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Art for all

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Posted March 08, 2012
plenum front
Liechtenstein, it's big on design: The Plenum on Peter-Kaiser-Platz. © Ignatius Rake.

While it might be small, Vaduz is perfectly formed. Especially when it comes to freaky modern architecture

Covering an area of 160.5 km2, the Principality of Liechtenstein is often likened to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the anachronistic pint-sized state that in the 1959 Peter Sellers film The Mouse that Roared brings the US to its knees with a handful of reservists armed with long bows.

However, in terms of architecture, there is nothing stuck in the past about its capital Vaduz.

With just 5,300 inhabitants, Vaduz is not what you'd call a big and bustling place like you might call Mexico City, Mumbai or even Mousehole in November.

As a result, it suffers far less from the blight of litter than most other capitals around the world.

Rather than dog eggs and crisp packets, its Zurichly clean streets are instead dotted with some excellent pieces of public art.

These include, among other things, a brace of bronze horses going ape outside the Rathaus; a bloke floating on a breeze block; numerous abstract dooberries; and at least one free-standing wall with no obvious raison d'être other than it looks quite nice and has a bit in the middle you can walk through if you fancy having some water drip on your head.

The most striking thing about Vaduz, though, is its proliferation of modern architecture.

Thanks to all the clichés about Liechtenstein, this particular hack was expecting the place to look like some kind of 'Transylvanian' hamlet you might see in a Hammer production of Dracula.

Certainly, if you amble about the streets (read narrow country lanes) spidering off and around from the Rotes Haus, a big red house on the edge of town with a medieval tower that keeps watch over a vista of vines, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in some quaint South Devon village.

Apart from all the mountains and German-language signs of course.

Back in the not-quite-throbbing CBD, however, contemporary design abounds as though sticking two fingers up to any Fenwickian preconceptions the visitor might have brought with them.

A good example of this is the Centrum Bank designed by Austrian architect Hans Hollein.

A "sculptural object" completed in 2002, its form, Hollein says, "derives from a rectangular body, which by slight transformations... becomes a moving, freely formed, non-rectilinear image"1.

So there.

Wibbly-wobbly in other words, like a stone snake beating its meat on a trampoline of jelly.

Somewhat more conspicuous is the Kunstmuseum, a big black shiny box on Städtle, the capital's sleepy main drag.

Conceived by the Swiss trio of Meinrad Morger, Heinrich Degelo and Christian Kerez and opened in 2000, the Kunstmuseum, so its website reckons anyway, is "a museum building of great structural complexity and discreet simplicity" that houses "a perfect white cube"2.

It also suggests one of those big black obelisk jobbies in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My God, it's fall of art!

plenum side
The pointy new Plenum side on: Lines and lines and lines and lines. © Ignatius Rake

Undoubtedly, the most dramatic piece of modern architecture that I stumbled across was the new Parliament building, or Landtagsgebäude, at the southern end of Städtle.

Built to face the Government Building (a rather charming neo-Baroque edifice with a nicely patterned roof), the new Parliament complex was dreamt up by a German chap called Hansjörg Göritz.

Opened in 2008, it consists of a number of structures as well as a pedestrianised plaza, Peter-Kaiser-Platz, all of which are constructed using sand-coloured bricks.

The single element most likely to catch the visitor's eye, though, is the Plenum, with its razor-sharp gabled roof under which the Parliament, or Landtag, meets about 10 times a year.

While I must say I rather liked the Plenum, I couldn't help thinking it looked remarkably like a six-year-old's drawing of a barn brought to life by a hardcore minimalist with a serious supply of yellow Lego.

I realise that probably doesn't sound too complimentary but I kid you not when I say that both the six-year-old and the minimalist really pulled it off, conjuring forth a genuine sense of cleanliness, lightness and space.

Or as Göritz casually puts it: "With its simply-delineated self-confidence, its precise form reflecting a timeless elementary design marks the significance of the Plenum of the People as the National Parliament of a prosperous Alpine country and Principality."

My thoughts exactly.

Although it remains unclear as to whether Göritz was indeed inspired by a six-year-old with a liking for toy bricks, one thing is certain: not every Liechtensteiner is particularly enamoured of it.

For example, a local software engineer I got chatting with in Nexus, a top little bar behind the Kunstmuseum with all flaming torches outside it, was clearly unimpressed.

