A Call to Courage

A Call to Courage

KIT Chair for Theory of Architecture

“Steiner is sleeping! Do not disturb!,” Architekturzentrum Wien, 2016. Photo: Georg Vrachliotis.

May 27, 2020
A Call to Courage
For Dietmar Steiner (1951–2020) by Georg Vrachliotis

“Steiner is sleeping! Do not disturb!” the small yellow post-it with the handwritten warning was stuck on the door of Dietmar Steiner’s office at Architekturzentrum Wien (AzW), the Austrian Museum of Architecture in Vienna. When I glimpsed the note during a visit in February 2016, I couldn’t help but snap a picture as I passed by. To me it represented the joie de vivre and wit of this person, who was most fondly and reverently referred to, not by his first name, but simply as “Steiner.” Yet moments of calm in everyday life at AzW were actually a rarity. There was simply too much that had to be done, in his opinion. When it came to architecture, for Steiner the sky was the limit. Architecture was his life—whether as a tireless ambassador of Austrian building culture, long-standing editor of the magazine Domus, curator, author, juror, writer, or committed critic of Vienna’s controversial cultural policy decisions. Steiner was the epitome of a “seeker” in the best sense of the word: ever alert and curious, inquisitive and energetic, someone who could think and act quickly, and therefore possessed the rare gift of always being able to view the world at eye level. In discussions he was often challenging and argumentative, but his voice had international weight due to his decades of experience.

Dietmar Steiner, born in Wels, Austria, in 1951, studied architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, first with Ernst A. Plischke, later with Gustav Peichl. With the founding of Architekturzentrum Wien in 1993, Steiner also laid the foundation for its international success, which continues to this day. In just under 25 years, he developed the small architectural platform, initially housed in temporary premises, into one of the world’s most fascinating architecture museums. This tremendous task earned him not only the respect of the international cultural scene, but also the role of President of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums (ICAM), in which he served from 2006 to 2014. During his time at AzW he oversaw numerous groundbreaking, high-profile exhibitions which often opened up entirely new perspectives on architecture. These included the world’s first exhibition on Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio and his design-build movement; the era-defining project, The Austrian Phenomenon, on the Austrian avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s; and the internationally influential Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky in cooperation with the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

After more than two decades at the helm of AzW, Steiner retired in 2016, leaving it to a new generation with Angelika Fitz as its director. In his honor, a great happening was held there, aptly titled In the End: Architecture. This critical and ambitious review of the last half-century of architectural history was accompanied by an architectural congress, whose contributions were compiled in the ARCH+ anniversary issue Project and Utopia to compose a polyphonic architectural genealogy. It was indeed an event of superlatives, and everyone who was someone descended on Vienna to attend. Steiner himself seemed unusually melancholy and thoughtful. But how else should one feel, witnessing the end of an era, namely, one’s own? In the last few years, it seemed as though he had started to lose faith in the political power of architecture. In his view, the figure of the architect was increasingly at risk. He found the exploitative thinking of the global building industry too dominant, the hunger of the mighty real estate industry too great, the works of established architectural firms too unimaginative, and the international circus of biennials too conventional.

“In the end, what advice can I impart to the younger generation?” he asked himself in the ARCH+ anniversary issue. It was almost as if he, too, was in search of a new role to take on, after all the debates and discourses of the past 50 years. “The simple fact is that, over the recent decades in Europe, North America, and South America, we have trained far too many young architects, and they can no longer find work in the classical labor market of architectural offices. Now it’s time that they get outside, go to the building site where concrete decisions are being made. They need to meet those who are affected by planning and urban development, to work with them, to lend a hand—in the end, to formulate alternatives to the existing bureaucratic morass of urban development.” What he described was a considerable and by no means easy challenge for the new generation—which must inevitably define its own critical position in reconciling the contradictions of its discipline.

In a way, Steiner had already answered his own question long ago. In a passionate letter to the ARCH+ editors from 1980, he congratulated the editorial team at the time on the success of their 50th issue, dedicated to the Rediscovery of Space: Urban Spaces—Social Spaces. It was time to “take a closer look at the reality of the built space, which has been neglected for too long,” Steiner wrote. He had always been interested in the societal dimension, the so-called social space. This concern for society was something he demanded of architects as well, again and again. “With this in mind, we must show more courage in addressing the ‘meat of the matter,’ to address everyday life, space, architecture, and reality, for heaven’s sake!” In his inimitable way, Steiner thus formulated nothing less than the virtue he himself practiced throughout his lifetime.

Now Dietmar Steiner has found his final rest and no one can disturb him anymore. He passed away on May 15, 2020. A bitter loss for architecture. He will be sorely missed.

Georg Vrachliotis is Professor for Architecture Theory at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and member of the advisory board of ARCH+.

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