Goodnight, Vienna!

Oh, Vienna! Cultured up to its eyeballs, endless and various delights across the whole artistic spectrum. Enough for a lifetime, I should think. I paid my third visit in January 2015, this time with an architectural slant.

Vienna in a nutshell

Vienna in a nutshell (50 photos)

After WW2 Vienna became something of an outsized backwater, further east than both Prague and Berlin and cut off from much of its cultural hinterland by Cold War borders. But it’s definitely back, regularly one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Nicholas Fraser, writing in Continental drifts in 1997:

So much of what was beautiful, horrible or merely silly in our times originated here, and most of it was thrown away: Esperanto, pan-Germanism, Zionism, dental technology, consensual sado-masochism [to name a few]…

For we want memory in Europe, but not its evil or painful consequences. Knowing and not knowing…had become our ideal state, reflected in the absurd but pervasive conception of ‘heritage’, affixed to any site tasteful enough to accommodate paying visitors…Historical memory was replaced by the organised sentimentalism of Heritage Culture, [and] much of Europe was beginning to seem distinctly Austrian.

Duncan JD Smith in Hidden Europe in 2009:

The terrible destruction wrought on Vienna at the end of the Second World War has been seamlessly repaired; the city’s more obvious charms are once again purveyed to an endless stream of undemanding tourists: coffee houses, classical music, and the gilded trappings of the imperial court. It seems that the Viennese themselves and their visitors all prefer it this way.

What Elfriede Jelinek calls ‘the high culture lie’ is what keeps the tourists pouring in. 2015 saw the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, the 5.3km long, 57m wide street which replaced the city walls in 1865 and changed the city forever. One of a kind, the Ring houses all the capital’s key buildings side by side on a single street, a living historical record. Let’s cross everything that it doesn’t get an out of scale Gehl treatment.

I did the Ring circuit mainly via the medium of statuary:

Mozart (more Ring)

Starting at Urania and working clockwise brings you in no short order to MAK, the museum of applied arts, with its superb sofas, offering a nicely timed Ways to modernism exhibition. The mastodons from around 9 o’clock onwards are not really to my taste – the Parliament (1883), the size of three football pitches, uses the same amount of electricity per day as that used to power a family home for seven months. But things pick up with the final building on the circuit, the Ringturm (1955), and the second ring boasts such delights as the Secession (homage) and the Wien Museum.

The Blue Danube may well disappoint, as the river proper lies well north of the city centre. In the 1930s the Donaukanal, the diverted stretch found in the city centre, was Vienna’s Riviera, and efforts are underway to recreate the walkway. For a more urban experience walking across the Reichsbrücke and over the Donauinsel, in our case in the teeth of a typically central European icy blast, takes you to the 1979 UNO City and Donau City, its contemporary neighbour.

Donau City

With countless international organisations and companies based in the city there’s a definite cosmopolitan feel which goes beyond the tourist hype. Vienna has a big city buzz and an extensive public transport network, making the most of that Teutonic triple of U/S bahn and trams.

Just as importantly, you can feel the walking love, even with snow on the ground. The tourist office offers the world’s best walking leaflet, with details of an extensive year round programme, guided and self-guided, in both German and English, while Vienna in three days includes two self-guided walks to ensure the confused don’t miss anything, plus sights outside the city centre and other basic bits and bobs.

The regularly updated listing of guided tours includes walks themed around The hare with amber eyes and The Third Man, while self-guided options include walks around the green belt and Haydn and Klimt walks. To top it off, 2015 was even Vienna Year of Walking (see Wien zu Fuß), culminating in the Walk21 conference in October, with over 600 delegates from 40 countries.

We wore out our copy of the modern architecture leaflet, produced in conjunction with Architekturzentrum Wien, whose portfolio includes an architectural scandals tour.  The Wien Architektur portal has updates on architecture related events in the city and an online tour planner. Highlights: Das rote Wien esp Karl Marx Hof, Ernst Mayr’s Hauptbücherei (2003). (See Jones the planner for a rather more comprehensive guide, plus new! Adrian Yekkes.)

We had a definite Hundertwasser moment, spending one hour in a driving snow at his municipal waste incineration plant. Impressive examples of adaptive reuse include the Wiener Gasometer. Sadly we missed Vienna’s famous flak towers. Of the six, one, Haus des Meeres, has been in use as an aquarium (with climbing wall attached), since 1957, while another is used by MAK for storage and is open on Sundays. One reason to go back!

the Spittelau district heating plant


1913: a place in time

Last book of the year, more than likely, is 1913: the year before the storm (Amazon) by Florian Illies, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle. I’m going to call this for curated writing – it’s a collection of anecdotes about historical and cultural figures mainly, but not exclusively, centred on Vienna and the German speaking world and arranged by month, a thing of beauty in conception and execution. Much more than one of those what happened on this day? lists it’s put together with wit and artistry, making you want to read on to find out whose got the sniffles now. And it doesn’t hurt that it references any number of writers and artists who feel like old friends.

Philip Oltermann notes Illies’ “novelist’s eye for detail and liveblogger’s sense of urgency”. (He also comments that those looking for a more international account might turn to Charles Emmerson’s 1913: the world before the Great War.) Written in the historic present, Illies’ 1913 doesn’t try to bring in the benefit of hindsight by showing a world hurtling into war, but reveals instead some of the smaller incidents which make up everyone’s life, then as now. He can’t resist occasional hat tips to the future however, noting that Stalin, Hitler and Tito were all in town at the same time and could well have passed each other in the street.

I’ve a couple more of these books of the year browning on my bookshelf – Philip Metcalfe’s Berlin 1933 (published 1989) and Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, which it turns out he followed up with Thunder at twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 (published in 1979 and 1989 respectively), but it seems that the master of the genre may well be Walter Kempowski, who amassed a collection of raw material such as personal documents, letters, newspaper reports and unpublished autobiographies over a period of 20 years, published as Echolot (Sonar) auf deutsch. The final volume has just been published in English – Swansong 1945, translated by Shaun Whiteside (again), covering a mere four days.

(Update, Dec 2015: I have one of his nine volume Deutsche Chronik series (Aus großer Zeit/Days of greatness, 1978/82), the final part of which (Alles umsonst/All for nothing, 2006; review), set in East Prussia no less, has just come out in English, translated by (obv) Anthea Bell.)

A further addition to the canon is Moscow 1937 (Amazon | The Atlantic | Times Higher), which I’m seriously considering investing in. Written by Karl Schögel, a lecturer at a university in Frankfurt an der Oder, this looks like classic curational writing, if enciting the adjectives encyclopaedic and exhaustive, something I also struggle with. A snippet in the London Review of Books describes Schlögel as “the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia”. Update, 12 Feb 2015: the Danish library service obliged. A stunning piece of work, readable but very, very long.

Shout outs too for James Fox’s documentary series Bright lights, brilliant minds (clips inc Café Central) on BBC over the summer, covering Vienna 1908, Paris 1928 and New York 1951, and The Enemies Projet’s Kakania (anthology), exploring the culture of Hapsburg Vienna.

So, books read this year: 22. A significant improvement on the all time low of 7 in 2012, but a long way to go to surpass 2006’s 39, when my LibaryThing records start, although I have been recording books read since 1992. Quite a pool of data there, which it could be fun to try to do something with.