Graz is Austria’s second largest city and one of two distinct halves. The river Mur, which flows through its centre on its way down to neighbouring Croatia, divides the medieval old town from newer developments on the east bank. Uhrturm, the venerable old clock tower that sits solemnly atop Grazer Schloßberg, overlooks the city’s melting pot of Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque architecture, a historical stew that scooped Graz World Heritage Site status in 1999.
One might assume that the city’s elders hold a dim view of modern architecture, which is partly true. Apart from a blobby modern art museum by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, built in 2003 for Graz’s European City of Culture celebrations, it remains the exception rather than the rule. Consequently the most recent construction has occurred east of the river. Over the last century, the area was subject to steady development and today there is little space free from some structure or another. Offices, apartments, hotels and municipal buildings rub shoulders in an urban environment adhering to no formal plan; the seemingly haphazard streets follow what used to be offshoots from the Mur rather than a bureaucrat’s blueprint.
One of the last spots colonised was Nikolaiplatz, a rectangular patch of land a chip shot from the riverbank. Formerly home to a decrepit storage shed, a simple elegant modern office by local practices Atelier Thomas Pucher and Bramberger now stands in its place. “It is really a perfect piece of city, a beautiful mix,” says Thomas Pucher of his canvas.
Into this “perfect piece of city” the practice has inserted a narrow rectangular building with a gleaming gold and glass checkerboard facade. It was designed for Bauwerk Projekt, a local developer with a keen appreciation of rectilinear modernism, which now shares the space with tenants NIK, a media agency. Atelier Thomas Pucher’s effort slots smoothly into the growing portfolio. The building appears to be the definition of simplicity, as if the blocks were methodically placed next to one another until the required dimensions were reached. In reality, the site’s prominence hid great challenges. Largest of these was an underground car park directly underneath the old storage shed. The client owned the site, but not the car park, and so Pucher was obliged to build on top of it. This immediately ruled out heavy masonry or brick as a construction material: “We calculated you could do a two-storey brick building there, but no more,” says Pucher. “We had the idea to do a simple building with a very light steel construction. With the same weight we found we could do five floors.” Underpinning the building is an intricate piece of structural engineering designed to safely distribute the weight. The practice carefully weaved steel girders into the garage supports below. “It was really complex, like a spider’s web,” says Pucher, “but it’s not visible anymore.”
Gently placed onto this web is a stack of gold cubes that takes up every inch of the site without dominating either the street or the (pretty miserable) green space on the riverside. “We found this shape solved all the urban conditions. It creates a small plaza on the side of the existing buildings, which everyone likes. The park is still ugly, but at least you have an object that you look at instead of the park.”
Keen to encourage a healthy and bright working environment, the practice incorporated large amounts of glass into the facade. However, in a heavily built up area such as this, privacy was an obvious problem. Too much transparency and workers’ daily routine would be subject to scrutiny from the neighbours and passersby. Countering the potential goldfish bowl effect, Pucher and his team arranged the aluminium panels opposite the glass counterparts on the opposing walls. “You get extremely high transparency but you have a clear intimacy as well.” At the top of each gold square are tiny slots, almost unnoticeable, that ventilate the building. To prevent staff from photosynthesising, automated blinds shut out the sunlight when the heat becomes too much.
On the inside, the gold panelled areas are covered in handy shelving, drawing inevitable office clutter away from the windows. The internal layout displays similarly efficient logic. Working with a narrow floorplate, the architects placed the services, toilets and main stairwell to the building’s southern end. At the centre is an unfussy spiral staircase connecting a gallery sandwiched by two offices. NIK employed its own interior designers for the fitout. “Nope, we did not do the interior design,” says Pucher. “The funny thing is we did the concept. The media agency had a different architect, but they followed our guidelines.” Bauwerk Project snagged the penthouse office and roof terrace for themselves, although NIK reportedly has its eye on occupying the whole building.
The roof terrace is strategically oriented towards the clock tower, a structure that seems to rule over Graz’s planning department like a conservative grandfather, chiding anyone that fails to show the required deference. “Whatever you do in the city has to be related to the clock tower,” explains Pucher. “It is the symbol of the city.” The relationship is similar to London’s enduring love affair with St Paul’s, albeit on a much smaller scale, and one wonders what shape our cities might have taken without these monuments to act as anchors.
In a rather fitting twist, Pucher’s building has met with such popular acclaim that it is now one of the stops on the tourist bus. “Graz is really a small city, so they need some attractions,” he laughs. One suspects he is being a little too modest.