Vienna, portrait of a city

Voted 'the world's most liveable city' by The Economist in 2018, Vienna has a lively and dynamic scene for design, art and architecture. Veronica Simpson reports

By Veronica Simpson

For the casual or dedicated flaneur there can be few more rewarding cities than Vienna, with its opulent Imperial palaces, museums and neo-classical boulevards, and the different layers of history and aesthetics that all happily co-exist within its central streetscapes, from the baroque to the avant-garde.

Aside from the moments of modernist minimalism, there is an appreciation of surface design, too, that makes the city particularly easy on the eye. In among the usual roll call of global shopping brands along Vienna’s equivalent to London’s Oxford Street – Mariahilfer Strasse – there are some exuberantly stylish façade treatments, from C&A’s multi-storey structure clad in sculptural fishbone ridges to Zara’s ornamental grilles.

Given Vienna’s history in the decorative and fine arts, it’s hardly surprising. And 2018 was a big year for celebrating this heritage, with a series of events and exhibitions tied in with the 100th anniversary commemoration of the deaths of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. But the influence of the lesser-known (outside Vienna) Koloman Moser is also significant.

Moser co-founded the Wiener Werkstätte with Josef Hoffmann in 1903 and proceeded to infuse the finest artistic sensibility into everything the workshop produced, with no hierarchical distinction between the fine arts of painting and sculpture and those of wallpaper, textiles, stained glass, jewellery, graphic design, stationery, furniture or silverware.

This legacy still lives on, as revealed every year since 2007 by Vienna Design Week (VDW) and its regular programmes designed to draw attention to those artisan, craft and design studios – both ancient and modern – that flourish in the city’s back streets. VDW 2018 was particularly successful in this, given that it was based in the Neubau district, one of the city’s longest-established areas for craftsmanship and light industry, and now one of the most fashionable.

However, when curator and director Lilli Hollein and her co-founders Tulga Beyerle and Thomas Geisler set up VDW, the city’s spirit of artistry and creativity seemed dormant, she says: ‘At the time we started, it was either change something in the city or leave. Vienna had this heritage but there was literally nothing going on. And there was no offer to designers – why they should come back or stay. Everyone went abroad to the RCA or Eindhoven. They would rather start an international career than come back to superprovincial Vienna. But Vienna has changed so much. Vienna is again so good in the field of the arts and galleries. It is a super-liveable city.’

Another reason VDW why stands out from the crowd is the rigour with which it interrogates the meaning of design – from inviting wider civic debate and discussion on topics like the provision of decent public housing or public space to the wastefulness of the construction industry. Unlike so many other global design weeks, it is not primarily about flogging furniture or boosting brands’ profiles. Which makes it all the more impressive that there is such significant and enduring support for this annual celebration of design from both the Vienna Tourist Board and institutions such as the Vienna Business Agency. Regarding the latter, says Hollein: ‘People often look at these funding agencies in an arrogant way, but I think the energy of these institutions has helped a lot to establish Vienna in the way it has in the last 10 years: a well kept, wealthy city that is still affordable and embraces its cultural and creative producers.’

Nadja Zerunian/Sarah Linda Forrer (c) VIENNA DESIGN WEEK/Kollektiv Fischka

Hollein is right about that welcome, so clearly articulated in the visible care and maintenance of this city, and the ease with which newcomers can explore its streets and subways. Over the past decades, attention has clearly been paid to connectivity throughout the city centre. The Mariahilfer Strasse itself was recently pedestrianised, with planting and seating along the street’s 10m-wide pavements helping to turn Vienna’s longest stretch of retail into a peaceful boulevard. That move strengthens the links between this retail artery and the splendours of the Museums Quarter at its southern end, which has also received substantial investment. The palatial late 19th century Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) with its mirror image Museum of Natural History set across a landscaped public courtyard were recently augmented by a restored and refurbished Welt Museum, with interiors by Ralph Applebaum Associates and architecture by Hoskins Architects.

