On Covers, Connections, and Criticality: Interview with Günter Zamp Kelp of Haus-Rucker-Co, 2015
Ebullient, whimsical, and provocative, Haus-Rucker-Co’s pneumatic environments, objects and urban proposals are emblematic of architecture’s countercultural aspirations in the late 1960s. Formed in 1967, Günter Zamp Kelp, Klaus Pinter, and Laurids Ortner—all recent architecture graduates from the University of Vienna—began experimenting with air-inflated architecture and wearable appendages designed to alter the social and perceptual experiences of their participants. Often intervening with existing built forms, their inflatable structures emerged from windows and materialized in parking lots, reanimating one’s perception of the city in unexpected ways. Their Environment Transformers, Electric Skins, and Mind Expanding program—wearable helmets, outfits, and prosthetics—contracted architectural form to the scale of the body to both intensify and estrange the experience of everyday life.
By the time the collective relocated from Vienna to Dusseldorf in 1969, and Manfred Ortner had joined the group in 1971, Haus-Rucker-Co had established a notorious reputation for their wildly spectacular interventions and installations. Their growing attention to environmental matters, as well as an increasing number of museum exhibitions and media coverage, marked this period of production until the mid-to-late 1970s. Ecology became the primary motif in their work, appearing in the form of ambitious building-sized covers, dystopian architectural proposals, and ephemeral installations, which used the materiality and metaphor of air to encourage social engagement and environmental awareness.
In 1972, the group opened a studio in New York, joined by the American artist, Caroll Michels. Inspired by the bustling city, their output involved cloud-like structures that occupied the rooftops of skyscrapers, edible architectural models, and the erection of inflatable playgrounds, sponsored by institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts and Walker Art Center. Meanwhile, the collective maintained its prolific production in Europe, with numerous solo exhibitions in private galleries and public institutions, along with their participation in three installments of Documenta (5, 6, 8). By the mid-1970s through the 1980s, their production adopted an increasingly urban emphasis, promulgated by their self-published manifesto, Provisional Architecture (1976), which heralded makeshift, flexible methods of postwar building, in contrast to the bureaucratic legacy of modernist architecture and planning.
Although members of the collective would continue to adopt their own interests, resulting in the establishment of their respective architectural practices, and the group’s disbanding in 1992, their influence remains widespread. Cited by contemporary architects and artists such as Tomás Saraceno, Olafur Eliasson, and Hussein Chalayan, Haus-Rucker-Co’s prompt for social participation through sensory-enhanced scenarios is echoed in the wave of socially-engaged practices that have come to dominate contemporary art and architecture.
Since 1987, Günter Zamp Kelp has maintained an independent architectural practice consisting of public art commissions and architectural designs such as the Neanderthal Museum for the Evolution of Mankind (1996) and the Kunsthalle Mainz (2007). He was a professor of architecture and design at the University of the Arts, Berlin for nearly twenty years. This interview took place in the summers of 2013 and 2014, at Günter Zamp Kelp’s home in Berlin.
Esther Choi: Could you recount the formation of Haus-Rucker-Co and how the collective’s interest in the environment developed? What prompted you to form a collective?
Günter Zamp Kelp: Even as architecture students we knew the benefits to forming working relationships with each other. Officially, we did everything by ourselves but we had a team in the background. When one person on the team had to do something, he was our representative. So our earliest experiences taught us that architecture is about teamwork. It is not the stuff of a single man. We found that as a team, you are much faster and you can compensate for your lack of knowledge or experience in comparison to the older architects that had made architecture for 10 or 20 years. And I think it worked out.
We started our office right after finishing our studies, which was not the norm. In Austria, architects have to work five years in an office. So the idea was that we would have our own office without doing this kind of service for established firms. We wondered if we could do something outside of building architecture, something conceptual. And then there was also the question of where we would work. So we decided that we would be architects that worked for the environment and for the social conditions of the urbanites or city dwellers. At the Technical University of Vienna, we were programmed for the future. There was an instructor, an architect named Karl Schwanzer, who said we had to produce something new and unconventional. So we used bubbles for the first time, to address the problem of social and physical contact between people. We felt that the contact between men and women was disappearing and so we wanted to do something where they could get together. [puts his hands together and laughs]
EC: [laughing] Are you sure this project wasn’t self-serving?
