The History of Kunsthaus Graz
The intention to build a gallery for modern and contemporary art in Graz was declared back in the 1980s: the ideas under discussion at that time concerned what was known as the ‘Trigon-Haus’ (Trigon House) in the Pfauengarten of the Graz Stadtpark, and were based around the concept of cross-border work with Austria’s neighbouring countries. The aim was to reference the three-country biennial trigon, which took place in Graz between 1963 and 1995. Organised by the Neue Galerie Graz, these exhibitions brought together artists from Italy, (ex-)Yugoslavia and Austria and encouraged exchange between them. Designed by the Viennese office Schöffauer Schrom Tschapeller, the ‘Trigon House’ seemed to be the ideal site for these biennials.
However, the project was ultimately abandoned for political reasons and so in 1997 there was a new call for proposals.
This time, the plan was to realise a gallery in the middle of the Graz Old Town—inside the Schlossberg. The competition was held, and won by Swiss firm Weber Hofer Partner Architekten—but its construction was blocked by a referendum. A structure that survives from this phase is the ‘Dom im Berg’ event location, which is accessed via the tunnel system inside the little mountain. It is interesting to note the design for the Kunsthaus in the Schlossberg submitted by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier in 1997. Bubbles protrude from a colourful viscous-looking structure, already anticipating today’s Kunsthaus.
Urban location with potential
The Kunsthaus Graz was created on a site that had previously been run-down and unappealing. The ‘Iron House’ was in a state of disrepair and stood next to an unpaved car park in the middle of the red light district, attracting few people apart from that particular clientele.
The arrival of the Kunsthaus Graz gave a much-needed boost to the area around Südtiroler Platz and provided a link tying it to the Old Town. Numerous small shops moved in, and a creative scene emerged that has since maintained a lively exchange with the urban environment.
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 the ground floor is filled with the Kunsthaus foyer and various service facilities.
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.
8020 Graz, Österreich
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