1 The Domenig Tapes © Andreas Lechner
GAM 19

The Domenig Tapes

Andreas Lechner

“So for me, that’s worth more than someone saying they begin by just gathering information and then draw references to that information— in other words, to put it plainly, I don’t do things, I’d say, that just reach back in history in order to adopt motifs, but instead, I try to make architecture that ensures that historic preservationists will still have something to do 30 years from now.”[1]

In honor of the tenth anniversary of his death, the exhibition “Günther Domenig: Dimensional— Structures and Shapes” is being held at four locations in Carinthia. Complementing two exhibitions in Klagenfurt, Domenig’s Steinhaus on Lake Ossiach and his building for the iron industry monument in Heft near Hüttenberg are both exhibits of and venues for this exhibition and give me an immediate reason for this essay on a hitherto unexamined aspect of the central artist-architect of the “Graz School.”[2]

When I started working as a university assistant at the Institute of Design and Building Typology at TU Graz in the summer of 2007, I discovered four audiocassettes in the bottom desk drawer of my new workplace. The hand- writing on the adhesive labels identified the cassettes as recordings of various lectures given by Günther Domenig in the winter semester of 1987/88 (fig. 1). Intending to listen to them in due time, I placed them in a storage tray in my freshly occupied office at the very back of the former “Domeniganischen Republik” (Domenigan Republic)— which is how Institute of Design and Building Typology on the fourth floor was identified on the sign in the lobby of the annex building at TU Graz, completed in 1994 according to plans by Domenig’s office (competition won in 1983, fig. 2). While all reminders of that republic continued to fade, the cassettes remained where they were in order to help create an image of the past at a particular moment in time, one which Walter Benjamin characterized as such: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”[3]

2 Model of the final version of the design for the TU Graz annex building with the Institute of Design and Building Typology on the top floor
© TU Graz Archive

By seizing upon the “Gebäudelehre” lectures that Günther Domenig recorded on cassettes when he was 51 years old, this essay asks what can we discern in them that might, in the present, hold true or yield information for professional notions of self. To this end, in the following I situate the recordings in the highly productive 1980s — the heyday of the “Graz School”— and begin by explaining my own connections and other sources used. Because although I completed most of the design studios and courses at the Institute of Building Design during my studies in the 1990s, I heard only two lectures given by Domenig himself and saw only two of the diploma exams he presided over. Domenig also did not take part in the two-week excursion to Los Angeles, made in 1996 in connection with Thom Mayne’s year-long visiting professorship in Graz, which afforded us exclusive access to a breathtaking abundance of architectural jewels in Southern California.[4] Domenig did indeed pay a visit to the design studio (which was held during the summer semester of 1997 in the building that housed the artists’ association Forum Stadtpark), but he did not attend the intermediate or final critique. As much as Domenig’s decidedly sculptural understanding of architecture vaguely defined my perception of a “Graz School” at the time, it also remained indistinct due to the stylistically multilayered oeuvre (Mega-Structures, Brutalism, Pop Art, Organic Architecture, Deconstructivism) and was called into question from the second half of the 1990s by two aspects that increasingly attracted student attention: computerization and the inspiring provocations of the Dutch architect and architectural theorist Joost Meuwissen, who was appointed professor of urban design at the TU Graz in 1995.

While the digital-euphoric promises began to relativize freehand drawing— and thus both the central medium for and a frequently recurring motif in Domenig’s buildings and projects— as the most important hinge of architectural access to existing and imagined worlds, Meuwissen introduced a new discursive level into the Faculty of Architecture in Graz. While not easy to understand, this was refreshingly polemical when combined with his Robert Venturiesque ballpoint pen sketches that responded with philosophical cunning to old masters or competition programs with “heightened empiricism.” Meuwissen’s hyper-affirmative, Pop Art–schooled approach stood in distinct contrast to Domenig’s emphatically personal, fundamentally resistant attitude that radically demanded something new. Yet it was Domenig who had encouraged and ultimately persuaded Meuwissen to come to Graz.[5] Even though Meuwissen’s popularity tended to go hand in hand with the Super Dutch phenomenon and the rising international profile of Rem Koolhaas and owed less to his skepticism, honed by the rationalism of Giorgio Grassi, of all too personally (mis)understood contributions to the age-old discipline of architecture:[6] In any event, around the dawn of the new millennium, I— like many others from the drafting rooms in Graz— stood in line for thesis supervision at the Institute for Urban Design— and Domenig retired.