ZK: Maybe. [laughing] So that was the first experiment and it produced a positive response. Then we developed the Mind Expanding programs, where we wanted to create new, fantastic spaces which intensified communication at first for two people, then for a community for thirteen people, and so on. That was in Vienna so there was a social aspect to the work. After we moved to Dusseldorf, we changed our environment and we got more, let’s say… it was not as apolitical anymore. At that time, there was a lot of concern about pollution and its problems for the future. As a result, our projects in the seventies were more related to the environment, especially our Cover show (1972). Our stance was very critical and rather pessimistic if things were to continue as they started to develop… In that show, we presented a scenario, which was negative…but it was framed as a question. Fortunately things didn’t develop in such a negative direction as we thought it would. ... But people understood the message, which was very important. After that, we took nature as a theme, and suggested that we should accept that we live in cities and that nature in cities is artificial. What can we do with that? Nature is one aspect… one complex that can be introduced into the city as a vivid element, but it is, of course, totally artificial. That stream of projects continued until 1975. And then our interest in provisional architecture started, in which we said, okay, everything has to be flexible. Buildings should be adaptable, and so on.
EC: Vienna had such a lively scene at the time. You were in conversation with figures like Joseph Beuys, Walter Pichler and Hans Hollein… Were there texts that you had read that were seminal to your work?
ZK: Marshall McLuhan, of course—everybody was influenced by him. I have to say that we were in a rather closed system. Of course, we’d read to get information and learn of trends, but I wouldn’t say there were any important figures or references that were a big influence on us. Maybe the roots of Vienna influenced us. For sure, Hollein and Pichler, who were five to ten years ahead. Of course, there were things in the air that we were aware of: works of Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, Superstudio, Claes Oldenburg, Russian Constructivism, and others. But the substantial ideas in our projects and their realization were developed independently by members of the group. Most of the time, our intention was to produce ideas stemming from our own minds, which were maybe a little delusional (laughs) but that was our intention.
EC: And how did the name Haus-Rucker-Co come about?
ZK: Well, we are all from one city in Austria called Linz, the capital of upper Austria. In upper Austria, there is a municipality called Hausruck. Hausruck means “house moving.” So we said, we are the Haus-Ruckers, like the Rolling Stones. The house movers. We remove old houses to introduce new ideas. So on the one hand, it was a very local reference and on the other hand, it was conceptual. The “Co” of Haus-Rucker-Co was in reference to the community.
EC: I figured the name was perhaps in reference to how the pneumatic could collapse and be moved as it’s a nomadic structure.
ZK: Yes, it was in some way!
EC: So tell us more about your interest in pneumatics. How were you introduced to this technology?
ZK: For us, there was one main reason to use pneumatic technologies and that is it was very cheap—and very effective. In Vienna, there were many handicrafts people who could put these things together. So we bought some polyvinyl, we cut it out into an object, and they glued it together. We had an old vacuum cleaner… et voilà! Fantastic! As architects, it was also important to be able to draw something and see it in reality—not as a model, but as reality. From there we got a special feeling for space, I would say. It offered an immediate way to transfer concepts from our heads into reality. This is how our concept of perception and space developed in these early days. Of course, it related to the air-support and the air as a building element, a structural element.
EC: It’s interesting that pneumatic technologies developed out of military research in the United States and England…
ZK: Yes, it was the same in Vienna. One guy told us that the military was creating bubbles to transport tracks over the Danube, and so we got in the business of bubbles and air-supported structures. Through that experience we found out that air was a fantastic element to work with. It was also unconventional. It was transportable, round and soft—everything that architecture wasn’t in those days. That experience was a good interaction with the medium.
EC: Was there an element of subversion in reusing a form of technology used by the military?
ZK: No, the fascination was with the material. In the beginning it was simply the experience to have something we could work with. From the military, we just got information. We were very uncritical. Vienna is always far away from critique in comparison with Germany. [Laughs] Germans are much more critical. Austrians are much more interested in doing something interesting, intellectual, or artistic… The Germans always have this political angle.
EC: It’s interesting when you look at your oeuvre as a whole: sometimes the bubbles functioned as social connectors by placing two or more people in a space, which fostered a sense of community. At other times, the bubble became a device to exclude or isolate. Sometimes only one person was placed in a bubble and other times, you’d cover an entire building with a bubble. What are your thoughts on this contradiction of the bubble – that at times it aggregated and brought people together, whereas at other times it severed all contact?
