We met our architect Much Untertrifaller in Bregenz to ask him some personal questions. In the interview the architect who is known beyond the borders talks about architectural values, his life between Paris, Munich, Vienna and Bregenz as well as about the Rote Wand which he has been in charge of for many years already.
V: Could you briefly tell us something about your career?
M: After my graduation I went to Vienna and started studying architecture. It didn’t really meant anything to me at that time. For me it was clear that I would study architecture as my father was an architect. However, I soon realised that I am very interested in architecture. My first daughter was on the way when I was in the middle of the fourth semester. From then on I played for keeps. And that’s also why I started to work alongside my studies and took part in architectural competitions in Vorarlberg. After my second child I went back to Vorarlberg. Two years later I completed my studies in Vienna. After all, I am happy that I finished university as at that time I wanted to give up many times.
I have been working together with Helmut Dietrich since I returned to Vorarlberg. Helmut and I won the competition for the Festspielhaus back then and merged our offices. We suddenly became familiar with the Bregenzer Festspielhaus and many other projects quickly followed. Our office grew rapidly and more and more employees joined our team. The Festspielhaus was a unique project and was responsible for our international success and many other projects.
V: Right now you are working on about a hundred construction projects. What kind of buildings are they?
M: We plan single-family homes as well as schools, kinder gardens, residential buildings, hotels, office and cultural buildings. The bigger projects have always been beyond the bounds of Vorarlberg. They were more like key projects which we had won in competitions. These include the Arlberg Welcome, the Stadthalle F in Vienna, the ETH Zurich sports centre, the recently completed headquarters of legero united near Graz and now we are building a large sports centre in the Olympic Park in Munich. Then there are a few more projects in France. That’s pretty much our sphere of activity. It’s important to us that we try to work on all scales, on the most diverse things. You get challenged, you have to stay aware and orientated and it just doesn’t get boring.
Festspielhaus, Bregenz (c) Bruno Klomfar
V: You have establishments in Vienna, St. Gallen, Munich, Paris and Bregenz, right? May I ask how your company is structured?
M: Yes exactly. In the last three years we’ve grown considerably, we now employ over a hundred people, which is quite a lot for an Austrian architecture company. In total these establishments are five separate companies but with the same owners. Helmut Dietrich and I are the founders and then as of late we have two additional young managing directors which is great. The four of us manage the company. In addition, there are employees who manage and take control of the local business structure. Bregenz and Vienna are of course by far the largest offices, with 40 people working there each. Most of the designs come from Helmut and me, of course it’s always teamwork, but we still have the claim that at least one of us is involved in the projects.
V: You also attract some business in France. What do you like about the country?
M: What I like about France is that the French still have a naive belief in progress in a positive sense. That’s actually quite exciting because they don’t have much craft culture anymore and building is simply sloppy. However, as an architect in France there is much more scope for the imagination and way of construction. The way in which objects can be placed in the landscape differs from the Vorarlberg building culture, which we certainly appreciate. In France, however, you have more possibilities and that is what appeals to us.
Palais de la Musique et des Congres, Straßbourg (c) Bruno Klomfar
V: Is there a project that means a lot to you?
M: Not really from a design point of view, because we don’t want the building to stand out, even though we’ve already built spectacular buildings in parts. The Bregenzer Festspielhaus is probably the one I care most about. Firstly, because this year we are already starting the third construction phase, which we have been looking after for almost thirty years now. Secondly, the Festspielhaus is a very unusual construction task, because there are not many cultural complexes in the world that have as many different performance venues as the Festspielhaus. And of course the Festspielhaus was the starting point for many other construction projects, which are also very important to us. The James Bond film was obviously an additional help from a marketing point of view. Many Vorarlberg construction projects are celebrated internationally, but the Festspielhaus is also noticed worldwide because of its significance in terms of content. The ETH Sports Centre is another project that is close to my heart. In principle, it is all key projects, such as the Concert Hall in Strasbourg, which is about twice as big as the Festspielhaus. The project in Munich is also special as it is being built in the Olympic Park. To be asked to build there is a major honour.
V: What kind of style are you pursuing?
M: Of course some of our buildings are recognizable, but we don’t pursue any kind of style. We deliberately don’t want our buildings to be recognized. For us, it’s much more important to have a appropriate response to the location, the right materials and natural light. We attach great importance to the fact that the building blends into its surroundings. The social responsibility that you have as an architect and that you should also have as a client is very important to us in all our projects. We want our projects to add value to the place and this includes keeping the ecological footprint as small as possible. That means low energy consumption and the most appropriate materials. However, we have no role models in this sense, we rather share certain values with other architects.
TUM Campus, Olympic Park Munich (c) Dietrich Untertrifaller
V: Are there any markets that you would still like to convince of your architectural approach?
M: To be honest, Asia and the Middle East do not appeal to me at all. I would be more interested in the North European and North American markets. In these countries I have the feeling that I have a connection to them and that I can make a contribution. I do not feel that for the Asian Market. Of course you can also react to a Chinese landscape, but I don’t have the urgent need to get involved there either. In the northern countries it is difficult to gain a foothold as they prefer to keep to themselves. Northern Europeans often come to learn from us because we have much more know-how in timber construction than they do. Southern Europe, I guess, is a dream for every architect, because there you don’t have to take profane things like low temperatures into account. Here, exterior spaces have exactly the same significance as interiors.
V: I can very well imagine your working day to be very varied.
M: Yes, there are several meetings and I sketch my drawings mostly in a means of transport on the I-Pad, which I then send to one of the responsible offices. You have to be made for that as travelling doesn’t bother me at all. This morning I woke up in Munich and drove to Bregenz. After this meeting I’m off to Paris. Tomorrow evening I am going Toulouse. So I am always on business. Certainly, I appreciate that because for me travelling is more kind of relaxation than stress. Besides I can concentrate well while I am travelling. In the office the door opens every two minutes whereby the productivity eases off.
V: You have been looking after the Gourmet Hotel Rote Wand for many years already.
M: Back when Joschi still had the catering company I was allowed to plan his headquarters in Lustenau and all the tents for the big events. We got to know each other through the Festspielhaus and got on well right away. We’ve been working together ever since.
I always supervise Joschi’s projects myself, just because we are friends and it is also important for him to discuss the topics with me. Obviously, I don’t work on everything myself however we do the brainstorming together. We planned the hotel restaurant, the rooms, the outdoor pool as well as the Schualhus. What was as important to Joschi as it was to us is that the charm and the certain understatement of the Rote Wand has to be retained. It has always been important to Joschi that his parents are not being offended by completely new design. Therefore we have renewed the rooms carefully and only piece by piece. The ski cellar is a long-burning issue, however it adds to the charm of the Rote Wand. In addition, Joschi is an absolute expert when it comes to what he wants to have in his hotel. This of course makes the working process far easier. I’m already looking forward to the next few Rote Wand projects as Joschi has a lot of plans for the future (laughs)!
V: Thank you very much for the nice conversation!