Small Package, Big Ideas

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By the standards of most 24-story buildings, the new Austrian Cultural Forum, which opens this week in New York City, occupies a space the size of a pipe cleaner. In a plot just 25 ft. across, the width of the town house it replaces, Austria's state-sponsored cultural outpost holds a library, galleries, offices and a mini-theater, plus an apartment for the Forum's director. But its real miracle is to squeeze more visual cunning and brainy pleasure into a small space than you can find in whole blocks of dreary office cartons--that is to say, most of midtown Manhattan.

Raimund Abraham, the Forum's architect, was born in Lienz in the Austrian Alps but has lived and taught in the U.S. since 1964. No one would describe him as a man who compromises. To protest the coalition government at home that includes the far-right Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, he recently renounced his Austrian citizenship. At 68, he's one of those architects better known for theories and drawings than completed projects. The one-volume compilation of his works is called [Un]Built.

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That started to change 10 years ago, when he won the Forum commission in a jury competition among 226 Austrian architects. Four years later, the Austrian Parliament nearly balked at completing the job, partly because of concerns that Abraham's design was too challenging for an official building. They had a point. The design is severe and saw-toothed, with nothing Sound of Music about it, unless the music you have in mind is Schoenberg. It harks back instead to the angular daring of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, the great figures of Viennese modernism, and even further, to the first principles of building that modernism rediscovered. "I try to connect to the origins of architecture," says Abraham. "Digging a hole, making a mound."

Floor by floor, the Forum is as eventful as a totem pole. To satisfy zoning regulations that require upper stories to be set back to admit sunlight to the street, most architects provide a stair-step silhouette. Abraham produced a diagonal slope with angular overhangs, like teeth on a harpoon. His upper stories simultaneously thrust upward and avalanche down. Below that, the director's office is housed in a glass box that juts from the zinc facade.

Though Abraham hates the illusionistic flourishes of postmodernism, the Forum's thunderbolt profile can't help suggesting an Alpine fir tree or maybe the mountain slopes he knew in his youth as a champion skier. Even he compares the building to a guillotine blade--not a bad image for a building that has cut through Manhattan's architectural doldrums. For four decades, developers have crammed the skyline with featureless boxes or high-rise gimmicks like Philip Johnson's Chippendale-top Sony headquarters. Now the city faces its most important urban-design decision in years: what to put where the World Trade Center was. Abraham's little rocket of a building suggests that not only is Austrian culture alive but that maybe New York City's can be born again too.