Coop Himmelb(l)au and Its Spectacular Projects in Russia Is It Possible to Oppose the War and Still Work for Putin?
Wolf Prix, 79, drives a sports car – a custom-made BMW – to his office, which is located in an old factory building in Vienna’s 5th district. The Austrian architect and his team designed BMW World in Munich, a museum dedicated to the carmaker’s history. His Coop Himmelb(l)au architectural firm also designed the European Central Bank’s spectacular skyscraper in Frankfurt, just another of the many legendary designs in the more than 50-year history of the office founded by Prix and his partners. Prix is currently busy with three gigantic construction projects in Russia. Major structures are being built in St. Petersburg, Siberia and Crimea – two opera houses with attached museums and a sports and event center.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2022 (April 2nd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prix, you used to be considered a rock ’n’ roller, a man at the vanguard. Now, architecture critics are calling you a Putin stooge. What’s it like to be given a title like that in the midst of a war being waged by Russia?
Prix: I am neither a stooge, nor am I Mr. Putin’s architect.
DER SPIEGEL: But you are building construction projects for him. A particularly spectacular building has been under construction since 2021 in Sevastopol, in Crimea, which Putin annexed.
Prix: The way you put it is once again wrong. I’m not building for Putin, but for the people. People don’t say that the opera house in Vienna was built for Emperor Franz Joseph, but for the public.
A computer rendering of the design of the opera house and museum complex in Sevastopol: "I was impressed that a president wanted to build several new cultural venues at once."Foto: COOP HIMMELB(L)AU
DER SPIEGEL: You are assisting Putin in his goal of providing Russia with imperialistic embellishments, and construction is continuing even as he lays waste to Ukraine.
Prix: I can see that you’re not speaking with the right person. I am neither a moralist nor a geopolitical analyst. I’m an architect. But to save you the trouble of asking, I will tell you clearly: I distance myself from all – and I mean all – military actions in the world.
Prix in his office in Vienna: "I can’t stop thinking of Bob Dylan’s song 'Masters of War.'"Foto: Nathan Murrell / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: And yet you continue building for Russia?
Prix: They will build there with or without me. And believe me, this war is tearing my mind apart. My worldview is truly collapsing, and I can’t stop thinking of Bob Dylan’s song "Masters of War." In the last stanza, he sings about standing at the grave of the masters of war to be sure that they have really died. As someone from the 1968 generation, I must confess that we have not achieved what we so promisingly started back then.
DER SPIEGEL: How so?
Prix: The attempt to change a closed society into an open one. The idea of an open society is now being blown to smithereens. On top of that is the idea that my youngest son might have to join the military in 10 years. You know what I just don’t understand?
A computer rendering of the opera house designed by Prix in Siberia: "The Russian projects are economically important for us."Foto: COOP HIMMELB(L)AU
DER SPIEGEL: What?
Prix: I have never seen, heard and read as many military experts in the media as I have in recent months. Why has no one explained to me how we can make peace? Why are the Germans stuffing an extra 100 billion euros into the mouths of the arms industry? Once again: I distance myself from all military actions, of course, first and foremost the actions of the Russians, who must shoulder all of the guilt because they started the war. But I distance myself just as much from the military nomenclature that persuades young people that they must defend the Fatherland – terrible Nazi language – to the last drop of blood.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re referring to the Ukrainian government?
Prix: Also them. Let me explain why: My father, who was also an architect, could have done a project in Chicago as a young man at the end of the 1930s and, stupidly, Hitler marched into Austria, and he had to go to war. Rather than going West, he had to go East. He was shot and returned as a paraplegic. Not only on the Russian side, but also on the Ukrainian side, young people are putting their lives on the line. But anyone who takes up arms to conquer a country or to defend a country has my disdain. I read a wise phrase: We don’t need heroes, we need fathers.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the Ukrainian government supposed to do? Allow their own people to be shot to death? Surrender their country to the aggressor without a fight?
Prix: I resent the politicians for not doing their job of keeping peace in Europe properly. You can't ask our Austrian politicians anyway. The current chancellor is also a militarist. I believe he used to be a lieutenant. But your people in the German government got off to a good start in December. I was happy and thought they were bringing something new to the table. Even your Green economics minister. What’s his name?
DER SPIEGEL: Robert Habeck.
Prix: That one seemed pretty smart to me. And he can't think of anything better to do now than flying to a sheikh in Arabia for fuel. But I, as an architect, am somehow supposed to know and do everything better?
DER SPIEGEL: How did you land your Russian commissions?
