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Günther Domenig (1934-2012) - Diagonality in the work of a troubled genius

Günther Domenig was a little-known but important Austrian architect who was born in the early years of the Nazi regime and died in June 2012. I emailed Domenig in 2005 when I was writing a chapter of "The Daring Diagonal" that involved the Austrian architect's work. Domenig sent me a copy of a recent book about his work, which proved to be both very stirring and very troublesome. Domenig's engagement with Diagonality cannot be disconnected from his life experiences and it is in that framework that he is described here.
I felt compelled to write to Domenig saying: "I suspect most authors do not send their text to the person whose work they are writing about, but I feel the need to do this on several counts." I explained that I was Jewish, at least culturally, and continued: "You are Austrian and from a family that you yourself identified as having been extremely caught up in the Nazi movement. So, I must be careful (respectful) with you and my readers so that I am not charged with the misdeed of writing from an unfairly Jewish perspective." I went on to say, "So I have been … trying to understand you through your works and through what I have read of your past, and also what I imagine of your past. But it is here that I do not want to falter. I want the deep truth … so I hope you will respond to my writing with total candor and frankness. If I am way off in my … speculation about the various psychic currents that inform or direct your architecture … I hope you will set me straight." Domenig's assistant kindly translated the letter for Domenig 's review and she wrote back saying, "You are on the right way and Mr. Domenig finds your text excellent!"
Günther Domenig was five years old when Germany, under the control of its Austrian-born madman Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland to ignite World War II. Günther's father, Herbert Domenig, was an Austrian judge and in his son's own words, "a radical Nazi." One wonders what psychological scars may have been inflicted on Günther, growing up in a family dominated by a father filled with hate for Jews and a predilection for violent solutions to social conflict, followed by his father's own death by a former victim out for revenge. Günther eventually came to terms with the fact that his father was the willing tool of a vicious political group and that Hitler, another Austrian, had thrust the world into a barbaric conflict of titanic proportions.
Two of Domenig's works are significant in the context of Diagonality. One is a building called the "Documentation Center of the Nationalist Socialist Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, Germany." The other is a "residence" he designed for himself—but oddly not for his use—called "Steinhaus" (Stone House). Both buildings reflect his nature in a searing manner.
During Hitler's reign, the Rally Grounds and Nazi Party Congress halls in Nuremberg consisted of a U-shaped complex of connected wings designed by Albert Speer, Hitler's long-time trusted architect. Domenig's design, which alters the original structure, won first place in a competition and was executed between 1998 and 2001. It houses the archives and history of Nazi Germany. Domenig's design impaled the original u-shaped complex with a long, glass-enclosed, corridor-like diagonal spike. The spike, a highly expressive diagonal feature that slopes up from ground level, ripping violently through the otherwise right-angled geometry of Speer's complex, and penetrates several of the old large halls. It seems likely that Domenig felt compelled to thrust a figurative spear through the building and, in turn, to thrust a spear through the very body of Nazi brutality.
The other significant building is Günther's "house," a dynamic geometric sculpture rendered mostly in metal, concrete, and glass overlooking Lake Ossiach near Austria's border with Italy. The house, looking like a sculptural nightmare, presents a menacing demeanor. This startlingly complex assemblage of forms and spaces brings to mind images of Nazi helmets, bunkers, and hatchet blades, and seems embattled and aggressive at every turn. It was never meant to be lived in but was Günther's pure expression of architecture; a place he said was for opera and meetings. He slept in a shack on the site during construction and never lived inside.
This "Steinhaus" is built on a narrow parcel of inherited land. Günther spent his youth there during the Nazi and immediate post-war periods. After studying the rocky topography, he began to explore "architectural smashings" in a series of drawings that endeavor to capture the force of geometry, one of the themes in my forthcoming book on Diagonality. The stark steel and concrete explosion of levitating bunker-like forms was a work in progress right up until Domenig's death. Like Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Günther continued to add to the composition as time and resources permitted. Curious, of course, is the architect's use of the term "architectural smashings." It is certainly not a term connoting charm, grace, repose, comfort, or peace, terms Thomas Jefferson might have used. "Smashings" is an aggressive term that speaks of energy, collision, violence, and anger. There is a sense of cleavage about this architectural composition, of a mountain of rock exploding into sharp prismatic forms, splitting along psychic and geometric fault lines, producing wedges and oblique planes in contrapuntal dialogue. The forms meet the ground in a stark manner without the softening effect of bushes or trees, much as a piece of sculpture sits starkly on a simple unadorned base. The building is defensive and yet oddly welcoming through a series of stairs and courtyard-like spaces formed between its juxtaposed wings. Domenig worked on the house for 40 years starting in 1980. Some have written about how Bruno Taut's Alpine Architecture, also a key monument in the history of Diagonality, influenced the work of Gunther Domenig.
As if "Steinhaus" were not unsettling enough as a domestic environment in the eyes of someone, like me, used to conventional furnishings such as lamps, comfortable furniture, rugs, and window coverings, Günther chooses to display a pterodactyl-like metal bird in the house that he originally designed in 1983 for a famous branch bank called Z in his hometown of Graz, but then decided to keep for himself. "Nix Nuz Nix" is a sharply angular, frightening bird form with a long and pointed beak.

