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A Building?? – You’re kidding, right? 
Elephant in the room

Just what is it that makes the imagination of a building
today so different, apparently so unappealing?
Free adaption of a Richard Hamilton collage
title: Just what is it that makes today’s
homes so different, so appealing?

Over the last three years 14 out of 44 master thesis projects at IKA1 focused in one or the other way on the design of a (terrestrial) building, or on buildings. In this period the numbers of bui
lding designs decreased from year to year gradually. (The term ‘building’ is used here in its broadest sense).

In 2020 twelve master thesis projects were qualified for the IKA internal nomination procedure for the Prizes of the Academy. None of them was a project that was investigating by design the potential functions of a building in contemporary societies and actual environments, or in nearby futures. The selectable projects didn’t include any plans for architectural structures or constructions that would have expressed, by all the available means of architectural conception and representation, its author’s true desire to realize these plans in the actual physical world.

Hence the elaboration of building proposals seems presently not to be of overwhelming interest for a majority of IKA students when facing their final project in architectural studies. This is remarkable. It needs to be recognised and respected. And yet it would be worth to thoroughly consider – by students and faculty – what it is that constitutes this phenomenon, and to draw conclusions from according findings.

In 2019 alone 27.681 new buildings were erected in Austria. 2

It’s evident that not all of these buildings are per se to be considered as works of architecture. And yet all of them have, as we know, tremendous impacts on their manifold environments.

While under the current regime of extreme climates all of us in the field of architecture finally have the chance (or, to put it bluntly: are forced) to become aware of the relational nature of all objects, subjects and spaces, grown and constructed, questions of buildings obtain new significance. Such questions do not focus on buildings as functional objects but rather on their complex function within the interplay of their environments (Umwelten).

The environmental function of architecture needs to be addressed, investigatively studied, and oriented by design – today more than ever. And what if not an anticipated future building structure, operating in specifically complex critical environments, is almost predestined to serve as a model for such a research by design?

In the fields of academic architectural studies, arts-based research in architecture, and experimental architectural practice, the idea of a model is constantly pushed to its limits. A model (from the Latin modulus = measure) is by definition a measuring device, a plumbing tool, a mediating structure, a research instrument. And architecture is, through building, capable to test, observe and further develop these models 1:1 in particular physical realms and specific societal and environmental contexts. That’s why we need so urgently more buildings whose conceptions are rooted in the above mentioned fields of architecture. Consequently an experimental building practice must finally be recognized and fostered as an environmental research practice – also and particularly by and within the relevant academic institutions.

IKA is the Institute of Art and Architecture. And the highest art of architecture is the art of building: building as an applied art-based environmental research practice. It’s worth to strive for, further on and continuously.

Hannes Stiefel

(This text was first published in IKA Preview, Vienna, February 2021)

1 IKA: Institute of Art and Architecture, Academy of fine Arts Vienna
2 Source: Statistik Austria (http://www.statistik.at/web_de/statistiken/menschen_und_gesellschaft/wohnen/wohnungs_und_gebaeudeerrichtung/fertigstellungen/026021.html)