Build It and They Will Come


It is tempting to view Vienna in 2019 as a place of change. The extent of the residential building work to keep pace with the influx of thousands of people each year in search of the Viennese version of the “good life”, the increasing multicultural and ethnic diversity (soon to be less as Brits are ejected), the rapid growth in tourism, the commitment to something called digitalisation and the continual extension, investment and tinkering with the public transport.

In fact, it would easy to get carried away and people do, only to be never seen again after eating a Leberkäsesemmel (a spam roll) on the U-bahn. However, not all of these things are always received with rapturous hand-clapping and chinking of the glasses. In a recent visit to the furthest reaches of the 10th district of Favoriten, I came across a rather large banner with the intriguing headline: “Rettet Oberlaa”. A quick look online told me that “Save Oberlaa” is a campaign to preserve the rural character and identity of this unique part of the number one city which, until very recently, was a forgotten semi-suburban backwater with the gene pool and fashion to match.

This nimbyesque nod to conservation, if I can call it that, is obviously a consequence of the arrival of the underground. Because where there is a new underground and the potential to build (Oberlaa seems to excel in this advantage/disadvantage for now) property developers schooled in the semantics of speculation, smell an opportunity. And before you know it, substantial apartment complexes appear, only to be filled by anticipative in-comers upsetting local people who were perfectly happy, vielen dank, before Vienna Transport brought misery and mischief  to their doorstep.

Such experiences are certainly not unique to Vienna. Every European city has its own, similar pressures: balancing the old with the new, the needs of the young and the short-tempered demands of the middle-aged (me), or the priorities of local and other like-minded EU citizens with the wretched protestations of Brexit-Brits compelled to wander the fringes of urban conurbations ringing little bells of warning like some disenfranchised leper.

Yet whatever your position on urban development and regeneration, it shows, if nothing else, that Vienna is experiencing profound shifts, although contrary to reports, this has nothing to do with the Gulaschsuppe. Indeed it is a cultural and economic transmutation which may finally put to bed the view I have read and heard many times over the years, which usually cites (with consummate self-assurance) Vienna’s lack of vibrancy and a dependency on historical largesse and stuffy cultural saturation. That notwithstanding, it is a perception which has often puzzled me because I never got the sense of that in Vienna. However, one still only needs to look at the comment section whenever the city is profiled, mentioned in a travel article or the latest liveability survey and the enduring labels persist. To be fair, some of these perpetuating images are/were rooted in some legitimacy. I have spoken to enough local people over the years about the Vienna of old – by old I mean the 1970s and 80s – and indeed they have confirmed that the place was much like the prognosis for the home of my birth: cold, grey and unwelcoming (I am talking about Britain not the small terraced house in south-east London which was just cold).

But something has clearly happened in the last 20-30 years. And unless you can disregard some rather anachronistic attitudes to smoking, it continues in 2019 to be at the vanguard of social progress, visual redevelopment and economic transformation. A remodelling set in motion I would venture with the fall of the iron curtain and Austria’s entry in 1995 into that evil conspiracy of freedom, human rights and peaceful co-existence (the European Union).

Of course, the number one city has been through such changes and glories before. By the end of the nineteenth century, the capital had grown into a major European metropolis. And its architectural largesse which is still well known around the Ringstrasse (built upon the flattened city fortifications of the old inner city) was virtually complete. As the historian Gordon Brooks Shepherd notes:

“Vienna now had all its jewels set in position: the Opera House, the Burgtheater, the two great museums of art and nature, the Ministries of war and Justice and the neo-Gothic Town Hall. The men who had built and embellished it reflected, now as in the days of the baroque, the pull of Vienna as a cosmopolitan magnet.”

And the city flourished as a melting-pot for intellectuals, thinkers, scientists and the odd musician. In his memoir “The World of Yesterday”, in the chapter he named “The World of Security”, city native Stefan Zweig, is equally effusive in his praise of turn of the century, pre-war city of his birth, and I especially like this snippet because it has a typically Viennese dig at the Pifke:

“We lived well, we lived with light hearts and minds at ease in old Vienna, and the Germans to the north looked down with some annoyance and scorn at us, their neighbours on the Danube who instead of being capable and efficient like them and observing strict principles or order, indulged themselves, ate well, enjoyed parties and the theatre, and made excellent music on those occasions.”

Zweig’s evocative account of the Vienna of a hundred years ago is masterful and I have yet to read a better description of the city and what it stood for when it was at its zenith. More so because it is so strikingly at odds with some of the more recent perceptions. And so he writes about on the city’s open-mindness, its receptiveness to outsiders, its sense of brotherhood, intellectual tolerance and staggeringly when I recall the Vienna bashers of today, a place where without noticing it, “every citizen of Vienna also became a supranational, cosmopolitan citizen of the world”.

All I can say it that it all sounded splendid. But then, without much warning, the First World War intervened, the Empire broke up, and it all came to a crashing denouement. Of course, in essence, this was Zweig’s point, writing as did so as a member of the cherished wealthy middle and upper classes, in that this golden age of security was an illusion. In other words, one moment you are pootling along in a modernist progressive utopia, the next, it is what it is, a “castle in the air” (and a judicious warning to us all in these potentially troubling times.)

Yet this catastrophic intrusion and the economic hardship which ensued was paradoxically the catalyst for Vienna’s next great social revolution. And before you could say hammer and sickle, the country had a socialist government (the capital followed in 1919 establishing the ideological basis of “Red Vienna”) and with it, two slightly niggling problems: how to feed Vienna’s increasingly starving two million inhabitants; and how to stop them shivering.

This elevation of post-war Rotes Wien made possible a programme of social reform on a scale never before seen in Europe, motivated primarily to improve the conditions of these hungry and cold masses (not much mention of them from our friend Stefan Zweig) and an urgent need to stop the Viennese from chopping down the Vienna Woods to fuel their fires. And it remained so until things took a slightly dodgy ideological turn in the early 1930s with the emergence of National Socialism and, a little later, the arrival of a clearly vexed failed artist and his water-colours set.

But in the meantime, what the good people of Vienna got was a monumental experiment in civic engineering, combining elements of modernist thinking, innovation in architecture, design and aspirations of social inclusion. This included facilities such as swimming pools, doctors and dentists, libraries and playgrounds, all designed to promote the intellectual and physical wellbeing of body and mind and bring about a betterment of the populace. Yet it was in the area of housing which historian Duncan J. Smith cites as the problem with the most urgent need, given the task of “re-housing a quarter of a million residents who were living in “antiquated and crowded tenements”. And thus these were replaced with “398 new city-owned housing complexes (Gemeindebauten)” providing nearly 60 thousand apartments with running water, toilets and, it is rumoured, some early IKEA crap.

As he puts it, some of these huge structures were literally fortresses or “palaces of the people” and they are the most visible and lasting legacy of a truly revolutionary slice of Vienna’s progressive credentials (and social housing is still at the heart of the Viennese vision of modern cities). And none more so than the majestic Rabenhof in Vienna’s third district, which, coincidentally, is our next stop*.

© 2019 RJ Barratt

*All going to plan as I might be waylaid in between with some thoughts on last week’s visit to the Q & A hosted by the UK Embassy concerning a no-deal Brexit and what it means for Britons in Austria. “Might” as I am not sure if I want to re-live it at this stage. Let’s see …