Walter Pichler: Prototyping Escape

This was originally written for a seminar taught by Lisa Hsieh at the Ohio State University (it’s been heavily edited since then), but it seems appropriate for this format as well. It’s a bit longer than usual, but I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while and want to just get it out there. I’ve been a bit afraid to publish it because at the moment it feels a bit like Walter Pichler is my own personal hero that no one else is talking about. I’m sure I’ll get over that. Here goes…


[Architecture] is born of the most powerful thoughts. For men it will be a compulsion, they will stifle in it or they will live – live, as I mean the word. […] [Architecture] has no consideration for stupidity and weakness. It never serves. It crushes those who cannot bear it. […] Machines have taken possession of [architecture] and human beings are now merely tolerated in its domain […] [1]

A statement of singular nihilism, unabashed iconoclasm; a statement Ulrich Conrads once called “the most absolute thesis” in all twentieth century architecture.[2] Austrian sculptor and architect Walter Pichler wrote these words in 1962, on the eve of an exhibition on which he collaborated with fellow Viennese architect Hans Hollein. Titled “Absolute Architecture,” the exhibition added two new voices to the growing chorus of dissent aimed at derailing architectural functionalism. For Pichler and Hollein, architecture was not what it enables, nor what in encloses, but what it is. Architecture is a thing, and it can take whatever form an architect wishes. Given this seemingly impossible assignment, Pichler and Hollein developed a series of underground buildings, modeled by Pichler in bronze and concrete. These underground environments were to have extensive environmental controls so that their position underground would not matter. The two were at this time fascinated by such simulation and the media by which it is accomplished. Though the weight of these first models ended with “Absolute Architecture,” both Pichler and Hollein recycled their conceptual bases in subsequent investigations.

For Hollein, this took the form of literal environmental simulators like his Non-Physical Environment Pill (1967) and later Svobodair Spray (1971), both of which were hypothetical propositions about the power of environmental simulation. Pichler also experimented with such hypotheses in the late sixties, most transparently in the works of his “Prototypes” exhibition of 1967. These strange objects critique new media’s ability to induce laziness and atrophy. Three of these works in particular—TV Helmet/Portable Living Room, Small Room, and Intensivbox—form a kind of suite, all taking roughly the form of an isolation chamber and including media inputs. For Pichler, it seems, media isn’t architecture, hence he makes it architecture by creating armatures to embody its physical presence.

Pichler_Farnsenhelm 1967

Walter Pichler, "TV Helmet/Portable Living Room," 1967

These works are also a critique of his one-time collaborator Hans Hollein’s ironic assertion that “everything is architecture.” TV Helmet/Portable Living Room (1967) and Small Room (1967) are to be worn, while the unrealized Intensivbox is a spherical chamber into which a subject is slid on a track. These isolating simulators remove one from a given reality and can be seen as the ultimate conclusion of technology’s encroachment on the body. Constructed of plastic and embedded with television sets and speakers, these helmets enhance the television experience to the detriment of all else. Pichler hoped to isolate and insulate himself (and his viewers) from the pitfalls of consumerism and media obsession, but in his helmets this took the form of a literal representation of such pitfalls. The “consumer” is isolated from her environment, but within the helmet only media are permitted as input.

Pichler_Kleiner Raum 1967

Walter Pichler, "Small Room," 1967

For Pichler, media are far from participatory but instead somnambulating and hypnotizing, pulling humanity’s attention away from its greatest attributes. Instead of making human abilities more numerous, like prosthetics, the Portable Living Room and Small Room disable a subject from moving with their usual acuity. Unlike the other helmets designed by his Viennese contemporaries, Pichler’s don’t provide more experience or more engagement, but instead subtract. It’s terribly ironic, therefore, that Pichler subtitles his piece “Portable Living Room,” because it is certainly not portable, and at best a shoddy simulation of a living room. The Portable Living Room enables a person to remain motionless, separating them from their obligations and necessities to simply be entertained. Pichler sees media not as enabling but disabling, entrapping, enabling of nothing more than laziness.