"I don't like it," he said as we chewed the Alpine cud over bottles of Liechtensteiner Brauhaus Hell's.

"They should have just kept using the Government Building. It looks much nicer."

He wasn't a fan of the capital's other new buildings either, arguing that they destroyed much of Vaduz's original charm and character.

Technoheads, eh?

They're such a bunch of old stick-in-the-muds.

plenum interior
Underneath the arches: Inside the Plenum looking south. © Ignatius Rake

Perhaps it was just the fresh mountain air, the gentle chiming of cow bells ringing down from the slopes above or simply the crispness of the beer, but I must admit I could see where he was coming from.

Mind you, even if he had told me his grievances before I first laid eyes on the Plenum, I would have still spent a good 30 minutes or so admiring its clean lines while snapping away like a loon in a bid to capture some well poncey photos.

Indeed, I was doing exactly that when a middle-aged man in a suit started barking at me in German.

"Bollocks," I thought, assuming him to be plainclothes plod.

"Entschuldigung, keine Deutsche," I said, fairly certain that that meant "Sorry, no German".

"Do you speak English?" he asked.

"Not 'arf!"

"So, do you know this is the new Parliament building?"

"Er, yeah," I replied, expecting him to flash me a badge and then demand to see my papers.

"It is made using 1.3m bricks. Would you like to have a look inside?"

"Er, yeah. Sure," I said, somewhat wrong-footed. "Thanks very much."

"It is my pleasure. Please, follow me."

He then led me over to the entrance beneath the southern gable and unlocked the main door.

The place appeared deserted.

"After you," he said in prelude to giving me a tour of its equally minimalist interior.

This culminated in us standing beneath the well pointy ceiling of the Parliamentary chamber.

As with the exterior, this inner sanctum of government espoused a yellow Lego look.

However, completely plain its walls were not, being instead randomly dotted with small squares of white and red paint that, according to their designer Sabine Laidig, are "symbolical for the character of democracy"3.

Mein host then let me shoot a couple of underexposed pics while pointing out where the five-person government sits – along the southern side of a big circular table facing the other 20 elected members.

After this, he ran me through the basic tenets of the country's unicameral system.

Unlike in, say, the UK, the Prince, the Parliament and all citizens eligible to vote are free to propose any legislation of their choosing, like free chips on Sundays.

Moreover, if the people don't like a law, they can initiate a referendum to have it amended or overturned providing they can garner 1,000 signatures for legislative and financial matters or 1,500 signatures for constitutional amendments and international treaties.

Bizarrely enough, the European Union (EU) has denounced this tiny non-member as "undemocratic".

But then, given the unelected nature of both the president of the European Council and the 27 commissioners that dish out all the diktats that then become irrevocable law across the bloc, the EU is clearly an expert on what constitutes democracy.

Isn't that right, Stalin?

Sadly, our Q&A session was cut short because matey had some work to do.

I shan't reveal his name nor his position just in case he's not really meant to show random emmets round his nation's halls of power.

Nonetheless, I think it safe to say that he was a top-ranking civil servant and a jolly nice bloke to boot.

As I stood once more on Peter-Kaiser-Platz, I couldn't help but ponder what equally pleasant things might happen were I to loiter outside London's Palace of Westminster for half an hour with my camera on the go.

A nice chat with a couple of rozzers and their friend Mr Taser, I'll wager.

No doubt its size has something to do with it, but Liechtenstein was clearly a rather friendly place.

The Prince, for example, even invites the whole country up to his castle for drinks every August 15 to celebrate National Day.

Apart from one surly waitress and a lone beggar who blanked me, everyone I met during my visit came across as very warm and welcoming, none more so than the barmaid in a somewhat down-at-heel watering hole whose name I should perhaps not divulge.

A fleahive-sporting dead-ringer for Amy Winehouse before she went the way of Hendrix in a frenzy of drumming and screaming4, she wasted no time in serving me a pint of Schützengarten before asking if I'd look after the till.

At first I thought she was joking but after Alice Cooper had sung Poison for the third time in 15 minutes it became clear that her repeated request was genuine.

Now imagine that in a pub near Westminster.


1) See for yourself here.

2) Have a gander, why don't you?

3) As quoted in a government brochure matey gave me and which I subsequently seem to have mislaid. Sorry.

4) Yep, the plot thickens.

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