Vienna has a well-preserved and harmonious cityscape. This former imperial capital reflects a rich heritage, while offering all the vivacity and attractions of a pulsating contemporary European capital city. This is not so much a reflection of individual monuments or outstanding edifices past and present, but rather of a kind of general urban atmosphere, a sense of tangible urban magnitude. However, Vienna would not be the attractive capital it is today without its landmark architectural achievements over the centuries.
Vienna is referred to by many as a unique onion, with each of the urban layers surrounding the oldest historic center being equally important to the overall flavor of the city. The Austrian capital therefore embraces all the traditions of a European city, from Roman foundations through to Gothic, Baroque and Historicism. 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.
The architecture of Vienna at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century was globally unique. Fin de Siècle Vienna was unquestionably the laboratory of Modernism. 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. Wagner’s revolutionary Steinhof church and his Stadtbahn railway stations are regarded as further contributions to the birth of Modernism in Vienna. The Vienna Secession building by Wagner scholar Joseph Maria Olbrich is also not to be missed.
At this time Vienna 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 polemic potential. His most provocative building, the so-called “Loos House” on Michaelerplatz 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 is 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. A brief nocturnal stop-off at the superbly renovated Loos Bar in Kärntner Durchgang is another must.
Adolf Loos 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. 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 program, developing entire urban zones with comprehensive infrastructure in the interwar years.
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. 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 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 “memorials”. During the post-war period, Viennese architecture saw a continuity as regards architects and municipal administration. In opposition to this, a young, group of architects attempted to recapture the activities of the pre-war period and the turn of the century with manifestos and exhibitions.
In the 1960s, 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 Himmelb(l)au and Missing Link focused all their creativity on projects and installations. In the years that followed, 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’s Retti candle shop and the many bars 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.
Viennese architecture did not see renewal or become contemporarily significant to any great degree until the 1980s. New housing estates and residential complexes reflected immense commitment and often a 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 1970s was legendary. This subsequently led to a heightened political and public interest in historically important areas and buildings. A trend that secured Vienna’s historical identity.
From around the mid-1980s, politics exerted an increasingly positive influence on Viennese architecture. One notable example is the Haas House by Hans Hollein opposite St. Stephen’s Cathedral. . His design was initially hotly debated. However, it raised awareness of contemporary architecture in Vienna. A relatively small roof conversion in the inner city also caused a stir. Commissioned by a law firm, Coop Himmelb(l)au created a deconstructivist sculpture, demonstrating a declared belief in contemporary design.
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 1920s, there was new hope of growth in Vienna after continual decline in previous years. New residential areas in the suburbs were developed. A unique “school construction program” was approved, spurring many committed architects to come up with original solutions. And in collaboration with dedicated developers and innovative architects, 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 internationally-celebrated residential scheme. In the south of the city, notable projects include the Wienerberg City with its Twin Towers by Massimiliano Fuksas; the Monte-Laa residential project, and the innovative Kabelwerk residential scheme which breathed new life into a former industrial site. Another spectacular development is the rebirth of the gasometers which are an urban center 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. This can also been seen another striking landmark, Günther Domenig’s “sideways skyscraper“, which is home to the headquarters of T-Mobile.
The city is very much alive. But it also takes stock and reflects on its rich history. Designed by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, the holocaust memorial on Judenplatz in the old city is a case in point. Presented in the wider context of the museum and medieval synagogue connected by architects Jabornegg+Pálffy, this ensemble has established itself as a place of quiet reflection and contemplation.
The most ambitious cultural project in recent decades has been MuseumsQuartier. Back in the 1980s, 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 countless local political debates, architects Ortner+Ortner were given the go-ahead for the MuseumsQuartier project from 1997-2001. Designed as a new urban district, it today accommodates the Leopold Museum, the mumok (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation), the Kunsthalle, the ZOOM children’s museum, Dschungel Wien theater house for young audiences, Tanzquartier Wien dance venue, the Architekturzentrum Wien and many other cultural and also culinary facilities in old and new buildings.
While tours of the MuseumsQuartier were being touted as the next big thing as early as the late 1990s, it is the city’s major civil engineering projects that are claiming the limelight these days. One such example is the site formerly occupied by the Südbahnhof station which is being cleared to make for Vienna’s new central station or Hauptbahnhof. Here, the bahnorama gives a bird’s eye view of the building works, which will see the addition of new residential options to the area. This observation deck in the heart of the construction site is not just any old tower, it is the highest publically accessible, timber-framed tower in Europe.
Vienna’s largest urban development project is known as the Donau City. Situated close to Vienna International Centre, it was conceived as a new city district with residential accommodation, leisure facilities and extensive office premises to relieve the pressure on the inner city. It was originally supposed to see utilization 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. At the moment the Donau City is witnessing the birth of the DC Tower 1. Designed by French architect Dominique Perrault, this new skyscraper is set to scale new heights in the truest sense of the word: at 220 meters above ground it is set to be the highest building in the country. Until its completion in 2013 visitors to this mega construction site can watch the tower go up through numerous spy holes in the perimeter. Public info boards will bring the experience to life for architecture fans.
A few subway stops farther on another new architectural highlight – likewise created by a star French architect – is making a major statement on the Danube Canal skyline: the stunning new Hotel Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom by Jean Nouvel. By day an unassuming and seemingly impenetrable wall of black stone, the design comes into its own at night with a spectacular exterior lighting concept. Inside, exciting spaces await. High above ground, on the 18th floor, house restaurant Le Loft makes an impression with a backlit ceiling canopy (designed by Pipilotti Rist) and stunning views over the old town’s rooftops.
No-one doubts the beauty of Vienna’s vast architectural heritage. 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.
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The information, and photos, on our Vienna pages has been compiled with the help of Wien Tourismus – http://www.wien.info/en– to ensure quality, up-to-date information on the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria.
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