The History of Kunsthaus Graz

Since its opening in 2003, the Kunsthaus Graz has presented and made possible many works by renowned artists.

Previous history

In 1988, the state building authority held an Austria-wide architectural competition for a ‘Trigon Museum’, with representatives from the Trigon area also being invited to participate. This area originally comprised art from Yugoslavia, Italy and Austria; later it was extended to include Hungary. When the provincial government changed in 1991, the plans for a ‘Trigon Museum’ were shelved—despite the fact that they were on the point of implementation. Shortly afterwards the architect Klaus Gartler was commissioned to carry out a study of possible sites, which he submitted in 1996.

A second competition with international participants and based at the ‘Schlossberg – Palais Herberstein’ site, was won by Swiss firm Weber Hofer Partner Architekten (in 2003 they realized the Lentos Art Museum Linz)— its construction was blocked, however, as a result of a referendum conducted in 1998. A structure that has been preserved from this phase is the ‘Dom im Berg’ event location, which is accessed via the tunnel system (from the middle of the Graz Old Town) inside the little mountain.

Even before this, the then city councillor for culture Helmut Strobl and mayor Alfred Stingl began setting up a third attempt. The Styrian cultural advisor Schachner-Blazizek pledged his support. It was at this point that the plot next to the Eiserne Haus came under the spotlight as a possible solution. Coinciding with the city’s application for European Capital of Culture 2003, the creation of a museum gallery, but without its own collection, seemed to be within reach.

The ‘Iron House’

The ‘Iron House’ was one of the first cast-iron buildings in continental Europe, erected in Graz in 1848—a full three years before the famous Crystal Palace (London, 1851). The architect, owner and first manager of this daring construction, Josef Benedict Withalm (1771–1864) imported the new cast-iron technology from England and developed a modern concept for its use: a department store with large, inviting windows on the ground floor, a ritzy café—the Café Meran—on the first floor and a bar in the basement.

In the first design, the building had two storeys and was shown as a glazed cast-iron structure that was topped off with a flat roof on a recessed third floor. Just two years later the roof was leaking, and so was replaced by an extended third floor with a hipped roof.

After numerous structural changes during the course of its 150 years of use, in 2003 the ‘Iron House’ was finally restored to its original state, which mainly involved the uncovering of the iron facade and the reconstruction of the floors in their original proportions. The area once occupied by the glamorous Café Meran is now home to the exhibition spaces of Camera Austria. The low mezzanine floor contains offices, while on the ground floor another café - the Kunsthauscafé - has been located since 2018.


During the ‘Iron House’ restoration, a female statue was discovered inside the building. She is made entirely of cast-iron and had been long forgotten. As a protector of the arts, the muse Polyhymnia has now been returned to her fitting position. In her strict poise, she refers less to the fashionable basement nightclub of times long gone; rather, her patronage of dance ties her to the musical theatre that existed on the site previously. It is interesting to consider that the statue’s form follows the ancient model, while the material used reflects the modernity of the ‘Iron House’ architecture 150 years ago.

The reference projects

The ideas for a living, communicative and constantly changing site for contemporary art were born a long time ago in another place, and in the midst of an environment shaped by pop culture: 1960s London. Back then, Peter Cook and the other members of Archigram were already thinking about periscopes protruding from buildings, space ships that alighted in sleepy towns, spongy, landscape-like zones and variable skins for buildings. Cook and Fournier’s first joint project, the Batiment Public in Monte Carlo, was intended as a platform for all kinds of activities: go-kart, a circus, chamber music and even ice hockey. For the project that foreshadowed the Kunsthaus, envisaged in and on the Schlossberg, the architects imagined a huge, vividly coloured tongue stretching out of the hill and down into the street below. In the Kunsthaus many features mentioned in the following can be found.


Living City

This Archigram show took place in 1963 at the ICA, London; it was designed and curated by Archigram. The exhibition layout features similarities with the floor plan of the geometric inner skin of the Kunsthaus.
The periscope directed towards Piccadilly is repeated in a modified form in the opening pointed at the Schlossberg.

'The items used to show all this will vary, from trivia to valued drawings, from monster to miniscule versions of everyday things. This again is a reflection of how the city is seen by different people in different moods. And again they are all equally valid. Typography, sound, colour, feelies, they are all in a way facets of experience in themselves. Disparate as the total effect may be, as is the intention, we have used two devices, and only two, which act as a control to the form of the exhibition. The first is the decision to use a system of triangles as the structural and formal basis. This has come about through the ability of this figure to twist itself around spaces, a freedom very necessary in our presentation. The triangles are nevertheless a structurally sensible unit that can be prefabricated. Nothing more should be read into the fact that we have used triangles; nothing more was intended. The other device has been the division of the major spaces or ‘alcoves’ (we have called them ‘gloops’, amongst ourselves; a word probably coined out of loop, or encompassment of a tight space).'

Peter Cook, 13.07.2017

Instant City

Archigram’s Instant City can to a certain extent be seen as an initial blueprint for Graz: the airship arrives from outside, lands in an undeveloped part of a city and via (provisional) structures offers information, education and entertainment. Until the Kunsthaus was built, the Lend district was also a neglected part of Graz. Although the building certainly cannot be described as provisional, the programme of the Kunsthaus and programmatic goals do constantly change the building.

Clearly standing out from its surroundings, the unmistakable appearance of the Kunsthaus gave it the nickname of the ‘friendly alien’ that has landed in Graz, inserting itself into the structure of the city.

