The Penthouse Has Landed

Originally published in 

In Vienna, a dazzling penthouse by Delugan Meissl has boldly inserted itself between traditional rooftops of the city’s Wieden district like a recently landed alien intruder. 

House Ray 1

House Ray 1 (as in ray gun) projects from the roof of a Viennese apartment building like an exploding stealth bomber. It was designed by Elke Meissl and her partner/ husband, Roman Delugan, as a penthouse addition for their family, but it feels more like a prosthetic device that has attached itself temporarily and will move to a new destination as soon as it gets what it wants.

This Alien sense of glomming is particularly evident in a cantilevered section that sticks out the back of the penthouse and looms above the building’s courtyard. It connects to the home’s main stairwell and contains the entry foyer. From there the apartment unfolds not in a conventional hierarchy of rooms but rather in a sequence of vectors that rush in and out toward the surrounding roofscapes of Vienna’s Wieden district, combining a sense of perpetual motion and vertigo.

Architects Meissl and Delugan like to talk about the “speed” of a space rather than its shape or function, but there’s a hint of something else going on here. While the design has characteristics of blob/digital deconstruction (think Zaha Hadid on ecstasy), there is a lightness that makes it all work: “There’s a touch of James Bond,” says Delugan, a dark and slender Italian who loves Hollywood action movies.

Converging lines of sheer glass, sloping floors, and ceiling planes create the impression of multiple perspectives and vanishing points. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls enhance the illusion of total transparency. There are no interior walls except for those around the bedrooms. Most of the furniture is built-in and plays its part in the spatial continuum. Ramps lead up to the living zone, while the kitchen sits on a central plateau, which the architects refer to as their “culinary cockpit.” A long white bar stretches down the center of the apartment and serves as both kitchen counter and visual continuity for the exterior. In the “relaxation zone,” a broad, pillow-laden platform—a kind of updated conversation pit—appears to be suspended between planes of glass.

The living area wraps around a back terrace with a precariously positioned pool—a mini version of the pool and terrace that John Lautner used at the Arango House (1973) in Acapulco, Mexico. On an earlier visit to House Ray 1, about a year ago, I watched as Meissl clambered onto that precipitous railingless ledge and wondered how it would work for a family with a young child. Now the answer seems, if not obvious, a little more reassuring. Water rises flush to the level of the larch floors and creates a strong visual as well as physical barrier. Nora, the architects’ six-year-old daughter, is allowed to take cautious toe dips in the pool, but it’s primarily there as a buffer to the seven-story drop, as well as adding another reflective surface and extending the sense of horizon.

The penthouse was always intended as a daring move, one calculated to challenge the existing codes and counteract Vienna’s museumlike character. Within the city’s arcane building code, there are provisions for rooftop/attic expansions, but they are exacting: a mansard-style silhouette with a 45-degree slope.

Taking extreme liberties, the architects still managed to stay within the strict letter of the building code but pushed it to the nth degree by shifting planes of glass and metallic sheeting. Their penthouse follows the existing ridgeline of neighboring roofs, and the terraces were set back to evoke the impression of a standard gable roof.

The building faces Platz am Mittersteig, a small triangular plaza created by the odd intersection of several streets. The architects’ own office is located above the plaza directly across from their penthouse. Along this street elevation, House Ray 1 presents a dizzying array of extruded and folded lateral barriers, with metallic surfaces that appear to be scooping air and light for internal consumption. One is reminded of air-intake systems and jetways. (It’s no coincidence that while working out the intricate interfaces of their own penthouse, the architects were designing an extension to the Vienna International Airport and a proposal for the Italian Space Agency.) The flow and force of House Ray 1’s forms also derive from the urban traffic patterns on the converging streets below. One section of the roof juts out much farther than the rest and extends beyond the envelope required by city zoning laws. To achieve this elevation, the architects exploited a certain gaube (dormer) law so that their addition could stick out beyond the prescribed envelope.

The building to the left of the penthouse is quaintly roofed in terra-cotta, while on the other side is a ’70s-style building with small balconies. House Ray 1 stretches between these two roof treatments like a recoiling apparatus. It whimsically plays off the Cold War modernism of the existing apartment building while reviving and refreshing the outmoded architecture of its neighbors. (Good design can do that: stand inde­pendently while transforming the surrounding context.)

The outer skin of the roof is made from Alucobond, a thin manufactured panel of coated aluminum. From inside the home, these panels act as blinders, allowing a degree of privacy within the all-glass apartment, while at the same time blocking or directing attention toward the enviable panoramic views. You can stand in the middle of the penthouse and see all the way to the snow-capped mountains, St. Stephen’s Cathedral at the heart of the old city, and even the brash new high-rises of Donau City.

Though a relatively young firm, Delugan and Meissl have already made a substantial mark on the Viennese skyline. Their 35-story Mischek Tower in the new Donau City area was not only one of the first high-rise apartment buildings in all of Austria, but also remains its tallest. The Beam, an apartment complex that overlooks the Danube River, is raised above the ground on narrow pilotis. More recently, they finished work on the seven-story Stadthaus on the Wimbergergasse that has seductively folded roofs covered with real grass. And now here, in the birthplace of psychoanalysis, we find this new hybrid for domestic adventure, what its designers have cryptically referred to as a “placeless point of entry.”

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