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Fortress of Backyards

Graz, Austria
1 of 3

Great metal

On the one hand, you could say all kinds of things about this project. Nothing much is left of it now apart from a few marks in the tarmac on the pavement where it once stood - to the delight of the Austrian Federal Monuments Office, to be sure. On the other hand, the Fortress of Backyards attracted droves of visitors, and it was reviewed in several media, too. It would be better, therefore, to stick to proven facts. Asking one or two people a few questions about possibly lingering memories was also quite helpful in an endeavour to paint a vivid picture of an architecture that has vanished for good. Built for a period of use just short of a month, the festival centres of steirischer herbst exemplify well the - mostly successful - temporary utilisation of unique amenities, where unique is meant here in the sense of 'once only'. The so-called herbstbar, an additional facility serving alcoholic drinks, lodged these places magically and permanently in the collective memory of art creators and art consumers alike: in the Lightsaber near the Opera House! In the Iron House prior to its demolition! In the container on Karmeliterplatz! Around the clock in the Thalia Theatre! And in autumn 2014, the late baroque palace, Palais Wildenstein in Graz, was declared the festival centre in the backyard fortress. Due to the closure of the local police station, parts of the extensive Federal Police building complex located around the Paulustor gate had become temporarily empty, and so artists and architects were permitted to move in for a while. Without further ado, they revamped the old building with simple, but powerful means.

In an initial and fundamental step, Supersterz and .tmp architekten wrapped two trapezoid sheet metal walls around the massive rusticated masonry of the building's street facade. Rising in height and covered with yellow reflecting strips, the walls directly targeted the magnificent central portal from the left and right, running through the bottleneck in the courtyard entrance and out into the open again. At that point, both sheet metal walls suddenly diverged to finally encompass a spacious, but clearly bounded area: the eponymous backyard was born. Appropriate furnishings were added to the familiar backyard cliche: white plastic chairs from the DIY store, worn out tractor tyres, crates full of empty bottles and second-hand container garages. The show was ready to go! For besides providing the appropriate architecture, the planners reckoned it was just as important to focus on what was going to happen in their backyard creation. To do that, they boldly turned the festival's motto into the opposite: 'I prefer not to ... share' became 'I prefer to ... share!', thus announcing sharing, in the sense of collective use, as the leitmotif of their design. It is thanks to their initiative that the backyard became a hub of knowledge and skills exchange that would have otherwise remained firmly in the sphere of professionals. Thus, for example, the Fahrradküche bicycle club occupied two of the containers, ran workshops on bicycle and high-wheeler construction, and held one of their spectacular historic building criteriums in the listed palace building. The Druckzeug club, on the other hand, moved into the third container during the festival period taking with them all their machines and equipment. Open garage door: the club is present and might print things with the big road roller! Who is going to join them? Closed garage door: today you will have to get on without us. After unearthing one or two pieces of printing machinery in the police force's former on site printing shop, they were incorporated into the club's collection of machinery. And the herbstbar immediately took advantage of the opportunity and had their beer mats and menus printed in their neighbours' container. Sharing, however, as understood in the sense of dividing, too: here is my yard, and there is yours! The architects had defined clear boundaries and well-managed space as a basis for the laid-back use of the classic backyard as a possibility of freely developing ideas and activities. Anyhow, initially worried neighbours from adjacent buildings still used by the police acknowledged the steel palisade around the artists' yard with relief. Inside the backyard, the metre-high trapezoid metal sheet also received positive recognition: as an emotional barrage against both the neighbouring police detention centre and the building's grim history, which in the Nazi era had been the seat of the Security Service, serving also as a place of execution. That history was discussed by steirischer herbst in an article for the festival magazine, amongst others. Hence, the multiple folded trapezoid metal sheet made a strong impact as a facade and also served as a guidance system, while creating new spaces and defectively demarcating the inside from the outside, the past from the present.

The Fortress of Backyards also encompassed the interior spaces of the festival centre: openings in the trapezoid metal sheet led from the courtyard entrance on the left to the central herbst exhibition whose title, 'Forms of Distancing', correlated with the circumstance that the exhibition architecture was not part of the architects' assignment. The courtyard exit again guided exhibition visitors through the metal wall. On the right, visitors were able to access the herbstbar directly from the courtyard entrance. There, a few pieces of newly made furniture were available for use, chiely comprising a bar counter and DJ desk: lightweight timber constructions behind corrugated Perspex, formally related to the somewhat sharper-edged trapezoid metal sheets. Parts of them, they say, are still in use today. Particularly unappetising floor tiles were hidden beneath an abstractly patterned cork floor covering made especially for the occasion; a necessity, above all, in the traditional artist's dining room. And yes, those familiar white monobloc chairs were omnipresent in the interior spaces, too. All interviewees recalled the good atmosphere in the Backyard, its inspiring environment (despite, or even because of, the police 'breathing down one's neck'), and the exceptionally ine weather. How would the backyard have fared if it had been exposed to rain and cold? The Austrian Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics described October 2014 as one of the sunniest and warmest months in the southern Styrian region since recording started 250 years ago. Fortune favours the bold!

  • Andreas Strohriegel
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bostjan, February 23rd, 2017
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