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The city of Graz is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with its old historical center. Although it is a small city with a quarter of million inhabitants, the second largest town in conservative Austria, the city surprises with the number of modern buildings. The most surprising fact is that some of top modern contemporary buildings and installations found their place in historical center, thus making Graz an important city on a tourist map. Graz is attractive not only because of its historical center, which became a UNESCO world cultural heritage site, but also because of its modern architecture. The two most remarkable projects, Murinsel and Kunsthaus were designed for the occasion of “Graz-Cultural Capital of Europe” manifestation. The year 2003 has been considered to be one of the most significant years in its history in which Graz was named by the EU Ministries of Culture to be the center of cultural events in Europe for the whole year.
Graz as a valuable historical town
Prior to laying out the short history of the city, it is important to emphasize that interplay of cultures significantly influencing architecture as well as other aspects of life, could be noticed. Cultures such as Romanic, Slavic, Magyar (Hungarian) and Alpine- Germanic gave a unique character to the city. The history of the city started 5000 years ago. For the first time in 1128 the name of Graz was mentioned in documents. In 1379 Graz became the capital of “Inner Austria”, the area which consisted of Styria and Carinthia, together with Krain, inner Istria and Trieste (today the territory of Slovenia, Italy and Croatia), and residence of Hapsburg dynasty to 1619.
Styles which could be noticed at buildings are from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Historicism up to Art Nouveau.
Ever since Graz was an important crossroads owing to its border position; with just 45 miles to the east to the border with Hungary Graz became an important east-west link and with just 25 miles to the south to the Slovenian border it was the so-called Balkan gate. Known as an important cultural, scientific and technological center, Graz offers great educational possibilities with its four universities. Mentioning industry cannot be omitted as Graz is the third biggest economic center in Austria with about 50% of population in Graz working in local industries.
Graz, the clandestine capital of architecture
In 2003 it was common knowledge that Graz had become Austria’s clandestine capital of architecture. Of course, other capitals can also be proud of their historical buildings. But in Graz people had already understood from very early on that exceptional contemporary architecture would form the jewel in the crown of the built environment for future generations. And so they encouraged it as best they could.
It all started around 1970 with the emergence of the ‘Graz School’. The term describes the heterogeneous group of what were young artists at the time and of whom it has been said that they negated all kinds of tradition and didn’t care a fig about contemporary developments in their impetuous drive and desire to reinvent the wheel over and over again. Wild in the old days, they are now respected teachers at faculties of architecture in Austria and abroad, and are building more than ever. Former colleagues are now tough competitors on the ground. Their style of architecture increasingly follows international trends.
But a good reputation entails obligations. Visitors to Graz come across examples of the highest quality of modern architecture in a density that leaves many a European metropolis behind and in a variety which points to a tradition of welcoming free, creative thinkers.
You can already guess what the city has in store for you upon arrival. The airport (architects: Riegler.Riewe, extension: Pittino & Ortner) and main railway station (Zechner & Zechner) have received a complete makeover– metropolitan, functional and suffused with light.
En passant, the visitor is bound to stumble across the spectacular. Highly prominent, for example, is the Kunsthaus by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier. It consists of a deep blue, almost alien-looking structure which stretches out along the right bank of the River Mur and is surrounded by low suburban houses belonging to the districts of Gries and Lend. Then there’s a half open seashell as a walk-on island anchored to the middle of the river. Designed by US artist Vito Acconci, the city authority has fitted it out with a café and an open-air stage.
UNESCO declared the city’s historical centre a world heritage site precisely because it unites the old and the new in such a harmonious way. Those wishing to discover the many architectural gems of the Old Town will find a department store steeped in tradition – now modernized, featuring a number of enlargements, and with the older heterogeneous structure skillfully joined to roofs, bridges and passages in glass and steel (architects: Szyszkowitz and Kowalski). They’ll also discover little boutiques, cafés and bakeries in a thrilling interplay between ancient arches and modern hi-tech design.
And they can also visit time-honored museums with attractive new entrances where collections are perfectly presented, or seek out an original events hall (architect: Reiner Schmidt) in the Schlossberg which was carved painstakingly out of the rock.
A propos events and their venues: a lively city of art and culture such as Graz needs to have both several and different sites to stage its performances. The striking Stadthalle has a roof that projects 40 meters out and stands on just four supporting stands; it has the elegance of the big city, the hall is huge and a complete all-rounder (architect: Klaus Kada). In the case of the Helmut List Halle, a former factory shop for building locomotives was turned into a concert hall carefully designed to capture the acoustics of old and new music (architect: Markus Pernthaler). The Literaturhaus is free from superfluous flourishes and decor. Designed by Riegler Riewe, this piece of pure architecture forms an intimate setting for literary novices and prestigious authors, both of whom are at home here.
Graz can already point to a number of great minds in the fields of science and art. The basis for updating this honorable list was created in the course of an exceptional architectural offensive. 14 university buildings were constructed over the past 15 years – each of them with their own remarkable architectural qualities. Some of them have attained worldwide fame, such as the hothouses in the Botanical Gardens (architect: Volker Giencke), a promenade architectural of constructive innovation, spatial inventiveness and staged interaction with nature.
The completion of the ‘Mumuth’ for the university of art – a breathtaking glass shell for music and music theatre by star Dutch architect Ben van Berkel –adds a further highlight to the history of contemporary Graz architecture as will the initiative to modernize the Styrian regional hospital of LKH Graz. Here, the fully landscaped pavilion in the Jugendstil style has been successively compacted through the addition of many new buildings and sensitive extensions into a showcase for 21st century medicine and architecture.
The 19th century Gründerzeit districts with their four universities and many parks are preferred areas to live for the urbane resident of Graz wishing to have an apartment or loft converted by an architect. People who enjoy living close to rural surroundings have always moved to the edge of town, so it’s no surprise that the quality of residential housing has contributed in no small measure to the fame of the city’s architecture. This is where the recent history of Graz’s architecture comes full circle. 25 years ago, young architects began to adopt new approaches to building homes and managed to push through highly unusual results.
Much of what was built in the process – such as the housing developments by the architectural offices of Hubert Rieß, Pentaplan, Gruppe 3 and Volker Giencke in the districts of Mariatrost and St. Peter – features among today’s most popular residential accommodation and among the highly visited attractions offered by Graz’s architecture. The trend which emerged when the unconventional experiment was only to be discovered in Graz still continues today.
In conclusion we could add that Graz is definitely the best example how modern can meet past without disturbing environment and demolishing the valuable historical monuments. It is important to know the past in order to understand the present and the most important, in order to face the future without fear of unknown. Buildings certainly have emotions and each of them tells us some story. Just by trying to understand each of them, by looking with consideration and sensibility what more could we do to help this building to continue to live forever, just than we are allowed to understand some parts of the past and to adjust to modern and progressive ideas.
Graz is a great example of how one historical town is capable to continue its development in a modern way.
Text from GRAZ TOURISMUS.