View Full Version : Vienna's Grandeur Fails to Mask a Sense of Loss

August 4th, 2003, 10:05 AM
August 3, 2003

Vienna's Grandeur Fails to Mask a Sense of Loss


A carriage driver in Vienna, wearing a traditional bowler hat, passes under an arch of the former Hapsburg palace in the center of the old city.

VIENNA, July 29 — It was a hot Sunday, and people, wearing shorts, bathing suits or nothing at all, were dotted all along the 17 miles of Danube Island, which the Austrians claim to be the largest park in Europe. They swam, they draped themselves over rocks, and, if they were boys and girls, slid down a 600-foot water slide.

The image is as close to idyllic as it gets in a Western capital city, even if you could hear the traffic over nearby bridges and some of the place looks like Coney Island.

"All people have a good life in Austria," said Alfred Eschenlor, the owner of the water slide and of the Pago soft-drink stand. In front of him, as if to prove his point, the Danube stretched under a hot blue sky. A windsurfer made his way back and forth across the river. The smell of kebab mingled with the smell of pepperoni.

"The one who doesn't have a good life, he is stupid," he continued. "Here you have work if you want it, and we have a social system that is very, very good."

For the traveler down the Danube, Vienna is the last stop in the fully established, most groomed and affluent part of the river. From here on, the river begins its course through territories more tarnished by the past — at least by the recent past — than this model city of palaces, museums, concert halls, opera houses and riverine parks.

Vienna, like Austria in general, does offer a great deal of affluence. Now that the cold war is over and countries east of here are scheduled to join the European Union, Vienna promises to be the restored capital of middle Europe, that once great multiethnic conglomeration that fared so badly in the last century.

But the impression that Vienna makes is of spectacular opulence mixed with a sense of something missing, even at its core. Vienna, like Austria, is solidly democratic, well-regulated and safe. Its citizens are among the most protected and catered to in Europe. It is the sort of place that other cities in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire — like Bratislava, Budapest and Prague — would love to emulate.

It is also museumlike, touristy, a bit dull, like an exhibit viewed through a glass case. It inspires the pathos of a place that was once at the center of the world and has been reduced to lesser status. "In Vienna, one gets the impression that people live, and have always lived, in the past, the folds of which conceal and protect even joy," Claudio Magris writes in his book "Danube."

Indeed, in contrast with such "old" European countries as Germany and France derided by the American defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, as irrelevant, neutral Austria truly is that when it comes to the European and international political scenes. It reminds one of that line from Somerset Maugham where he is describing why he does not like hiking in a scenic spot: "Beauty is boring," he said.

You arrive in Vienna from Passau, on the German border, passing by thickly forested hills and vineyards, and villages of masonry houses of light blue, pale pink, weatherbeaten ochre. Flowers spill out of window boxes; elderly men stand on stone embankments, their hands in their pockets, watching the boats go by.

Linz is the first big city in Austria, and it reeks of tragic history. Hitler, born in Austria not far from the Danube, used to visit his grandparents there, and, after he came to power, had his architect, Albert Speer, draw up plans to turn the town into a model of Nazi monumentalism, the dominant theme being Teutonic divinities.

The defeat of Germany thwarted most of Hitler's plans, though the large United Austrian Steel Company near the town was built by the Nazis and was once called the Hermann Göring Works. The Jews escaped or were murdered, and the old Jewish quarter that was once squeezed along the Danube's banks was torn down in the 1970's.

In this sense the Danube is like Vienna, notable not only for what still is there, but also for what is gone.

When you arrive in Vienna by water, you realize that the city is not, strictly speaking, a Danubian city — even if Johann Strauss did write the Blue Danube Waltz here. It could not be built too near the river because of the danger of flooding. Vienna also used the Danube to protect itself from the Ottoman Empire.

About 30 years ago, a giant flood-control system was created, and the giant park along Danube Island was the inadvertent result.

A few miles away is the famous Ring and the great institutions of Vienna, the State Opera, the palaces (now museums) of the Hapsburg emperors and empresses, the stately villas built by Austria's financial and industrial elite, and the memories of the great figures who made Vienna for half a century the world's greatest center of the arts and sciences — Freud, Bruckner, Franz Werfel, Mahler, Brahms, Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Egon Schiele, Gustave Klimpt and others.
Vienna is busy now, and ambitious.

It is the capital of a country that has what might well be the largest per capita cultural budget in the world. The three state theaters receive national subsidies of some $200 million a year. The museums get about $90 million. Those are subsidies from the national government. Vienna alone spends about $200 million a year supporting culture and the arts, not counting the money that goes to the city's famous music schools. And, of course, there is Austria's cradle-to-grave social welfare system, a bit tattered and in need of downsizing, but essentially intact.

"It's both the awareness of the heritage of the monarchy and a feeling of responsibility to invest in education and culture," Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, the city councilor for cultural affairs said, explaining Vienna's priorities.

But there remains that sense of something missing, of a certain emptiness, and it is not only because the welfare state is a bit unexciting, or because at this season so many people are away enjoying their six weeks of vacation.

The pathos, the sense of an unrecapturable past, that you have in Vienna is due in part simply to the passing of a great empire. A figure like Freud, who, like many of the great figures of his era, arrived in Vienna from the empire's provinces, did not have an easy time in the city, certainly not at the beginning, but he found a vibrant scientific community there and was free to make and publish his findings.

It is likely that Vienna would have lost some of its position when the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved after World War I. In any case, the city's magical qualities were abruptly and sickeningly crushed in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria to the Thousand Year Reich. The best were destroyed or escaped to London, New York or Los Angeles, and in the immortal words of Mother Goose, you can never put Humpty Dumpty together again.

"It would be impossible to create again a climate and atmosphere in which these hundreds of poets and scientists could work," Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the director of the Albertina Museum, said. "We just don't have the money for that."

That might seem an extraordinary concession for the director of one of Vienna's great institutions to make. The Albertina is the former Hapsburg palace that housed the drawings by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer in the royal collection, and it recently opened again after a meticulous, expensive decade-long restoration.

But for Mr. Schröder, the question has to do with what needs to happen for a place to be a caldron of activity and greatness, and, as he sees it, you need not just the creative minds alone but the sort of general cultural and economic richness that nurtures them, the material and intellectual plenitude that existed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but does not exist in well-cared-for little Austria.

"How many of those great mansions you see here that were built by the wealthy are occupied by government ministries now?" he said. They have never been reclaimed by their original owners, because there are no original owners to reclaim them.

"We have the stones of our history; we have the architecture of our history, but we know that Vienna will never again have the importance of Paris or London or New York," he said.

"We have much more than one would expect in a small country like Austria, but less than this wonderful capital had between 1880 and 1938."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

August 4th, 2003, 09:09 PM
This is a sad article. I read something similar to it in soem of the architectural trade magazines. But I think part of the city's problems have to do with its preservationists. I have spoken to and read german articles on how the building community in the city have to pretty much concentrate on rehabing and buildign new structrues outside the city limits.

It is like Paris in a way, except Paris is THE world's french city, whereas Vienna is just one GERMAN city. Had it not been the capital of Austria, I'm not sure much attention would be devoted to it at all.