Architect Richard Porch experiences the beauty and history of a walk through Vienna.
Visiting a new city for the first time and being able to link that to attending a major cultural event is a rare pleasure. This happened to me recently when I went to see the massive Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna last October.
The great Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69) will have been dead for 450 years by 2019 and this milestone exhibition has united three-quarters of his surviving 40 paintings, dozens of prints and many drawings. This body of work by him will probably never be seen on this scale again – so I had to go and see it. That and Vienna.
Have you ever tried the exercise whereby you try and write down what you imagine such-and-such a place will be like, before you visit it? I tried this prior to my visit to Vienna. What exactly did I know about the place? Hitler was Austrian and Vienna is the state capital of Austria. He slept in doorways there when an impoverished artist in the period 1908 – 13. Unbelievably I discovered via the internet that they offered walking tours of places where Hitler had lived which, if nothing else demonstrates how comfortable they are with Austrian’s most infamous citizen. The artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) painters of variously sensuous and troubling subjects worked there in the early 1900s. They both died within 8 months of each other in 1918. One from complications that arose from a stroke and the other from the Spanish Flu pandemic which claimed 20 million lives in Europe in that period. Schiele’s wife Edith, who was 8 months pregnant died of it three days before him. Freud lived in Vienna before fleeing the Nazis in 1938. For one memorably short period in 1913 the city was also home to Hitler, Stalin, and Trotsky as well. The latter helped launch Pravda (The Truth) there.
For some reason I had a mental image of smoke-stained, gothic buildings populating an ominous-looking landscape comprised of ornate coffee houses, vast museums and all swathed in a cold, damp fog. Wasn’t Carol Reed’s film The Third Man located there? Heretically I have to say that this masterpiece of black and white film noir only ever comes to life for me because of the famous chase scene through the sewers of post-war Vienna. Orson Welles’s character is pursued through the labyrinthine and claustrophobic sewers and the imagery is both Freudian and nightmarish. For me the cinematic highpoint occurs when he is cornered in a sewer and his hands struggle vainly through the bars of an unmovable drain cover. Disembodied his fingers resemble (at least to me) the arms of a sea anemone waving frantically in some invisible current. The image is self-consciously surreal, yet it never fails to move you.
That represented the bedrock of my mental impressions informed as they were by old films, paintings and photographs of Vienna. I felt all the peripheral stuff i.e. would it be clean, safe or noisy etc. would sort themselves out once I hit the streets. It is precisely that premonition of engagement though, the coalescence of first thoughts and received impressions that ferments all the excitement.
My hotel was located in the 1st district of Vienna in the heart of the medieval old town near the Fleischmarkt (meatmarket) on Köllnerhofgasse 6 in the ‘Innere Stadt’ (Old Town). In the course of a brief familiarising walk in the immediate area, which I later discovered was originally Vienna’s Greek Quarter, I unexpectedly stumbled across Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. I shouldn’t have been so surprised given that in the 18th century Vienna was the focus of trade with Turkey, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean i.e. (Syria). What was even more surprising was that it had been designed in what we would think of as a Gothic Revival style in 1858-61. The Austrians prefer to call it Byzantine Revival. Interestingly the architect was a Dane called Theophil Hansen (1813-91) who had trained under that arch-classicist Schinkel. It looks suitably exotic within the fabric of Vienna and is tucked away down a narrow road from which obtrudes dramatically amongst all the apartment blocks. Something about its exotic style sent me looking for an unbuilt project by super-Goth William Burges (1827-81) the architect of Cardiff Castle and Castle Coch. There is a distinct stylistic resemblance to Burges’s unbuilt scheme which was intended as a memorial to soldiers who died in the Crimean war and was intended for Constantinople now Istanbul.
I planned to walk to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and take in something of the city and this article is structured around experiencing that walk. My first impression was of clean, wide streets that were defined more by solid slabs of apartment buildings the full width of city blocks rather than individual buildings. The effect is monolithic and can verge on the monotonous. The Viennese like apartment living and such buildings have latterly been converted into generously-sized hotel rooms and to retail use at ground floor level. Everywhere throughout the Innere Stadt the city blocks were 6-7 storeys tall with their monumentality only partially softened by being generously ornamented with classical detailing. This tended to come to the fore at corners where often a big architectural effort went in to make them look less blocky.
I turned right and found myself on the Rotenturmstrasse which struck me as a suspiciously long road running north to south through central Vienna. I say this because the city has Roman origins. Vienna was once Vindobona and came into existence as a 6000-strong Roman garrison in 97 AD. The ruins of which have been extensively excavated over the last 150 years, although Vienna at no time feels like a city trading on its Roman past. One feels that heritage mainly through street names which echo that influence, of which more later. The Rotenturmstrasse terminates very naturally at St. Stephansplatz which is a large public square at the heart of the old town and dominated by the vast 12th century cathedral of St. Stephen’s. Viewed en passant it resembles some vast bluff of pierced sandstone soaring 448 feet into the sky and is a natural point of orientation throughout the city centre. I was struck by the roof which was decorated using 230,000 glazed tiles in a mazy coloured pattern which somehow contrived to remind me of the work of William Butterfield and the Gothic Revival albeit used externally. Although thronged by tourists it is very much a working church and as it was not on my list of things to see I hurried through the square and on to the Graben.
