I just saw that Günther Domenig had passed away last week at 77. I had the opportunity to work with him for a few years starting in 1994. I had seen a show of his drawings at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in SOHO when I was a student at RISD and the work captivated me and was reminiscent of Egon Schiele – another favorite artist of mine. I called his office about a potential job and eventually sent a fax from Florence, where I was studying. Luckily his assistant spoke English well and I was invited to Graz to meet with Mr. Domenig. This was one of those college experiences that most of us have had or everyone should have at the very least – I took a train with my last 400 dollars to Graz. Basically if I did not get a job – I was screwed and it was the largest gamble in my life - at that time.
The morning I arrived, we sat down with his assistant and worked out that I knew Friedrich St. Florian and Raimund Abraham – two of his former classmates from Graz and I was betting everything on getting this job. I was hired and started that day on a competition model and had my first job in an architectural office. During my time with Domenig – I met just about everyone in architecture – since they all had a habit of coming through this small town to teach or meet with Domenig – Zaha Hadid, Lebbeus Woods, Gaetano Pesce, Massimiliano Fuksas, Rem Koolhaas and others. One week I was asked to drive around Brian Eno – who was in town for an architectural jury. We had some memorable conversations that week and all of these collected experiences helped define the designer I am today. I met some incredible people in that office when I would return each summer – and will always have a connection to Graz and to Austria. I always felt that Domenig went out of his way to include me in meeting some of the great architects of the world and made sure I had a holistic and impactful design experience in his studio.
Years later I read about how his family was involved in the SS as his father was a Nazi judge during the war. His polemic work was the information center that cuts through Albert Speer’s Nuremberg Hall - in interviews, Domenig spoke about how this freed up his past from who he was as an artist and architect. Domenig was well aware I was Jewish when I worked with him – as were my colleagues in Graz aware – but it was many years later when I read the NYT piece about this past that I realized that as the sole American student in his office for those years – my role was also part of a healing process that he was working out constantly in his own life. The Nuremberg project was the manifestation of facing his past in a built work. Much of who I am as a designer was defined by my years in Domenig’s office – his generosity, intensity, creativity and sheer talent is something I always ask about myself when I am working with students or my peers. I also know that someone cannot be judged for what their parents or family did in another time – I think Domenig transcended this past and through his teaching as a Professor and leading an architectural practice – he left plenty that he can be judged on and measured by.