It was late April when I arrived in Vienna, and the first bright day of spring. The London I’d left had been grey, relentlessly so since autumn first turned into winter, and the weather helped, at least initially, to dispel some of my earlier reservations about the trip.
I’ve long been a nervous traveller and the blank non-spaces of modern airports fill me with an existential dread. Yet the striking beauty of Austria’s capital, with its famous tree-lined boulevardsnewly shrouded in lush, green foliage, had an immediate and disarming charm.
What is perhaps most striking about Vienna to the visitor from Britain is its quintessential Europeanness. Self-consciously bourgeois, the city and its culture still exude an old-world confidence and like Budapest, the other former capital of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire which likewise straddles the Danube, it has retained its Victorian civic grandeur. Modern Vienna’s centre is replete with imperial palaces and charming squares lined by gilded cafés, and the European Gothic of its famous City Hall reminds one of nothing so much as a Disneyfied architectural folly. The city’s great mid-19th-century redevelopment, the Ringstrasse, a wide five-kilometre-long road constructed in the 1860s and 1870s on top of the old city wall that encircles Vienna’s imperial and baroque old town, remains one of the Vienna’s defining features. Born of a culture of cosmopolitan bourgeois prosperity, the Ringstrasse and its surroundings are marked by a vast scale and a stylistic homogeneity. It is a grand complex of municipal buildings and private dwellings built for the newly emerging middle classes, designed in the historicist fashion, in which buildings were planned according to either neoclassical, Renaissance or Gothic models.
Vienna was also, as the architect and theorist Adolf Loos branded it in 1898, a “Potemkin city”, a false front screening the hollowness of Viennese society. A prosperous urban centre, dotted with historical landmarks, hid a hinterland of poor-quality housing for the city’s working class. Beneath the soil of liberal cosmopolitanism lay the seeds of both revolution and reaction. Vienna, the great metropolis of modernity, was at once the birthplace of high modernism – the home of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal – and the nursemaid of its own destruction. Here, modern antisemitism and fascism would develop, as well as the brief flowering of social democratic experimentation known as Red Vienna. The city’s famous cafés, the centres of its intellectual and cultural life, not only bore the first fruits of an artistic revolution but harboured communist revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge. They were also home to some of the first representatives of a new type of politics, whose most notorious leader began as an aspiring artist in this great imperial city. As a young man, he would stand for hours in rapt attention in front of Vienna’s grand public squares, gazing up at vast edifices of the State Opera House and the Austrian Parliament, there learning, in the words of the historian Carl E. Schorske, that the “magical world of Recht and Kultur was not so easy to penetrate”. A quarter of acentury later he would return, this time as the unifying dictator of the German-speaking people.
The Vienna World’s Fair, the Weltausstellung, came right at the end of the country’s liberal ascendency, in 1873. It was opened on 1 May that year by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, following earlier fairs in London in 1851 and 1862, and Paris in 1855 and 1867 – this was the first to be held in a German-speaking country.
It was an ambitious undertaking. Built in the city’s Prater Park, which had been expanded for the occasion by the redirection of the nearby Danube, the fair’s site covered nearly 600 acres, and was some five times larger than the previous site in Paris. Across the park were 194 pavilions that displayed the technical and scientific marvels of the age and in its centre was the vast steel dome of the Rotunda that would remain the world’s largest until its destruction by fire in 1937.
It was in the years of late Victorian optimism that the great international exhibitions reached their peak. In the words of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, they were “sites of pilgrimages to the commodity fetish”, carnivals to the age of capital, which attracted millions of visitors from across the world. Partly park, they were intended to be something like proto-shopping centres, where the endless variety of merchandise from every conceivable nation was displayed for a burgeoning consumer society, and where new design and technology could be marketed to the local public. Yet, more than this, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, comparing them to the extravagant masques of the Baroque princes, they were “giant new rituals of self-congratulations”, meant not simply to showcase the wonders of the industrial world but to provide a space in which nations could flaunt their industrial and economic might. As much nation-building exercises as commercial endeavours, in an era when capital in its relentless hunt for new markets was collapsing the world into a single economic system, they helped forge a national consciousness in the global public.
Nor was it simply the wonders of Euro-American capitalism on display. From the very first exhibition products from Asia and colonial Africa were exhibited, many for the first time. Vienna’s exhibition included pavilions and displays from China, Japan, Brazil, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, the Ottoman Empire, Persia and elsewhere.
The enormous galleries, filled with American sewing machines and cotton spinners from Oldham, Spanish lace and Chinese ceramics, electric lighting and giant crystal chandeliers, were cathedrals of capitalism, and pride of place went to its newest machinery. The exhibitions and their organisers, whether public or private, fetishised the machine above all else, and it was the new unblemished world that machines would create, that they celebrated.
If these events had a watchword, it was progress and its relentless onwards march. Here on display was the faith, born out of the Enlightenment, that the world was on a constant upward curve. If you were one of the unlucky groups left behind by high capitalist progress, however, there was still room for you in the exhibitions. Until as late as the 1930s, and in one of the more shameful aspects of the fairs, the exhibitions were human showcases as well as commercial displays. Sitting alongside the object displays were anthropological exhibitions: the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for instance, had model villages in which colonial subjects from Senegal, Congo, New Caledonia, Gabon, China, Java and elsewhere were kept for the amusement of the gawping crowds. As one Parisian visitor remembered:
In the back settlements behind all the gorgeous finery of the pagodas and the palaces of the East, the ingenious French have established colonies of savages of whom they are attempting to civilise. They are the genuine article, and make no mistake, living and working and amusing themselves as they and their kinfolk do in their own country.