Domenig was professor and chair of the Institute of Building Design and Housing from 1980 to 2000. He did not give his inaugural lecture, titled “Verwandlung” (Trans- formation), until 1982, after first having allowed eleven colleagues to give guest lectures at his institute within the framework of the building design lecture series. The first were Coop Himmelblau (Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky) with their legendary Flammenflügel (The Blazing Wing) action in the courtyard of the “Alte Technik” building, followed by Adolf Max Vogt, Peter Cook, Raimund Abraham, Frei Otto, Peter Noever, and Frank Gehry, among others (fig. 3).

3 Poster of guest lectures in 1980/81 at the Institute of Design and Building Typology
© Archive Helmut Tezak

In the following years, Domenig also annually presented his lectures on “Fundamentals of Building Design” in the first stage of study and “Building Design 1” in the second, which were also included on the audio- cassettes from the winter semester of 1987/88 (fig. 4).

The most comprehensive of these recordings, in which Domenig speaks on two separate days as part of the course “Gebäudelehre 1” (Building Design 1), is on the first cassette: “Education and Training in the Higher Education Sector” presents the history of university architecture as an overview from the philosopher schools of ancient Greece to the neighborhood-sized new university buildings in the Federal Republic of Germany of the 1970s. Domenig also characterizes these lectures as a direct result of his work on the two projects for the TU Graz annex buildings in Steyrergasse and Lessingstraße (1983–1994), and introduced them with a skepticism toward university construction that is apparently rooted in the experiences gained from and resistance met by the Graz projects:

What are the lessons learned from history? To what extent are there connections that influence us? Like I said last time, in architectural design too, it’s not like you invent everything on your own. To what extent can these things help when approaching a certain topic, or a particular project? There are also different ways of working used by the people who do architecture: one derives a lot from history, the other engages with it less. I’m not so inclined to begin by studying all these facts from what exists before I delve specifically into any design statement … What we extracted was, for example, the history of the reforms, the history the university with its scholars, and so was actually quite extensive, and that’s also something that occurred to me then, why today people still walk around wearing academic robes and their big chains of office when they have become deans or rectors … that scholars have basically had rather a conservative attitude in the entire historical development, that they cultivate this venerable tradition, and that basically they would have resisted change …[7]

4 Course catalog, TU Graz Study Guide, 1987/88
© TU Graz Archive

The genesis of this comprehensive lecture, as well as the sources used in it, can be studied thoroughly thanks to numerous documents, copies, and notes in Domenig’s bequest in the collection of the Architekturzentrum Wien (AzW), and it can also be linked to the extensive slide collection that formed the visual basis for all of the lectures discussed here and which were presented as dual projections with the characteristic cues “Left picture!,” “Right picture!”

My research at the AzW also established that the Domenig Tapes I secured are not likely to contribute much in the way of groundbreaking new information to future scholarship on Domenig, because the lectures recorded on the cassettes can also be found in written form in different versions and partial fragments within the bequest. What the Domenig Tapes do, however, and what my transcribed selection for this essay also concentrates on, is to shed light on the professional facet of Domenig that is not elaborated either in the current exhibitions or in the numerous publications on and about Domenig or the “Graz School.”[8] Despite Domenig’s equally undisputed and central role as the most important and internationally best-known protagonist of the faction dubbed the “Graz School,”8 his role as a teacher, as a conveyor of architectural knowledge, artistic intuitions, and professional self-image, has scarcely been examined in detail. One reason for this is surely the fact that Domenig’s instruction at the TU was primarily— and, over the years, ever more extensively— carried out by members of his institute team, who were permitted great freedom in substantive matters. What distinguishes the tapes in question, therefore, is the opportunity they afford to immerse ourselves in the acoustic atmosphere— voice, dialect, rhetoric, and humor — of Domenig’s instruction during the 1980s, when he was more academically engaged:

I don’t know if I’m covering the topic in that way. What have we done now during this winter semester? Well, with me there were five topics concerning this interrelationship, apart from the introduction: there was the one between utopia and reality; between the individual and the community; design in architecture; visual art and architecture; and present and past; [and] with Laszlo Pap there were also the topics of building analyses, the tasks of the architect, and … what else did we have? Planning and control. And I think that with these topics I roughly cover what architecture can be about, and although it’s very personal, I believe you were able to get a general idea. I said at the beginning that I would be satisfied if I could inspire you to continue with architecture and do not lose interest. One cannot presume to achieve something like that, but what I wanted, and what I hope has emerged half- way— is that although it’s a matter where you also have things that are not very pleasant, that you would also have something else in this profession— that would be to introduce the dimension of your own idea or your own imagination into the work— and that in this day and age there are countless and diverse examples of making architecture and that’s what I mean, that’s what you should bear in mind if perhaps we still meet up in the 5th or 6th semester. Then there’s still the topic of Building Design 1. So you’re not feeling unsettled, we have various exam topics; you can choose one and elaborate it theoretically, or you can deal with it concretely and focus on any detail you want, and then you simply engage with it, and I hope to see you again. Goodbye![9]