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A collection or writings on diverse subjects



You are tempted to caress them appreciatively while you also want to rub them angrily out of their sockets because those mischievous orbs, cord-connected to that gray, rubbery, wrinkled loaf of 100 billion cells—together becoming an infinitely creative set designer almost always scheming in its dark, solitary confinement, the domain of your soundless voice —that loaf and those orbs will profoundly but innocently deceive you while they jointly concoct the most beautiful, life-saving truths about all those light-reflecting mirages that you willingly regard as reality.







A guide for thoughtful people on the fence


Some of my friends are atheists – they are sure God doesn't exist. Some of my other friends and acquaintances do believe in God…to different degrees and in different ways. A few of my other friends are agnostics – they aren't sure if God exists or not. The title of this essay gives away my present thinking. This essay explains why I don't believe in God AND why I do. For most people, the title is intriguing; how can one not believe in God and also believe in God.


Although this essay will likely be of interest to both believers and atheists, it is written primarily for those who aren't sure, those who question the existence of God for any number of reasons. There are many questions that have been raised by thoughtful people since the time that God and gods were first conceived.


My goal is not to present a case in support of the faithful, or the doubters, or the atheists. My basic point of view can be summed up as follows: I don't believe in God -- because I do believe in science.


I believe in the prospect of a condition that might be called God because I believe in evolution.
Many books have been written that argue for God or against God, but I know of no book that argues for both positions concurrently in a logically integrated, non-religious way. The notion (arguing for and against god at the same time) must surely sound contradictory in a profound sense. But if a reader follows the logic of my argument, he or she may find these ideas far from mutually exclusive.


I do not believe in a God that was but rather in a form of God (a cosmic circumstance) that inevitably will be or will always be tending to be.


I do not believe in what I regard as the simplistic notion that a god started the universe and continues to rule it, control it, or inspire it in one fashion or another. That is to say that I don't believe in the God of any Bible or the Koran, or any other historic religious text.


I do believe in a universe that seems to be moving, through a complicated and nuanced process I call cosmic evolution, toward a future state that one could say has godlike properties. This godlike state will never be attained because I believe in a universe eternally unfolding in an infinite expanse of space. But the godlike state I envision will positively always be in front of us – not behind us. That godlike condition didn't exist at the beginning of time because I believe in a self-made universe, not a God-made universe. Certain findings of science support the idea of a self-made universe, unfolding and evolving, not according to a priori rules and laws of nature but according to rules (constraints and opportunities) that the emergent features and forces of the universe create of their own accord.


One might object immediately to what I am suggesting above by saying this concept sounds suspiciously teleological, that is to say, it sounds like the argument for the existence of God from the evidence of order, and hence, design in nature. In my judgment, the teleological argument is also overly simplistic and falls short when all the facts are on the table.


I should mention that I am a cultural Jew who was Bar Mitzvahed and Confirmed in a synagogue, but who, shortly thereafter, turned toward atheism. My mother was an atheist (except just before her death) as was her father who followed the writings of Bertrand Russell, the great English philosopher. My father was a conservative Jew who regularly went to synagogue but he was a Jew who followed the reconstructionist movement of Judaism. He once told me I could continue to be a cultural Jew, should I choose that course, at the same time that the door was wide open for me to explore any belief system I might choose. Initially, I chose atheism but more recently my interest in science, human behavior, and abstract thought has led me to modify my belief system.


As I said earlier, I now believe in what I call a self-made universe. In a book I started to write, I will present a case for that concept. If the case stands up to questioning by laypeople, philosophers, and scientists, then it seems that the unavoidable consequence of my belief in a self-made universe is the notion of future god. That means that God cannot be found at the beginning of time but is at the other end of the evolutionary cosmic calendar.


God is what might be regarded as a future state. The universe is concurrently both falling down and rising up. It is both on a course of entropic dissolution, at the same time it is on a course of entropic ascent (negentropy). What is happening on the surface of the earth is proof of that ascent. What is occurring here on earth and presumably in like places throughout the universe is not a universal winding down of energy forms but, in limited locales, a cranking up of energy forms, an elevation in what might be called the spirit of structure. Intelligence, an emergent property, has been born of biological processes and that intelligence has given birth to the intangibles of beauty, goodness, justice, compassion, respect, and also power; the power to do good, and the power to do evil. Now think of the traditional view of God; it is a being that supposedly promotes goodness, justice, compassion, respect. It's just that the sequence of emergence is reversed.


So God, as in the idea and goal of goodness, is an emergent property of cosmic evolution. That is why I Don't Believe in God and why I Do Believe in God. Those of our actions on this earth, if they are directed toward positive ends, are in the continuing process of weaving a fragile but certain cosmic fabric that one might call god. In this sense, I believe all creatures on this earth, in varying degrees, are god in the making. I don't regard this view as a religious construct but as an inescapable scientific inevitability.


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