Prix: In 2018, I learned that Putin wanted to build new cultural centers in Russia, and I thought we should do one of them. I was impressed that a president wanted to build several new cultural venues at once. I have never heard of that from any American, German or Austrian government leader.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you met Putin?
Prix: I was in Sevastopol to present our project to the city. All of a sudden, they said Putin wanted to meet me. So, I briefly showed him the model of the opera house. He was extremely polite and well informed. And he compared the shape of the building with a seagull.
A computer rendering of the cultural center in Siberia: "Have a look at who else has built in Russia in recent years besides us, all the major firms were present there."Foto: COOP HIMMELB(L)AU
DER SPIEGEL: And soon you were also commissioned to build a second opera house. Did he impress you?
Prix: I am not impressed by presidents in general. I’ve already met too many for that.
DER SPIEGEL: Your opera house in Crimea is being built next to a war memorial. It is based on a design from the 1970s and celebrates the victory of the Soviet defenders over the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II.
Prix: Given that the movement it shows symbolizes a dynamism that seems to point to the future, I can just about bear the fact that it is a military monument.
DER SPIEGEL: You even reference it in your building.
Prix: The only reference was that our structures is not allowed to be taller. But that isn’t any commitment to Putin.
DER SPIEGEL: What is it then?
Prix: I don’t glorify anyone who exhibits authoritarian behavior, and if I may say once and for all: Architecture is art, and art knows neither sanctions nor boundaries. On the contrary, it cannot be forbidden, it serves openness. That might be difficult for someone to comprehend who shouts at me from the Ivory Tower about what I should and should not do.
DER SPIEGEL: You allowed yourself to be hired by a regime that was already repressive at the time and are building on territory that was occupied in violation of international law. As such, you have been accused of violating the spirit of the sanctions imposed by the European Union after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Prix: Legally, we did not violate them. I could not foresee the war that is currently taking place. And, looking back, I do not distance myself from my buildings or my Russian friends.
DER SPIEGEL: Your friends in Russia would be putting themselves in danger if they were to even mention that a war is taking place.
Prix: The fact that Alexei Navalny is in prison is absolutely not OK. But the way Julian Assange is being treated is? This kind of hypocrisy really gets on my nerves. Ukraine has twice imposed sanctions on me and my partners here – at least they have told the media they will do so. In October 2020, the ambassador of Ukraine in Austria even called me: "If you don’t stop right now, I will ruin your livelihood and the livelihood of your office."
DER SPIEGEL: Olexander Scherba, the Ukrainian ambassador at the time, shared his perspective about that conversation with us. He claims he tried to explain to you that there would be sanctions if you continued. He says you told him that you couldn’t be bothered with such political nonsense. How do you remember the rest of your conversation?
Prix: Twenty years ago, I would have said "kiss my ass" and hung up. Instead, I told him: Well, if Ukraine lets us build two opera houses, then I will think about it. He hung up.
DER SPIEGEL: He says he doesn’t remember who hung up first. But he did say that your tone had been inappropriate.
Prix: I was surprised too. What kind of morals are those? When Ukraine is rebuilt, construction companies, investors and architects will earn a fortune. I hope you will take a close look then, too. And have a look at who else has built in Russia in recent years besides us, all the major firms were present there.
DER SPIEGEL: Yes, of course. They are firms such as MVRDV, Herzog & de Meuron and David Chipperfield. But quite a few have announced that they will suspend their activities. Why didn’t you join them?
Prix: What does it mean when they now say that they are pulling out? That doesn’t automatically mean that the construction sites are at a standstill. And ask the colleagues who are now supposedly pulling out whether they are also paying back the money they have already received. Architects have no power. It doesn’t change anything if they now claim they are suspending their activities.
DER SPIEGEL: The symbolic effect is great – people around the world have taken note of these announcements. And architects themselves are fond of invoking a power of architecture that goes beyond the aesthetic.
Prix: If we have to take the moral standards and political correctness into account, then we should instead be talking about where you can even build at all. Then I can’t build in Russia, and I can’t build in China or Saudi Arabia. I’m not allowed to build for the Church, either, because it is morally depraved. My question for you is this: What am I supposed to do now? We have quite a few Russian and Ukrainian employees here. Am I just supposed to tell them: Well, that’s it? That would also be like destroying knowledge and experience, like burning books.
DER SPIEGEL: How well do your Russian and Ukrainian employees get along?
Prix: Very well. There are no problems at all. They are young and they’re not politicians.
DER SPIEGEL: What was the attitude of your staff following Putin’s invasion?