5 Günther Domenig at the Architectural Association in London

With this prospect of a generous mode of examination, namely one that relies on the intrinsic motivation of the students in the first stage of their studies, Domenig bids farewell in the last “Fundamentals of Building Design” lecture in the winter semester of 1987/88. The cassettes contain two recordings from this lecture series—“Architecture and Visual Art” from December 16, 1987, and “Past and Present” from January 27, 1988, from which the closing remarks above are also taken. These lectures, too, can be found almost in their entirety and partly as typescripts in Domenig’s bequest. The last cassette has part of a talk or lecture given on May 20, 1988, not otherwise specified except for the subtitle “Steinhaus, Steindorf, Steinhof.”

In the second half of the 1980s, Domenig continued to steadily receive further international and institutional recognition. In 1986, for instance, he exhibited drawings of the Steinhaus at the Architectural Association (AA) in London (fig. 5), an extensive conversation with him was published in the AA Files under the title “Drawing on Dreams: Steinhaus— Stonehouse,” and his drawings were also published in a high-quality collector’s edition as Number XI in the AA’s prominent Folio series.[10] Peter Cook regularly reported on Domenig’s work in The Architectural Review and, at a two-day symposium entitled “Bau ist Kunst— Ist Bau Kunst?” (Building is Art— Is Building Art?) held at the ORF regional studio as part of the annual art festival steirischer herbst (Styrian Autumn), alongside presentations by renowned participants such as Gottfried Böhm, Mario Botta, Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Karla Szyszkowitz- Kowalski, Hans Hollein, Gustav Peichl, and Richard Meier, Domenig spoke and allowed talented students of his to present architectural-artistic works.

In the lectures given by Domenig himself, he is resolutely interested, on the one hand, in how building can lead to architectural balancing acts that incline toward sculpture. In the lecture “Architecture and Visual Art,” for example, he recounts collaborations with artisans on the construction site of the Vienna Z-Sparkasse, and how he collaborated on site to make the sculpture of his hand and foisted it on the construction manager:

The idea actually arose from the body language of discussing, and yes, then I thought, now I’ll make a hand, and after I say I’m not not an artist, I made my own hand, and really huge, enlarged 50 times and then I took my own hand and, using this specific pro- cess for spraying concrete, modeled this hand. First with this wire reinforcement mesh, and then I slowly and continually sprayed more and more concrete and that was then at a time of considerable conflict with the client, a project that was pushing the limits … meanwhile I had made this hand on the second floor; on the third day he summoned me back again, [and] I say: ‘Well, that’s really a small thing in comparison to my hand on the second floor’—‘Oh, there’s a hand?’— but I’ve already applied so much concrete that it wouldn’t have been easy to take that hand down again. … He was completely consternated, and after long discussions he finally granted approval for the hand on the condition that I would not get the idea to also make other body parts. … I didn’t make it alone, but with a mason who was very skilled. … I then told him that he should make the second finger himself, that is, he should replicate his own finger, which is why the second finger is bent forward and the fourth finger, which I made, is bent backward (fig. 6).[11]

6 Article by Peter Cook in The Architectural Review 169, 1001 (1981) documenting Domenig’s Z-Sparkasse in Vienna

On the other hand, with his central interest in the blurred boundary between architecture and visual art, Domenig combines criticism of the conventional built average with a passion for transgressing boundaries. This interest is evident in the topics of his design teaching in that, for example, the diploma projects he supervised could be devoted to extremely free-ranging topics that could com- bine poetic reflections with historical-typological analyses, use image and media experiments for the genesis of design, or by using more classical techniques of modeling, imagemaking, and drawing to speculate on spatial structures that had no conventional functional relationship. In the 1980s, this great degree of substantive and formal freedom attracted talented and highly motivated students, but inherently posed elusive hurdles for the broader main- stream. In any case, Domenig’s teaching in the 1980s unleashed a remarkable dynamism and revitalization at the architecture faculty, because it radically and lastingly expanded the functionalist perspective of technical approaches to education in the direction of hybrids and bricolage. This expansion demanded more engagement and more complex understandings, both in the direction of form and in the direction of the built context and existing conditions. Domenig illustrated both— in the lecture “Past and Present,” for example, when he takes a resolute stand toward protecting the old city and historic monuments and also uses what he considers to be a particularly impressive example from Rome to illustrate a more complex relationship between form and function:

