WU LEARNING CENTER, ZAHA HADID, VIENNA

Main photo by Martin Schachermayer

Close your eyes. Now think about the most modern building that you came across in Vienna recently. No matter, if you are Viennese, a visitor or Google, chances are that you are thinking about the following object:

The „WU Learning Center“ by Zaha Hadid.

With its huge cantilevering gesture, sharp angles and dynamic three-dimensional curves, it clearly makes a dramatic appearance at first sight and has became a much loved building, prominent photo motive and icon for the Viennese tourism board.

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The campus has brought the neighborhood into the spotlight, now showing signs of gentrification.

In a city that is dominated by the „Gründerzeit“ (Viennas golden age that lasted roughly from the seventies of the 19th century until the beginning of WWI), this building serves as a more-than-welcome counterpoint in the architectural narrative. Located next to the vast „Prater“ green, the Learning Center is the core of the new WU campus, the University of Economics, Europes biggest institution of its kind. Buildings from Peter Cook, Hitoshi Abe, NO.MAD Arquitectos, Estudio Carme Pinós and local BUS-Architektur (which also won the previous Masterplan competition) complement the campus.

WU Campus  – rednder by BOA

When opened in 2013, the whole university was relocated from their former site in the bourgeois Alsergrund district to what used to be a rather remote and unpopular part of Leopoldstadt. Considering the scale and the amount of design studios involved, it is surprising that the planning and construction process went fast, in budget and scandal-free. Together with the extension of the subway, the campus has brought the neighborhood into the spotlight, now showing signs of gentrification.

ECONOMIES OF ATTENTION

A campus is a collection of buildings that form a village-like entity. Naturally, this entity is primarily concerned with its inner workings and relations within its limits. The founders of Stanford University in California, for example, have picked a distinct romanesque style for their buildings and applied a catalogue of materials and architectural motives: sandstone and archways, to name only two. Architecture and style were deliberately used as instruments to create distinction and identity in the first place.

Looking back at the fundamental design principles for the WU campus, it immediately gets clear, that those methods, consciously or not, were not seeked here. Instead, one was surpised to learn about the amount of international star-architects, each known for their distinct styles, that would contribute to the campus. The result could be expected: All buildings differ widely in style, materials, spatial qualities, scale and proportions. While the single projects reveal various levels of vanity, one cannot dismiss the fact, that all buildings disregard each other equally.

Teaching Center by BUS Architekten – photo by Wojtek Gurak

Walking through the campus, gazing at architecture, feels like watching exotic animals in a zoo- each of them somewhat pretty and cute individually, but not fitting into a single habitat as a collective. I remember that my first campus walk quickly evoked the question: „Which building do I like the most?“ since they are so heavily competing for sympathy and attention.

Instead of using strict design guidelines for the overall campus, like Stanford did in the beginning, the WU campus was driven by the forces of the so-called „economies of attention“.

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Walking through the campus, gazing at architecture, feels like watching exotic animals in a zoo.

Attention is a limited good. We only have so much on a day before our consciousness surrenders.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FORM AND CONTENT

Modernity and globalization have created a fragmented world, freed from all certainties and have led to a crisis in the relationship of signal and the signified (content). In pre-modern times, when all architecture was vernacular, a church was a nave and a bell tower that carried a cross on top, easy to distinguish from a farm or a town house. Once learned, there was not much attention needed to navigate through the world. This is no longer the case. A today’s’ church in Las Vegas is most likely just a simple shed, not any different than the casinos around it. Only a billboard or sign along the road will reveal its function.

That does not mean that all buildings are built the same way, quite the contrary! The point is that the once natural relationship between form and content is no longer trustworthy. Modernity has ruined it through its indifference on form and Postmodernism was not able to fix it. To make things worse, capitalism and its free market have found mechanisms to deal with fierce competition by fostering stronger, even more detached and superficial signifiers. In a world full of signals without direct link to the signified, our attention is challenged rigorously to bridge the gap. Whether we like it or not, this is the prerequisite that we as architects and designers must accept.

WU Library & Learning Center – photo by Wojtek Gurak

Now, we can probably all agree that Zaha Hadid was a master of drawing attention. Her buildings still function brilliantly within the „attention industry“. This is largely due to the fact that she was celebrating form so unashamedly. She turned the hierarchical „form follows function“ claim of modernity into „form is function“ and she was basically right! What her buildings signify is no longer content, but context. They celebrate the fact that a woman can become a star architect, they celebrate the advances of computational design, the engineering achievements of huge cantilevers and so on.

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She turned the hierarchical „form follows function“ claim of modernity into „form is function“.

However, if we do not accept Hadid’s dominating formalism as a valid variable in the form / function equation, arguably because of its potentially sinister entanglement with the inner workings of the „attention economies“, then there are not so many qualities left. Her apparent failure to cooperate architecturally, her egocentric and overly dominant, sometimes even brutal attitude are representative, not only for large parts of the architectural and design profession, but for a hyper-individualized, modern society in general. Neither the architects, nor the clients conceived the campus as a typology of compound, where the value of the whole could ideally be much bigger than the value of its single parts.

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.