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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: In the Absence of Raimund Abraham

In the Absence of Raimund Abraham: Vienna Architecture Conference 2010 edited by Peter Noever and Wolf D. Prix
Hatje Cantz, 2011
Paperback, 128 pages

Three months after architect and educator Raimund Abraham died in a car crash in Los Angeles, the MAK and University of Applied Arts held the Vienna Architecture Conference 2010: In the Absence of Raimund Abraham. Even though the architect of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York had an obviously strained relationship with his country of birth (born in the Tyrol in 1933, he renounced his citizenship in 2000 when the Freedom Party came into power), a number of people close to Abraham traveled to Vienna to recount stories and celebrate his life, one defined as much by his mustache, hat and cigar as by his drawings and passion for architecture. Transcripts of the conference's round table discussions with Thom Mayne, Wolf D. Prix, Vito Acconci, Kenneth Frampton, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Noever, Lebbeus Woods, and others paint a picture of a man devoted to architecture, education, and drawing. Of course that much is known about Abraham without a conference with architects and academics.

[Raimund's House in Oaxaca, Mexico | Photographs by Elfie Semotan]

So it is the personal stories recounted at the conference that start to give the reader an understanding of Abraham. Some of the stories are legendary in certain architectural circles, such as when on a jury at Cooper Union (where he taught for decades) Abraham asked a student for a glass of water; coming back into the room the student found his model on fire, Abraham's way of critiquing the design. A consistent action in many of the stories is Abraham's willingness, though never an easy one, to leave a room when frustrated, as if to make a stronger statement through his absence. This happens at his apartment in Manhattan when he screws up a pot roast; during another jury, this time at Sci-ARC, when he calls the designs crap; and in the middle of a baseball game with Peter Eisenman, who secured expensive box seats, but which were not enough to remedy the boredom Abraham had at the game. It's easy to see these actions as trying on a friendship, and while Abraham's personal motives will never be known, his departures read as expressions of conviction, as statements about what is important in life. His actions strongly point away from what is unimportant or not worth his time, abruptly redirecting his energies toward something else.

[Music House in Hombroich, Germany | Estimated completion in 2013]

It's not surprising that "In the Absence of Raimund Abraham" was chosen as the conference's title, for while it certainly expresses the fact that he is gone, it also summarizes an important aspect of the person who made statements through his lack of presence. A student would definitely had thought twice about his or her design if Abraham walked out on a presentation, be it after some expletives or igniting the design on fire. But to brandish these actions as unproductive is to gloss over the effort he devoted to education. He will probably be remembered more for his teaching than his architecture, as his built output is small. For Abraham, drawing was the expression that united his teaching and practice, what he saw as the most important action for an architect. Yet for that side of him readers are referred to Raimund Abraham [UN]BUILT, the recently released, revised and enlarged edition of his only monograph.

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