There is basically nothing to say about there being beautiful old town centers … that these old town centers should also be preserved as they are, yet there is a danger of seeing them only as a relic that is simply kept going. Every city and every organism that is alive is needed. Buildings are needed; the buildings become obsolete and at some point in time need to be renewed in some form or another. And the danger of thinking along this line also lies, of course, in the commercial, namely in the speculative; in the politically speculative, that one then says, okay, it can generate business in the old town— we can also observe that in Graz— and ultimately this old town becomes a kind of fetish or a tourist trap. And nothing more happens and nothing more is allowed to be built that could, at some point in the future, when a building enclosure has been used up, be used to make new architecture in the relationship between old and new architecture … So, for me, it’s a great project that was finished in the early 1960s, in ‘62 to be exact. I think the architectural group was called Passarelli; they did this project, but they never resurfaced later, I never read even once about any other projects of theirs in a publication, and this is an immensely courageous project that also reveals something else on the outside. What happens inside in terms of function is meant to be legible on the outside. On the ground floor and in the basement are garages, and the first three or four [upper] floors accommodate offices; this is clearly indicated by a clear glass volume that naturally aligns with the street front. On top are apartments, and the apartments are presented as separate elements … there’s a twist between the lower and upper building sections; it is structurally very complex and complicated and difficult, but it is a non-concealment of … and so I find this to be a very, very important example (fig. 7).[12]

7 Multifunctional building, Via Campania, Studio Passarrelli, Rome, 1963-1965
© Samuel Lundberg

Unlike the often flamboyantly polemical artist and media figure of the decades to follow, in the 1980s Domenig offered students nuanced insights into his thinking and generously shared information about the sources of his architectural shapes and his form-finding processes. Domenig’s hybrid sphere of inspiration and influence consists of numerous works of architecture and visual art, but also mentions, among others, H. R. Giger and his contribution to the science fiction classic Alien. The lectures frequently include works by Konrad Wachsmann, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Maria Förderer, Werner Hunziker, Frei Otto, Carlo Scarpa, Lucien Kroll, Umberto Boccioni, Fritz Wotruba, Walter de Maria, Gordon Matta- Clark, Nicolas Schöffer, Richard Serra, Christo, and—most notably— the oeuvre of his artist friend Walter Pichler (fig. 8). Like Pichler, Domenig also created an abode (his Steinhaus) for his sculptures. “Nix-Nuz-Nix”, the fountain sculpture, transformed elements of the mountain landscape— which is a sculpture in itself; that is, it allows dwelling and sculpture to merge into one another:

I am currently working on the theme of a house of one’s own— I’m also Carinthian, unfortunately, lived in Carinthia for a very long time in my youth in a very mountainous landscape, and so now I am building my own house. And from somewhere in this region where I have lived and from my own production, I now intend to try out an alternative approach for how to build specifically in a place and extract an architecture that has something to do with the place, has some- thing to do with the landscape, has something to do with the architecture, but which is also an expression of the contemporary or our imagination. And like I said, I then spent a long time working on it and I studied certain formations of mountains and rocks and then tried to react to them with drawings … and I responded to these archetypal house and roof forms, which are meant to guide us somewhere through the fragmentation, which are thus meant to incorporate essential elements of the architecture that already exists, which are meant to be developed further and renewed … out of this, from one of the first sketches, a house then emerged, where a hill is heaped up, out of which the rocks erupt and this is something I worked on for a very long time, for years, and the final result is a view of this house, which I once started beneath the earth, and which I am currently building.[13]

On the fourth cassette, Domenig describes, step by step, how the design of the Steinhaus came about, using the slides as a visual left-right dialogue between photography and freehand drawing— this, too, is a recurring feature of his lectures, which can, in part, already be discerned in his inaugural lecture of 1982 and, accordingly, also in the slide collection.

I’ll run through this very quickly. My own story. My own house. Mm, lived in two different regions of Carinthia. And so now I’ll just run through this relationship to nature. Nature studied: right image— Terrain studied: left image; Drawn, not traced, drawn: right image … Detail studied, transition from plant growth to stone … Left image: architecture observed— Right image: Architecture drawn, architecture fragmented— not tracing; drawing old parts, adding a new idea … Left image: Transported into the Steinhaus, first sketches— rocks erupting from the hills … Left image: again, architectural drawings … parts of archetypal Carinthian architecture, also drawn, also defamiliarized, again a new idea— Right image: stone observed— Left image: … stone recreated, not copied— Right image: tree observed; Left, tree drawn, left! tree drawn, not copied, can be part of the architecture, the new architecture— Right: Part of the Steinhaus, right image … left image … left, a drawing— half architecture, half terrain, half new idea … Right drawing: final version, difference in time 10 years— Left: also not nature, but with nature, but with old architecture— Right: looks different, yet still the same.[14]