Prix: The Russian projects are economically important for us. We have projects in Central Europe, but they are not comparable in size to those in Russia – you can’t live on those alone. Three years ago, we participated in competitions for sports arenas in Vienna and St. Petersburg. Our sporting arena in St. Petersburg will be completed this year. The poor colleagues who won the competition in Vienna still don’t even know how construction is going to be financed.
DER SPIEGEL: In Russia, you are also building the world’s largest ice pavilion, again a structure that Moscow hopes will add to its prestige.
Prix: I have nothing against Russia. And whether the buildings that stand for openness will be used in this sense after completion is something I unfortunately cannot influence.
DER SPIEGEL: If a building designed to stand for openness nevertheless pleases an authoritarian ruler, does it really stand for openness?
Prix: You know, of course, how authoritarian rulers used to build architectural projects: Hitler with Albert Speer, Stalin with Boris Iofan. Architects at that time designed according to the tastes of the rulers. If you were to accuse me of a similar glorification of a villain in the Russian projects, I would be offended.
DER SPIEGEL: Perhaps it would help to take a look at conductor Valery Gergiev, who has repeatedly demonstrated his closeness to Putin. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, he performed composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s legendary "Leningrad Symphony" in the occupied part of of the country, thus celebrating Putin’s military operation as an act of liberation. Placing oneself aesthetically in the service of a bellicose nationalism – what do you think of that?
Prix: But you Germans still hired Gergiev a few years later and made him head of the Munich Philharmonic. I think it’s crazy to just kick him out now in Munich, which is what happened.
DER SPIEGEL: But Gergiev’s work touches on the question of how culture is used. He instrumentalized the music and the audience, and he still hasn’t done anything to distance himself from Putin.
Prix: You are no longer allowed to play Stravinsky’s music, you are no longer allowed to read Tolstoy’s literature – and this expulsion also points in that direction. This is going too far.
DER SPIEGEL: Perhaps your opera house in Crimea will also one day become an arena for Russian nationalism – if, for example, Gergiev performs there.
Prix: So, I’m not allowed to build the opera because he might conduct in it? That’s a strange argument. And you will laugh, but I would be very pleased because he is a fantastic musician.
DER SPIEGEL: The opera house will most certainly not stand for an open, free world – an idea you originally espoused. Even the name of your company, Coop Himmelb(l)au, was a statement.
Prix: But that’s how the opera house in Sevastopol was planned. Few expected a war against all of Ukraine. Am I to blame for the fact that a conductor might perform there who until only just recently was celebrated around the world?
DER SPIEGEL: Do you not have a guilty conscience about the fact that you are earning a lot of money from your projects in Russia?
Prix: No. All of New York was a commercial project, paid for by not exactly squeamish billionaires like the Vanderbilts. We are still part of a commercial project today, starting with the T-shirts we wear from China.
DER SPIEGEL: And you earn good money from it, don’t you?
Prix: You think I can afford a palace next to Gérard Depardieu’s in Crimea? With a wine cellar to meet up with your Gerhard Schröder, our Alfred Gusenbauer and all the others? And for all I care, Klitschko can also join us, but without his green shirt, please. Unfortunately, we’re not getting our money right now, at least not from Russia, because Austrian banks are not allowed to take it.
Wolf Prix together with DER SPIEGEL journalists Ulrike Knöfel (left) and Susanne Beyer (second from left) in Prix's office in Vienna next to his model for the opera house in Sevastopol.Foto: Nathan Murrell / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: Is your company's economic health in danger?
Prix: Not yet. But do you know how much I would love to build our buildings in Austria? That's not possible, though. We wouldn't earn enough. In the competitions, our intellectual work is even still being exploited free of charge. You invest vast sums in a design that you always have to pre-finance, and even if you win the contract, you find yourself faced with armies of taste arbiters on countless commissions who do all they can to stifle the good ideas.
DER SPIEGEL: You started out in 1968 with the ambition of making the world a better place. Now, you sound somewhere between resigned and defiant.
Prix: I’m no longer young enough to be defiant. Of course, we set out back to then to radically change the world. But we soon realized that our hope for the future was hindered by bureaucracy. And the Club of Rome has spoiled any spirit of a new beginning with its doomsday scenarios. The fact that I still wonder what the future might look like is evidenced by the opera house in the Crimea. At the same time, though, I know today that my optimism was misguided. It has simply been taken from our generation.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it not the case that everybody who has been alive for a significant number of years shares some of the blame for how things have developed? And if so, what would yours look like?
Prix: If good faith and naivety means guilt, then I have a share of the guilt. At the beginning of my career, I would never have imagined how much cheating goes on in the world and how sketchy the construction industry is. But should I tell my children? They wouldn’t believe me. And it is their right to have a future.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Prix, we thank you for this interview.