NEW STATE GALLERY OF LOWER AUSTRIA

Austria’s latest museum, the State Gallery of Lower Austria, has recently opened in Krems. It is an ambitious piece of contemporary architecture, realized by Vorarlberg-based architects Marte.Marte.

FORMAL EXTRAVAGANZA

Without a doubt, this building is an eye-catcher, prominently located between the town’s busy quayside with its cruise-ship pier and the picturesque old town on the fringes of the Wachau region. What instantly draws people’s attention is its monolithic, iconic shape and its formal extravaganza, which is the result of some clever geometric operations.

New State Gallery of Lower Austria – Photo by Faruk Pinjo

One can imagine a simple box, approximately 35 by 35 by 20 meters, as the initial shape in the design process. As a first step, the top surface gets minimally scaled down and then rotated around a slightly off-centered point by roughly 30 degrees which twists the cubical shape, creating double-curved, hyperbolic surfaces on all sides. In a second step, cylindrical segments are cut out on the whole length and on each side from the bottom of the figure in order to create arch-like openings that will serve as entrances and windows. This also gives the monolith a lightweight impression, as if it would only touch the ground at its corner points.

New State Gallery of Lower Austria – Photo by Faruk Pinjo

A final boolean operation, precisely the subtraction of a skew box that intersects with two of the twisted wall surfaces, creates a roof terrace on top of the building, allowing for vistas towards the nearby Danube and the Göttweig monastery in the distance. Thanks to the off-centered twist, the building has a different waisted contour and degree of cantilever from each angle. In fact, the shape vividly transforms while passing or driving by.

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The shape vividly transforms while passing or driving by.

Interestingly, these geometrically advanced transformations result in simple floor plans that conceal all spatial sophistication, since every horizontal cross-section must be a perfect, but rotated square again. Only the building’s sections reveal the significant impact of all these geometric maneuvers. Yet, they also reveal the buildings’ weak spots: the whole perimeter of outer walls, as they are gradually inclined, are unusable for its intended purpose as an exhibition space.

Exhibition spaces – Photo by Faruk Pinjo

Given the rather small size of the Gallery, this is a tough precondition to deal with in operational use and an unusual and unintelligible move, especially when considering the architects‘ geographical and cultural background.

Exhibition spaces – Photo by Faruk Pinjo

NEUE VORARLBERGER BAUSCHULE

While Marte.Marte, against most of their fellow architects from Vorarlberg, have repeatedly worked with curves and free forms in the past (think bridges), expanding the thinkable and buildable formal repertoire in an environment that still seems to favor the straight over the supposedly crooked, they have always toned down their formal endeavor when it came to designing larger structures.

Schaufelschlucht bridge by Marte.Marte – Photo by Marc Lins

At the end of the day, this formal reluctance in favor of sophisticated details, while maintaining affordability, has always been a key quality of the „Neue Vorarlberger Bauschule“, a regional school of architecture for which the Marte brothers are second generation representatives. With their latest building in Krems, which is also their easternmost project in Austria so far, the architects seem to have lost their way in this new terrain.

Mädchenturm by Marte.Marte – Photo by Marc Lins

FREE FORM CONSEQUENCES

Certainly, complex shapes are tough to manage, they are costly and usually require more detailing work than orthogonal structures, since there is less repetition in place. In fact, contemporary buildings like the new State Gallery rely heavily on sophisticated computer-aided modeling, calculation and analysis methods. Only those relatively recent tools made the realization of such architectural visions financially and technically feasible.

However, not every planning office seems to be able to live up to that task. Likewise, many clients are still not fully aware of the financial and procedural consequences of free forms. In this respect, the overall glory of the new State Gallery gets overshadowed by rather odd detailing and obvious functional requirements that do not always align with the building’s generous gesture. This became particularly visible on the ground floor, where many functions, namely ticket counters, exhibition spaces, a shop and a café had to be crammed into the compact perimeter. Naturally, these diverging functions require a certain amount of spatial separation, but the large arches in the outer walls did not allow for a meaningful positioning and connection of necessary dividing walls, suggesting a wide open and uninterrupted space.

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The overall glory of the new State Gallery gets overshadowed by rather odd detailing and obvious functional requirements that do not always align with the building's generous gesture.

What remains is a mild disappointment about a lost chance. I have to admit that I would have loved to see Marte.Marte as the ambassadors of their region that try to bring a sense of „western“ know-how and attitude to Krems, promoting architecture that is less concerned with big effects and more about sensual material and detailing qualities. The State Gallery of Lower Austria could have made an example that certainly would have been noticed and possibly even comprehended on this side of the Arlberg.

Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.