ZK: That’s the reason why I said it is a material to produce space. It could be a communicative space and it could also be something else. We stuck with the bubble for so long because it was so fascinating but our concepts changed, especially when we moved from Vienna to Dusseldorf. The whole atmosphere was different. Vienna is soft and friendly. [laughter] Dusseldorf was much friendlier than Berlin, but there was a totally different atmosphere of thinking. In some ways, it was the end of this positive period. The positive period actually ended with the discovery of the moon landing. Because the moon landing had some influence – the whole preparation to go to the moon was very fascinating— the whole notion of conquering space… But after the moon landing, the oil crisis came and explored other themes from a social point of view. Yet we stuck with the format of the bubble, which then turned into a critical bubble.
EC: You’ve talked about how your use of pneumatic technologies changed upon the context and time. So would you say that your approach to the operations of the bubble was site-responsive? Was it more about conversing with a particular context, and the issues that were affecting that particular space and time?
ZK: Well, it’s always very complex how things develop. …But I wouldn’t say that this was essential. It was a process. The site is just a thing that generates. Of course we always tried to generate something that responded to its context. But most of the time, we tried to realize our ideas. Maybe in the later period when we tended more towards profane architecture and we had to respond to specific situations. But in the beginning, we were much more free—we took a little bit of the situation but it was not our main intention to react to the situation. Our intention was just to do something very special, which is in some ways good because we thought it could be an important message.
EC: So in Vienna, when you graduated from school, and you knew you wanted to make things but didn’t want to work in a traditional office, was it obvious that approaching museums, galleries and curators would be the next logical step?
ZK: Yes, for us it was the only way. For our installations, it was the way—to deal with cultural institutions.
EC: And when you came to America, did you also find that other collectives also gravitated to this institutional art network?
ZK: America was very strange. There was a big welcome when we made this [Cover] exhibition [at the Seagram Building in New York]; it was in the newspapers and television. But when we opened our office at 491 Broadway, everyone asked, “How are you earning your money? How do want to succeed with your stuff? It’s quite nice, but what is it?” Our collective offices were split between America and Europe. Klaus Pinter and Caroll Michels ran Haus-Rucker Inc. in New York then. Our office in New York closed in ’77, after seven years. I was only there for a year from 1971 to 1972.
EC: We have talked about the strange state of architectural criticism and theory at that time. I wonder if this network or infrastructure of curators, editors, gallery directors and museums ended up producing a kind of theory about the work in real time through the act of association building. Take, for instance, an editor like Jim Burns: by identifying a range of different practices, grouping them together and then publishing a volume of their work [Arthropods ] in 1972, he enacted a kind of theorization of the work in the absence of criticism and theory. In any case, the network of the museum, the gallery, and the curator seemed fundamental at that time to facilitate your production.
ZK: It was. The resonance in all of these channels was very positive. There was Emilio Ambasz—we met with him regularly. And Henry Geldzahler visited– he was an art curator at the Met. Of course, in those days, we had quite a good connection to the architectural department at MoMA. But I would say that most of the time, we weren’t really in the architecture world – we were more or less interested in just doing exhibitions. So our communication was more or less about creating performances and generating reactions.
Jim Burns did that book – that was one thing. We had very good connections with Domus. In Austria, Bau was very interested. There was a lot of publishing in German cultural magazines. We exhibited at Documenta three times. It was a network made of persons and media… It was a time of networking. For the first ten to fifteen years, exhibitions were essential. …Many museums gave us carte blanche. For instance, the Cover show was like that. We called and they said, “Yes! We are interested.” Compared to today, it was high speed. We had many newspapers in the States that covered our work – The Washington Post, The New York Times…everyone was writing about it. Everyone was commenting on our activities and everyone was positive… but I don’t know why that was.
EC: There was a lot of media coverage at the time but any critical language about the work was more or less nil. There was little active theorization, more journalistic description.
ZK: Yes, it was mostly documentation. It could be because our work was in some way between art and architecture. The architects said to us, “Well, it’s art. It’s not architecture.” And the artists would say, “No, no. It’s not art; it’s architecture.” And maybe that was why.
EC: Was it difficult to be in the middle of these two disciplines?
ZK: It was a special position which we actually could handle. We liked it. It was, of course, also something unconventional and new in some way.
EC: Did you find that you had two audiences?
ZK: No, the open-minded people could take that – the double aspect. We were in art galleries and on the art market. We came to Germany because Rudolf Zwirner invited us to Cologne and there we were on the art market. We were living on cultural support from the beginning. In Vienna, we were performing as artists because there we could get some money. We wouldn’t have got it if we said we were architects. We were also accepted as artists. So Werner Hoffman, the director of the Museum of the 20th century, supported us. And all of the cultural institutions gave us money. It was this play between the two worlds. And in the beginning it was definitely the art world that supported us.
