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Experimental Skin · Journal

Oxford Brookes School of Architecture · BA Year 3

theo jones architecture experimental skin kunsthaus graz city map plan diagram

This is a record of the exploratory research on the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria. Recorded as journal entries on the thoughts explored and activities conducted while visiting Graz. Concluding with the creation of the installation ‘comment’.

Preface · Packing

The choice to travel to Graz and study the Kunsthaus Graz was no abstract decision. Being awarded the Reginald W. Cave scholarship makes this research possible. The Kunsthaus, a destination to explore as a designer. The Kunsthaus, a destination that make sense in the context of my experience.

As an architecture student I live the majority of my time in a detached hypothetical ‘experimental’ design world which could be mocked in Alastair Parvin‘s words as designing “salmon farms on mars” (2013). The Kunsthaus Graz on first glance stands out as a building that has fallen right out of a student project, seemingly using an ‘experimental’ form (if it was farming salmon from the near by river Mur no design tutor would bat an eyelid). There seems more to this than first reading and I want to find out what that is. Additionally exploring an ‘experimental’ agenda gives an opportunity to expand on my previous use of ‘experimental’ 1:1 interventions.

Day 1 · 1 Bus, 2 Planes and a Train

Skin model by Spacelab

Depart: Heathrow, London 07:40

It must be noted that this travel scholarship has enabled me to visit Graz with the primary focus Kunsthaus Graz, however I can’t help absorbing and commenting on the outside factors, historic, cultural and otherwise. With that said, this journal will have a somewhat scattered view of Graz, it does not aim to address the 900 years of history, why would it? That can be found on a handy tourist leaflet.

Having not been to the Kunsthaus before it was hard to define the exact nature of my research however in the run up to the trip I have become stuck on the concept of skin. This ties back into Archigram and an explanation on what Peter Cook call ‘experimental architecture’ (Cook, 1990). This sets off the initial goal – how does one address the skin of the Kunsthaus?

Arrive: Graz, Austria 12:30

Day 1 · Wrong Side

Annenstraße, Graz

Arrive: A&O Hostel, Graz 13:45

As I wander, travel worn in the direction of my hostel a local on a bike calls out:

“Pick one side or the other!”


I complied, surprised by the lack of pavement markings. Soon after I found, not only was I on the wrong side of the pavement, but also that my hostel was on the “wrong” side of the river Mur. Leaving the hostel and walking down Annenstraße towards the old town the long established socio-economic divide in the city was clear with the left still comparatively deprived. However as soon as you hit Südtiroler Platz things changed. The audio guide to the Kunsthaus Graz notes “the left side and bad side”

The Kunsthaus Graz, however, broke this tradition, a cultural institution on the wrong side, said to be “a wind of change revitalising the Gries [district]”. First sight of the Kunsthaus’ skin was just a glance as it protruded out from behind one of its neighbours, from street level and approaching from the west, it is surprisingly hard to spot.

Briefly walking into the Kunsthaus lobby I decided to better orient myself by exploring the city, crossing the river Mur into old town. Surrounded by renaissance, gothic and baroque architecture I came across M1 a building accessed by a dramatic glass lift, allowing for views out over the surrounding roof tops. Close by is the Kaspar craft/arts supply store that would be needed in the coming days.

Kunsthaus lobby

Day 2 · The Friendly Alien

Today was a relaxed slow paced exploration of the Kunsthaus. The dramatic entrance of rising up an escalator (pin) into the belly (skin) of the alien is enjoyable, I repeated it a few times, getting some nice steady video shots! The first exhibition space (Space 02) is very dark, much darker than most exhibition spaces I’ve been to, but the work of Karl Neubacher who is exhibiting was well presented. I was quite surprised by the interior skin – a dark grey, triangulated mesh, that seemed so distant and detached from the translucent exterior panels. Peering through the gaps I could appreciate the thickness of the skin, easily more than 1 metre, somewhat counter to the thin and flexible characteristics of the ‘skin’ that I had in my head.

Skin & Pin by Peter Cook

Moving up to Space 01 I was presented with a vast open space, warehouse like, filled with the playful, colourful work of Katharina Grosse, that I really wanted to touch – It’s so annoying how so many tactile exhibitions can’t be touched, quite a pet peeve of mine. This space has the nozzles that in theory bring light in, but as they seemed to be constantly supplemented with strip lighting, have they become redundant? The needle was by far the most enjoyable space to be in, aside from what seemed like excessive structure blocking your view. However it’s not an exhibition space, you couldn’t control the lighting etc.

Day 3 · Raining & Reading

Kunsthaus Graz in context

Raining. Maybe an opportune time to gather thoughts, be a bit lazy and spend some of the day sitting around my hostel room. Much has been written about context and the apparent lack of context in the Spacelab design, however reading A Friendly Alien by Bogner (2004) it seems easy to dismiss most of this pop-culture opinion. It’s also a rather well discussed topic and one which I don’t think I can contribute much to. Additionally I’m not excited to discuss the intent of the building from the view point of city officials and the idea they were trying to emulate the Frank Gehry Guggenheim ‘Bilbao effect’. I guess my thoughts are narrowing back down to where I started on day 1, it’s all about that skin, I will visit again tomorrow with this focused view.

Skin meets glass

Day 4 · Sucessful Skin?

My thoughts on the skin seem to keep switching, I’m sure it works, then I’m sure it doesn’t. Successful? On what criteria do I judge this? There seems to be a conflict in my mind!

Sketching skin details: I’m trying to get to grips with its various parts, the odd looking snow breakers, the sprinklers added due to the fire performance of acrylic panels and the quite pronounced gaps between panels.

Snow breakers

There are some quite obvious failures. The large gaps in panels have meant dirt on the underside of the skin has collected. For a 11 year old building that doesn’t look great. Additionally on a personal level, it seems strange to me that I can’t touch the outer skin, something I had just assumed you would be able to do before I visited. The closest you can get is in the cafe – for such an organic building, that just doesn’t work for me.

“Fluids, fiber optics cables and other infrastructure elements are channelled through the skin by means of laminated bladders…The performance specifications of the skin vary continuously along its surface, from the properties of rigid, opaque surface to those of a flexible, transparent membrane.”


This extract (one of several) from the competition entry Spacelab made really stands out. It seemed in the entry to be a major part of the scheme, yet what was built is far from it. I’m fully aware things change between competition and an actual building but this is an intriguing and sizable contrast.

So I’m deciding to explore this apparent contrast further. I’m starting to think about an installation that could address the original competition entry. I have limited time, resources and I’d be working out of my hostel room. It has to be portable and small.

Sketching it out I’m looking at the ideas of seamless panels, embedded cables, thin composition, embedded screens and a human tactile element. Maybe something built around my body?

Day 5 · Away Day

Depart: Graz, Austria 08:15
Arrive: WU Campus, Vienna 10:45

CRAB studio was setup in 2006 by Peter Cook and Gavin Robotham. It was rather convenient that CRAB studio arguably the spiritual successor to Spacelab had a new building not far from Graz in Vienna. The Departments of Law and Central Administration for Vienna University of Economics and Business opened in 2013 as part of the new WU Campus. There is a clear hand of Cook in the work, but it does seem somewhat pedestrian compared to the Kunsthaus. It was raining, but the red, yellow and orange tones of the building shone through. Oh and the Kunsthaus light ‘nozzles’  make an appearance!

The building skin is quite different, concrete with a tacked on wooden skin of louvres. Obviously the buildings are for totally different uses. There wasn’t anything many people would consider experimental. However it was an enjoyable building to wander round, the lighting fixtures are great and attention to detail was high. Additionally there was a well executed use of colour to define spaces and usage.

It was hard not to think about how things might have changed for Cook over the 12 years since the Kunsthaus, or the influence of those who he is working with now, compared to then. None of the skin ideas explored in the Kunsthaus competition entry (aside from the nozzles) were there – makes me think, what happened to those unbuilt ideas? Maybe they just weren’t suitable or are they now completely useless or just not buildable?

I didn’t have a huge amount of time as I knew I had to get back to Graz to build my installation and wanted to have a chance to see the other buildings that are part of the campus, so I moved on.

Nozzle WU Campus by CRAB Studio

It really is an architectural playground of a campus. Zaha Hadid’s Library & Learning Center just across from CRAB dominates and is the first curvy Zaha building I’ve visited. It was slightly disconcerting walking up ramps, not knowing what was flat and what wasn’t, but the building seemed well used and it was clear the university was very pleased to have it. Various parts of the white walls needed re-painting, I guess that’s the problem when everything is white. I briefly walked round the other buildings but it was still raining and I needed to get back.

WU Campus by Zaha Hadid

Depart: WU Campus, Vienna 14:15
Arrive: Graz, Austria 16:45

Day 6 · Comment?

After buying polystyrene panels and various other small bits from the Kaspar Harnisch (arts supply shop) I spent last night and this morning working on the installation. Breaking down the panels and forming a new seamless, composite skin for me to wear.

Wearing the ‘proposed skin’ of the Kunsthaus, outside the Kunsthaus, is my comment or you could say a ‘sandwich board’ for Spacelab’s design. It drew some attention and interaction, maybe they took pity on me for looking so strange? Interestingly Franz told me he was an artist who has exhibited at the Kunsthaus many years ago and the woman with an umbrella is an architect. I guess this might tell you about the sort of people who are wondering past the Kunsthaus?

Importantly it has allowed me explore the key design changes within the skin, by becoming part of it and bringing it down to a human level – something people can actually touch. This has allowed me to focus my thoughts and ask questions. If there is such a contrast between the competition and what was built, was that studio work worth the time? Did the experimental design in the studio push innovations in the built skin, even though the result was different? How experimental is the skin? How do I define experimental?

All of which I feel are strong questions to conclude this exploratory journal and a good starting point for my dissertation.

Depart: Graz, Austria 17:50
Arrive: Heathrow, London 21:15

Document 1

Document 2

theo jones architecture experimental skin kunsthaus graz drawing book sample

LOCATION Graz, Austria

SUPERVISOR Christina Godiksen

RECOGNITION Awarded Reginald W. Cave Foundation Travel Scholarship


© Theo Jones · Creative Commons