It is also a city that takes greenery and sustainability seriously. One of Vienna’s most famous (if controversial) 20th century architects is Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), who came to fame in the 1980s when he disrupted plans for a conventional apartment complex in the city centre to create a radically different version, all organic curves, lavish planting and mosaics; Vienna’s answer to Spain’s Antoni Gaudí. The resulting Hundertwasserhaus apartment complex – and the nearby Hundertwasser Village and Museum – are now regular stops on the Vienna tourist trail, although few architects would cite it as a highlight now. Its Disneyland-esque, ossified picturesqueness means it is no longer a haven for eccentrics and is more a hub for retailers of hippy trivia. However, the city has an impressive commitment to greenery in general. According to the Vienna Tourist Bureau, the greenbelt has tripled in size since 1905 to 19,000 ha and ‘almost completely encircles the city.’ Encouraged by Hundertwasser’s legacy (perhaps), even Jean Nouvel added a green wall – or ‘mur vegetal’ – in his Hotel SO/Vienna, with planting by French botanist Patrick Blanc.

Greening of a more infrastructural kind is also important. Power plants are a notable part of the skyline, from the Spittelau waste incineration plant (given a façade redesign by Hundertwasser following a fire in 1989) to the Freudenau plant on the Danube. Completed in 1998, it is one of Europe’s most advanced hydroelectric power plants and supplies clean electricity to over half of all homes in Vienna. Innovative ideas for housing – especially social housing – are a Vienna trademark.

Highlights on any housing tour would include Karl Marx Hof – the huge, groundbreaking social housing project built between 1927-30 to the plans of Karl Ehn, a follower of Vienna’s leading urban planner Otto Wagner. This huge, barracks-like development of 1,382 apartments may lack elegance, but it made up for it in generosity: only 18% of the site was built on – the scheme included kindergarten, launderette, GP surgery and a spacious bathhouse – with the rest being landscaped gardens and play areas. Updating the concept, Austrian architect Harry Glück’s futuristic, 1973, curving concrete cliff face the Wohnpark-Alterlaa incorporates shops, restaurants, a GP surgery and even a rooftop pool, and is seen as one of Vienna’s most successful housing estates. There are notable projects from Herzog & De Meuron (their 1991 estate in the suburb of Pilotengasse features 200 simple family houses on stilts with painted-in earth tones to reinforce a relationship with the terrain), Zaha Hadid, and Vienna’s current starchitects Coop Himmelb(l)au, as well as excellent younger Viennese practices feld72 (see Case Study 2), Gerner Gerner Plus and AllesWirdGut, whose projects demonstrate a genuine interest in placemaking and community inclusion alongside elegant spatial solutions. What helps immeasurably in the knitting together of people into homes and neighbourhoods is the customary Viennese local authority practice in most – if not all – developments of inviting competition proposals from collaborative teams of architects and developers as well as charities and NGOs to ensure the proposed scheme is meeting a diverse range of needs, both in its design and in programmes tailored to benefit specific communities.

Burkart Furtenbach X Albert Pattermann (c) VIENNA DESIGN WEEK/Kollektiv Fischka/Kramar

It’s not all sweetness and light, architecturally, socially or politically – Austria’s government lurched to the right recently, although Vienna’s city governance has a strong socialist track record. There is poverty there are immigration tensions and there are, make no mistake, ugly buildings. But it is quite exhilarating, after the ornamental splendours of historic Vienna, to stroll past oddities like the Radetzky Garage in downtown Vienna, a huge post-modern confection – all quasi-Doric columns and mirrored glass in blue and green – or encounter the vast, red monolith that houses the Media Markt and the police station.

As with any modern city with economic aspirations there is an infatuation with skyscrapers, although they have been pushed to the edge of the city in the so-called Danube City, or DC, development (the largest municipal development in Vienna since 1996), which boasts an impressive crinkly glass tower by Dominique Perrault – Austria’s tallest building – with a companion skyscraper apparently due.

Ambition, economic stability, a history of institutional continuity and excellence – inspiring, and inspired by, a roll call of extraordinary thinkers, artists, scientists, architects and intellectuals – are all part of the cocktail of what makes Vienna a great city. But what do its citizens think makes it a great place for design? Feld72 architect and co-founder Anne-Catherine has said: ‘In theory, because of the open space of the city, Vienna belongs to everyone. It is always about questioning: every person should begin to look anew at his or her environment, perhaps reflecting on these points in a different manner.’ I also put that question to Norbert Kettner, head of the Vienna Tourist Board. He says: ‘You have huge appreciation for the past but not to the point where you feel you can’t move beyond it.’

