Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the New York City-headquartered architecture firm best known for designing sleek and superlatively tall skyscrapers, is the winner of an international design competition to transform a decidedly less lanky collection of existing buildings, the historic Otto Wagner-designed Steinhof Hospital in Vienna, into a new permanent home for Central European University (CEU).
Founded by Hungarian-born billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, CEU’s main campus was established in Budapest in 1991. In late 2018, the university, which is closely associated with the Open Society Foundations, announced it had been essentially ousted from Hungary by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán; the following year, the university established a temporary campus in Vienna’s 10th district and currently operates dual campuses in both cities. The new permanent CEU campus at Steinhof Hospital is expected to be completed by 2025. (Both the Hungarian and Austrian CEU campuses are currently in online-only mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
On the surface, skyscraper-famous KPF may seem an unusual pick to painstakingly transform a landmark Vienna hospital with an incredibly dark history into a modern campus for an English-language private research university-in-exile. Located in Penzing in Vienna’s 14th district, the Steinhof Hospital first opened in 1907 as a psychiatric facility and center for pulmonology. Serving as the backdrop for unspeakable Nazi-perpetrated atrocities during World War II, the hospital complex is a notable later work by Penzing-reared Wagner, the famed Austrian proto-modernist architect, urban planner, furniture designer, and leading member of the Art Nouveau-adjacent Vienna Secession movement of the late 19th century.
KPF, however, is no stranger to respectful, preservation-focused renovations of heritage buildings and education projects, including McCord Hall at the W. P. Carey School of Business Arizona State University and the Earl G. Graves School of Business & Management at Morgan State University in Baltimore. What’s more, the project design team will be led by KPF president, James von Klemperer, who is an Austrian citizen. As noted in a CEU news release, von Klemperer’s “forebears, the Kuffner family, contributed extensively to the commerce and culture of this part of Vienna.”
“For me, connecting these goals to the history of the site, and to my own family background, has great significance,” said von Klemperer in a statement. “The challenge of working within the context of buildings designed by Otto Wagner and his contemporaries will require great sensitivity; it’s also an opportunity to ask how today’s forward-looking design can complement the work of the proto-modern master.”
The KPF-led project team will also be composed of Austrian engineering firm iC Group and Atelier Architekt Palme, which lead the restoration of Vienna’s iconic, Wagner-designed Postsparkasse (Austrian Postal Savings Bank.) Per KPF, “minimal changes” will be made to the exterior of Wagner’s original buildings during the adaptive reuse of Steinhof Hospital and the campus landscape will largely be left intact. “The major changes envisioned involve the configuration of the interior, where intercommunicating spaces open up study areas to natural light,” the firm explained. Sustainability will also play a major role in the revamp; as detailed by Lloyd Alter for TreeHugger in February, there are plans to transform the entire hospital campus into a so-called positive energy district.
In addition to the newly selected design team, CEU will also work closely with the City of Vienna, Vienna Monument Protection, and the Penzing community “to protect the landmark virtues of the site and enhance the Otto Wagner legacy, while at the same time promoting the expanded use of the broader campus as a place where local residents and visitors can gather to appreciate the beauties of the place throughout construction and after completion in 2025.”
“This new campus must be flexible enough to adapt to the emerging disciplines and collaborations that will define the future of learning and research in the post-pandemic world, said CEU rector and president Michael Ignatieff. “We look forward to working with KPF and partners to develop their concept, in consultation with our own internal community and our new neighbors.”