The Architectural Review
Issue Number 1407, Volume CCXXXV


Charlotte Skene Catling


May 2014


Sextet in the City

The Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) reopened next to the Prater Park last October, consolidating into a single campus its collection of department sites which had been discreetly scattered throughout Alsergrund, the 19thC , 9th district of the city. In 2008, Wolf Prix presided over a jury that selected six firms, each to design one of the new department buildings. They included Zaha Hadid Architects, CRABstudio and Atelier Hitoshi Abe.

The WU is the largest school in Europe focused entirely on business, economics and law, and apparently is one of the best. It was founded in 1898 to prepare fledgling business men to grow the then Austro-Hungarian empire, and since has produced an Austrian president, Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors, Finance Ministers and numerous industrialists and CEOs. In other words, it was a good place to generate an innovative business model for a new University structure. The project was contracted by a joint venture of the WU and the Bundesimmobilien Gesellschaft (BIG), a government quango that builds a lot of the public and educational works in Austria and which now co-owns the site. While the University only rented space in the past, the new structure will allow it to eventually own the buildings as a key asset for the future. Business is at the core.

The key economic decision to exclude student accomodation was made early on in order for the campus to remain embedded in the city. The alternative model of an autonomous academic ‘satellite town’, was decided to be socially and culturally undesirable. The goal was to create a classic urban campus but with green space in which the city itself plays a critical role. The current location was selected from several sites, and is roughly 25 acres of Leopoldstadt, former marshland and Jewish Ghetto from the 17th to the 20th C, separated from the city centre by the Danube.

The campus is bordered to the south by the wooded Prater Park. To the south west is the Wurstelprater, the ‘oldest amusement park in the world’, darkly depicted in Carol Reed’s film noir The Third Man where the fair rides were a sinister counterpoint to the corruption and black marketeering in post-war, occupied Vienna. The scene in the 19th century ferris wheel gave long camera shots over the bomb damaged city and the film embodied Austria’s troubled relationship with its past. More recently, happy, giddy views of the campus under construction were had by the academic team from the 100m Praterturm, the ‘highest flying swing in the world’.

Perhaps it is just the Freudian associations with Vienna that suggest a lingering presence or urban memory that manifests more or less unconsciously through the campus masterplan and buildings within it, but the unusual historic typologies that developed on and around the site seem to resonate in the different approaches and architectures that emerged.

Joseph II donated the Prater to the city for public enjoyment in the 18th C, and gave permission for the cafes and entertainments that would develop into the existing funfair. In the 19th C a world exhibition was held with a Rotunda at its centre that burned down in the 1930s. This land is now the site of the Messegelände, the large rectangular blocks of the Exhibition Centre which form the northern border to the campus. To the east is a large running track and beyond it the Ernst Happel Stadion.

The WU competition began with a modest call for masterplanners that led to BUSarchitektur, a local firm. They were contracted for the overall strategy and one of the buildings in order to maintain their committed engagement throughout the course of the project. The WU has a department based organisational structure which is now focused into four dedicated buildings with two structures for shared facilities. Together they have to accommodate 25,000 students and 1,800 staff. The masterplan brief was three-fold; to develop a strategy for laying out the departments in relation to each other and the surrounding context in order to create a collection of discrete and highly individual buildings; to create fluid movement onto and within the site allowing for chance encounters and exchanges of knowledge, and to come up with a general planning and technical M&E strategy so that the entire campus could perform sustainably as a single ‘machine’ with one point of overall control.

The response to this was the creation of a ‘string of plazas’, articulated through a folded and landscaped ground plane, each to act conceptually like the centre of a European town, with many of the same functions. There is a bookshop, creche, sports centre and a supermarket. To complete the metaphor, the Library is described as a ‘cathedral of learning’. An attempt for the university to ‘get students out of the cafes and into the buildings’ in fact resulted in a merging of the two. Cafes and restaurants make up much of the ground level of the buildings and spill into the plazas while artificial grass turns parts of the landscape into giant matresses for informal sprawling. This is circulation designed as theatre. Although there was always an intention to include the public, when it emerged that the cost of installing a security system throughout the site was prohibitively high, a decision was taken that they would have access to the ground plane and interiors of the site just as the students do, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The remarkably generous relationship between the university and the public and absence of surveillance, security and barriers is difficult to any longer imagine on campuses in, say, London or New York.

Given the very different external conditions to each of the site boundaries, one wonders why the masterplan is essentially symetrical. The four department buildings flank the central Library and Learning Zone by Zaha Hadid, whose central position was the firm’s immovable choice. Yet the principle entrance is now from Welthandelsplatz (“World Trade Place”), to the west of the site. There is a more ceremonial entrance at the centre opposite the Library, but this road is not open to the general public. So there seems an assumption that visitors will either know where they’re going or will happily just drift through on a dérive. While permeability is one of the primary goals and successes, it does undermine any sense of arrival sequence or obvious clarity about where to go first.

