One of the questions Heribert Wolfmayr and Josef Saller are often asked concerns their positioning on the “border zone” between art and architecture. In fact, this approach was something that they never planned –it only cropped up later when they were being interviewed by journalists. Their very first project was an installation in public space, a giant inflatable sphere that blocked the path along Färbergasse, Graz. “We never stopped to ask: Is this art or architecture?” says Heri, “It was for us a totally logical approach.”
So is it in fact architecture, or art, or both? “We felt good where we were, yet we never doubted that it was architecture that we were making,” says Heri. But while some of their projects clearly have more function and permanence to them in a classical architectural sense than others, it is still easy to see every one of their works as spilling over the border into the realm of art. Occasionally it becomes an issue for them, such as when they had to shift from their typical intervention style into designing social housing in Vienna, with all the budgeting corsets this entails; nonetheless here too it is the core concept of the project that matters, and not where it can be assigned in terms of a discipline. As Heri puts it: “The key question for us is: when we do this project, do we need to change our way of thinking, or can we think just as we always have done?”
Their commissioned work for private clients occupies this art/architecture border zone with dramatic results, such as the Land schaf(f)t zaun. Here a garden fence swelled into a cocoon-like outside space. It incorporates a pool and seating, yet its swirling form and fluttering tiles also merge to create a dazzling object in itself. To what extent do they compromise over a client’s tastes or reservations? “The core idea is the conceptual space – so there is lots of scope for clients to intervene without changing the concept, which is strong enough to be flexible. But we never lose sight of the starting concept.” And in the case of the Land schaf(f)t zaun they were also happy to incorporate a tree later, as requested by the client. “Lack of compromise is basically an old-fashioned approach, a 1960s or ‘70s thing. Architecture now is more about coming up with solutions.”
In terms of a unified style, you would not instantly identify the architects of the Land schf(f)t zaun as the same people who designed, say, the Flederhaus. The Flederhaus was a multi-story block structure installed at the Museumsquartier in Vienna in 2011. A self-initiated project, this was the pared-down skeleton of a classic child-like house, open at the sides. And yet there is a strong thread that connects these two, and also all of heri & salli’s projects. Whether it’s a residential add-on, or a temporary spatial installation, the design for an exhibition setting, or even a utopian urban development intended only for a book –and whether it’s spheres, solid blocks, waves or twisting lines. Always, their work playfully dares people to ‘dive’ into the space, to explore it with a heightened sensuality. The Flederhaus was strung with hammocks, an invitation to passers-by to stay a while, soak up the location, to claim the urban open space as part of their natural, relaxed habitat.
For heri & salli, the crucial thing is that the person becomes an active part of the environments they make. This does not however bring us any closer to solving the problem of whether this is art or architecture, and as Heri says, “Actually we don’t really care what it is. But these things only come to life and get a purpose when they are used by people. We would not be content to make things that look nice but that is it. When people immerse themselves in them - that is when they become justified.”
They were recently invited to participate in a book called Lernen vom Raster – Strasshof an der Nordbahn und seine verborgenen Pläne (ed. Judith Eiblmayr). Located just north of Vienna, ‘Strasshof an der Nordbahn’ was conceived in 1908 as a garden city in a similar mould to Chicago, but was never realised and remains an abstract, semi-utopian fantasy. Only the planned street grid survived. Against this stage set of possibilities and impossibilities, heri&salli developed their project IMAGINATION CITY, a series of backdrop projections around the ideas of “CITY green”, “CITY water” and “CITY mountains” that shifts between fact and fiction, the ordinary and the extraordinary, rather like a magical realist novel. Again, just as if we were wandering through one of their built environments, we are invited to dive headfirst into the invented territory. The project IMAGINATION CITY was recently invited to the Architectural Biennale 2014 in Venice.
Last year they also developed a project called Fenster zum Hinterland for Westgürtel-Grundsteingasse in Vienna: a vertical, planted window and passage between zones that challenges the user to feel the surrounding distances, transitions and transformations, rather like Alice’s looking glass or CS Lewis’s wardrobe to Narnia.
There is also a sense of frozen fluidity to their work. Commissioned by a private client, the Treppentanz, for example, is a staircase in a renovated loft apartment in Vienna. Two bannisters twist and flow over one another, the railings forming a series of body stills that chart the choreography of a turning dancer. It is more than one movement: this is a staircase that gives the illusion of opening up possibilities, of more than one way to reach the top, that ultimately takes a narrow space and throws it wide open. Its fluidity spills over into our own movements, making us want to dance through its space ourselves.
Before becoming an architect Heri was active as a musician, and this idea of direct impact and connection with people is something that carries over into their architecture. The playfulness that infuses their work is reflected in the name of their studio, which came about quite by chance but stuck simply because it suited them so well. They have been working together for a long time now, and although they admit that arguments can be “part of the working process”, they think the same way and know each other well enough to automatically divide up tasks according to their respective strengths. “Each of us has to give a project a tick before we start. Unless we are both absolutely behind it, we wouldn’t bother doing it.” They talk seamlessly, each finishing off the other’s points and chipping in with a natural - and very funny –flow of banter. It is hard to imagine Heri without Salli or vice versa, and their work is an extension of this. “Our personalities determine our work… it is what makes our architecture,” says Salli.