Kos on Vienna

The Wien Museum Director gives his “personal take” on the city he’s spent his life interpreting

In a recent interview with Director Wolfgang Kos in the Wien Museum – the museum of the history of the City of Vienna – one couldn’t help being curious about his personal take on the city he spends his life trying to interpret. A man who knows the city so well must have some favourite Vienna things.

“I like the drama behind facades,” Kos began. “At first sight, it’s a beautiful city, which can be boring in a certain way. It’s a well-organised city, without shock and sensation. When you look at the history, Vienna is a well-criticised city, particularly from the intellectuals. And some of this criticism has been very witty.

“Actually, there are several Vienna’s built on the same place. This I find quite interesting. This is a city where everything is within walking distance. I live near the centre of the city and most of the things I have to visit professionally, or privately, are within three tram stops, the bakery, the shops.”

As with so many queries, a query about his favourite building brings a surprising answer:

“Good question,” he said with a laugh. “I like the Ringturm [built 1957, on Schottenring] very much, because after 1945, it seemed to be possible to break the size of the buildings. Today it is not possible, because of this world cultural heritage. So the danger is we exist in a cage of past beauty. It’s very difficult to bring new accents in this city. It’s not a great skyscraper architecturally, but I like to have recent buildings which interrupt the fabric of this historical city, in a quality way.”

He acknowledges the city’s: “I like very old churches like the Ruprechtskirche” [from 1137, ivy-clad, squat, Romanesque, and a refreshing contrast to Vienna’s baroque excesses, on Ruprechtsplatz, round the corner from Shakespeare & Co].

Is there a street in the city that he especially likes to walk along and look at?

“Well not Graben or Kärtnerstrasse, because there are too many people just walking up and down,” he said. “I prefer streets where people are going somewhere. We have this ‘Venice problem’ in the inner city.”

He lives in the 4th district, behind Karlskirche. “I used to work at ORF [nearby], presenting rock music programmes, and to go back to the radio station, very often in the LP period, you would take the sleeve into the studio [of Die Musicbox on Ö3], but forget the disc, and so I could go home and pick it up and get back in 13 minutes.” Now that was interesting.

Since he still works within a stone’s throw of the same neighbourhood, I wondered if this was all because he’s lazy.

“I like to combine things, to buy bread and go to work in this village-type situation, but I think more and more people live in an urban village, in the 6th, 7th, 4th, 5th and 2nd districts. So this quality of urban life is very high.”

His radio days, in and around 1968, were an exciting period when it was easy to be a media pioneer concerning pop culture, the avant-garde or critical political ideas. “These were absolutely independent days,” he said, a veiled comment on the murky political interference and compromises at ORF now. Some would say the music was better in those days, and certainly more central to culture. He left the broadcaster in 2003 and says of the organisation now:

“It’s maybe too defensive, taking not enough risks in creating new programme ideas,” he said. “But Ö1 is still one of the best and most successful quality radio stations in Europe.“ He created Diagonal, a Saturday afternoon cultural discussion programme which is highly recommended. For those who find the German used a bit too chewy, the first show each month plays beautiful new music in every style.

Vienna, after all, is a city of language, or many layered dialects reminiscent of London – that resulted in the 1912 premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion taking place at the (Hof)Burgtheater in Vienna rather than Covent Garden.

So what is his favourite Wiener dialect?  “There are a lot of words, like a bissl, where it’s not so clear what you mean. There are codes. And things like eigentlich schon, what does it mean? Pro? Contra? Or I don’t have an opinion about it, or I have an opinion, which I say in a way that you understand it, but other people don’t understand it. It’s the Viennese way not to be precise and not to be straightforward. So I like these nuances and playful language.”

As to places, his favorite Kaffeehaus is the Prückel, a post-war style literary café on the Ring at Stubentor. “It’s not one of these old type coffeehouses, which are ok, but it’s a bit like Ringturm, from the 50s, it’s great architecture, but still it’s a classical coffeehouse.’

But there must be something that irritates him…

“Viennese culture is very strong on giving reasons why something is not possible. And I like going forward,” he said. “I expect other people to have enthusiasm. So in certain circles and fields of professional life, also in public service sectors, you find quite a lack of enthusiasm, so it’s a kind of diminishment of doing your things. And this can make me really angry and frustrated.”

The unique complications of running this city museum are illustrated in the fact that there is an icon on their website simply entitled Restitution: That it should still in 2010 contain such a long list of unclaimed art, attests to the thoroughness of the 1940s purges.

Kos is originally from Mödling, a beautiful little town 20 km south of the capital, among the wealthiest in Austria, but which also seems gave him a good perspective on Vienna.

“I had a respect for Vienna, that we were going to the big city, in die Stadt,” he said. “I am now 60 years old and I have seen a dramatic change in the city. When I was young and my mother was bringing me to the city, to the shops and museums and to have a cake at Aida, I was always shocked with how grey and dirty Vienna was, without energy.  In some novels of John Irving, for example, he describes travelling from the airport to the centre, going through ruins.

“From the 1970s on, nearly all houses have been freshly painted, and in some way, Vienna became an extremely rich and beautiful city. I think this beauty is a problem for Vienna. It needs some kind of rough dirt. There is not enough of that.”

At the Vienna Museum he tries to work on some of these fundamental assumptions, what he calls “claims,” among them one of permanent change.

“When you look at Graben, people have the feeling they walk through an old city which has always been there, but that is just not true. They walk through a new city of the late nineteenth century; fifty percent of all buildings in the inner district were demolished, the whole place was a building site.

But today we have the feeling that the city is not allowed to be changed.”

It’s useful to be reminded that many of those new buildings nearly caused riots.

“They were shocking and people felt rage,” Kos said. “Of course it had to do with anti-Semitism also, because the ones who built the new buildings were mostly Jewish entrepreneurs.”

“The second claim is news from the past. With my journalistic background, I like to focus not on the static past, but questions of contemporary resonance. Dialogue. They must be relevant.”

In his seven years at the Wien Museum, Kos has clearly lost none of his curiosity or enthusiasm for the job:

“I am now responsible for the city art collection, including a portrait by Klimt, of Emilie Flöge, which would fetch at Sotheby’s $120m. This makes you think, wow, do they know that they gave me this responsibility?” And on Stephansdom: “It’s a building I learned to like since I lived here…”

In the collection of the museum, he found original, authentic artifacts from Stephansdom from the very early gothic period, like stone figures, which were on the façade, just above the door, in sandstone.

“What you see on the cathedral now are copies from 1890,” he explained, “because in the nineteenth century, the sandstone had to be saved.” So they made copies and brought the originals to the museum, along with some of the greatest gothic stained glass windows in central Europe. And the only original glass windows from the 13th and 14th century are in the museum.

So he started thinking: “Why did a relatively small city, which for a short time, was the highest tower of the world? Was it city marketing, or craziness, or did they do it to get a bishop?” Stephansdom, he realized, was not just something for art historians.

“It has to do with what made the city grow and develop,” Kos said. “Who had the power then, was it the ruler, was it the church or the citizens?”  He is still looking for the answer. And in a characteristic flourish, he had to dash off to show some trustees around the exhibition.

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