Back Yard Baroque

The Augarten Park: A lifeline for locals and a cultural meeting point for Vienna

An Augarten allée heading toward the cottage that Joseph II built for himself | Photo: R.S. Hughes

Walking along one of the park’s broad avenues, a middle-aged man leaned to one side and spat. Dull thuds and shouting were carried on the breeze as children played football on a well-worn grass quadrangle, and the gate of a playground groaned as it swung closed. Near the centre of the park, three men spoke with loud, harsh, rasps, in a language I didn’t understand. They swayed stiffly, leaving an avenue to urinate among the trees and wild garlic.

Is the Augarten – the 52-hectare public park that straddles Vienna’s second and twentieth districts – one of Vienna’s most important parks, I ask garden manager Daniel Rohrauer? He pauses.

“It depends in which respect you mean,” he says reflectively. “It’s no Schönbrunn.” While the park is not usually at the top of a tourist’s agenda, it is at the centereof life in the neighborhood. “There are many interests, many needs – and the Augarten has a special character because of all these different needs,” he adds.

The park sits like a eulogy to a lost age. Long, formal, interconnected avenues, cut hundreds of years ago from the forest around the River Danube are lined by chestnut, linden and maple trees. Its perimeter is flanked by a handsome wall of crumbling red brick that nears 20 feet of height in places. It is bordered by tall, baroque-style apartment buildings – many of which house a heady cultural mix of immigrants, artists, academics, the upwardly mobile, and everything in between – as well as freight yards, cheap eats and the odd car repair shop.

Any visit to the Augarten highlights this disparate local population, as well as the different needs Rohrauer refers to. Last weekend, the gentle clinks of the French ball game pétanque penetrated the early morning haze, as people clustered for a loosely organised tournament in the avenues at the park’s center. Similar to Italian bocce, the game is often played in the Augarten, attracting many Austrians, explained a Moroccan man, along with French and Algerian players.

“We usually play over there,” he said, gesturing towards the Augarten Contemporary café. “They provide us with food and electricity. Sometimes we can go on a bit.”

Later in the day, the evening light threw long shadows off the two 54 metre-high concrete flak-towers that now stand empty, save for the thousands of pigeons that have made them their home. The pétanque tournament played on, and shouts of “Allez!” added to the soft cacophony of the Sunday afternoon crowd. Among the tens of joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers, a young couple lay sunbathing on the grass, photographing themselves. A man and four boys alternated between a football and a frisbee, and picnic baskets, blankets and bunting marked out birthday parties of varying size and exuberance among the trees. On a nearby avenue, a woman collected fallen chestnuts that litter the paths throughout the park.

“They make beautiful table decorations,” she explained.

The grounds that surround the Schönbrunn Palace and many of Vienna’s other magnificent buildings must rank among the most beautifully-kept gardens in the world. But the Augarten, despite its own rich history and well-tended quadrangles, still manages to feel more ‘back-yard’ than baroque, more ‘local lifeline’ than global grandiose.

In the north-westernmost corner, groups of men sit around tables on peeling wooden benches, playing cards, drinking beer, talking and debating. One pops blackcurrants from a large bunch into his mouth, sucks them, and spits the skins onto the floor. They come to rest among the hundreds of beer bottle-tops that mark this place out as a regular meeting spot. Another, dressed in a tracksuit and wearing a gold chain, says he and the others come from “Yugoslavia”,  but motions to a nearby apartment block with a flick of his head when asked where he lives now.

The Augarten has grown in popularity since the 1990s, when local people came together under the guidance of aktionsradius (www.aktionsradius.at) to renew the park’s fading character. They believed that doing so would create a better cultural identity and a sense of solidarity in the neighborhood. They raised money, built playgrounds, restored gates and entrances, and established cultural events and institutions such as the Bunkerei, a former World War II bunker that is now a café cum cultural meeting point. Its rambling tables and chairs, set among mature trees and hedges, have spilled over on past weekends as local people gathered for live events – everything from Klezmer bands, Schrammelmusik and Wienerlieder to jazz. Couples waltzed, and children were transfixed.

“Our apartment is small,” said one Bunkerei regular, a bohemian, tattooed mother of two. “Where else do we come to escape?” she added, as we strained to hear one another over a growling blues band called the Chili Cheeps. The next Saturday, she would be back with dozens of other parents and children to watch a production by Theatro Piccolo.

Other recent cultural additions include the Filmarchiv Austria, the nation’s library of film housed in the park since 1997, and Augarten Contemporary. The latter’s bare, white walls, wooden floors and angled glass expanses have shown off modern art since 2001. It is currently staging an exhibition of young artists – an Israeli, a German, a Dane and a Brit – whose short films, projected photographs, found objects and discordant audio works are raw and experimental.

But it is the mix that makes the Augarten so unique. Just next door to the Augarten Contemporary, for example, the Gustinus Ambrosi Museum has displayed the despairing, anguished, bronze and stone sculptures of this more traditional Austrian artist since 1978. Other members of the city’s cultural old guard here include the Vienna Porcelain Factory, producing the coveted “Augarten” china there since 1718, and the Vienna’s Boys Choir, who were given the war-damaged Augarten Palace in 1948 to remodel as a school. When the air is still and the choir is rehearsing, the boys’ voices can be heard drifting into the south-eastern reaches of the park.

Near the school, hooded crows congregate in vast numbers during the hard Vienna winters, after wheeling in on the cold wind from the Vienna Woods and beyond. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II built a more modest residence for himself in this part of the park, and, in his zeal for reform, opened the Augarten to the public in 1775. Since, an engraving over the park’s main gate has welcomed all who enter. “Allen Menschen gewidmeter Erlustigungs-Ort von Ihrem Schätzer”, it reads – or translated, “a place dedicated to the enjoyment of all people, from one who holds them in high regard.”

Accordingly, the people have developed a strong sense of ownership of the Augarten. Just like the mother of two in the Bunkerei, many view it as a near extension of their home. Without it, the apartments in this area of Vienna would feel a lot smaller.

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