Hannes Richter

Evolution of the Built Environment in Vorarlberg

Hannes Richter
Evolution of the Built Environment in Vorarlberg

By Wolfgang Fiel

Top photo: Peter Zumthor, Werkraum Bregenzerwald, Andelsbuch, 2013. Florian Holzherr. 

Vorarlberg is the farthest west and smallest federal state in Austria. It has borders with Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. With a population of roughly 380,000 inhabitants, Vorarlberg is the second least populated federal state in Austria. Its capital, Bregenz, is situated on Lake Constance. The region has seen its building culture develop along a special path with a movement that consistently has been labelled the Vorarlberger Bauschule (Vorarlberg School of Building), a name that long since resonates far beyond local and national borders, spawning a high number of quality architecture.

What started out in the late 1950s and early 1960s soon gained momentum: A small number of young architects, who, just having graduated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, decided to come back to their modest and culturally deprived villages of Vorarlberg. They started to work with equally young and aspiring clients, who struggled to get the kind of affordable and timely structures they have been searching for. Equipped with the staunch modernistic agenda of their teacher Roland Rainer, a prolific Austrian architect, writer, and former head of Vienna´s city planning department, the early champions of the Vorarlberger Bauschule lived up to the challenge.

Hans Purin, Jakob Albrecht, Rudolf Wäger, Bruno Spagolla, Leopold Kaufmann, Gunter Wratzfeld, Karl Sillaber, and Max Fohn delivered what was to become the blueprint for the subsequent evolution: Collective, simple, resource conscious, and low-cost housing primarily made of timber. In order to realize their pragmatic vision, they had to rely on the knowledge and skills of the local building trade. That has managed to maintain an unbroken historical continuity in spite of the rapid industrialization of post-war Europe.

Oskar Leo Kaufmann und Albert Rüf, House R, Schnepfau, 2011. Photograph: Adolf Bereuter

To the current day, the building culture in Vorarlberg owes a big deal to the role of craft, timber construction and the relatively large number of small to medium sized companies in the building trade. They kept innovating and delivering the kind of quality architects and clients have been asking for. Even though the creative impulses kept on coming from the architects and their clients, craftsmen increasingly managed to emancipate and to turn into innovative creators themselves. That both craftsmen and architects benefit from this unique co-evolution, is partly due to the manageable scale of local building projects, close knit social networks and their short and immediate means of communication. This allows individual actors to learn from one another and push each other to new heights of creative achievement.

A telling example of this kind of peer motivation is the initiative of craftsmen of the Bregenzerwald region, which decided to imbue the traditional craft and trade association with a new lease of life. More than eighty master-craftsman businesses gathered under the name of Werkraum Bregenzerwald and Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was commissioned to design their premises in the village of Andelsbuch. Zumthor created an exhibition space for showcasing the culture of craft under a broad sweeping roof. One of the most important activities of the association is to organize the  so-called Handwerk+Form (Craft+Form) competition every three years where local craft businesses are invited to publicly present a piece of work developed in collaboration with international designers and architects.

Bernardo Bader, Haus im Moor, Krumbach, 2013. Photograph: Adolf Bereuter. 

The fact that the accompanying exhibition showcases the submitted works in various old workshops (such as a bakery, a blacksmith’s foundry, a sawmill, a butcher’s shop, and barns, spread around the municipality of Andelsbuch), points to another important element to the success of building culture in Vorarlberg: The relationship between the rich existing fabric of vernacular architecture and the newly erected structures. While being firmly rooted in the specific conditions of the local context, the architects managed to reconcile the various layers of historic evolution with the demands of clients and the wider contemporary and global discourse on architecture and its intrinsic technological, ecological and formal implications.

