within. As an example of architecture parlante the hat pavilion provokes limited parallels with Venturi and Rauch's Franklin Court for the Philadelphia Bicentennial. But the pavilion speaks ironically about a dim aspect of Vienna's past, and about what might be celebrated in the bright summertime of the present.

It seems likely that Missing Link will return to the United States with an expanded version of their exhibition. Through the joint efforts of the Austrian Institute and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, a tour is being planned that will take the architects and the exhibition to a dozen or so architectural schools across the country. We will thus have a chance to learn more about their work and the ways in which it reinforces current attitudes of respect for history in an effort to expand the language and cultural significance of architecture.

Eugene Santomasso

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