Vienna – Ugly architecture?

Vienna turns away from it’s past, from it’s involvement in the war.
Nazi watch towers looms over a park, with signage telling the viewer what the structure once was, barely visible.

The face it puts forward is of Mozart, coffee houses, intelligent conversation.

It is by it’s not recognising and actively reflecting on – and learning from – its past that today, a right wing government sits in place: we have looped back round.

The introduction to the provocatively named Ugly Architecture tour, led by Eugene Quinn of Space and Place Vienna (I arrived late and there was a section before this that I missed).

With this intro in mind, discussion for much of the remainder focused on unveiling the true face of Vienna, underneath the tourist-seeking mask it touts.

The bad, yes – it’s involvement in the war – but also the good:

That, as a city, it is an example of (relative) socialism in action.

61% of residents live in social or supported housing. Apartments are rent controlled.

That residents do not, on the whole, begrudge pay their taxes, with a level on trust as to what the authorities will spend it on.

Refugees – of which Austria took second highest amount within Europe, following Sweden – are today involved in running social enterprises such as Magdas Hotel.

All of which Eugene alerted us to on the tour.

The rest of the world – who’ve been encouraged to place Vienna is this ‘mozart and coffee’ category, missing the opportunity to learn from some best practice initiatives under way in the city.

And as Vienna turning from its past?
Eugene shows us an example of contemporaries trying to address this.

Running silently through the centre of many Viennese streets are lines taken from diaries of persecuted people who ran from the Nazi’s. Letters made from marble embedded within the paving. Lines situated on the actual street the person ran down.

Harrowing yet a highly effective, constant reminder of what happened, every-time you find yourself walking, eyes down, along one of these many streets.

What is an ugly building (according to Eugene)?

It is a world away from a boring buildings (think soulless new builds)
It is perhaps (in accordance with the examples we received) a building that reflects, a style or trend, now passed, unveiled in the contemporary for the fad it was.
And…perhaps, not enough time has yet passed for it to be considered beautiful. Or perhaps it never will be.

Buildings include Das Haus Der Zeit (on the left) a building adorned in painting of the owners sexual partners, one per floor.

What else for the tour?

Gentrification was of course a hot topic.
What does it look like?
A case study was given in the Karmelitermarkt, in the centre of the Jewish Quarter, an area – having been on the up for a long while, now overrun with ‘yuppies’ (young urban professionals), young parents.

Eugene pointed to two businesses, standing side by side in the market. One an old school, traditional Horse meat burger takeaway and next door what looked like a organic, earthy, grain-legume selling cafe.
The first won’t last, he predicts. There no longer a market for that kind of product.
Cultural gentrification.
(And indeed a neighbourhood a guide will tell you “Interesting food and contemporary art are transforming the area around the Karmelitermarkt district market into one of Vienna’s most exciting neighborhoods”.)

But what about house prices and cost of renting? Rent control means that costs cannot go up too drastically, too quickly, and there is, in this way, some safeguarding in place with regards to displacement: the final stop of gentrification.

Invited to look up above, at roof top level, at this point, we are explained that in Vienna – suffocated as it is by UNESCO type rules, which prevent development in certain areas, it has meant that if there is a desire to develop, the was has been up.
This means adding stories on top of traditional Viennese blocks. Some more sensitive than others: alerting us to a highly impractical extension made entirely of glass (walls and ceiling) with an abstract yellow decorative structure laced on top that he likens to Donald Trump’s hair.

Musings were made on the nature of the Viennese through out the tour,
their disinterest in fashion,
their tendency (this is stats based) to leave the city at the weekends (“Vienna would be great if it weren’t for the Viennese” goes an old quote, we are told)
their penchant from a kind of sophisticated melancholia
and their tenancy to abide by the rules
Qualities you might or might not find reflected in the street life, and urban fabric.

The tour offered challenged you to reconsider the neat little folder you’d dropped Vienna into – see it as more nuanced, and see beyond the touristic mask.
To consider the effects of the culture of people on urban space.

The tour too re-sparked conversations in my head around the idea of the ‘face’ of city and the difference between that which the tourist board spouts, and that which you experience as a local.

How the tourist board or council, so often misses a trick to tell the real story…instead demanding that people live in a perpetual historical drama (I think to Venice, Cambridge, Amsterdam) or perhaps worse, sell it for the mere convenience it offers, for example; proximity to motorways (as with the city I currently live in: Peterborough).

More on this coming soon.

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