Vienna Is An Onion
Vienna is an ideal-typical European city similar to Barcelona, London, Milan, Paris or Rome, but unlike the others it is very compact and easy to negotiate. Vienna is referred to by many as a unique onion, with each of the urban layers surrounding the oldest historic centre being equally important to the overall flavour of the city. The Austrian capital therefore embraces all the traditions of a European city, from Roman foundations through to Gothic, Baroque and Historicism.
As its urban landscape shows, Vienna remains a city with a tangible history. And this is where the tourist institutions come into their own, offering universally popular sightseeing tours of the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Baroque Schönbrunn Palace, Belvedere Palace, the magnificent Ring boulevard and many other attractions.
From fin de siècle to Red Vienna
The architecture of Vienna between the 19th and 20th centuries was globally unique. Fin de siècle Vienna was unquestionably the laboratory of Modernism, with Otto Wagner’s masterclass at the Academy of Fine Arts a nerve centre of innovation. This was where the young architects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire developed their visions: Jože Plecnik, who subsequently left an indelible impression on Prague and Ljubljana, or Jan Kotera, who became a founder of Czech Modernism. During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, Otto Wagner himself was a Neo-Renaissance specialist and initially something of an apartment building speculator.
Wagner’s Wienzeile houses are an excellent example of this – wonderful majolica art nouveau façades, but behind them quite normal, badly-lit turn-of-the-century dwellings. Not until it became apparent that this development had no prospects, did his architecture undergo a radical upheaval and he subsequently became one the great founders of Modernist architecture.
You have not been to Vienna unless you have seen Otto Wagner’s Post Office Savings Bank. It is a globally celebrated monument, boasting functionality and an impressive glass and steel customer hall almost a hundred years old. Wagner’s revolutionary Steinhof church and his Stadtbahn railway stations are regarded as further contributions to the birth of Modernism in Vienna. The Zacherl House by Wagner scholar Jože Plecnik remains an insider tip, as does his crypt for the Holy Spirit church at Schmelz which redefines architectural language like a Catholic comic strip. The Vienna Secession building by Wagner scholar Joseph Maria Olbrich is also not to be missed.
Vienna at the last turn of the century was a powerhouse of creative genius, Otto Wagner being joined by Oskar Kokoschka, Peter Altenberg, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Sigmund Freud and Karl Kraus. And in their midst was architect Adolf Loos, a cultural and life reformer with vast polemic potential. You can take delight in perusing his writings, but not all his buildings can be viewed. His villas are privately owned, and tours are virtually impossible. Yet his most provocative building, the so-called “Loos House” on Michaeler Platz opposite the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), which at the time caused the emperor to close off all windows with a view of it, is today a bank and at least the public areas are freely accessible during opening hours. Another absolute must for architecture tourists is the Knize clothing shop at Graben, which was designed by Adolf Loos and has maintained its original fabric to this very day, continuing to uphold Loos’ cultural spirit. Even if not all internationally acclaimed architects have a Knize tailor-made suit in their wardrobe, they are sure to possess at least a tie. A brief nocturnal stop-off at the superbly renovated Loos Bar in Kärntner Durchgang is another must.
As already mentioned, Adolf Loos was a life reformer. He also worked for the Vienna Siedlerbewegung (housing development movement) the mission of which was to meet the direct basic needs of the Viennese after the First World War. However, the new social democratic municipal administration had different aspirations. The “superblocks” of Red Vienna were envisaged as independent cities within the city, designed to eliminate the widespread housing shortage of the poor whilst also establishing a new, all-embracing residential culture. This policy became an indigenous culture of “Red Vienna”. The most famous of Vienna’s large urban superblocks is undoubtedly the Karl Marx Hof, but the largest “city” of Red Vienna was the Sandleiten-Hof. To this day, it remains an impressive and unique testimony to how poor Vienna implemented its social programme, developing entire urban zones with comprehensive infrastructure in the interwar years. The design and building technologies of these self-contained “cities” were certainly conservative, but employment of the jobless was more important than the ideas of modern architecture which urged prefabrication and industrialisation of the new city.
Modernism – first suppressed and then banished
Modern architecture as a form and style in its own right has one singular example in Vienna. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the rationalist philosopher, had a mansion built for his sister following principles of mathematical logic and spacial austerity. Dubbed the Wittgenstein House, the building is now used by the Bulgarian Cultural Institute.
Yet the true Viennese form of Modernism is exhibited in the Vienna Werkbundsiedlung. It is “Viennese” because the individual houses by Loos, Rietveld, Hoffmann, Plischke, Neutra et al were intended as residential models, not technological or functional manifestos. Josef Frank was the initiator of this housing estate. A scholar of Loos, he wanted to demonstrate a new, modern living culture in small houses using economical means. However the Werkbundsiedlung development, completed in 1934, came late, and Austro-Fascism, the Austrian corporative state, put an end to the Modernist movement in Vienna. Josef Frank emigrated to Sweden, establishing there what subsequently became his globally successful “Scandinavian furniture style”.
What had begun in 1934 was over by 1938. Viennese Modernism was forced to emigrate. A whole generation of talented architects and open-minded developers were driven out, and their dwellings, houses and land confiscated. Hitler hated Vienna, and so the Nazi period contributed very little in terms of construction activity. However, six flak towers still leave their mark on the urban skyline as Nazi “memorials”. During the post-war period, Viennese architecture saw a paradoxical continuity as regards architects and municipal administration. To counter this, a young, revolutionary group of architects attempted to recapture the activities of the pre-war period and the turn of the century with manifestos and exhibitions.
