A conversation with Hans-Peter Weiss (BIG) on the eve of the Future Art Lab’s grand opening

It was quite soon following its completion last summer that the Future Art Lab was filled with life. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, meant that the grand opening of this new mdw Campus building would have to wait. Hans-Peter Weiss, CEO of the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft (BIG), a company that manages Austria’s federally owned real estate, was involved throughout the planning and construction process. And with the Future Art Lab’s grand opening on 7 June 2021 just around the corner, Weiss explains how BIG—which functions as the client in such projects—helps shape inspiring places to learn and work, how it’s reacting to the climate and coronavirus crises, and what it’s like to collaborate with an arts university.

Universities have very special needs in terms of how their spaces are designed and equipped. What role does the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft play in the design of university facilities?

Hans-Peter Weiss © Peter Rigaud

Hans-Peter Weiss (HW): In recent years, there’s been an incredible amount of activity in terms of planning university buildings and developing entire campus sites. 10 years ago, we joined forces with the Vienna University of Economics and Business to design and construct its new “Campus WU” as a quasi-greenfield project. It represented something of a sensation in Vienna when it opened. And ever since then, it’s breathed new life into an entire city neighbourhood and even become a bit of a tourist attraction thanks to the open spaces and the eating and drinking establishments it contains. But Vienna and the provincial capitals are in fact home to several examples of how a university quarter has blossomed and swept the surrounding neighbourhood along with it. A particularly nice example of this—which began not as a greenfield site but as an existing complex of buildings with an unlikely prior history—is the main campus of the mdw. Building and developing university locations is an exciting task that entails a lot of responsibility. And one special challenge is adapting historical buildings to be suitable for a present-day university while also connecting them with new structures. This requires a special kind of technical expertise and a deep understanding of how universities work. After all, our university buildings house everything from grand pianos to electron microscopes as well as thousands of people from beginning students to world-class researchers and Oscar winners. And alongside climate protection and buildings’ long-term durability, architecture and atmospheric components likewise need to be major priorities if the goal is to create inspiring places to learn and work.

BIG and the mdw have shared a long journey together: remodelling work, additions, and newly built structures have turned the campus at Anton-von-Webern-Platz into a lively and ideally equipped centre of musical, pedagogical, academic, and scientific training. What significance does this foundational, long-term collaboration hold for BIG?

HW: The ensemble of buildings at what is now Anton-von-Webern-Platz—which, by the way, was named as a square specifically for the mdw—has a special history. Back when the Wiener Neustadt Canal still flowed past this site, Emperor Joseph II ordered an animal hospital built that was subsequently adapted multiple times over the years, eventually becoming the Imperial and Royal Academy of Veterinary Medicine and thereafter the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. It was in the 1990s, following an all-over renovation project overseen by architect Reinhardt Gallister that preserved the historical structure and prepared the indoor spaces acoustically for use by a university of music, that the mdw moved in. And ever since then, we’ve been working together to develop a modern campus that’s worthy of the internationally leading university of music in the world capital of music that is Vienna. So what we have now are the pleasing fruits of a long-term, trusting, and creative working relationship that’s arisen at all levels between the University and the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft. On our end, it lies in the dedicated hands of project head Thomas Breitsching—who also took charge of realizing the Future Art Lab together with Berthold Scheurer (who retired shortly thereafter)—and asset manager Christian Wagner. The Future Art Lab is just the newest on-campus building block in this process.

Here at the mdw, we’re all hugely pleased with how the Future Art Lab, designed by Pichler & Traupmann, has ended up being work of architectural art that now offers the best-possible environment in which the art forms taught at our university can unfold. But what special challenges does an arts university pose on your end?

HW: I’ll begin my answer with an example from Linz: there, we adapted the two massive bridgehead buildings for that city’s arts University of Art and Design. They’d originally been built as a monumental architectural gateway to a grand boulevard of Hitler’s planned “Führer City”; later on, they saw decades of use by the tax authority. Housing an arts university in buildings with that kind of history entailed a historic break—and their new use was supposed to be visible. We ensured that with the Transcendental Elevator, an art-in-architecture project sponsored by our arts initiative BIG ART: it’s a walkable light sculpture by the artist Karin Sander that rises 10 metres above the building’s roof and symbolises its new use in a way that’s visible all across town. Whereas universities of technology are often quite functionality-minded when it comes to building projects, an arts university requires its own appropriate atmosphere. And we remained aware of this as planning for the Future Art Lab progressed. To this end, we joined forces with the mdw and the team of architects to create a university building that’s special in every respect. The architecture is spectacular and simultaneously reduced to the essence. The building’s construction and spatial concept provide the necessary conditions for world-class recordings and performances. And in terms of its atmosphere, we’ve succeeded in providing an environment that stimulates artistic creativity. The façade employs aluminium composite panels that shimmer in a characteristic way, while building’s interior features lots of exposed concrete as a sober counterpart to its “shining” façade. The two generous terraces, for their part, create an open-air connection to the green campus courtyard. What’s more, a university building’s architecture always embodies a statement. Pretty much simultaneously with this project, we built a seminar building out of wood for Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. But for the mdw Campus, the Future Art Lab’s gold-hued modern façade was more appropriate.

The fact that it proved possible to complete and move into the Future Art Lab in the midst of a pandemic was a huge stroke of luck that helped the mdw uphold teaching activities in the best possible way despite the COVID-19 mitigation measures: the top-notch technical infrastructure in the practice and teaching rooms, concert hall, cinema, Sound Theatre, and recording studios make it possible to bring in the digital realm as well as stream out worldwide from the Campus. So what can we take with us from this crisis and apply to future building projects? And in general, how can BIG and the universities best confront today’s crises, from the coronavirus to climate change?

HW: Both we and the universities are concerned that planning be done in a way that’s long-term, forward-looking, responsible, and hence sustainable. This starts with asking just what uses of existing structures make sense. Together with the mdw, we’ve managed to resolve these issues in wonderful ways. The preservation of historic buildings can play an increasing role in climate protection if we consistently maintain what we have, perhaps adapt it to new uses, and—above all—make good use of it. In terms of new buildings, the ones we’ve built for our universities over the past few years, in particular, are models of sustainable construction. This is outwardly visible in the wooden building for the BOKU that I mentioned before. And in our large steel-reinforced concrete buildings like at MED CAMPUS Graz, it’s often the case that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface—like ground source heat pumps that reach down hundreds of metres in order to make use of geothermal energy. When we planned the Future Art Lab, energy efficiency in everyday use was likewise a consideration. And the pandemic confirmed one point that we’d already identified earlier on: it’s ideal if spaces’ sizes and functions can be adapted as time goes by. But at the same time, universities have a particular need for such specialised buildings as the Future Art Lab, which contains four very different large spaces: the Sound Theatre, the Arthouse Cinema, a recording hall, and a concert hall with hundreds of seats—each of which represents a technical, acoustic, and atmospheric tour de force in its own right.

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