Raimund Abraham is an architect who creates conditions that demand a viewer or inhabitant consider the origins of architecture. His discipline elicits a confrontation between the ideal—imagined notions of perfection—and the real—its physical counterpart. His architecture, anchored in the specific nature of its materials, questions and affirms the metaphysical realm. Abraham’s is a deliberate and precise investigation of architecture’s responsibility to be life-giving, and an acknowledgment of its function as the ultimate manifestation of our most essential dreams.
After a long struggle, the Austrian Cultural Center on East 52nd Street, which Abraham designed, is now nearing completion. The facade of this 20 foot-wide, 23-story building appears to hover above us, as it establishes a limit between the interior and architectural elements that protrude into the public space. It is a unique and singular testament to the art of building.
Carlos Brillembourg Raimund, tell me about your idea of tension between the ideal and the built as an essential condition for architecture.
Raimund Abraham Anybody who makes architecture has to recognize that phenomenon: it is the ultimate challenge. But one really has to define the context. Because this tension between the ideal and the built remains in the context of building—it’s not taking place in the context of drawing. In the context of drawing, it’s a completely different dialectic. When I draw, the drawing is not a step toward the built but an autonomous reality that I try to anticipate. It’s a whole process of anticipation, anticipating that a line becomes an edge, that a plane becomes a wall; the texture of the graphite becomes the texture of the built. Now, when you translate the drawings, one also has to distinguish between the drawings you make in this autonomous process—where the drawing is the ultimate reality. I draw first for myself, not for somebody who is building—which means there has to be an absolute clarity in my mind, and the ability to retain the idea that I’ve established in the drawing, and furthermore, the anticipation that this idea will be buildable. Of course, it’s a highly complex process, and I’m talking about the first stage, which is a dialectical confrontation—of whether what I draw will be built. From the moment I know that something is going to be built, my drawings become something else. And at that point I draw less and build models immediately. One really has to distinguish between those different phases.
CB It’s a question of approximations through layers and also through different goals.
RA Yes. One has to reinvent, and in that sense, define what that ideal truly represents. Geometry, I would say, is the language of the ideal. And, of course, one knows precisely that what could be complete as a geometrical configuration could, in a way, not be built. So there is a transgression of ideal configuration—geometry—that has to be confronted with the buildable. When I say buildable, today you can build anything, in terms of technology. I mean buildable in that materiality would be transformed by the ideal of geometry.
CB You are talking about a convergence of the ideal as translated through the geometry into the material.
RA Absolutely. A wonderful example is the Pueblo Ribera Court that Schindler did in La Jolla—very modest, small atrium housing with wood construction. It has more or less deteriorated physically over the decades. And it’s overgrown. Yet you can still read, through the profusion of ivy, the ideal lines that had first been drawn. You see, that’s what I am really talking about with the buildable. That the geometry is more or less transgressing materiality, no?
CB So therefore the ideal reemerges.
RA Sure, but it has to be felt in its original intent. You see, that’s another phenomenon that I think we have to discuss. If geometry is not confronted with materiality, it remains infinitely manipulatable. For example, if you take present-day fashion in architecture, you can see that there’s no challenge to the limits of that geometric configuration. To modify Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” you can say circle is a circle is a circle, square is a square is a square—until a material challenges it. A square in concrete, a square in steel, a square in stone, is a different square. Because the ideal line is challenged by the nature of the material. Each material has its own limits, its own potential, its own emotional power. So these two worlds are actually not reconcilable. It’s neither form follows function nor function follows form. Form and function have to be confronted. And that is the power of architecture, or, I would say, the possibility that you deny function in architecture. See, I can say I deny light, illumination, I deny vision. The denial is a confrontation. The moment you recognize that utility and form are irreconcilable entities, you have architecture.
CB You seem to be saying there is a kind of tectonic reality, which is within the material.
CB Which implies almost an ideal geometry in itself. And there’s a confrontation between that tectonic reality of the material and the latency of its idealized form.
RA It’s a critical dialogue, which can be clearly applied to the computer issue, which is now a hot topic. How is the computer influencing architectural thought? From the moment you design with the computer, it is mind to mind. And there’s never a confrontation with matter. So if the primary ideal is the thought, then the next is the ideal of each discipline you utilize to manifest that thought, which is the architectural drawing, no? The next step is the model. And then the use of the computer as a survey device to help overcome geometric complexities that would be harder for the hand to draw. The computer cannot substitute for this process. But at least when I do a drawing or model and then use the computer, the computer is already confronted with matter. Anticipated matter.
CB Some say the computer is now able to manufacture specific pieces of architectural material in a handcrafted fashion on a mass-produced basis.
RA It’s the same argument about any sophisticated machine that has assisted in the evolution of efficient production. If you look at Diderot’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trade and Industry, which deals with manufacturing from mining to architecture, you find a knowledge of geometry and an anticipation of spatial conditions that have been lost. They are complex beyond what the computer could produce. The computer assists you in simplifying that process. It’s different if you have to construct that curve, because then you have intimate knowledge of the translatability of that curve. If you go to Bilbao to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, and really look, after you’ve overcome the spectacular moment of the first visual encounter, and examine the details, spatial or structural, you discover that it has been built in order to satisfy shapes. It has not been designed to respect the confrontation between mind and matter. It simply is buildable. You see steel trusses running into Sheetrock walls and they will be there wherever they are needed. And that of course is when the computer is extremely helpful, because it more or less satisfies its own mind. Yet this mind is still extremely rudimentary. Coming back to the origins of your question, it is that confrontation between the ideal and matter that has to take place, or the process is meaningless. I say meaningless because you don’t really know what the limits of the line are. If you have never lifted a stone, or a brick, or a bag of cement, you have no clue what concrete, bricks, or stones are, no clue.
CB Does it ever happen that you finish a building—it’s built—and you keep drawing it?
RA No, never. I only make drawings that are necessary for satisfying a vision I have that is manifested in the drawing, or a drawing I need in order to build something. I met Aldo Rossi in the early ’70s and he worked exactly the same way. It was why we began an immediate friendship—we shared the same convictions of making only what is necessary.
CB Aldo once said something very beautiful to me—which was very central to him. He said he actually never stopped drawing a project, even after it was built, because the building of it was just one phase in his understanding of the project.
RA For me, when I finish a project, I forget it. If you asked me to draw a plan of a house that was built 10 years ago, I couldn’t do it. Because I’ve lost interest, there’s no intensity. Also, I’m very bad at drawing something that exists. I’m never really tempted, when I go to see a fantastic site, to sketch it. I’m only interested in sketching to work out what does not exist. The moment I finish a project, it belongs to history, manifested in its own memory.
CB Your architecture recognizes a state of decay or erosion. Would you say that the erosion of the material to its most essential form uncovers a timeless, more essential architecture?
RA I would have loved to do that, to have erosion manifest itself. Can you be more specific and give an example?
CB In your drawings, your architecture is implanted within a landscape. And the forces of that natural landscape, the erosion and the plane of the sky against the horizon are carried literally into the architecture.
RA I would not call it erosion, but rather the anticipation of decay. Meaning that this is the fate of architecture. The ancients anticipated decay. Take the Acropolis, or the Parthenon, which has been destroyed twice and still is complete. Coming back to the first question—the ideal of that structure is built into every line. That’s why you can also reconstruct the Great Temple from only a few fragments.
CB So the ideal is in the fragments?
RA Each detail reflects the total integrity of the building.