Introducing Esther Lorenz: On Techne (τέχνη) and Being an Expat Architect in Academia

bridges vol. 38, August 2013 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

By Alfred Lurf

According to Greek philosophy, the term Techne describes an activity that is concrete, variable, and context-dependent all at the same time. Techne cannot be easily translated to art nor to craft. Referring to the profession of architecture, Techne defines architecture as a kind of craftsmanship that has to be based both on knowledge and culture in a functional, purposeful, and useful way, and which requires artistry and technical skill to create from an existing resource. So what, exactly, is good architecture? It is most likely to be found in the border area between art and science – right at the center of Esther Lorenz' academic work.

Esther Lorenz at the podium. Lorenz, a lecturer in the school of architecture at the University of Virginia, focuses her research activities on investigating emerging cities and the related events that often occur in unique and unexpected ways because everything is happening so quickly. Her research work in this context addresses much more than just the design or construction of real estate. It is about understanding how society works and how we deal with the challenges of our continuous growth.

Lorenz grew up in Innsbruck as the daughter of an architect, and originally studied comparative literature and French before switching to architecture. "Back then I liked writing, photography, languages, literature in relation to other arts, and film. But I also had a tendency toward conceptual and logical thinking and a talent for mathematics." At the age of 19, while working for "Österreich Werbung" in Paris, she saw the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe) by Jean Nouvel, and it impressed her so deeply that she decided to switch to architecture. "It was the combination of his space-making skill, inspired by cultural features of the Arab world, translated in a technological way. Nouvel's building really made me decide that architecture would, at the end, correspond best to myself, to fully develop my interests."

Back in Austria, Lorenz enrolled at the Technical University of Graz and felt quickly that this was the right place for her, because many students and faculty "dealt with the edge of architecture in a sense of contemporary meanings. There was a strong sense of experimentation by thinking outside the box. I felt lucky because it perfectly matched the variety of my interests; I now had everything I wanted." Today, she credits that academic atmosphere at the Technical University in Graz for her own approach and understanding of construing and comprehending what architecture should be about.

After graduation, Lorenz worked for 5 years as a practicing architect, enjoying the hands-on experience the profession provides. However, after a while she felt it was time for a change: "Ultimately I wanted new experiences, also related to my interest in theoretical work which should always be linked closely to the practical side of architecture in reference to cities." When opportunity knocked in form of a job offer as an assistant professor of the school of architecture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lorenz took it, although it felt a bit surreal at the time. Looking back at this decision, she now says: "It was the perfect growth opportunity for me. Moving to Hong Kong provided the basis for an enormously rich academic and professional experience, before eventually coming to the US."


Urban lab Hong Kong

Private residential development in Hong KongThe challenges of emerging cities like Hong Kong can often not be grasped at first glance, because such boomtowns produce a completely new environment. That impression is also intensified because the cultural basis from which a city like Hong Kong arises is unfamiliar to the western mind. "Most people understand the building environment as a matter of fact, and a lot of practicing architects take the type of commissions they get as a given," says Lorenz. However, in this context, Hong Kong is a special object for research because it is limited in area, and is in a special situation as a part of China but with its own administrative rights. These distinct borders and limitations create a real-life "urban laboratory" that is both manageable and exciting. "Hong Kong as a city is a global player and contributes to current trends. But because of its particular situation, Hong Kong materializes these trends in extreme forms. The effect of these circumstances is that developments and problems frequently occur at a scale and speed unmatched in other settings."

A film location in Hong Kong.One feature of Lorenz' research deals with the problem of homes as an object of consumption and status symbol. In its cultural dimension, Hong Kong can be seen as a hybrid between Britain and China with a very unique cultural setup. Recent papers by Lorenz have addressed this issue from the perspective of matching three aspects as followed: Jiang Hu, as a longstanding notion in the Chinese culture, filmic representations in Hong Kong movies, and the actual urban space. "My aim is to establish a theoretical framework tailor-made for the condition of Hong Kong with the core questions focusing on how meaning and value is established in relation to the built environment," explains Lorenz.

Her research is based on the conviction that architecture results from a series of preconditions that vary between different contexts, which also change over time. There is a deep belief that only a combination of empirical and theoretical research in architecture can provide more sustainable knowledge to better understand these mutual relationships. Out of that thinking, academia can make relevant contributions to architectural practice and also to architecture in general as a cultural form. "Nevertheless, it is a challenge to switch between the practicing and theorizing architect, because in the first role you are always some kind of problem solver who instantly looks for a better solution, while in the latter you need to keep a critical distance" says Lorenz, and adds: "Architecture has great social and political power. Therefore it's so important to know how things happen like they happen, always based on a solid theoretical foundation."


From Hong Kong to Virginia

Lorenz teaching a group of students in Hong Kong.In August 2012, Lorenz accepted a new position as Lecturer in the school of architecture at the University of Virginia. She has just finished her first academic year at the University, where she enjoys the possibility of continuing to work at the intersection of architectural research and practice. While she is still working on her previous Hong Kong research, she is also very eager to start looking at the American city and use of space from a critical perspective similar to the one she established for Hong Kong. "Obviously there is enormous contrast but also shared issues, and that's surely a rich ground for further research..." smiles Esther Lorenz, seeming to picture in her head the next US city that she can use as her new real-life laboratory.

Asked about the professional prospects for a young researcher abroad, Lorenz replies: "Hong Kong and the US in general offer excellent academic prospects. Young faculty are granted relatively high autonomy, mainly due to the tenure track system, that optimally allows young academics with potential to get involved quickly and, accordingly, to develop and continue to grow into their special fields of interest in a quite transparent way." Nevertheless, Lorenz also keeps in touch with the academia in Austria, as she is currently working on her PhD dissertation in Vienna. After an extended phase of the urge to move around, she now feels "ready to stay." But she recommends that any young researcher move around as much as possible to get to know different cultures' ways of dealing with space and place (referring to architecture), as well as allowing time to actually be able to digest and truly transform these experiences into their specific academic foundation and knowledge.

Something she did extensively in Hong Kong, and also wants to do in the US, is to invite colleagues from Austria – but also other countries – to hold lectures or give workshops to foster interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogue. In the next academic year, she will collaborate with the Austrian Cultural Forum at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, with plans for two architectural exhibitions in the US, which will also stop at the University of Virginia. One will be an exhibition of the work of the architect Harry Seidler, this coming November, and one will feature the Wittgenstein House in spring 2014. As Lorenz adds with a smile: "As an expat architect in academia I also understand myself as an agent of cultural exchange."



The author, Alfred Lurf, is a Visiting Expert in the OST from July until the end of December 2013. Since 2008, he has worked at the Federal Ministry for Science and Research in department I/4 that, among its other agendas, deals with the performance agreements of the Universities of Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck, and Salzburg.