The name Graben evokes Vienna’s Roman past and is named after a defensive trench that used to run along the line the street takes now. In geological terminology a Graben is defined as…” an elongated section of the earth’s crust, surrounded by faults that have dropped down relative to the surrounding area”. The Graben is Vienna’s prime retail strip and is lined with expensively finished stone buildings often faced with modern interpretations of vermiculated rustication. Architecture aside perhaps the most visually memorable freestanding object is the Plague Column commissioned to commemorate an outbreak of that disease in Vienna during 1679. It is a highly memorable baroque feature which, from a tripartite classical base springs a twisted and convoluted kind of obelisk. It has a suitably complex iconography comprised of angels and numerous coats of arms which gives it an oddly civic dimension. It also reflects the many hands involved in its creation. It is suitably arcane in the way that religion is evoked via the Holy Trinity in the form of the number three which occurs throughout the design in the way it is sub-divided and so on. What it does function brilliantly as is a place-marker which is quickly memorised and filed away in one’s visual memory. Another thing that helps this is the Viennese love of statues and monuments of which I estimated there were around 80 in the Innere Stadt alone. Two civic parks alone the Rathaus Park (Town Hall Park) and Stadtpark (Town Park) contained 26 between them. They commemorated obvious candidates like Gutenberg, Schindler and Schiller but also purely regional favourites like Ivan Franko (1856-1916) a poet, writer and political activist from the Ukraine. The latter’s bust turned up in a side road near Postgasse in a curious sculptural ensemble that enlivened the drab exterior of an otherwise anonymous public building. Precisely the sort of thing public art is good at.
Franko’s bust is made of metal and as befits a poet is suitably romantic in style and mounted atop a tall column of granite which grows out of an odd base plinth that makes the whole thing look like it was originally intended for a family crypt in the local cemetery. It is still a focal point for Vienna’s Ukrainian community and its very oddness stops you in your tracks and pulls you towards it. Public art at its best. Vienna does more conventional examples of modern public art but interestingly they tend to fall flat perhaps they lack the necessary ‘imperial’ feel to them. Such an example can be found on the way to the Kunsthistorisches and in front of the Federal Chancellery at the eastern edge of the Volksgarten. For here can be found the Waterwave Life Fountain. If you can overlook the hackneyed name, this is prototypical public art as we understand (or not – as the case may be) it. It has been in place since 2000 when it was gifted to the city by the Bank of Austria. Its design is credited to Hans Muhr and it is an 18-ton monolith of pure Lapis Lazuli that was found in Chile in 1994. Its name alludes to the importance of water and the global interconnectedness of all people. It does nothing more than dribble water from a high-level fountain at its top which trickles down the surface of a semi-precious stone prized since antiquity for its intense ultramarine blueness. Unfortunately it looks more like a huge dinosaur coprolite that has been ‘deposited’ there from the nearby Naturhistorische (Natural History) Museum than anything noble or significant. It does stand in stark contrast to the painfully clean and neat streets around it though.
Vienna does not tend to go in for alleys. Its monolithic blocks do not allow for them even in the Innere Stadt. Not in the way that the Barrio Gotica does in Barcelona or the Spaccanopoli does in Naples. Vienna is far too tidy for that. What it does do is side streets that sprout off main thoroughfares and open into squares tightly framed by 18th – 19th century buildings and freestanding churches of unexpected religious orientation, one of which I referred to earlier. There is another to be found a short distance from the Ivan Franko statue in the Poststrasse which is an early Baroque parish church of 1634. Called the Dominikaner Kirche it is also known as the Church of St. Maria Rotunda and was built in a Roman-Lombardic style that has its origins in Italy. It is almost the last building of this type that one would expect to discover in Vienna, a little chunk of Italy on the wrong side of the Alps. The simple classical purity of its imposing main façade is in stark counterpoint to its baroque interior. The interior dazzles as a riot of colour and form with every available surface encrusted with colour and ornament assaults the eye. This amazing and unexpected structure still contrives to be imposing even though it is overlooked on almost all sides by the inevitable apartment and office blocks of the modern city. In Vienna an architectural find of this kind is often to be made because such second order spaces were home to the embassies or legations of long-forgotten princedoms or suchlike. Subsequent development has often created haphazard little spaces in front of them that function as new public squares. To arrive in such spaces and find them converted (as they often were) into restaurants was a delight. Especially if they specialised in simple Viennese tavern cuisine such as deep-fried chicken with a creamy potato and cucumber salad, all washed down with an in-house beer like Lugeck Spezial Brew.
Proceeding onward to the Heldenplatz via Schauflergasse I found myself on one of those imperial routes through the city punctuated by small-ish squares flanked by imposing civic buildings. The Viennese like museums which is just as well as the city has around 30 of them of varying sizes. They are devoted to subjects as unexpected as a Papyrus Museum, a Torture Museum and one dedicated to art fakes. My destination was the Kunsthistorisches (Museum of Art History) which is really the ne plus ultra of them all.
