What stories should a region tell, to explain themselves to strangers? A small state in Austria has chosen to tell the world about its high-quality modern architecture. And there is a lot.
Vorarlberg borders Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, has a population under 400,000 and is about half the size of Prince Edward Island. Yet, since the 1960s the community has been championing contemporary architecture and now there are hundreds of examples that have earned the region an international reputation.
For the past several years Vorarlberg has been circulating a travelling exhibition about its architecture, Getting Things Done, to 32 sites around the world. At the moment it is on display at the Dalhousie School of Architecture.
The house illustrated on the announcement illustrates some of the exhibition themes. The house is clearly modern but the form references traditional buildings, in this case barns. The core of the structure is concrete while many finishes are wood, milled from trees sustainably harvested near the site. A pool of skilled workers are co-producers with the designers to create a finely detailed project.
The clients for the Vorarlberg buildings are varied, including farmers and small businesses as well as local building authorities. The community appears to embrace a dialogue between old and new in the urban and rural landscape.
The exhibition structure itself speaks to this integration of design, material and craftsmanship. A light wooden frame suspends fabric panels of illustrations and text.
The visitor experience is a bit like going through a rack of clothes looking for that perfect shirt. You can remove any panel that strikes your fancy and hang it out for closer examination.
The detailing and materials are exquisite and at the opening the architecture crowd were as enchanted with the structure as with the content.
So what did I learn?
It is possible for communities to embrace the modern while celebrating the traditional. The conversation between the two can be spirited and respectful and provide new life to the landscape.
Vorarlberg is serious about telling its architecture story. Research and planning for the exhibition took place over several years and the presentation is rigorously scholarly. The curator, Wolfgang Fiel, was at the opening, championing his region and his topic.
I also learned that the landscape of Vorarlberg is not always subtle.
When I worked at the Nova Scotia Museum I was involved with travelling exhibitions and know a lot about their special challenges. I particularly enjoyed exploring the web site for Getting Things Done because it gave lots of insights into the process of putting the project together. Clearly, the team was invested and engaged. Some of the details are delightful, like photos of planning meetings that show half eaten pastries. I don’t recall that we ever had food at our meetings. Sad.
An enduring legacy of the project is 70 video interviews with architects about their projects and practice. Some of these videos are translated into English and can be comfortably sampled online. Most of the interviews were conducted in the architect’s homes, and an important part of the documentation are photos of their personal environments. It is refreshing to see interesting interiors that have not been staged and sanitized. You see piles of books, chairs that get sat in and kitchens that are used for cooking.
- I keep thinking about Nova Scotia and the stories we tell about ourselves. If we followed Vorarlberg’s lead, when Bluenose visited foreign ports its narrative would be about how our long tradition of wooden boat building has inspired a modern shipbuilding industry that supports a sustainable fishery. But that wouldn’t exactly be true.
- When looking at pictures of the Vorarlberg architecture I kept thinking, this reminds me of Wallpaper magazine. Then I came upon a quote from Wallpaper that describes Vorarlberg as “the most progressive part of the planet when it comes to new architecture.”
- Also, Vorarlberg looks a bit like the set of a Wes Anderson movie.