According to intrepid PT correspondent James Bligh, three days in Vienna is not enough time to digest “the complex layers of history that have been developing here since at least as far back as the first century.”
In that time the site was a Roman outpost that connected (what is now) Great Britain to Syria. What follows is an outsider’s reading of the city from only so much exposure…
Within the urban form of Vienna there appears a story of small victories for a working class that lived under a 400 year old monarchist dynasty until 1918 and then the shadow cast in its following absence. Here are a few examples of the city’s built fabric responding in favour of the public good, from the most recent (and Enlightened) 200 years.
Those examples, via James’ photographs and commentary from Vienna, follow below; you can see the full set on the Price Tags Instagram feed.
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “Vienna's famous ringstrausse, a circular boulevard enclosing the city centre, was previously the site of a border wall meant to protect the inhabitants therein. In 1809, Napoleon took the city (again) and blew up part of said wall. Much to my surprise, our Austrian government-sanctioned tour guide informed us that the citizens were pleased with Napoleon's decision – as it brought much needed light, breeze and open space (like the Hofburg Palace’s Volksgarten pictured here) into an otherwise dank and dismal inner city. As many PT readers may know, the (evidently worthless) ring wall was dismantled shortly thereafter in favour of a ring road (hidden behind the trees), bordered by many beloved public institutions, none perhaps more famous than the opera house frequented by Mozart, Mahler, etcetera.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “In the wake of World War I, the Social Democratic Party of Austria took control of Vienna city council and built the world's longest housing block, the aptly titled Karl-Marx-Hof. The project was paid for by a luxury tax proportionate to expenditure and included amenities such as a kindergarten and laundry to name only a few. It is still in operation. The residence buildings themselves had very little ground plane activation (they were mostly solid walls at grade), but then again people barricaded themselves inside during the 1934 Austrian Civil War so maybe they were onto something.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “Built in the 1970's, Alterlaa is a series of social mega housing blocks that read as what Karl-Marx-Hof likely wanted to be. Notable features include its own metro stop, its own mall (a big one), roof top pools, many three bedroom units, and MASSIVE planters for the lower levels to block out sound and add privacy (not to mention the biophilic benefits). Articles online suggest resident happiness is high, move-outs are low, and crime is mostly limited to teenage graffiti. Once again the first floor of the housing blocks were mostly boring solid walls, but the great location and amenity count seems to have somewhat made up for it. Our B&B host suggested that housing affordability is still an issue in Vienna ‘unless you are lucky enough to get into the social housing program.’ That sounds a lot like False Creek South.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “The fact that fact that Saint Stephen's Cathedral is the only piece of architecture drawn onto the subway map (in the dead center, no less) suggests how important the building is to the Viennese. Camillo Sitte would be so proud! Sitte was a Viennese urban theorists who published the avant-garde ‘City Planning According to Artistic Principles’ all the way back in 1889.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “Vienna's subway system (the ‘Wiener Linien’) was convenient and easy to understand. Besides being well connected to streetcars and busses, the stations were colour-coded to remind passengers what subway lines they were about to board. Note the map colours the upcoming transfer stations based on what lines they connect to while the stations that have already been passed are greyed out. Moreover, the sign for the current station ‘Keplerplatz’ is in red, because it serves the red line.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “Mariahilfer Straße. Does this look like Vancouver’s Granville Street? Unlike Granville there are no curb cuts, which perhaps was done to make the street more flexible in use – however people generally seem to keep well off the road for safety as bikes and cars can still access the street within the painted lines. There were more benches, planting, and more shopping venues than Granville, but other than being bigger it appeared to reflect the same daytime shopping monoculture. Perhaps it is better programmed on other days; in fairness (as seen in the far background) there are more populated sections that are completely car-free.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “The Looshaus by Adolf Loos, writer of ‘Ornament is Crime.’ After construction, locals lost their minds, insensed over the lack of upper window detailing. A law was passed forcing the architect to add planter boxes to the windows. The architect I am sure was trying to keep the focus on the exquisite green marble podium. Nearly 110 years later and 8500km away, Vancouver’s Point Gret Road Cube House is built and history nearly repeats itself.”
Urbanist Abroad @j.bligh’s Backpacking – Vienna: “Adorable crosswalk sign in front of Otto Wagner's Majolikahaus, reminding people to hold their loved one's hand ❤️. In Vienna we saw people mostly travelling by foot, with the next most common mode being non-motorized scooter. Perhaps it's the lack of end-of-trip facilities that make the easily-folded scooter a more desirable option over the bicycle? We didn't see many skateboards either – the large crowds may have made them difficult to navigate by comparison.”