The main route of the masterplan runs through the campus as a central avenue, with smaller alleys cutting through each of the four departments. According to BUSarchitektur, the sequences were designed so that ‘each path also becomes an existential journey’.

Although this was an international competition, Wolf Prix’s selection of architects does feel a little like the guest list for a private dinner party; most have some longstanding relationship with him. The selected firms were to represent the ‘past, present and future’ of architecture. NO.MAD Arquitectos, as the youngest firm, were the latter. Their building, the EA: WU Executive Academy is the first one most visitors will encounter and is the main public interface. The EA is a seven story tower with a façade of glass and aluminium. The form emerges from a stack of volumes that respond layer by layer to the geometry of the context, creating in their juxtaposition a series of internal spaces that ranges from a public, urban scale – the sport, administration and event spaces – to the more intimate kindergarten and teaching rooms above. The bulk of the building is visually broken down through a combination of the algorithmically generated façade pattern of glazing bars, and the opacity, translucency and reflection created through the use of different glazing types: essentially black, clear and solar-mirrored. The perception of the architecture changes over a 24 hour cycle according to which internal volumes are hidden and revealed from day to night through the shift between external reflection and internal light levels.

CRABstudio have created a series of organic forms to house the law faculty, law library, and the university administration. The buildings are spatially playful but constructed in conventional blockwork, then rendered and painted in bands of brilliant colour from deep orange at the base to acid yellow at the top. A final layer of roughly sawn Austrian Larch planks are fixed raw to the surface on projecting metal clips. There is a cheerful, messy chaos in their arrangement, the choice of horizontal vs vertical bands and the distance from the surface having no obvious relationship to orientation, direction of sunlight or views beyond. Visitors’ reactions have prompted the university administrators to propose a drinking game – a glass of schnapps for every baffled comment heard outside the building (“Is it finished?” “When will the scaffolding come off?”). But the law department, and the core ten steel Teaching Centre diagonally opposite by BUSarchitektur, are the only two buildings to embrace aging and a material evolution with time which the others very much resist. The renders produced by CRABstudio show the building sometime in the future, overgrown with vines, perhaps as a gesture towards the ivy league.

CRABstudio chose the southwest corner as their site to reinforce the connection between the larch planks and the timber screen of trees in the Prater. But walking in either direction between the university and the funfair reveals a much stronger connection; the bawdy humour, the same acid palette from orange to yellow, organic shapes, cut-throughs and alleyways, and the same apparently chaotic and fragile exoskeleton. Could it be that the ‘Dizzy Maus’ or ‘Extasy Raum’ of the Wurstelprater share the same ancestral architectural DNA as Peter Cook?

Internally the bright colours of CRABstudio’s finishes and furniture might sometimes be too loud for quiet thought (would they become annoying?), and the rollercoaster relationships between some of the external terraces are often awkwardly detailed and undermined by handrails, presumably to satisfy health and safety regulations. But the building’s users like the ‘quirkiness’ that creates emotional attachment and a sense of ownership. There is also in-house amusement that WU’s most ‘serious’ department is housed in the most visually lighthearted of the schemes. Perhaps the future of European Law will be fundamentally changed by all this orange paint and larch wood. As Peter Cook said when he included cartoons in his presentations to the jury, “university has to be fucking funny”.

Reinforcing the sense of diagonal symmetry of the site, there appears to be a formal dialogue between the northwest cluster of buildings by Estudio Carme Pinos, with their façade play of black and white parallelograms, and the duo-tone stripes of Hitoshi Abe’s scheme in the opposite southeast corner of the site. Separating out and then creating spatial relationships between different programmatic elements, Carme Pinos scheme builds up a miniature cityscape or skyline. Her structures overlap at a well defined central point, the ‘knot’ that ties together the three main zones. The facades are defined by perforated plaster panels and punctured aluminium sheets which create light plays internally and bold graphic surfaces to the exterior.

The focal piece of the campus is the Library and Learning centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, whose angled geometry, 35 degree pitch and the singular gaze of the large cantilevered window ensure that it is visible from virtually everywhere within a wide radius. This is the most important emblem of the new school, and its iconic presence almost literally rather than merely symbolically sumarises the way the new school wants to be perceived. Two interlocking black and white ribbons of the building’s delineated envelope enclose a large, three dimensional gathering space. The combination of the pitching forward and the strip of lines that encircle the building like a bar code or race track are undeniably, almost disturbingly, dynamic.

