Manhattan’s Austrian Landmark
The ACFNY - A Cultural Engine
By Wolfgang Waldner
In March of 1956, Austria sent the young lawyer and translator Wilhelm Schlag to New York City to prepare the ground for the establishment of a Cultural Institute. Schlag first started his mission in a small room in the office of the Austrian observer at the United Nations. He then relocated to two rooms at the Shelton Towers Hotel on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street, close to what was to become the home of the Austrian Cultural Institute. In addition to laying the groundwork for the Institute, Schlag strove to deepen cultural relations between Austria and the United States. He established and rekindled contacts with artists and intellectuals who had been forced into exile by the National Socialist regime.
In 1958, the Republic of Austria purchased a suitable building on 52nd Street, originally the townhouse of the renowned businessman Harley T. Proctor dating from 1905. In 1960, the Austrian-born architect Gerhard Karplus, who had emigrated to New York, worked with plans drafted by the Austrian architects Carl Aubock and Eduard F. Sekler to readapt the building to its new use. In March of 1963, Director Schlag and his team hosted the inauguration ceremony of the Cultural Institute together with the Minister for Education Heinrich Drimmel.
At that point in time and in the years to come, the design, infrastructure and equipment of the building served as a showcase for Austrian architecture and art. In no time, the Institute registered many visitors and became the meeting place for the Austrian community in New York. Even its name Austrian Institute, to which I added the adjective “Cultural” for a better identification of its mission when I became its director, was taken over by an organization of émigres and friends of Austrian culture, which had been founded in 1942.
This organization subsequently renamed itself Austrian Forum, and was in turn granted the right to host its mostly musical events at the Institute. In the two decades after its inauguration, the lnstitute’s programs and projects focused on the New York metropolitan area and major American universities, to which Wilhelm Schlag, a former Fulbright student and secretary general of the Austrian Fulbright Commission, maintained excellent contact.
The better part of its budget was invested in regularly organized concerts, lectures, discussions, readings and exhibitions at the Institute, as well as in its library and for papers given, including the participation at conferences by the director and the staff. The ‘USA Concept 1983 to 1986’ and its consequences The further development of the Institute went hand in hand with intensified cultural relations between Austria and the United States, which had evolved over the previous twenty years.
As early as 1976, the Austrian government had taken up Chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s initiative and, on the occasion of the American bicentennial celebration, endowed a Center for Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with one million USD and a yearly, semester-long visiting professorship at Stanford University with 432,000 USD. The Austrian government’s new USA Concept from the early 1980s provided the basis for intensified relations between Austria and the United States between 1983 and 1986.
Cultural work in the U.S. became one of the priorities of Austria’s foreign policy. Subsequently, the budget for cultural affairs was substantially increased and the quantity and quality of cultural programs enhanced. With these efforts, a long overdue process of catching up had been initiated. I would like to mention the “Arts Dialogue” project as a particularly impressive example of the positive effects of this budget hike and of the intensified cultural relations promoted by the former director of the Austrian Institute New York Peter Marboe and the then-Ambassador Thomas Klestil.
Sponsored by the Cultural Institute and the Embassy, this program saw a total of 200 Austrian artists and scholars participate in more than 100 cultural and scientific programs concerning Austria in numerous cities in the United States. As a result of this positive experience with the USA Concept, the government maintained the increased budget for culture at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which had initially been limited to the period from 1983 to 1986, for the years to come. This increased financial commitment, thus became the cornerstone of and prerequisite for the Institute’s expanded scope of regular activities throughout the United States during that time.
The competition and the new building
As early as the 1970s, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to discuss the ‘Austria House’ option, which would have housed various Austrian offices and diplomatic missions in one building for a more efficient operation. The Cultural Institute was also included in these deliberations, since after years of utilization, the ravages of time became visible, and not only on its sandstone facade. The demands and methods of presenting a country’s cultural achievements in New York had also changed. In the meantime, other European countries were represented in New York by more modern cultural establishments, which by far surpassed the spatial and technological infrastructure of the building.
As soon as I assumed my post as director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York in April of 1988, the state of the building called for urgent action. The Cultural Institute could no longer wait for the ‘common and encompassing solution’ which was in the works. In a report to Foreign Minister Alois Mock in June of 1988, three options to solve the building’s problem were formulated: first, a sale of the old building and a purchase of a new building at a different site; second, a renovation of and addition to the building of a maximum of two stories permitted by the building code; third, the demolition of the old building and the construction of a new Cultural Institute.
I included my recommendation for the third option, which had already been brought up for discussion by my predecessor Peter Marboe. After a long decision-making process, the Foreign Minister made a conscious statement on Austria’s cultural policy when he chose an architectural competition open to all Austrian-born architects. After only a short time, it became clear that this competition would lead to a debate among experts and in the media.
In my opinion, this international attention and approval was first and foremost the result of the composition and attractiveness of the jury, which included American architectural authorities such as Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier and Kenneth Frampton. These famous names drew a high and extremely well balanced group of over 200 architects to the competition.
All events from the call for entries, to the jury meeting six months later in Vienna, to the exhibition of Raimund Abraham’s winning design at the Museum of Modern Art, and to the show of the fifty most interesting projects among the 226 entries at the Architecture League New York were important milestones in this single, large-scale and successful Austrian cultural project. The positive publicity this endeavor generated for Austria was in any event an enormous and priceless windfall.
The associations Abraham’s building has evoked ever since show what emotions high-quality architecture can arouse: residential and cultural machine, metronome, glass needle, guillotine, vertical stapler, architectural waterfall, living elevator, thermometer, totem pole, glass-knight, thunder bolt, exclamation mark, computer chip, space needle, apocalyptic vision of a culture in crisis, long pole, pump, ski binding, ball machine, Austrian pyramid, half-baked skyscraper, Aztec figure, personal skyscraper, rocket, culture castle, space strudel.
Abraham himself described his design as a cross between a sculpture from Easter Island and the decor of the cult movie ‘Blade Runner’ which takes place in Los Angeles in 2020. However, the ACFNY serves as more than a cultural bridge between Austria and the United States. It leaves an indelible landmark on the New York cityscape and, thanks to its interior space and equipment, hosts more than 100 free events annually.
As its planners and commissioners had intended, the building affords the chance to create a modern image for Austria, free of old clichés and prejudices. Even though Austria’s classical and traditional achievements have successfully defined its image worldwide, contemporary culture is manifested in the design of the building. A building, which turned the early meeting place for Austrian emigrants finally into a cultural engine for the 21st century.
Wolfgang Waldner currently serves as Austrian ambassador to the U.S. His previous postings in the Federal Ministry for European & International Affairs include Director of the ACFNY and ACFDC. Ambassador Waldner also served as Director of the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna from 1999-2011 and most recently, as Director General for Cultural Policy at the Foreign Ministry in Vienna.