Case Study 1
Burkart Furtenbach

In early 2016, Austrian designers/artists Hanna Burkart and Philipp Furtenbach decided to become nomads, moving into a new living space every two months and choosing places relatively inhospitable, with few amenities, in order to see if they could find a way to design the most essential pieces to take with them that combined comfort and convenience. The project, which they termed ‘prehab’, eventually lasted two and a half years. In researching and analysing the most essential items for living they interrogated all the processes involved in sourcing, creation and craftsmanship.

To realise this project, Furtenbach says they both gave up ‘wonderful apartments’. However, ‘as artists we feel responsible to try things out that other people can’t do. In two and a half years we developed the culture and technology to live a life like this … When the centre of your life (becomes) so temporary it means you have to give a lot of attention to it. We developed a lot of concepts and ideas. A lot of these objects are made from materials from places we’ve been to.

We went to every source of the material, whether it was wood, stone or leather. We bought the whole season’s wool of one herd of animals. We visited 20 stone quarries.’

For VDW 2018 they collaborated with handmade bag specialist Albert Patterman, asking him to design a bag from one piece of animal hide. They asked that it be formed through folding and stitching by hand, with no cutting required.

Says Furtenbach: ‘We saw six different tanners, to understand how the whole thing with leather functions. With most bags you can’t tell where the animal lived. The only leather which can tell you that is the leather of the deer. We found a tanner and he agreed to collaborate with us. He knew where the leather came from. And we asked him not to complete the last stage of tanning (bleaching the hide to remove imperfections). In this way, it becomes like a landscape, which shows different traces of the animal, from insect bites to battles. We felt we didn’t want to cut anything out.’

The experiment has been commemorated in a hardback book, Prehabitation. The collection of essential living items has gone through three iterations. Grund 3, the most recent, is available as a ‘living landscape’ of items for eating, cooking, sleeping, working and cleaning, from stone tables to felted Austrian wool sleeping carpets and wool sleeping bags. Says Burkart: ‘Apart from the things we take with us, it’s a lot about behaviour and rituals that help you adapt to places.’ (See for images.) Still living in a nomadic way, Burkart and Furtenbach have consolidated this immersive approach, interrogating landscape, material and location, in an ongoing practice they have called Universal Pragmatics.

Case Study 2

The collective, creative and exploratory spirit of this rising architecture practice is nicely demonstrated in one of its first joint initiatives: in 2002, fresh out of college, they conducted a mapping exercise where they distributed 22,000 blue stickers to anyone who wanted to participate in an informal survey marking the sites across Vienna that were of personal significance – where their best, worst or funniest moments had occurred. It was a useful way ‘to reflect on public spaces as social spaces’, says Anne-Catherine Fleith, one of the five who went on to found feld72, along with Michael Obrist, Peter Zoderer, Mario Painter and Richard Scheich. In the work they have subsequently done they have made a trademark out of pushing the boundaries of what might be considered public and private – creating more shared and social space, wherever possible, through the careful study of peoples’ needs, habits and desires.

In this way, a new kindergarten adds a civic flourish and community resources to a Tyrolean village. Their housing projects, whether social or private, always try to enrich both the interior and exterior landscape to maximise enjoyment and cross-fertilisation. A new HQ for the Austrian post office, Post am Rochus, (a competition won together with Schenker Salvi Weber architects) weaves retail, service and civic together in a composition that enriches the life of the building and connects its workers and visitors with each other and the immediate surroundings. It, along with a considered cluster of school and community library facilities in Tyrol, the Educational Ensemble Terenten, were both nominated for the EU Mies van der Rohe award, 2019. Kari Jormakka, professor of architectural theory at the Vienna University of Technology, who sadly died in 2013, summed up their USP: ‘Their entire work … examines how the world is integrated and perceived through the lens of architecture. And we can learn an architectural lesson from this work: that the essence of architecture is not architectural.’

