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Mur Island

Location: Graz, Austria

Artist: Vito Acconci/Acconci Studio

Project Manager: Robert Punkenhofer, Art & Idea


The Mur Island Project involved the creation of an accessible artificial island on a floating platform in the river Mur. It was designed by New York based conceptual artist Vito Acconci for the historic city of Graz in Austria, as part of the Graz European City of Culture 2003. The project concept originated with Graz resident Robert Punkenhofer of Art & Idea who subsequently managed the project. The fact that in 1999 Graz was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for 'its harmonious blend of architectural styles and artistic movements since the Middle Ages' presented both a challenge and an opportunity to deliver an innovative project and a contemporary design.

The aim of the Mur Island Project was to break the prevailing isolation of the river and the city by establishing a multifunctional, futuristic platform that offered a new public space for 'communication, adventure and artistic creation'. The island, which is connected by footbridges and access ramps to the two riverbanks in the cultural heart of the Graz, contains an amphitheatre, café/bar and a children's playground. The design for Mur Island, other than the café Insel which was a collaboration between the Acconci Studio and Graz based architecture studio Purpur, was carried out by Vito Acconci and Studio Acconci in collaboration with Graz based architectural practice Thomas Siegl. The project's structural engineers were two practices: Kratzer and Zenkner Handel.

"We wanted to design something which clearly demarks two zones and makes them interlace with each other. People in the theatre see the playground in the background, and when in the café, the playgound becomes part of the roof. These two functions should not be separated radically, as the water flows around the island in permanent motions; we wanted to construct something that keeps flowing and changing all the time". (Vito Acconci, 2003)

Description of Mur Island

The island rests on a floating platform made of a steel grid structure with Lucite and glass. This sits on two bridge piers which are out of sight in the river. The use of transparent materials was intended to 'stress the lack of boundaries between visitors and the water and create the sensation of sitting in a bubble of air ready to drift away'. Peepholes provide an opportunity to view the city and river and riverbanks in new ways and from new perspectives. Conversely the island can be seen from many viewpoints in the nearby historic heart of the city and the surrounding hills are reflected in the structure.

The curving, twisting form of the island comprises two activity zones which operate like two halves of an opened shell; revealing on one side the open half of the shell and on the other half the domed closed half of the shell. In its open part, wave-like blue benches form an amphitheatre for events of all kinds; and when there is no performance the area operates as a plaza with the wavy seating designed to encourage interaction and conversation. In its closed part and under the domed glass roof there is a blue and white café where people can enter the café terrace from above or the restaurant/café from below. Flexible curved triangular seating and tables can be moved around within the space to allow for different configurations. The children's playground includes 'a maze made of three-dimensional ropes' and a slide which links the amphitheatre and café. All the activity spaces within the island are connected by a spiralling pathway that emphasizes the overall shape of the island including the two access ramps and footbridges linking to the riverbanks. The island also functions as a bridge spanning the 47 metres between the two banks of the river Mur . The whole structure has the capacity to hold around 300 people.

The island is lit blue at night, acting as a navigation aid. This element of the project was designed by French artist Laurent Fachard.

Commissioning process

Robert Punkenhofer at Art & Idea was contacted by the Graz City of Culture organisers and invited to submit ideas for the architecture programme, part of the wider programme of events planned to celebrate the City of Culture. The commissioning organisation was Graz Kulturhaupstadt Europas 2003 Organisations GMBH, a corporation set up by the city of Graz to organize the entire festival of events. Robert Punkenhofer was well placed to advise on new developments: a Graz resident, he was also born and had been a student in the city. Art & Idea, set up as a non-profit institution in Mexico City in 1995 and guided by an internationally based advisory panel, is dedicated to promoting and facilitating a cultural dialogue by organising contemporary programmes of international scope.

