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New Graz

New Graz

Paul Wade - 2003-03-01

"We are not putting Graz on the map: it's been there a long time." So says Peter Cook, one half of a pair of British architects who have designed the most avant garde building to grace Europe's City of Culture for 2003. In fact, their Kunsthaus (art gallery) won't be finished until the end of the year, but no one seems to mind. Already nicknamed 'The Mattress' and 'The Friendly Alien' by locals, the gallery is an astonishing creation, built on the 'wrong side of the tracks', the west side of the River Mur. Like a floating bloated gherkin, the building will act as a visual counter balance to the clock tower that crowns the Schlossberg hill. But Graz has lots more modern architecture to delight and surprise you.

Already afloat is the Insel in der Mur, Vito Acconci's steel-ribbed temporary island. With its playground, meeting place and café, this will be declared an independent republic for two weeks in July. Other new projects for Graz's year in the limelight include a new Stadthalle (hall) on the old trade fair grounds, the Helmut List concert hall (the new home of the annual Styriarte festival) and the Literaturhaus (Literary Centre).

Most guidebooks to Graz are full of paragraphs waxing lyrical about the Italian Renaissance architecture: arcades, courtyards and palaces. But for architects such as Cook, it is Graz's contribution to modern architecture that appeals. "Along with California and Japan, Graz was where it was all happening in the late 20th century. They were coming up with ideas that they would not countenance in Vienna."

So proud of this modernity is the city that it puts out a free pamphlet with a map and walking tour of 'New Graz Architecture'. As I strolled round the old city, I found striking contemporary designs harmoniously coexisting with historic buildings. Take the Bermudadreiecke, the 'Bermuda Triangle', where ancient lanes open onto squares a-bustle with bars and restaurants. Bang in the middle is Richard Ellmer's steel and glass box of a building with the Café M1 on top. A sensation when it opened in 1991, the design is taken for granted nowadays by locals sipping coffee and savouring the panorama over red-tiled rooftops. Also in the heart of the city are the innovative buildings of the Kastner & Öhler department store complex and the super-cool Johan restaurant and bar. Best of all are the toilets at the 17th century Zeughaus, the Armoury Museum. No kidding! Behind the reception desk, Klaus Kada's cubicles have become an attraction in their own right. Well worth spending a penny!

The core of all this creativity is the School of Architecture at the university, a few tram stops away in the tree-lined suburbs to the east of the city. I still cannot decide which students enjoy more dramatic buildings: those studying law, sociology and economics (ReSoWi for short in German) or GAMA (geography, English, and maths). In the botanical gardens, Klaus Kada allied steel, glass and brick for his curved, unsupported, 36m-long bridge linking an elegant villa and new laboratories. Nearby are Volker Giencke's greenhouses, a geometric combination of glass and aluminium arching above zones devoted to the tropics, the desert, temperate and Mediterranean climates. Despite carrying the heating pipes, the aluminium struts are so thin that 98% of available sunlight gets in.

The unmissable design is, paradoxically, the easiest to miss: the Dom in Berg, the caverns hacked out of the rugged pinnacle of rock that dominates the city. I half-expected to see James Bond villain Blofeld plotting world domination in this enormous space; instead, staff were setting up for one of the many events, which range from rock concerts to art exhibitions. From here, the top of the hill, with its historic clock tower, is just a glide away in a glass lift. Once again, new and old, old and new, happily juxtaposed.

Practical information
New Graz Architecture: the free pamphlet highlighting 30 of the best examples of modern buildings is available at the Graz Tourist Office, 16 Herrengasse.
Tel: 00 43 316 80750, www.visitgraz.com

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