“The streets of Vienna,” wrote Karl Kraus, “are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.” Even Kraus, a contrarian essayist and bitter critic of his hometown’s bourgeois complacency, could appreciate the depth and diversity of the Viennese scene of the early 20th century .
Of course we all know Mozart and Mozart balls, the opera and art, the Sachertorte and the Strauss, the baroque streets in the center of Vienna and the queues in front of the Café Central. Guidebooks are crammed with galleries and candlelit concerts in gilded churches beneath cupolas painted with cherubs.
But perhaps Kraus meant to say that this is a city that also carries its culture in its streets, in its stones and its shop windows, in the bamboo-framed newspapers hanging in the coffee houses, in the shop fittings, which survives in no other often surprisingly radical in the city and in the architecture itself. Vienna’s paradox is that its bourgeois conservatism has preserved layers of radical intervention and experimentation in a sedimentary city that displays within its layers the greatest fossils of modernity and beyond. Like seashells and sponges poured into a slab of marble, they coagulate into a cohesive and alluring surface.
For example, the former department store Goldman & Salatsch (also called Looshaus after its architect Adolf Loos) on Michaelerplatz. There, directly opposite the Hofburg’s sprawling Rococo mass, stands this elegant building, its base clad in luxurious grey-green marble and its solid Doric columns reflecting a little of the palace’s classical grandeur. When it opened in 1912, it caused outrage. One cartoonist compared it to a sewer cover, and its unadorned windows were likened to a woman with no eyebrows. If you look a little closer you can see that its plain simplicity was clearly a response to the king’s rococo fantasy, but it looks dignified and appropriate. It’s a bank now, still accessible, still wonderful.
Or stop by the Retti candle shop. Designed half a century later by Hans Hollein (who once said “everything is architecture”), this small metal storefront with its phallic window (critic Charles Jencks called it “the smallest large building of its time”) is a perfect mid-60s piece -Pop. It’s cool, well made, seemingly disposable and yet, unbelievably, still there, right in the middle of the Kohlmarkt.
Or maybe you’d like to visit the kitschy nightmare of the Hundertwasser House, a psychedelic, Gaudí-esque adventure in misfit artistry and queasy rebellion by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist whose brilliant “Mould Manifesto” challenged the tyranny of straight lines. And finally, you might want to visit Zaha Hadid’s buildings (a housing project sits right next to a Hundertwasser-decorated incinerator in Spittelau) from this prickly genius’ early career, when no one else approached her work, or perhaps socially roamed housing estates like the Karl- Marx-Hof from the 1920s in Heiligenstadt, reminiscent of a time when Red Vienna looked like the model of the socialist metropolis. Vienna perfected the historical city that appears conservative and ultra-bourgeois, but is constantly enlivened by radical and brilliant new interventions.
It’s a good time to visit, during the break between a lazy summer and the strangeness of a city so enchanted by Christmas that it becomes a garish landscape of tourist kitsch and forced cosiness, dotted with so many festive markets that they seem to coalesce into one crowd. And new hotels are springing up at a surprising speed. The newest and most coveted is Rosewood, an elegant but discreet shop in the historic center. Set on one side of St. Peter’s Church, a baroque domed church squeezed into a narrow square, it occupies the former headquarters of Erste Group Bank, an imposing white slab of Viennese ice-cream cake architecture.
Part of the building was, of course, once the home of Mozart. With only a small side entrance and no real lobby or reception, the space consists of all rooms – beautiful rooms overlooking the city’s swankiest shopping streets. The interiors are embroidered in Backhausen fabrics (the company that pioneered the Vienna Secession fashion) and fin de siècle motifs, and stocked with a fine selection of books on Loos and Schiele and, of course, Mozart.
If there seems to be very little public frontage below, the real stateroom is upstairs, where a rooftop restaurant and small (and very heavily booked) terrace cocktail bar offer views over the city’s domes and spiers, cozy amidst the dozens of Badgers and atlases that seem to support all the city’s ceilings.
For a change of scenery (and something a lot cheaper) it only takes a 15-minute walk to the new Radisson Red, just across from the Danube Canal. If the Rosewood sits amidst the fragments of modernity’s greatest moments embedded in the historic streetscape, the Red has its own little landmark across the street. Otto Wagner’s Schützenhaus, a former canal lock house from 1908, is an exquisite work, clad in stone and dark blue tiles with a wave tile motif. Today it houses a small fish restaurant.
The hotel itself is a modernist block with a flush facade, large windows overlooking the canal, and a rooftop bar in a funky little greenhouse. This bar is a noisier affair than the Rosewood’s delicate crow’s nest, a pounding beat setting the rhythm for a post-industrial night above the graffiti walls of the muted canal and rapidly evolving cityscape of the capital’s north. It’s also a good starting point for strolling through Leopoldstadt, the neighborhood that Tom Stoppard used as the title and central motif of his latest play, which has just opened on Broadway.
Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s 2nd district, is a street network that was once home to much of the city’s Jewish population. The site of unimaginable trauma and destruction from Kristallnacht and during the war, it suffered from relative neglect for years, but is now being repopulated with shops, bars, design galleries and small, hip restaurants and cafes (especially in the Karmeliterviertel).
It feels like a piece of town that’s still inhabited before total gentrification, still an intriguing, less-touristy contrast to the quaint historic center. Not too far away, of course, is the Prater, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, a strange and sometimes surreal leisure landscape with its own quirky architecture that encompasses everything from Art Nouveau to 1970s utopian modernism (including the Republic of Kugelmugel, a micronation in a wooden ball).
Admission to the Prater is free. You can stroll as a flaneur between the sights and the beer gardens. It is, in its own way, a microcosm of the city itself an architectural pleasure palace, a place of almost endless interest, but where the smallest things are often the most fascinating.
Forget the huge gallery halls, baroque palaces, opera houses and churches for a while. Instead, stroll to Knize, Adolf Loos’ tailor, for whom he designed an exquisite shop in the Graben, much the same as it was in 1909. Perhaps indulge in a shirt in the warmth of its veneered interior, or have a drink Cocktail in the American Bar by the same architect around the corner in a quiet alley, Carinthian passage.
Its comfortable booths are set in a cool, dark interior lined with marble and mirrors under a marble coffered ceiling, the tiny tables are lit to create an eerie glow. In my opinion it is the largest space in modern architecture and he proposed a different approach, a modernism of grain, reflections and depth and a suggestion of the infinite in the intimate.
Or have a coffee at one of the locations so perfectly preserved from the 1940s and 50s that you feel like you are on a movie set; Hawelka, Aida, Landtmann, Prückel, all excellent and surprising leftovers. Very few cities have the best, most immersive and enchanting experiences for the price of a coffee or a piccolo beer.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
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https://www.ft.com/content/f259f187-6cd4-4152-9d0b-5f019e67fccf From Mozart to modernity: an architectural adventure in Vienna