Case Study 3
Vienna Design Week

Of all the many design weeks around the world, Vienna Design Week (VDW) has always been one of best, remaining consistently fresh through its content-driven programme of exhibitions, workshops, participatory projects, talks, cooperative ventures and tours. Each year VDW makes its headquarters in a new neighbourhood, curating a raft of activities in and around its streets, shops and studios.

Vienna Design Week Festival Headquarters 2018 (c) VIENNA DESIGN WEEK/Kollektiv Fischka

A star feature every year is the Passionswege initiative, offering artists and designers a chance to collaborate with the many craft studios and small manufacturers around the city, opening up these often hidden treasuries of traditional skills to the public.

Curator, co-founder and director Lilli Hollein’s intention is always to investigate the role of design in how we live. And there were some pretty big topics for 2018, including the art of protest, the need to develop new streams of food and nutrition against a possible global warming-induced future of shortages, and the shocking amount of waste resulting from the global imperative for urban regeneration. Hosted in the disused Sophienspital campus, which less than two years ago was a community medical centre, the installation Sophienspital as a Goldmine was one of the most memorable, highlighting that over 400 buildings a year are demolished in Vienna.

Combining recorded interviews and moving images, the installation charted this cycle of demolition and destruction, while postcards and posters highlighted which components are needlessly discarded every time a building dies – despite their fitness for re-use or recycling – for visitors to take home and ponder. It was conceived and executed by students from the University of Applied Arts Vienna, Clara Rosa Rindler-Schantl, Eva Maria Mair and Klaus Kodydek.

There was plenty to enrich our approach to life, including new ways to experience the restorative effects of boredom, from Austrian designer Nadja Zerunian and artist Sarah-Linda Forrer. They conjured up seven ‘tools’ or games for boredom, created out of beautiful materials, to generate new rituals for de-stressing.

The issues threatening food production were compellingly examined, from the Unseen Edible investigations of lichen as an easily available, nutrient-rich foodstuff, through Flavour Collage workshops, and – off campus – an artwork from designer Sarah Maria Kamleitner and her father Johann Kamleitner, who is a farmer. Called A Ton, it featured a ton of grain (which children could touch and play with) outside the Zoom Children’s Museum alongside a daily workshop and film screening that explored the idea of remuneration in agriculture, and the pricing journey from raw material to supermarket. Social design is something VDW showcased very early on, and last year’s inspiring projects included The Batti Project, by Seafire Power: a portable and durable solar-powered folding light, designed to address the constant power outages that last up to 12 hours a day in India.

Says Hollein: ‘With the festival we try to target two audiences. On one hand, the international professional audience, to show them what Vienna as a city can do, as well as showcasing other European talents.

‘The other target group is the ordinary locals … to them design might mean something that is overpriced, overdone. It’s one of the reasons why you can participate in almost all of the 150 events for free. As soon as you ask for a ticket, you lose these people.’

Case Study 4
Jarosinski & Vaugoin

Jarosinski & Vaugoin are family-run silversmiths whose lineage goes back six generations. They create bespoke silver and gold dinner sets for royalty all over the world. Sheiks, generals and maharajahs come to the historic showroom in Vienna’s Neubau district; there they may be given a tour of the workshops to see the craftsmen and the tools integral to the creation of the timeless pieces made here – it takes six months, apparently, to create a 400-piece dinner set. But the current generation – represented by Jean-Paul Vaugoin – is not just about replicating history. Under his management since 2003, they have been collaborators with VDW’s Passionswege initiative, working with different artists and designers every year. The point about Passionswege is not that it always results in a sellable product – it’s about experimentation and inspiration. But 2018’s venture with the Polish Studio Rygalik was particularly successful, resulting in a contemporary yet timeless dinner set, including cutlery. Collaborating on and off over a six-month period, Vaugoin says: ‘We now have a new addition to the 210 different cutlery designs which we constantly produce. There’s no decoration at all. The reflection gives you the decoration.’

Studio Rygalik X Jarosinski & Vaugoin (c) VIENNA DESIGN WEEK/Kollektiv Fischka/Kramar

It is through his marketing and networking skills that the business has been revived – although, sadly, he says changing tastes in tableware mean they will not return to the days, 50 years ago, when they had 120 staff. They now have 10 – but that is a tenfold increase from what they had when he took over.


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