‘Stammtisch’ on the Sidewalk

Street furniture is an opportunity for urban regeneration, and improvisation

The cigar-smoking clientele enjoying the street furniture outside a tobacconist’s shop on Margaretenstraße. | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Street furniture can transform a neighbourhood – for better or worse. The so-called “Enzis” – the multi-coloured, asymmetrical blocks scattered around the MuseumsQuartier courtyard – attract scores of people every day, while their iconic design has come to exemplify an upbeat, progressive Vienna.

What an opportunity, then, to re-furnish the streets of my native 4th District, an area that has seen an influx of galleries, tramezzini bars and a bohemian crowd over the last years: some well-placed benches with a fashionable texture and interesting lighting design would surely round off the picture, no? The bureaucrats of the Bezirksvorstehung Wieden apparently don’t think so.

On walk-about early this summer, something was clearly amiss in my backwaters. Sitting, awkwardly, on a number of street corners were what can only be called “chair-and-table-units,” for there can’t be an elegant word for these hopelessly cumbersome objects: Four squat chairs, each at a slight forward lurch due to an unusual knee-bend in their short, sheet-metal legs, lower the occupant to the eyelevel of a dachshund; their orange-brown, wooden slatted seats are inelegantly – if accommodatingly – wide, but the chairs are placed so close to the square table in the middle, at such oppressively right angles, that it is impossible to comfortably cross one’s legs – the proof of any furniture designed for leisure.

Adding insult to aesthetic injury, however, is the choice of location for the table-sets: on the Margaretenstraße, the chairs back on to one of the few major traffic arteries leading through the district; in the Heumühlgasse, occupants are passed at close range by the 59A bus, at seven–minute intervals; one of the “units” is even judiciously placed at the garage-entrance to a petrol station, directly behind the price board. As such, one wonders whether the tables’ locations were determined in a game of “pin the tail on the donkey” at the Bezirksvorstehung’s last Christmas party.

Wieden’s street furniture seemed to break every rule of urban planning, with its emphasis on context-sensitivity and adaptability: Unlike the MQ’s mobile Enzis, which can be placed in myriad different constellations, the “chair-and-table-units” were obstinately bolted to the ground. But citing planning “rules” is to forget the first commandment of urban design: City dwellers appropriate spaces in ways that defy prediction.

Outside the gay café Gugg on Heumühlgasse, two girls in their late teens were having their drinks at the table-unit. “It looks clean and modern,” one of them commented, astonishingly.

Just down the road, somebody had spray-painted white, stenciled letters onto the pavement in the rectangular margins between the chairs: nonsensical words – or mysterious anagrams? – such as “Gluse Trott” or “Wanooru Yurte-Yorko” now framed the table-unit, uplifting it to an urban art installation. If the tables were ill-adapted to their context, this intervention ingeniously altered that context – rather than spray-painting the table itself – thus establishing a new relationship with the furniture.

Most surprisingly, on Margaretenstraße, a tobacconist incorporated the table-unit outside his store into a shop front patio, setting up a sun-shade, and laying out chair-cushions, a table-cloth, and, of course, a large ashtray.

The patio has become such a success with a cigar-smoking, male clientele that it is routinely extended with additional chairs put out by the Italian deli next door, which keeps the smokers supplied with beer and antipasti. For Giulia, the deli’s owner, this was a way to get around the restrictions on outdoor restaurant seating. “The street furniture?” she says. “It’s so nice. Every district should have it!”

So, has a vital opportunity for upgrading the 4th District been lost? Perhaps not. Instead, the summer of 2011 should be remembered as the time when Wiedeners proclaimed their independence from city bureaucrats and fancy architects alike. With spray-paint, table-cloth and sun-shade, they made the district truly their own.

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