With a long history of knowledge of the city, Punkenhofer observed that a key factor affecting its development was that the river was isolated from the city. Inspired by the vision of the riverbank developments along the Seine in Paris and what had been achieved in other European cities in terms of cultural benefits, he developed ideas which would strengthen connections between the river and the city.

Initially Punkenhofer submitted three ideas to the Capital of Culture organisers which included the creation of a floating island in the city. Following positive feedback in July 1999 he submitted a worked up project idea, proposing Vito Acconci as artist-designer. This was followed in October 1999 by Acconci's first visit to Graz to look at the proposed site and to meet city officials. There was no public tender for the project and the City of Culture office accepted Punkenhofer's proposal to invite Acconci to design the island.

Known primarily as a conceptual artist, Vito Acconci set up Acconci Studio in the late 1980's with the aim of designing public spaces and working on architectural projects. Mur Island was however to become Vito Acconci's first major architectural project and this required a leap of faith on behalf of Graz City as the commissioner.

In September 2000 Acconci's first model was presented to the Graz European City of Culture 2003 panel and the Province. Following feedback, Acconci redesigned the Mur Island model and presented the revised design to the panel and city government and council during April and May 2001. During September and October 2001 the complex job of submitting applications for water rights and navigation rights began. Following the granting of the necessary permissions and between November 2001 and January 2002 tenders for construction of the island were sent out. The construction contract was won by SFL.

The budget for the whole Mur Island project was £6.5 million euros. It was formally opened to the public in January 2003.

Key issues

  • Budget

    The budget of 6.5 million euros was met by the City of Culture's own budget, with the exception of small amounts of corporate funding and some in-kind funding by the construction company, SFL. Throughout the project there were budget problems, as was perhaps inevitable for an ambitious, innovative and technically challenging project. The infrastructure required major investment to ensure it would be able to withstand extreme river conditions and there were, and still are, also on going running costs which need to be met. These are partly met by income from the café and the performance space of Mur Island.

  • Mur Island Structure

    The structure proposed proved to be technically challenging. The substructure including embankment, dry dock and mountings; and the construction of the island and access points linking to the riverbanks, were built during April and June 2002. From May to October 2002 the island structure was transported, mounted and painted in a dry dock. Between November to December 2002 the island was transported from dry dock to the river site and the footbridges from island to riverbanks were installed. Following the presentation of the project in an exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York in December 2002, Mur Island was formally opened to the public in January 2003.

  • Temporary vs Permanent

    The island was originally intended as a temporary project to celebrate the Capital of Culture programme in 2003 and to be sold and re-sited in another river/city location. However the island became a popular Graz landmark with local residents and a visitor attraction with half a million people visiting in the first six months of opening. When the Capital of Culture year ended in early 2004 the city commissioned a review to look at the feasibility of siting the island as a permanent structure. Graz University of Technology engineers tested the structure and later that year the City of Graz decided that the structure should remain. The projected life span for Mur Island is an approximate 50 years.

  • Catalyst for Contemporary Design

    Graz was already a flourishing city, culturally, economically and as a tourism destination before it was designated European Capital of Culture 2003. The designation allowed a celebration of its culture and some new contemporary initiatives to be achieved. The Mur Island Project was seen as a opportunity to transform an under-utilised part of the city, the river, and to connect the two parts of the city on either side of it. It also acted as a catalyst for contemporary design and architecture projects within Graz, adding 21st century architecture to the city's important sweep of architecture since the Middle Ages. In terms of legacy the making of Mur Island and its popularity has helped create a political environment more accepting and receptive to contemporary design and as a result other new architecture projects have been commissioned in Graz.


For further information about Vito Acconci and the Acconci Studio contact:

For further information about Art & Idea contact: Robert Punkenhofer,

Email: [email protected] Website:

Vito Acconci: building an island was published by Hatje Cantz in 2004,

ISBN 3775713573. The publication, edited by Robert Punkenhofer, includes essays and interviews and documents the different stages of the design and building process.

© Frances Lord July 2005