EC: I noticed the way that you signed your drawings; you seemed mindful it was an artwork and not a working drawing per se. It’s both.
ZK: Yeah. The drawings, especially the collages and the conceptual drawings, not the technical drawings, they are art. The other stuff, which is rather architectural or about a realization, is something different. … If someone wanted to buy drawings, we sold them. We sold to institutions. Zwirner had some stuff of ours. We had no permanent representation. We had an exhibition in Dusseldorf and in different galleries.
EC: A number of artists explored air and inflatables at the time. In an exhibition like Documenta, where Harald Szeeman placed artists alongside architects, did you have a dialogue with any of these artists who were also using similar materials or motifs in their work?
ZK: Very rarely. The thing is that we were quite introverted in some way. In Vienna, we were at a distance to the art scene because… I don’t know. In some ways, we were very successful. It was like vrooom! and we were on the scene. We were the young guys, and so on… We had a good relationship with Walter Pichler and knew Hans Hollein, and, of course, other architects. We were familiar with the experiments of Mülle and Nitsche… but we were separate. We were something different. I think we had a very positive feeling for each other, but there wasn’t intense contact, which other artists had, for instance, in Dusseldorf, in the 1970s. There were a lot of artists that “belonged” to Beuys, and we of course, did not. In the beginning we thought, “This guy is crazy…!” [laughter]
EC: The guy with the coyote…
ZK: [laughing] Yeah. But we liked him and though he was okay. He had quite a good sense of humor.
EC: You had a lot of success with your performance-based events that engaged the public.
ZK: In the beginning, for instance, in the LIVE show in Vienna in what is now the Museum of the XXI Century, the concept of the exhibition focused on developing an interaction with people. It was a big success because of the possibility of this interaction. In the Cover show, there was some interaction but it was mostly something to look at, to get inspired by the message. And I think the biggest impression made was always generated by the work’s documentation in newspapers and magazines and books. That was actually the base of our success, was to publish. Afterward, the experience of the visitor was not at the center. It was the photograph or the document, I would say.
EC: Which brings it closer to something like how performance art or Happenings functioned, in a way.
ZK: Yes, yes.
EC: It’s interesting that the scale of the work shifted, too, from individually worn apparatuses, like helmets, to an apparatus at the scale of the building. In each instance, the action objects always prompted a performance and elicited a reaction on the part of viewer. In a statement issued by your collective, you stated: “Our objects are developed for a leisure society that has forgotten how to see and hear, which only reacts weakly to stimuli, because it is flooded by stimuli… During your “positive” phase, your installation Vanilla Future involved a series of objects arranged as a kind of obstacle course in a gymnasium in Vienna. These toys sought to create a kind of psychophysical experience—one that is psychological, behavioral—but with the intent of breaking habits.
ZK: A lot of people tried to experience new spaces and new visual impressions by using drugs. We wanted to get new impressions by creating realistic spaces—or at least, haptic, 1:1 spaces, even if the message was more complex than the objects. …Our work always had an aspect of giving something to people, to help them—that was always a big concern. We had a second theme which was about mind expansion; we started to explore this in the Mind Expanding program and that work developed into Vanilla Future. The Mind Expanding program was to, of course, stimulate communication.
EC: In a lot of these cases, the action objects functioned as a prosthetic—an artificial extension of the body. Or you could think of your designs as sociobiological interfaces or machines to facilitate communicate, enact sexual desire…
ZK: Yes, like our helmets, the Environment Transformers. The object has an influence [on the person] which stimulates communication—that was actually our main intention—and offers a chance to get out of one’s normal ambience. The Environment Transformers consisted of lenses and acoustic instruments. You’d walk through a normal environment while wearing them and you’d see something different, or you’d have to look very precisely to understand what you see. So it was it was visual and acoustic—for the ears and the eyes—to sharpen them.
EC: Did you intend for this perceptual shift to somehow filter back into the subject’s psychological state?
ZK: Psychological? No. It was just to make people aware of their environment and aware of the positions in which they normally are and what could be improved or corrected.
EC: There’s a political dimension to becoming aware of your own position in a space, in terms of the model of subjectivity that you’re proposing. It seems as though a lot of your work was trying to reassert forms of agency or empowerment in the individual. Did you acknowledge these political aspects to your work?