Pichler_Intensivbox 1967

Walter Pichler, Drawing for "Intensivbox," 1967

Pichler’s critique mirrors German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Like Heidegger, Pichler rentains a rigorous skepticism towards technology. Speaking of techne, Heidegger writes, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral […].”[3] Pichler’s provocation is that if one let’s media (or technology more generally) isolate and insulate, it will be to the detriment of other abilities. If a helmet is a Portable Living Room, it means the only important part of the room is the television. Perhaps Pichler foresaw the perpetuation of television’s war on education, its wholesale adoption of entertainment and its denigration of objectivity, choosing to critique these regressions with ironic constructs enabling television’s conquest of attention at the expense of all other sensory function. As television becomes an ever-more self-referential and solipsistic media, early critiques like Pichler’s have only gained poignancy.

Many today sit idle at their terminals or on their sofas for extended periods, limiting the need for handicraft and patience. In Pichler’s world, these traits are paramount, and any device or medium that disables them is worthy of demonization. Pichler doesn’t see technology as an enabler of the strenuous life so much as a preventer. Like the simulation machines in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series, Pichler’s helmets and immersive environments provide an armature within which movement is unnecessary.


Simulation Pod, from "The Matrix," Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999

Instead of a destruction of the technology he demonizes, Pichler constructs ridiculous analogs to their abilities. If television provides a subtle escape from the ordinary, Pichler’s helmets enhance this ability to the point of absurdity. Pichler’s environmental simulators aren’t portable, and in fact limit one’s range of motion quite significantly. Portable Living Room is the best illustration of this fact, it’s elaborate counterweighted system protruding from both sides of the subject’s head obtrusively. It doesn’t fold, doesn’t retract, and doesn’t provide anything but sensory input. One puts it on because of a desire to be isolated. With his “Prototypes,” Pichler definitively states an interest in isolation, a concern that would come to dominate his career thereafter. It is almost as if he is rehearsing a retreat, one that would come to fruition in the mid-seventies, when Pichler indeed retreated from public life to his property at St. Martin’s in the Tyrol region of western Austria, a place dominated by its geography, removed physically and psychologically from the bustle of modern Vienna where Pichler received his artistic training. Returning only to exhibit and to sell his drawings, Pichler remains free to explore and create at his own pace and in his own idiom. These drawing sales have funded an increasingly isolated practice, concerned with sculpting and with constructing ever-more-complex armatures and environments for said sculptures.

Perhaps calling his buildings environments sells short his activity. His constructs are worlds, worlds in which his work is isolated from both critique and the media-obsessed culture it critiques. They are in fact alternate—but not virtual—realities in which his work can remain indefinitely. The “Prototypes” can also be thought of as such. More than mere simulators or enhancers, they offer the subject another world to inhabit, portable or otherwise. Pichler must have imagined himself within them, isolated from the laborious requirements of contemporary life. But ultimately this subtle escape wasn’t enough, leading Pichler back to the Tyrolean Alps, free from his obligations in Vienna and free to investigate the kind of craft- and skill-based sculptural techniques he felt technology would eventually preclude.

[1] Excerpted from Pichler, Walter. “Absolute Architecture,” in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture edited by Ulrich Conrads (London: Lund Humphries, 1970): 181. In this manifesto, Pichler develops the thesis that architecture cannot act as anything but an impediment to humanity.


[2] Conrads wrote this in his introduction to “Absolute Architecture,” written in 1970. Programs and Manifestoes, 181.

[3] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 4.

Absent Traces: Jurgen Mayer and the Saturated Surface

Among the things that so fascinate me about the work of German architect and designer Jurgen Mayer is his obsession with the data protection patterns we all find within secure mail from our banks, our employers and government agencies. His recent monograph contained a scattering of reproduced envelopes, inserted as chapter dividers but also as reminders of Mayer’s preoccupation. But why don’t these willfully decorative and saturated surfaces somehow make their way into his architectural design? Why are all his walls so blank?

Mensa Moltke, Jurgen Mayer H. Architects

Mensa Moltke, Jurgen Mayer H. Architects

The answer might be that Mayer uses the security pattern as a gambit, a metaphorical security device for his design process. He obfuscates the willfulness and specificity of his forms with data protection patterns, covering his tracks by saturating shape with color.

Mayer’s forms are a registration of absent forces, forces he feels no need to map or describe. Instead of the explanations and justifications (i.e. diagrams) that so obsess his European and American contemporaries, he prefers to have a signature and stick with it, ignoring or remaining intentionally naive to the need for clarification. His designs retain an element of mystery – a mystique – that enables them to overcome specificity and look almost universal or transportable, something out of science fiction or the future.

