The positive attitude towards advanced architectural production in Graz in the 1980s was a development that could be traced back to the 1960s. It was during this period that political decision-makers recognised architecture and contemporary art as vehicles for ushering in fundamental processes of social renewal and transformation, and artistic practices were used as a medium for initiating a wide public discourse. Thus the Austrian “shock of the new” was triggered in Styria by the stimulating function of contemporary art production in genres that also included architecture, urbanism, fashion and film.
It is worth mentioning here that classical modernism in conservative southern Austria failed to become established either in terms of content or form prior to the Second World War – a situation which persisted until into the 1950s. Comprehensive exhibitions such as trigon 67 at the Künstlerhaus in 1967 with installations by Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth were really what kick-started the new avant garde in Styria. trigon 67 was part of the Trigon Biennial series that was initiated in the 1960s to connect the Austrian discourse with artists from southern neighbouring countries like Italy and Yugoslavia, with experimental architecture in public space. trigon 69, for example, with an installation by Superstudio, sparked a heated debate, and helped to consolidate the long term role of architects in the cultural landscape.
Encouraged by progressive politicians and a vibrant young scene at the Faculty of Architecture at Graz University of Technology, numerous architects were able to set up their offices in the region. In addition, an extensive development programme for experimental social housing construction called Model Styria was launched in the 1980s and a large number of public buildings were built by young architects. Influenced by postmodernism and deconstructivism, this period saw the creation of an architecture known as the Graz School, that received much attention, at least in the German-speaking world.
The foundation of the HDA coincides with the apogee of this development and is the result of this extraordinary alliance of politics, administration and architects. From the outset, it was able to draw on an international network and wide-ranging contacts, holding summer workshops, for example, headed by such figures – then still young – as Peter Zumthor, Enric Miralles, Carme Pinós and Zaha Hadid. The Haus der Architektur model was subsequently emulated by a number of other Austrian provinces, with similar institutions being established in all provincial capitals (for instance the AZW – Architekturzentrum Wien – in Vienna in 1993). The foundation of the Austrian Architectural Foundation as a combination of Austrian architectural initiatives was also initiated by Haus der Architektur.
There was an early informal agreement on financing the HDA by the city of Graz, the province of Styria and the Republic of Austria. The province paid for the staff (and special projects) whilst the Austrian government paid for the programme and Graz contributed the location: a Gründerzeit (Wilhelminian style) villa with 1,000 square metres of usable floor space to hold workshops, exhibitions and lectures. The main target group, then and now, was the architecture scene comprising some 400 architectural firms and 2,000 students of architecture in Graz, along with individuals from administration and the media and people with a general interest in architecture.
Around the turn of the millennium, faced with dwindling political backing, people began to express the wish to make the activities of the Haus der Architektur open to a wider public. The club-like nature of HDA was increasingly seen as too elitist and the incipient international discussion of building culture was expanding the concept of architecture into a wider field of action. The decision was thus taken to relocate HDA to one floor in the Palais Thinnfeld in Graz city centre next to the newly built Kunsthaus Graz. Winners of a subsequent architecture competition for adapting the premises were Berlin-based ifau architects in collaboration with Jesko Fezer.