ZK: I’m a little bit uncomfortable by the word "political", because politics, for me, has to do with governmental associations. Of course, we thought we would do something social and influence people in a positive way, so the intention was not to destroy but to be constructive.
EC: Well, the idea of empowering a public is a political gesture. I can’t help but think of your giant inflatable middle finger, Roomscraper. [laughter] It’s a sign of resistance!
ZK: Yeah, but it was actually not intended to produce a riot. We wanted to change things but not in form of a revolution.
EC: If not a revolution, what would you call it?
ZK: Innovation. It was the intention to surprise with unconventional, unknown objects which you don’t know in the first moment what you have to do—what you could do—with them. And then you’d see that you can use it, so you can get immediately into a relationship with the object. But the intention was to improve the critical situations of individuals. … Whereas everyone thought that with drugs you could experience something new, we wanted to try to create a new experience in a concrete way. So you could say it was a revolution through innovation. It was a time in which we were crazy about new ideas—everything that was unconventional, that was hip, that was of interest. And it was also the reason why we came to realistic architecture very late. For the last twenty years we made architecture. Before, we always made lot of concepts. … My intention was always to give something to architecture which has a message, so it is metaphorical, can be interpreted, and stands for something. I adopted that from the early days.
EC: People were sometimes scared by the work. I came across an article from New York Magazine written in 1972 about an edible scale model of Central Park that you made for Frederick Law Olmstead’s birthday. You covered over a 6x 24 feet scale model with cake. But the writer of the article observed, “We discovered that cake is the great democratizer. Serving cake became an experiment in crowd behavior.” He describes how the crowd went crazy—children, adults, reporters, park officials—everyone stormed the platform.
ZK: Yes, it was dangerous! Policemen became really brutal to keep the whole action in survival mode. It was a big event. But there was a moment where everyone wanted to come up to the platform and then it became dangerous because we didn’t know how strong the platform was and if it would break.
EC: Could you tell us more about the Food City event at the Walker Art Centre and the Food City 2 event in Houston?
ZK: We held similar events in Minneapolis and in Houston, and it was always a very friendly atmosphere, actually. In Houston, we designed the cake as the city’s center, with high rises. In Minneapolis, it was a fantasy concept consisting of a lake made of orange juice and little houses made of cake. It was always based on the intention that people would gather, eat some cake, and start to discuss the environment.
EC: So food became an architectural medium to aggregate people and start a conversation specifically about urbanism or architecture.
ZK: Yeah. That was the intention. Normally food is communicative, especially in a special form—as architects, we modeled it after architectural or urbanistic form. It was almost unavoidable that people would talk about what they’re eating and thus introduce a conversation about the environment. It was usually a good activity to involve people in the exhibition and to start communication amongst them. We didn’t moderate at all. It was up to the participants. Some of them talked to us, some to each other, and that was totally open. There was no concept in steering the dialogue. The main interest was to bring the thoughts of the people to a platform—and that they start to think about the environment.
EC: Was there a connection between the digestible architectural object and Hollein’s pills of Alles Ist Architektur?
ZK: Well, Hollein’s pill is in the direction of taking a drug to experience something new. You know, he said everything is architecture; even if I take a stimulating pill I’ll see the environment in another way. And that is exactly was the opposite of what we wanted. It was for us always about perception. So I have something to touch, something to look at, and something to hear. Through all of these elements we experience something new. This input of the unexpected is a moment of innovation or revolution.
EC: I think a useful comparison can be made between your approach and an exhibition called Contemplation Environments that took place at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 1972. Essentially, the premise of the exhibition was that artists and architects were invited to create environments for meditation or sensory deprivation in the museum—an oasis from the chaos of the outside world. I think the culture of inward escape functions similarly to the hallucinatory drug culture that you actively refused to participate in. Although the Environmental Transformers and some of your inflatables may share formal similarities to other creative output in this era, your work always intended to draw people outwards into social space. Outwards toward communication as opposed to an inward, reclusive individualism. It was never an escape from reality – in fact, your series of covers and oases were actually a comment on the dangers of that kind of thinking.
ZK: After the revolution of ’68 there was the question, what will we do? What can we create differently from our parents? But we had the intention to not be influenced by LSD; our objects should have the effect of LSD. It was not our intention to create more introversion. We always said we have to deal with the public. We always wanted to present our stuff in the public realm. The drug stuff is introversive. What we did was about extroversion.