The avant-garde of the wild Sixties
In the Sixties, visionary designs by architects and artists collectively known as the “Austrian Phenomenon” attracted international attention. In the absence of specific building commissions, Walter Pichler, Hans Hollein and groups such as HausRuckerCo, Coop Himmelblau and Missing Link focused all their creativity on projects and installations. In the years that followed, all these dreams by Vienna’s avant-garde architects only came to fruition in small-scale commissions such as restaurants and shops. Of symbolic nature were Hans Hollein, the Retti candle shop and the many premises by Hermann Czech which are still successful today, such as the Kleines Café, Wunderbar and Salzamt – small architectural statements yet each with a major intellectual message.
The Seventies was a dark period for Viennese architecture. Large-scale office blocks were the order of the day, with no demand for architectural quality. Viennese architecture did not see renewal or become contemporarily significant to any great degree until the Eighties. New housing estates and residential complexes reflected immense commitment and frequently post-Modernist style, consciously creating historical analogies and associations. At the same time, this led to the rediscovery of the historical fabric of Vienna. Rescuing the Spittelberg ensemble from the threat of demolition back in the Seventies was legendary. This subsequently led to a heightened political and public interest in historically important areas and buildings. Yet although securing Vienna’s historical identity, this trend was regarded by many as increasingly imposing and restrictive.
From around the mid-Eighties, politics exerted an increasingly positive influence on Viennese architecture. One notable example is the Haas House by Hans Hollein opposite St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The previous structure dating back to the Fifties was demolished out of economic necessity, making way for the new building. Hans Hollein’s design was initially hotly debated but finally accepted rather ambivalently. However, this was an important development which raised awareness of contemporary architecture in Vienna. A relatively small roof conversion in the inner city also caused a stir. Commissioned by a law office, Coop Himmelblau created a deconstructivist sculpture, demonstrating a declared belief in contemporary design in contrast to the widespread notion that historical substance should be preserved.
Success of new Viennese architecture
The Nineties witnessed a major turning-point in the city’s history. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe meant that, for the first time since the Twenties, there was new hope of growth in Vienna after continual decline in previous years. Urban development and expansion were called for. New residential areas in the suburbs were developed. A unique “school construction programme” was approved, spurring many committed architects to come up with original solutions. And in collaboration with dedicated developers, the much-praised social housing scheme in Vienna succeeded in developing new models which have since attracted international acclaim.
Notable examples include the Sargfabrik, an alternative residential scheme and controversial designs such as the Gasometer project. The four circular towers and former gas storage facilities in Simmering were listed buildings for which no reasonable use could be found to incorporate the historic façades. So several developers came to an agreement with Vienna municipal authorities and devised a project which provided for mixed urban utilisation. Today the gasometers are an urban centre housing apartments to designs by architects Jean Nouvel, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Manfred Wehdorn and Wilhelm Holzbauer, a shopping mall, a rock auditorium and the archives of the City of Vienna. New life has thus been injected into the vicinity of a disused industrial site.
The most ambitious cultural project in recent decades has been the MuseumsQuartier. Back in the Eighties, the Austrian State and the municipal authorities in Vienna agreed to earmark the inner city area of the imperial riding stables (which had been used as exhibition grounds since the 1920s) as the location for a new complex of arts institutions. Following architectural competitions and countless local political debates, architects Ortner+Ortner were given the go-ahead for the MuseumsQuartier project in 1997. Designed as a new urban district, it today accommodates the Museum of Modern Art, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthalle, the Vienna Festival premises, the ZOOM children’s museum, the Tanzquartier Wien, the Architekturzentrum Wien and many other cultural facilities in old and new buildings.
Vienna’s largest urban development project has been the so-called Donau City. Situated close to Vienna International Centre on the Danube, it was conceived as a new city district with residential accommodation, leisure facilities and extensive office to relieve the pressure on the inner city. It was originally not supposed to see utilisation until after a world exhibition in 1995. However, the EXPO was shelved after a referendum and in the meantime Donau City has become a vibrant location. Even the Viennese themselves are surprised at how a remarkable skyline with decently proportioned high-rise buildings and an attractive residential area have emerged in the space of only a few years.
Vienna has therefore seen urban modernisation like other European cities in the Nineties. New office buildings are under construction at many locations and the Millennium Tower on the banks of the Danube now overlooks the city. More than a dozen projects are currently being worked on in Vienna, which are sure to impact the future urban landscape. The city is alive. But it is also stopping to think and reflect on its history. There is now a Holocaust memorial by British artist Rachel Whiteread on Vienna’s Judenplatz in the old city, joined by a museum containing excavations of a medieval synagogue and a square designed by architects Jabornegg+Pálffy. A moving place of reflection and remembrance has thus been created.
No-one doubts the beauty of Vienna’s vast architectural heritage. Even today, the various epochs are still eminently visible in the city’s fabric. And Vienna is self-confident and strong enough to take this heritage as a foundation from which to secure architectural and urban quality both today and in the future.
Article Author: Dietmar Steiner – Vienna Tourist Board