Now in its third generation of practicing architects, the post-war evolution of the built environment in Vorarlberg has gained increasing recognition beyond Austria’s borders. Likewise, Vorarlberg remained open to creative impulses from abroad. Three examples stand out: Beside the above mentioned premises of Werkraum Bregenzerwald, Peter Zumthor has established close ties with Vorarlberg when he realised the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 1997. The Kunsthaus is a shimmering standalone glass and concrete structure for changing exhibitions of international contemporary art in the city of Bregenz. Another example is the initiative called BUS:STOP, where seven international architects from Russia, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Japan, China, and Chile teamed up with a local partner in order to realize a unique bus stop in Krumbach, a village with  about 1.000 inhabitants in the Bregenzerwald valley. Both projects specifically helped to consolidate Vorarlberg´s reputation for its exceptionally high level of expertise in the realm of non-standard construction and the relentless focus on every single detail.

Oskar Leo Kaufmann und Albert Rüf, House R, Interior, Schnepfau, 2011. Photograph: Adolf Bereuter


Getting Things Done

In 2013, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs came up with the idea to introduce Architecture Made in Vorarlberg to an international audience. The exhibited selection includes more than 230 projects and around 700 photographic illustrations and can smoothly travel the venues of the thirty-two Austrian Cultural Forums located around the world.

From the onset, it has been my curatorial aim to investigate the development and current state of Vorarlberg’s building culture in a critical and most inclusive manner. To focus on the presentation of architectural stereotypes or the collection of historic anecdotes would have failed to address the importance of the specific socio-political, economic, and environmental context, or the technological influences that go beyond the local conditions of the buildings’ origins.

In order to prevent the inherent architectural quality of a project being the sole criteria of selection, the application of a thematic matrix was aimed at heightening the awareness for emergent typological hybrids and corresponding functional, ecological, technological, and formal innovations. The featured structures contributed to an architectural composition that follows regionally cognate design principles, while resonating with the broader international discourse on contemporary architecture.

Since building culture also depends on the tacit knowledge of hard-won practical experience and the immediacy of social interaction, we have attempted to unearth the ”stories” of those who actively shaped Vorarlberg’s architectural development over a period of more than 50 years in the most different ways. Comprising almost 60 video documents to date, this expanding collection of interviews provides a lively account of this evolutionary process. 

The interviews reflect the main characteristic of “Getting Things Done” in an exemplary way: on the one hand, the continuity of discursive analysis and critical self-enquiry, on the other, the need for adequate means of representation, as we grappled with the specific requirements of the website, a series of publications and the display itself. Furthermore, we wanted to make sure that highlighting the local specifics would not compromise the immediate accessibility for a global audience.  

The pivotal role of craft for the evolution of the building culture in Vorarlberg contributed to the idea of highlighting the sensual and haptic qualities of the selected buildings within the context of the presentation by means of showcasing a selection of thirteen handcrafted design objects from craftsmen of the region. The exhibition display, conceived as modular wooden structure, was specifically designed to meet the requirements of a swift manipulation, an easy and quick assembly and a flexible adjustment to any exhibition space. Turned inside out, the transport crates serve as pedestals for the presentation of the craft objects as well as for a small travelling library equipped with a fine selection of titles relating to the themes of the selection. 

The website, featuring the latest information about upcoming locations, dates, events, and an abundance of additional information about the project and the accompanying books published by Birkhäuser, the exhibition aims at comprehensively introducing the evolution and current state of the built environment in Vorarlberg to an international audience and invites to join the conversation at a venue close by or to visualize Getting Things Done on the Website at www.gettingthingsdone.or.at


Wolfgang Fiel, born 1973 in Alberschwende. Studied architecture at the Vienna University of Technology and the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He currently teaches at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and the University of Art and Design in Linz, Austria. He realised numerous exhibitions as artist and curator, projects and publications, including the iCP Consequence Book Series and a monograph on the work of Eckhard Schulze-Fielitz, titled “Metalanguage of Space.”

Most recently, curator and project leader of the international travelling exhibition “Getting Things Done: Evolution of the Built Environment in Vorarlberg”, www.gettingthingsdone.or.at.

The exhibition Getting Things Done will be on show in the U.S. and Canada:

Toronto: January 27 - March 25, 2017
Urban Space Gallery

College Park, MD: April 1-30, 2017
School of Architecture, University of Maryland

Halifax: May 1-19, 2017
Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Dalhousie University.