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Transforming Industry Into Art


Art and Connections: Hundertwasser’s District Heating Plant

The architect was the late Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), artist, activist, ecologist and architectural stylist. Hundertwasser believed that “Today architecture is criminally sterile. ... true architecture grows out of normal building activity, and this normal building activity is the organic development of a shell around a group of people.” He also stated, in his Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture, that “The straight line is godless and immoral.” His buildings and building redesigns are a riotous richness of asymmetries, color and nature. One of the most famous is Hundertwasser-House, a public-housing project in Vienna whose undulating forms, riotous colors and systemic integration of trees into the very fabric of the building as well as covering its roof perfectly fulfilled the commission given to him, which is described by his biographer Pierre Restany as “an order for a complex of happy spaces.” Hundertwasser’s life and works are celebrated at KunstHausWein, a museum designed to be “a journey into the land of creative architecture, a melody for the eyes and the feet.”

These photos are of a district heating plant in Spittelau, Vienna, Austria, showing that even “ugly” industrial facilities can be made into works of art. It is a prime tourist attraction, has an art gallery on site and the families that live around it love it. If this can be done in conservative Europe, imagine what creative possibilities exist in the USA! Power plants, hospitals, factories or any facility that wants to show the neighbourhood that it “really cares” could look like this if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the straight line and reconnect with the fluidity of nature.

Hundertwasser at first declined a commission to redesign the exterior of the Spittelau district heating plant, citing “fundamental objections to a garbage-incinerating plant as long as all possibilities for avoiding garbage were not not exhausted.” Only after being convinced that that a city as large as Vienna would always have some garbage to burn, and that fitting the plant with the most modern emission-scrubbing technology and using it to provide central heat for some 60,000 neighbouring apartments would actually reduce emissions overall, did he finally agree. (quote from the article District Heating Plant at The Hundertwasser Non Profit Foundation, Vienna, Austria.)

Completed in 1992, the plant is operated by the Vienna power company, Wienenergie. Its rated capacity of 460 MW makes it the second largest supplier in a district heating network that is one of the largest in Europe. Over 280,000 residential customers and more than 5,600 business customers in Vienna receive heat for hot water and heating from the plant through an interconnected network of 1000 km of pipeline. About 200,000 tons of waste per year are incinerated to generate 40,000 MWh of electricity, 470,000 MWh of district heating, 6,000 tonnes of scrap iron,and 60,000 tonnes of clinker, ash and filter cake.

Besides providing heat and power to its neighborhood, the plant is major tourist attraction and a cultural venue, with an on-site art gallery and concerts and other cultural events taking place in its public areas. The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts has a wonderful article about Hundertwasser and the aesthetics of the Spittelau Heating Plant that details the symbolism behind the bright colors and dramatic shapes.

Many people (but not us) find it remarkable that this particular plant is one of the most efficient power production facilities in the world. The plant boasts a boiler efficiency of 81 percent, about three times the efficiency of the average US power plant. The environmental controls in the plant are also spectacularly efficient: emissions for all controlled pollutants range from less than one to just over 30 percent of the average for similar plants and the limits set by the plant’s permit under the Austrian Clean Air Act, which is one of the strictest in the world. The “decorative” rings around the chimney actually house instruments that monitor emissions, and the interior of the plant is as delightful and cheerful to look at as the exterior.

We don’t think, and Hundertwasser certainly didn’t think, that the beauty and warmth of the interior aesthetic is disconnected from its remarkably efficient operation. He believed that buildings should be designed to cement and illustrate their organic relationship with their inhabitants, which would cause both to perform better and be happier.

Hundertwasser’s insistence that the home is a person's third skin and should be imprinted with each individual’s personality is the architectural equivalent, in our minds, of usability engineering, a particular emphasis of IDEAS practice. His vision of the five skins of man speaks to the organic interconnections that link not only people to their environment and to each other, but also every step in a process to the whole and every process to the project, every discipline to every other discipline.

Detail, nighttime and interior pictures of the Spittelau Heating Plant are copyright 2002 DWT Austria. “The Five Skins of Man,” ink drawing by Hundertwasser, 29.7 x 20.9 cm, Vienna, 1998 is reproduced from Hundertwasser: The Painter-King With The 5 Skins by Pierre Restany, © 2004 Taschen, Cologne.

Hundertwasser represented the organic interconnectedness of man and his environment by depicting the earth as the fifth of man’s skins. He was a deeply committed conservationist, a warrior in defense of the natural environment, and in the mid-1970s added posters with a conservationist message to his artistic repertoire. He also planted over 60,000 trees during his career (many as “tenants” of his architectural projects) and applied his creative genius to the design of a humus toilet and an system of tiered plantings for organic water purification, with different plants removing different impurities at each level.

In 1991, Hundertwasser was commissioned to redesign the oncology ward at Graz University Hospital. Studies conducted two years after the completion of Hundertwasser redesign showed that patients decidedly benefited from the spiritual harmony of the spontaneous asymmetry of textures, colors and decorations. An excellent article in the magazine Resurgence quotes Hundertwasser’s rationale for installing wavy floors in his buildings wherever he was permitted to. “The flat floor is an invention of architects ... It fits engines — not human beings ... If people are forced to walk on flat asphalt and concrete floors, estranged from the age-old relationship and contact with earth, a crucial part of humanity withers and dies. It is good to walk on uneven floors and regain our human balance.”

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