Built in 1891 and designed by the impressive-sounding Baron Karl von Hasenauer it opened at the same time as the immediately adjacent (and identically designed) Naturhistorischen Museum (Natural History Museum). They both occupy a parkland setting called Maria Theresia Platz which suits their ponderous classical architecture. These structures look the way museums used to look before the state started giving them to young architectural firms to design in the 1980s. Big, heavy, seriously ponderous things from the pre-digital age. On the plus side there are few ‘interactive features’ inside to distract attention away from actual exhibits. Upon arrival at the Kunsthistorisches it felt more like an imperial palace than a museum such was its grandeur and scale. The interiors were oppressively over-ornamented with expensive marbles and gold leaf. Genre paintings were festooned everywhere and busts of austere Prussian heroes were liberally sprinkled along every floor and landing. Vertical circulation was effected by huge stone staircases weighing heaven knows how much and which flew off in every direction. They were nearly always flanked by lions 3-4 metres tall and many tons in weight. Overwhelmingly the material in most common use was highly coloured marble. The net effect worked to make one feel tiny and insignificant; perhaps this was done deliberately to impress you in preparation for the aesthetic experiences to follow. I’m sure none of this was an accident or the by-product of a large budget for a building designed to house a national collection. The Natural History Museum a short walk away was created in a similar overpowering classical vein except its interior was stuffed with timber cases full of dead animals and countless minerals under glass. It was a monument to taxonomy but one that didn’t begin to touch Butterfield’s equivalent institution in London. I know such comparisons are odious but not only was the latter’s building more architectonically interesting the interiors were more uplifting too. This is no small feat as – when you stop and think about it most museums are only mausoleums for things that were once alive. Vienna’s Natural History Museum was comprised of vast rooms lit by some half gloom and furnished with cases full inert things from all periods of the earth’s evolution. Both it and the Kunsthistorisches were monuments to another age and rampantly imperial in their impact. Imperial is a good word to describe Vienna. Its historic core is full of large-scale classical architecture, statues and big wide streets that shout importance and the power of the state.
Achieving the gallery space intended for the Bruegel exhibition came as a bit of a relief. This was the first truly comprehensive exhibition of Pieter Bruegel’s work anywhere in the world. It contained two-thirds of all his extant output of paintings (30) and half of all his drawings and engravings. Light levels were low and the rooms chosen were sparsely furnished except for the works and some seating. It was packed. This was highly appropriate given that Bruegel was the master of Wimmelbild (busy pictures) crowded with people skating, playing games or celebrating something. Here people formed a civilised variation on the conga line to shuffle from painting to painting, fire off a couple of selfies of themselves in front of Hunters in the Snow and then trudge on. One distracting oddity was the provided by the timber flooring of the main gallery which creaked and squeaked underfoot as if nesting birds were hiding beneath the parquet.
The high ceilings of this grand 19th century room would normally have worked to absorb sound and provide the usual hushed quiet of an institutional art gallery. Instead it was like walking around in a pet shop devoted to the sale of caged birds. I hadn’t encountered anything like this since I visited the Nijō Castle in Kyoto, Japan some 30 years before. The latter had corridors made of timber that chirruped like crazy as one walked over them. The difference was they had been loosely nailed down and as people walked over them the boarding rubbed against the nails which produced a disconcerting high-pitched cheep-cheep. In the Kunsthistorisches no-one seemed to mind this slightly surreal sound effect as the sheer concentration of artworks overcame it. Bruegel’s artistic career lasted only 18 years from 1551 – 1569 nevertheless in addition to his genre painting and later works of peasant life he was largely responsible for the creation of secular landscape painting in Northern Europe. That’s to say views of nature (i.e. themed according to the the seasons) without a religious component and – in five famous instances – where snow was a feature. Few artists painted subjects against a backdrop of snow at that time and certainly not falling snow as in The Adoration of the Magiin the Snow (1563). This established a genre of its own that later Dutch artists such as Hendrik Avercamp (1585-1634) would make a career out of painting purely picturesque versions of. The Christmas card industry of the future would discover these in the 20th century too. In addition at least one modern Bruegel scholar has likened the diffused quality of light in his painting Winter Landscape with Birdtrap (1565) as being proto–impressionist in the way it lights the subject.
Discovering Vienna and seeing Bruegel there was a fascinating experience and the two did go together even though the former comes across as somewhat ‘official’ and straight-laced. I nevertheless quickly came to like the place and despite the constant reminder of a once great imperial past, found it an agreeable environment. In its totality it did not conform to my pre-visit expectations and the warm, sunny mid-Autumn weather can only have helped. Despite being unnervingly clean there is no shortage of graffiti but maybe this is a reaction to central Vienna’s domineering ‘imperial’ presence. The volk were universally friendly and I will now always link Bruegel with Vienna rather than Brussels, which is where he painted Hunters in the Snow 453 years before.