Nowadays, the intended connections to popular culture, which are significant for Instant City, apply to the building of the Kunsthaus itself. It has become an iconic subject - constantly photographed, published online and worldwide in hundreds of magazines and magazines.

'The Blimp: the airship: beauty, disaster and history. On the one hand we were designing a totally unseen and underground building at Monte Carlo, and on the other hand flirting with the airborne will-o-the-wisp. The Instant City as a series of trucks rushing round like ants might be practical and immediate, but we could not escape the loveliness of the idea of Instant City appearing out of nowhere, and after the ‘event’ stage, lifting up its skirts and vanishing. In fact, the primary interest was spontaneity, and the remaining aim to knit into any locale as effectively as possible. For Archigram, the airship is a device: a giant skyhook.'

Archigram, Edited by Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron & Mike Webb, 1972 [reprinted New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999].

Batiment Public, Monte Carlo

The tender called for designs providing the option to stage banquets, variety theatre, a circus and other public events. In 1973, Archigram and Colin Fournier proposed a space that could accommodate a go-kart track, circus elephants, chamber music and even ice hockey, an architectural design in which space was carved out according to the specific event, a ‘feature space’, a platform for all kinds of activities. Barely visible from the outside, this space was to be underground, with six entrances, intentionally more than were needed. Above, the plan included a park directly next to the sea. Hidden power and telephone cables in the ground offered further potential uses for various requirements. The idea was that you could even use them to order a drink.

The plans show service nodes embedded in the ground and domed ceiling; equipped with robot-like machines serving the various functional requirements of the space and producing structures for each application (plug-in principle). In this way a kind of stage space would be generated with permanently changing spatial, colour or acoustic features, drawing attention away from the architectural shell. Monitors and rear projections were intended to break down the barrier between performance and its media transmission. The sketches for the fittings in the space are deliberately reminiscent of live TV studios; toilets, ticket offices, light, benches are consequently set up to be mobile. In their concept, the architects emphasise the particular significance of the ‘unknown’, of not knowing what awaits you. The value of the unknown in the experience of architecture also played an important role from the outset in the ideas
for the Kunsthaus.


'Nowhere else in Monaco is there a park that you can use (the Jardin Exotique is remote and steep). Here could be a place, next to the beach, that extends its services but is complementary in atmosphere and experience. David Greene’s Rokplug/Logplug provided a clue: a grassy bank with trees (in the ‘English Tradition’, etc.), with service outlets at 6-metre intervals. How about a telephone-parasol-airbed-fan-TV appliance (a stick or pack) that you hire and plug in? Call for drinks. Keep cool. No rok or log needed this time, just a neat hole in the ground like a golf-hole. And the hot features? The events? They are inside.'

Archigram Group, II Features Monte Carlo, no date

'There is a similarity to the Kunsthaus in the sense that the Monte Carlo project had no fixed programme. It actually was a platform. It could be used for concerts, for exhibitions, ice-skating, for all kinds of things. This is the way we saw the Kunsthaus because it did not have a collection. It would be a platform that could be reconfigured by new curators all the time. In our drawing for the Monte Carlo project the important thing was not so much the architecture but the different events the architecture could facilitate. The way we presented it as six different layouts, six different reinterpretations – if you want. The building in a way was the framework for this to happen.'

Colin Fournier, Conversation with Barbara Steiner, 21.01.2017

The Sponge

Starting with the idea of peeling away the outer skin of existing buildings and substituting this with a spongy, landscape-like zone, a variable skin, the aim is to create a new type of building on the basis of an old one. The term ‘sponge’ is derived from a bath sponge and its capacity to absorb. Many years after this idea was considered, the Kunsthaus was set to be given a changing, transparent outer skin. For reasons of building technology, budget and time, this could not be realised.

'Various analogies and sub-types suggest themselves, such as the ‘patchwork’ (as in patchwork quilt: made up of standard sized panels but widely different derivations); ‘gunge’ and the first version of the ‘sleek corner’ (a deliberate exercise in the aesthetics of artificiality finding an analogy between an architectural skin and the cosmeticised face of the 18th-century coquette or Japanese Kabuki actor).'

Peter Cook, 'Peter Cook: Six Conversations', Architectural Monographs, No. 28, (London: Academy Editions, 1993)

The Tongue

In 1997 an international competition was staged for the Schlossberg site. Cook and Fournier’s building was to be given a strikingly vivid roof with organic-looking, shifting ‘nozzles’, as if it were gushing out of the mountain and onto the street below. The title The Tongue refers to the shape of the building; taking this association further, the ‘nozzles’ are reminiscent of taste buds, too. There are also parallels to the Kunsthaus here relating to a double-layered skin and the spatial programme. In terms of ideas about a multifunctional exhibition centre, its roofing solution, the polymorphous lining on the inside and its bright colours, The Tongue was an important step towards the concept for today’s Kunsthaus.

'Schlossberg: we submitted a model for the exhibition. When the competition was awarded they kept the model. I think they called it the “Schachtel”, the space inside the Schlossberg. It was uniting different corridors and spaces and created a very complex space. The only way we could handle it was to line it with a membrane protecting it from falling rocks and water dripping. And this leaked out and became the tongue. The main features from there, the skin is also letting the light in, shares features with the Kunsthaus.'

Colin Fournier, Conversation with Barbara Steiner, 21.01.2017

Kunsthaus Graz

Lendkai 1
8020 Graz, Österreich
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24th/25th December 2023