Crystal Talk
Text: Ulrike HaelePhotos: Lisa Rastl, Marcel Hagen, Hertha Hurnaus, Dietmar Tollerian



Caramel Architekten‘s offices are located in a building in a rear courtyard in the only municipal district of Vienna governed by the Green Party, not far from the revitalized belt. The youngest part of the seventh municipal district, known as the “Schottenfeld”, was at one time home to silk and tape factories. Nowadays, with their loft-like premises those factory buildings still standing naturally boast a high concentration of creative professions. A potpourri of film producers, graphic designers, agencies and IT companies, photo studios and architects. The large number of ongoing projects and the team itself, which has grown accordingly, are all housed in 540 square meters.
Right at the front door visitors become aware that it is par for the course here to use materials in unusual ways and to present unorthodox variations on simple functions. A door that resembles a piece of artificial turf standing vertically. It opens with the help of a section of hose that users pull towards themselves. The floor of the spacious office is covered with black protective matting made of granulated rubber. Another indication of Caramel‘s predilection for occasionally using construction and indeed other materials outside their expected spheres.

Caramel consists of the founding members Günter Katherl, Martin Haller and Ulrich Aspetsberger plus their employees, who have now grown to 20 in number. The first two people mentioned set up shop on their own back in 1998. However, it was only their partnership with Ulrich Aspetsberger as of 2001 that resulted in the successful chemical process that transformed them into Caramel, burnt sugar. They definitely do not wish to apportion any special significance to their choice of name, though in times of sensory overload it does sound better than stringing together three surnames. The three masterminds come across as likeable, open and completely unpretentious and their flat hierarchy immediately sounds completely credible. All three have moved to the big city by choice, either from the provinces to study or, in the case of Martin Haller, for work, and they stayed. Their building sites and projects stretch right across Austria north of the main chain of the Alps, from Dornbirn to Salzburg and Linz, then on to Vienna. All coincidence, they do not wish anybody to suggest that they favor their home region. Until very recently all three were under 45. In other words: young if we are talking about architects and not about top athletes.

Caramel is one of those splendid bureaus that were founded in Vienna as of the late 1990s. Outfits with high quality standards in terms of concept and details. Upwards of two architects (females unfortunately all too seldom) with a name that usually says a lot about the kind of creative work the company is engaged in. Relations are anything between relaxed and supportive. Competitive talk might be whispered, if there is any at all. They are not only engaged in traditional construction assignments, their spectrum just as much includes exhibition installations and designs, and design studies. As befits current times their self-images is more open than those of their counterparts in previous decades, moving away from the boss/employee principle towards a flat hierarchy.

Caramel operates at various levels removed from questions of design in ecological and architectural policy-related themes, which in turn is characteristic of the young scene in Vienna. Vociferously their own working party in the architecture iG (syndicate) established in 2002 of which Caramel is, of course, a member, performs important work in the field of architectural policy. One of their concerns is transparency in the awarding of contracts. This blind spot in contemporary architecture production is of particular interest to Caramel: competitions and their conditions are one thing that they very much like to train the spotlight on.

Now that they have become established, Caramel, once known as the competitions studio in the city, still sees the contest between architectural ideas under understandable and regulated conditions as the only way to go in acquiring projects. No PR department, organized small talk at pertinent events, ringing the doorbells of politicians or representatives of the real estate sector gets them new contracts. Which unfortunately results in their not being so well-known by local decision-makers and hardly ever being invited to take part in competitions in Vienna. Nonetheless, they fight for fair conditions in open or anonymous bidding for construction contracts. When, for example, Caramel calls for a boycott of dishonest invitations to tender they hope to set an example because of their experience and their success. At the same time they wish to promote their young colleagues also receiving adequate payment for their services. In fact, they are so concerned about the subject that when potential clients approach then directly, they even advise them to organize a little competition in order to come up with the best solution.

Caramel‘s official approach is to start over from scratch in every project and in every competition. They live in the here and now, look back on what they have experienced and achieved without emotion, and do not plan the future. They aim to approach every new job as ingenuously as possible and to place it in an appropriately new context. They never want to stop enjoying what they are doing. The word enjoy is one that crops up very often. In this, to a certain extent, Caramel appears torn between the responsibility they feel for their team and an emotional defense of their creative leeway.

The result of their non-linear way of working is now a large number of expressive projects, each boasting a deeply individualistic approach to suit its particular context. From a space capsule to complement a 13th century farmhouse to black industrial buildings, from a checked info center for Linz, the 2009 Cultural Capital, to social housing projects in Vienna.

An attractive series of private residential buildings that have been planned very individually is a notable project, an assignment that Caramel describes as wonderful and strenuous at one and the same time. They talk directly with in each case just a few users at a time, and the architectural answer to their needs can be agreed on immediately. However, the efforts involved repeatedly seem boundless, and it goes without saying that they would not be able to make a living from this type of thing exclusively. In the case of the Lina house, a box-shaped dwelling for mother and child, the efforts paid off. Several prizes and countless publications quickly made the rationally planned building with high-quality living space covering only 65 m² famous. The M house is interesting as well, also located in a good area of Linz, featuring a high degree of prefabricated parts, with optimally positioned, large windows and an absolutely homogenous outer skin.

The outer skin, time and time again. The first thing people see when they approach the buildings, the design of the façade, is for Caramel either the logical, homogeneous (as far as possible) sheath of the structure, or the detail the team comes up with as a finishing touch. Where possible, a single material is used for the purpose. A material that can do anything, that completely covers the volume. This can be a yellowish vanilla-colored, fiberglass-reinforced PVC membrane, better known as a truck tarpaulin, stretched over the relevant construction, as is the case with the Lina house. Another example is the gleaming black covering of an industrial building for the road maintenance depot in Ansfelden, Upper Austria. This consists of an EVA plastic membrane, dot-shaped fittings structure and dissect the large area as well as lending it a sculptural quality.

In the case of what is to date Caramel’s largest project, the Science Park in Linz, the large shape of the bent components is accentuated and structured with the help of the façade made of aluminum lamellas. Here, the design also serves as a visual reinforcement of the special structural engineering. The load-bearing structure was calculated as if it were a bridge. Once again, logical.

One recurring facet of Caramel‘s projects is their sensitive approach to the location of their buildings as a central element – something that is particularly visible in the master plan and the construction of the Science Park in Linz. After completion, this large-scale extension to the Johannes Kepler University will consist of four individual buildings. What is impressive is the very special attitude to the existing location, the way this extension communicates with its surroundings and the way it answers to its circumstances. Several long edifices follow the lines of the slope. With differences in height and bends, the sections stand out, while at the same time responding to the neighboring edifices with their long histories. The result is a coherent ensemble with functioning buildings developed from the inside outwards, with a strong identity and aura.Or, as the competition jury’s assessment read, “despite the many references they make, which make the design stand out, the new buildings are markedly independent. The balance between reference and autonomy particularly characterizes this project”.