8 Design Development of the Steinhaus, Slides, Architekturzentrum Wien
© Photo: Andreas Lechner

What is astounding about these early links between original sound and slides is the precision and clarity with which they convey information about the analytical and synthetic processes in Domenig’s designs. For one thing, the architectural drawings thus confirm their status, still valid today, as both a functional and artistic medium of architecture. Beyond their unique function of simultaneously representing internal and external form and their independent status as artistic artifacts, however, the architectural drawings in Domenig’s lectures become enmeshed, by means of dual projections, in dialogues that probe the sources of architectural form— in the case of the Steinhaus, the slides of mountain formations and anonymous architectures— and are rendered authentic and plausible through Domenig’s own words. Precisely because, given today’s mechanisms of attention and exclusion, research into the architectural culture of the 1980s runs the risk of contextualizing its substance onto the sidelines in terms of identity politics, the recordings of Domenig’s lectures can enable us to outline a research desideratum with which the artistic-sculptural oeuvre, as impressive as it is self-referential, could be enriched by a facet that does not pervade Domenig’s dual role as (artist-)architect and university instructor— his remarkable ability to establish dialogues:

[T]here is, in other words, no one who lives alone on an island, in isolation, and who only does things that he has to come up with himself. There is a surrounding space, there is the landscape, there is the neighbor- hood, and everything we do, even in the realm of ideas or creativity, is something that also springs from the nourishment of history and not just an idea on its own that we can draw upon solely from ourselves. And, like I said, there’s this interplay between learning from history, learning from experience, and just trying things out, coming up with something new.[15]

Translation: David Koralek

[1] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: Lecture “Grundlagen der Gebäudelehre— Geschichte und Gegewart” (Fundamentals of Building Design— Past and Present) from January 27, 1988.

[2] From a Styrian perspective, the exhibition “Wir Günther Domenig” (We Günther Domenig), curated by Michael Zinganel and on view at Kunsthaus Muerz from the end of October 2022, confronts the heroic, lone wolf narrative of his architectural practice by critically juxtaposing the people surrounding Domenig in his workplaces at the office and TU Graz; see: www.kunsthausmuerz.at/veranstaltungen/wir-guenther-domenig, accessed September 20, 2022 (in German only).

[3] Walter Benjamin: “Theses on The Philosophy of History,” in: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York, 1968), 255.

[4] Thom Mayne’s firm Morphosis had just won the competition for the new headquarters for the Hypo Alpe-Adria Bank in Klagenfurt, for which Domenig chaired the jury.

[5] See Michael Koller in conversation with Joost Meuwissen: “Vom Diskursiven im Städtebau” (originally published in Architektur & Bauforum), online at: www.atelierkoller.com/2015/06/forum-062015-interview-joost-meuwissen.html (September 19, 2022).

[6] See Joost Meuwissen: Zur Architektur des Wohnens, revised new edition of lectures from 1992/93, ed. Faculty of Architecture at TU Graz (Zurich, 2018).

[7] Günther Domenig, lecture “Gebäudelehre 1 — Ausbildung im Hochschulsektor” (Building Design 1 — Education and Training in the Higher Education Sector), audio recording made at the Institute of Building Design, TU Graz.

[8] See Friedrich Achleitner, “Gibt es eine Grazer Schule?” (1993), in: Region, ein Konstrukt? Regionalismus eine Pleite? (Basel: 1997), 79–100.

[9] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: Lecture “Grundlagen der Gebäudelehre— Geschichte und Gegenwart” (see note 1).

[10] Alvin Boyarsky, Peter Cook, Günther Domenig, and Peter Noever: “Drawing on Dreams: Günther Domenig: Steinhaus— Stonehouse; Günther Domenig in Conversation with Peter Cook and Alvin Boyarsky,” AA Files 13 (1986): 100–105.

[11] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: Lecture “Grundlagen der Gebäudelehre: Architektur und Bildende Kunst” (Fundamentals of Building Design: Architecture and Visual Art) from December 16, 1987.

[12] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: Lecture “Grundlagen der Gebäudelehre— Geschichte und Gegenwart” (see note 1).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: “Zweiter Teil des Vortrags: Steinhaus, Steindorf, Steinhof” from May 20, 1988.

[15] Audiotape recording, Günther Domenig: Lecture “Grundlagen der Gebäudelehre— Geschichte und Gegenwart” (see note 1).