Two structures, one still standing and the other long gone, sum up the heroic age of the international expo: the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s vast glass and steel warehouse built in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, and the Eiffel Tower, the Meccano-like monument on the banks of the Seine, constructed for the 1889 Exposition. The design and construction of each was made possible by the development of new technologies of steel and glass construction; and the advancing technical achievements of industrial capitalism.
In his history of the World’s Fairs, Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions from London to Shanghai 1851–2010 (Papadakis, 2011) the art historian Paul Greenhalgh, like Hobsbawm before him, compared these events to the extravagance of the early 18th century. These were fetes which were marked, he writes, by “baroque excesses”, the costs of which often “strayed into economic madness”. None more so than Vienna. To compete with the earlier exhibitions in London and Paris, the city and various private funders poured huge sums of money into the event, with high returns promised from the 20 million expected visitors. In the end, however, the six months that the event was open was marked by bad weather and heavy rain, and just nine days after its official opening the country was hit by a catastrophic economic crisis. By the end of October, when its gates closed for the final time, just seven million people attended, and the financial deficit nearly forced the city into bankruptcy.
Today Vienna is, we are told, experiencing a new Gründerzeit or “founders’ era”, the name for the period from Vienna’s industrialisation in the 1840s up to the financial crisis of 1873 when under the city’s liberal ascendency its physical and cultural life changed dramatically.
Contemporary Vienna is a city in flux. With a population of nearly two million people, it has undergone a rapid growth in size, up over ten percent in a decade. With it have come a number of large urban developments, as well as a planned new subway line. And, despite its celebrated social housing system, the Gemeindebauten, developed by the city’s Social Democrat administration from the end of the First World War, it has a growing private-rental sector, with many areas of the city experiencing rent-inflation and its attendant gentrification. Yet, forty-three percent of all housing in the city is insulated from the market, and the city centre at least has the air of a relaxed bourgeois haven.
Perhaps this has something to do with its position as the outsized capital of a small, rural and often parochial country. Austria’s recent political history is a chequered one. In 2016, it nearly elected a member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria as president, and despite some recent gains for the Austrian left the country has been governed since 2017 by a string of volatile right-wing governments. Vienna, on the other hand, has been under the control of the country’s Social Democratic party since 1945. The country, and its capital city more than any other, have been key battlegrounds in the fight for the very meaning of Europe in the 21st century.
The Prater, where 150 years ago the exhibition’s Rotunda once stood, remains today as a large public park. It is a lovely site, well used by locals and with generous amenities, spoiled only slightly by the down-at-heel amusement park that surrounds the Prater Riesenrad, a wooden Ferris wheel that dominates the northern end of the park and which was first constructed for the 1873 fair. Little else remains of the site today bar a lone pavilion, since converted into a café.
Tucked just behind the park is a very modern marvel, the campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, an expensive new Starchitect city-within-a-city. First opened in late 2013, the site is a cluster of six grand buildings that cost a combined 492 million euros and took 41 months to complete. The Library and Learning Centre designed by Zaha Hadid is the campus’s main attraction.
A futuristic glass and steel building with a black-clad box angled precariously on top, it looks more like a dystopian cruise ship than the “cathedral of learning” it is marketed as. There’s also Carme Pinós’ tetris-like facade of the Economics Faculty; Hitoshi Abe’s rippling, fluid checkerboard student centre, said to have been inspired by mille-feuille pastries; and BUSarchitektur’s Teaching Centre made from rusted Corten steel, a wonderful tactile foil to the Library’s smooth glass front. Other buildings on the site work less well. CRAB studio’s Law Faculty incorporates lovely, weathered timber screens across its windows, providing both shade and a visual nod to the trees of the nearby park, but the building’s acid yellow and garish oranges are jarring.
Before it was decamped to the Prater, the university, Europe’s largest business school, was set in buildings spread throughout central Vienna. Founded in 1898, it was a late product of the same capitalist optimism that created the World’s Fair, meant to train the fledgling businessmen of the empire. The future of such universities is far less certain, perhaps why in a bid to attract new consumer-students in a tight global marketplace, it has built such a grand new site. Where once our global cities were the home of commerce and empire, today they must do all they can to attract the floating global army of students with debt-inflated cash to spend. If they can stay around for a few years afterwards, providing workers for its booming service industries, all the better.
What makes a city European? When London feels ever more squeezed between tawdry luxury developments and the increasingly brutal effects of gentrification and rent inflation, Vienna’s self-confident, somewhat self-satisfied, middle-classness can feel almost utopian. Its public services not only work, at least in the city’s centre, but are cheap and plentiful. Its social housing is not only widely available, but in the words of the architecture critic Owen Hatherley, “extraordinarily well made and meticulously cared for”. If a European city is one that is defined in contrast to the ravaged neoliberal cityscapes of North America, then here is a preeminent example.
For the lucky few with access to these amenities, the Viennese ideal remains. But if the spectacle of the business school demonstrates anything, the model may be as hollow as the fin de siècle Potemkin city. Vienna remains a modern, forward-thrusting city. What it thrusts towards, though, is unclear. ◉