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Cultural totem pole: Raimund Abraham's micro-skyscraper makes the most of a tight site amid the colossal jungle of midtown Manhattan.

Can a new tower rising only 20 storeys plus mechanical gear truly be considered an iconic Manhattan skyscraper? Inaugurated in April after a lengthy facilitation and construction process, the Austrian Cultural Forum nevertheless achieves an extraordinary totemic presence on East 52nd Street close to the Olympic and Trump Towers, the Seagram and Lever Buildings and the Museum of Modern Art. Its lot is a mere 7.6m across. The rear of the building is a vertical metal extrusion containing scissor stairs, indented at successive ceiling levels. However the Forum's southerly facade, above 52nd Street and glimpsed from both Fifth and Madison Avenues, is a sheer surface of glass, steel and aluminium tilting back to opaque shards 85m above.

It might risk oversimplification to draw an analogy between the building's extreme dimensional ambition and the ambition shown by its client -- Austria's Ministry for Foreign Affairs -- in commissioning such an eye-catching edifice for the promulgation of contemporary Austrian culture, Imagine if Missouri, say, or Oregon, were to envisage a similar project for London or Berlin. Certainly the design by Raimund Abraham, won through competition in 1992, is a bravura architectural statement. Abraham, an Austrian who has lived in the United States since the 1960s, is better known for his drawings than for built work: drawings in which graphic construction and suggestions of physical construction create strangely enigmatic surfaces.

Like previous Abraham designs, the Austrian Cultural Forum plays games with symmetry, that bugbear for many Modernists but in Abraham's world the instigator of a certain planar monumentality. Occasionally fragmented in section, but splayed to a constant angle, the facade onto 52nd Street has an implied central spine: a V-shaped cavity towards the top encloses a roof terrace, or loggia, that looks out across the city. A protruding box just six storeys up is marked by its unique T-shaped viewing slot. With glazed flanks to direct peripheral views towards both avenues, this is the Forum director's office. If Abraham appears obsessed by geometric artefacts, his architecture also draws its users into an intriguing sense of ritual.

Protected from what could be torrents of rainwater by a transparent cantilevered canopy like a glass blade, one enters to find a coolly elegant bluestone floor. The interior -- from basement gallery up via floating mezzanines through the lobby to an enclosed double-storey theatre -- is surprisingly spacious. The visitor is invited to explore, drawn by light and by complex views. Not unlike the Museum of American Folk Art (AR February 2002) just a block away, this entire zone is an inhabited void or cave in Manhattan's concrete jungle. But Abraham's architecture is more mechanistic than that of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

A skylight in a modest return section offers a dramatic view up against the zigzag stairs module. Is there an echo here of motifs in London's nascent High-Tech and the Viennese avant-gardes of three decades ago? In fact, this spiralling backbone is the result of New York regulations that require two separate means of escape: Abraham simply stacked one stair system above the other. Vertical circulation is primarily via lifts just inboard from these stairs, in a bull-nosed service tower sheathed in stainless steel. The palette of shiny metal and glass (for interior walls and balustrades) intensifies the mechanistic allusion.

Above the cafe is the wood-lined theatre, an intimate haven for music and drama, lectures and film projection. Its piece de resistance is the pneumatic platform that can raise a grand piano out of sight, flush into the ceiling. Above the theatre is a library on two levels connected by an open internal stair. As on upper floors, robust cross-bracing in grey-painted tubular steel is exposed like a diaphragm canted parallel to the external glass shards.

Above a 'loft-like' seminar room, the director's office is in turn topped by three floors of offices subdivided by generously glazed partitions. The furniture, all Austrian, some by Abraham, tends to the monochromatic and geometric. As this mini skyscraper ascends, it tapers so that floor areas become ever smaller. Several floors are dedicated to apartments and to technical services. Then, with increasingly tight plans, the director's private apartment occupies four storeys, with its own beautiful timber-skinned spiral staircase stretching up towards the loggia.

The intent of this radically rehoused institution (it previously occupied a townhouse on the same site) is distinct from the privately funded Neue Galerie newly opened on East 86th Street and resplendent with Klimts and Schieles and the work of the Wiener Werkstatte. The Forum is signalled by powerful abstraction. At rooftop level, a cylindrical water tower assumes a symmetrical position enthroned behind the upper street facade. Unlike the cheap stucco tiaras attached to so many New York buildings, these planes tip forward to facilitate the Forum's window-cleaning equipment: a very Austrian conflation of the matter-of-fact and the super-formal.

Architect

Ateller Ralmund Abraham, New York

Structural engineer

Ove Arup & Partners

Photographs

David Sundberg/ESTO
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Austrian Cultural Forum
Author:Ryan, Raymund
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Words:816
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