The commissioners of the building wanted one that conveyed an organisation that is ‘moving forward like a cruise, or space ship’, that is ‘not straight; unconventional, futuristic’. This building does all that. But the immediate effect of the tilted interior is of a cruise ship that’s sinking. This is a more questionable symbol in these delicate European economic times. It can cause an almost tangible wave of sea sickness. This must be a salute to the power of an architecture able to create such strong visceral reactions. The interior is much more fluid than the exterior and the glazed entrance draws the campus through and up into the circulation of the building which contains an auditorium, work and event spaces, a bookshop and cafes.

The main atrium is where students ceremonially begin their studies and eventually graduate. The central core contains the body of the library collection, and a variety of working spaces for different scenarios encircle the main atrium with individual rooms for doctoral students or discussion groups, a large library café at roof level and the dramatic projecting reading room that overlooks the Prater. The directional nature of the reading room has resulted in all the desks being arranged in rows facing the plate glass window (and towards the future, no doubt) which creates the uneasy atmosphere of sitting in an exam rather than a library. But the hierarchy of work spaces is luxuriously thoughtful and the complex spatiality of the building creates dramatic moments, reinforced by careful detailing and the ‘canyons’ of beautiful concrete work that define the structural zones of the building.

Atelier Hitoshi Abe’s two long narrow buildings, the D2-SC Departments and Student Centre, were ‘inspired by Millefeuille pastry’ in a tribute, perhaps, to Viennese Kaffeehaus culture. The link is not immediately obvious: a pâtissier might see the alternating black and white pattern of the façade as closer to the checquerboard of a Battenberg cake. But the ‘thousand leaves’ or ‘layers’ become apparent as an organisational device that allows narrow gaps between parallel programmes, some internal and separated by lightwells and sculptural stairs, others external and crossed by overhead bridges. Abé’s long strips of building are made to appear shorter through games of accelerated perspective and the facades are broken down vertically by disengaging the layers of individual floors from the surface to create overlaps in the two-tone glazing. Where the eye is forced to travel over Zaha’s building at high speed in racing loops, the effect of the rippling horizontal bands of Abe’s façade is of undulating optical illusion.

Like the Law Department diagonally opposite, BUSarchitektur’s dark orange rusted core-ten Teaching Centre brings colour and texture to the site and acts as a good foil to the fibreglass-reinforced, concrete slickness of the Library. This is the second largest building in scale, and the faceted steel plate surfaces of its bulky body, perforated to form flush shutters and sunscreens, turn it into a monolith that grounds this end of the site like a mountain.

Internally it feels like a geological excavation has left behind a series of planes that become circulation, meeting places and study areas. It contains the largest auditorium which is daylit, and while it is accessed from below ground level, it exits directly onto the plaza making the link between learning and discussion physical and immediate. Like many of the buildings, the thoughtful and low-tech approach to services and the refreshingly direct relationship between inside and outside makes it feel as though there’s a little more oxygen available for thinking.

What is the purpose of a campus today? Social condenser? Educator? Spectacle? Logo? The WU has removed itself from the dense 19th C urban fabric of the 9th Distrtict and relaunched itself in a unique historical context which draws the city through it in a different way, not as fellow urban dwellers engaged in their daily routine, but as an audience where the university itself becomes the entertainment and object of focus; the spectacle. Since Joseph II’s dedication of the area for public pleasure, this is a natural development in the tradition of the local surroundings, from funfair to world fair, theatre district, exhibition hall, stadium, film festival and public park, but it does promote a condition in which everyone wants to invent the ‘best ride’; where every architecture is competing for attention.

The outcome is a clear identity for this consolidated organisation, ironically through the hyper-individualism of its different buildings, each self-consciously disparate but engineered to function together as single machine. The architecture is used to articulate the ‘personality’ the university wants to project as a form of corporate identity. But the creation of such a complete set piece raises the question of how this model might grow and adapt, whether there are strategies for further densification and even of how the Central European model of urban plazas reflects a 21st C non-local, global capitalism.

The new WU unquestionably demonstrates the value of a good client with a clear goal and the tenacity to perserve a strong architectural remit, it also creates questions about the role of the campus in the city and of architecture in serving this role. The completed campus is already acting as an attractor and has begun to shift the academic centre of the city towards the Prater. The new Sigmund Freud University, a much denser building making up the new western border of the WU site, is nearly complete. There are plans for its own dedicated ambulance, perhaps for psychological Accidents & Emergencies. In a complex that presents such intense academic and architectural stimulation, one could imagine future synergies, where the students at the end of their ‘existential journeys’ might be rescued and rushed to psychoanalytical cures.