Home for Children and Adolescents, Jurgen Mayer H. Architects

Home for Children and Adolescents, Jurgen Mayer H. Architects

Another of Mayer’s preoccupations is the use of thermosensitive materials, a concept repeated in most all his gallery installations over the past decade. Similar to the data protection pattern, one could see these disappearing traces as metaphors for the way Mayer works. The traces of his design process have a life span, they don’t matter after a given period, at which time the thing itself takes precedence. The ends exceed the means.

In Heat Exhibition, Jurgen Mayer

"In Heat" Exhibition, Jurgen Mayer (Henry Urbach Gallery)

Together these two preoccupations serve as purifying filters for Mayer to act within a discipline too concerned with means and not enough with ends. Diagrams and narratives of design have become unnecessary encumbrances for Mayer, and these material preoccupations betray a subconscious intent. He speaks of data protection as “a text without meaning,” but that Eisenmanian phrase must merely be a hangover from Mayer’s education. The patterns and traces in his design work insulate him from the theoretical and linguistic concerns of the previous generation, and demonstrate what makes him distinct from other contemporary designers.

Of Photos and Photoshop: UN Studio’s Villa NM

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

Remember the Villa NM? UN Studio’s house for upstate New York, completed a couple years ago and destroyed by fire not a year after its widespread publication? Haven’t we heard this one before? An impossibly pristine architectural vision is destroyed beyond recognition, only to come to prominence later in life? Like many lost architectures before it, the Villa NM seemed destined for destruction. A little bit too white, too shiny, too pristine to exist in perpetuity. Something like a Barcelona Pavilion for the age of Photoshop, in more ways than one.

Like Mies van der Rohe’s genre-defining collage of space and material, UN Studio’s Villa could serve as a watershed in the brief history of our digital architecture. Odd, then, that it should have its origins in such a simple diagrammatic model, a morphing of plane from horizontal to vertical. So much contemporary architecture is based on over-the-top complexity and excess, but its transformative diagram might have more power as an advance over the three modernist masters’ transformations: Wright’s blurring of inside to outside in his Prairie houses, Le Corbusier’s liberation of the ground in Villa Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe’s performative staging of the Farnsworth House.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

UN Studio’s move, then, is the contemporary zero-gravity equation of wall and floor, the single-surface so central to the last two decades of design, but in simple, digestible form. Along with the Yokohama Port Terminal by FOA and perhaps OMA’s Educatorium at Utrecht, the Villa NM assembles a demonstrative canon of sorts, illustrations of the possibilities of the new, folded diagram of the twenty-first century. What does all this have to do with Photoshop, you might ask? It’s a question of collage.

At some point in the nineties, Rem Koolhaas coined the term “Photoshopism” to describe a group of new techniques overturning the hegemony of collage over post-modernity. If transparency and pure form (Analytical Cubism) permeated modernism, the logic of collage (Synthetic Cubism) has permeated all the movements of postmodern architecture since the seventies. Then came Photoshop, the logic of which overturns collage through the instrumentalization of blur, dodge, burn, pixelation, texture, et cetera et cetera.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

The wall-to-floor diagram is a blur and a morph, formal as well as conceptual, social as well as political. It’s a connection between the three modernist diagrams, morphing between Wright, Corb and Mies, conflating their political agendas into a postmodern cocktail of libertarianism and socialism and performance. But then one night in early 2008 it disappeared, at least as far as further photographic documentation is concerned. All we have are some overworked photographs, some drawings and a digital model or two. There will be no Savoye-esque farm storage phase, no pilgrimage cycle, no rebirth. It was over before if got started. But maybe that’s perfect for this materialistic, media-saturated age, in which planned obsolescence is a problem as well as a solution.

Such obsolescence was part of the reason Barcelona Pavilion, along with Alvar Aalto’s Finnish Pavilion for New York and Melnikov’s USSR Pavilion among others, became so canonical. Their immortality was perpetuated by the unsustainable level of polish captured by photographs. It’s terribly premature to canonize the Villa NM, but this is just the internet after all, and the halflife of this post is most likely even shorter than the house itself.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio