Material Obsessions
Tenets Publications
Archive Information
The Beginning and the End at Once
The Process is the Idea
The Formwork is Architecture
The Process of Construction is a Performance
The Building Makes Its Site

The Kunsthaus Bregenz is a perfect building. Its allure lies in its truth, its mystery in its lies. It is a building full of contradictions, dualities, simplicity, and complexity. During my semester in Riva San Vitale, I encountered countless masterpieces of architecture every single day. To see that much great architecture is almost exhausting. When you are constantly consuming these masterpieces your criteria for great architecture must change. The nuance of details, the precision of construction, and the innovative uses of materials are no longer an adequate measure of greatness. They become standard. Many good buildings have these things, and I visited so many good buildings. I needed a new metric by which to evaluate architecture. I began to judge buildings by how much they stimulated my imagination and drove my curiosity. When I entered a building, I wanted it to make me think; I wanted it to make me feel. The Kunsthaus Bregenz inspired me more than any other building I have ever been to. I imagined my whole life in that building. I remember when we visited we were only supposed to stay there for two hours and then go to the Vorarlberg Museum next door, but after everyone entered the Vorarlberg I snuck back to the Kunsthaus to spend more time there. Two hours is not enough for this building. A day is not enough.

As you catch a glimpse of the building from the banks of Lake Constance, all you see is a tiny grey box, its glass scales indecipherable from a distance. The Kunsthaus seems to take on whatever shade of grey the lake is reflecting that day, and even on the walk towards it each new glimpse may present a new shade of grey. Now closer to the building you can make out the panes of glass covering the façade, like scales on the body of a reptile. Even closer now and you can make out their slight skew and overlap. Your initial reading blurred by distance gets increasingly more focused through your shifting proximity to the building. As you stand in the square in front of the Kunsthaus, your understanding of the façade becomes clear. The building rises above the ones surrounding it, but remains quiet, as if to not overshadow its neighbors. Even more quiet than the Kunsthaus is the café and administration building adjacent to it. It is almost like it is not there, yet it is crucial to the operation of the museum. The frosted glass skin blurs everything that lies behind it. Only shadows lead us imagine what is hidden behind. The only thing that punctures the glass skin is a small metal box, the entryway into the Kunsthaus. From the outside it is impossible to imagine what is inside, and from the inside impossible to imagine what is outside.

As you enter the building you are offered a peek behind the glass curtain, but it is only a mere moment in the staircase down to the coatroom. A frosted glass wall on the exterior side of the staircase plunges underground as if to make you think you are not descending below ground at all. The underside of a concrete stair cascades above you. This stair does not break the glass wall on your right, suggesting it rises the full height of the building. As you emerge from the coatroom and walk deeper into the ground floor of the Kunsthaus you begin to immerse yourself in a world made of concrete. Light reflects off the polished concrete floor and smooth concrete walls spiral around you. The frosted glass paned walls allow light into the space but obstruct views to the exterior. The ground floor is a space of transition, prodding you to forget the outside world. Zumthor places the beginning of the stair on the same wall which you entered, but on the opposite side. Here you are met with a heavy metal frame door, a single piece of frosted glass hiding the next room’s contents. As you heave the door open you find yourself inside a concrete chamber, a long and tall stair leading to the next floor. The door slowly shuts beside you as if to signify the close of the building’s first act. As you stare at the concrete in front of you, your mind is telling you there must be a glass wall here. In the staircase directly below you watched the glass ascend upward past the stair, but it is no longer there. The same space between the stair and the exterior wall from below exists here as well, furthering your thought as to what happened to the glass.

As you ascend to the second floor you are back where you were when you first entered the building. The space is the same as the one you just left, but the glass paneled walls are replaced with concrete. All the walls are concrete now. A glass ceiling hangs above you, the concrete walls rising through them. It is the same glass ceiling from the first level, but it hangs much lower now, and whereas below you could overlook it, here it glows just overhead begging for your attention. The monolithic concrete surface reflects the even hum of light radiating down from above. As you stand in this space the world outside is completely forgotten. If you came into existence in this space, you would not have the slightest idea of what the exterior of the building is like. The building’s lies which pushed you to this point, have now seduced you and veiled you in mystery. At this point you believe you are in a concrete building even though as you stood in front of the museum all you saw was glass. At this point you could be anywhere in the universe in this building. It makes no references to the outside. There is nothing to tell you where to move, but still you move through the space. Intuition drives you forward until again you are facing a metal frame door with a single pane of frosted glass. Beneath all of the Kunsthaus’ lies here is truth. You open the door and enter the staircase, the same staircase you were in before just a floor below you. Whereas the preceding lies pressed you forward, the truth now guides you. The next floor is like the last, and as you move to the end a familiar metal frame door with a single pane of frosted glass invites you to continue ascending through the building.

The next floor is different. The concrete walls remain in the same position as below, but the glass ceiling hangs higher, even higher than on the first floor. Your intuition must tell you this difference is significant; that it signifies a shift in the reality the building has generated. When you reach the end of this space you are faced with another door in the same exact place as all the other doors that you moved through to get to this one. But this door you cannot move through. The outline of the door you know stands in front of you on the concrete wall. There is a metal bar, a door handle, but you do not touch it. This is a moment of great contradiction in the reality of the Kunsthaus. Is it a lie or is it the truth? The truth of the Kunsthaus is in the promise of movement, while its lies are in the universe it creates. And as you stare at this door- or this outline of a door- you question if the building is telling you the truth or a lie. Is there another staircase behind this door? The door is in the same spot as the others so there must be a staircase, or is there no door at all, and therefore no staircase. The door does not tell you to open it. It pushes back on you. It turns you around to go the way which you came.

During my time in the Kunsthaus Bregenz I completed this journey many times. As I walked through the building studying its precise details and nuanced materials, I felt a kind of creative energy I have never felt before. When I walked inside all the white noise of the outside world stopped, and the soft hum of the building remained. If great buildings generate ideas about buildings yet to be made, then the Kunsthaus is a temple for building worship. I imagine the Kunsthaus as a building encased in its formwork. Like any cast object or building, the formwork of the Kunsthaus stands in complete contrast with its cast counterpart- the formwork is tectonic and the cast object stereotomic. Its skin, a delicate glass panel and metal component construction, sheathes the solid and void concrete interior from the outside world. The building seems to have been built from the outside in- it contradicts the logic of its construction by reinforcing the idea that the skin is really a formwork left in place. It holds all the dualities of a traditional formwork and cast concrete building except it makes them permanent. The Kunsthaus presents two moments of the same building set apart in time by the process of casting concrete. The exterior presents anticipation for what is to come, the interior the realization of what can be. One is given the beginning and the end at once and left to imagine the process between them.

I believe that the formwork is architecture. Within the voided space of the formwork is a building and within the voided space of a building is the formwork. The two are so distinctly inseparable yet stand so far apart at the same time- they can never exist in the same moment. However, if one begets the other, then both must be the same. The formwork should be able to exist without the presence of cast material. Formworks are not machines for building-making, they are buildings themselves. They are just one reality of the building yet to be cast, and when I began to understand this, my love for the process deepened. After a cast object has cured, I remove the formwork and rebuild it again. Each piece is delicately pulled off and set aside. The walls of the mold, now covered in residue and still hot from the exothermic reaction of the concrete, come back together again as a monument to what it just created.