The Lake City of Vienna

Can a city be built from scratch? Critics say no, but the authorities at The Vienna Planning Department intend to prove them wrong.

A lone City Border walker takes in the scenery at the Aspern Airfield | Photo: Hannah Stadlober

It was a challenge to get there — several subway stops and a 15-minute bus ride followed by a 20-minute walk, into the middle of nowhere. Who would ever want to live here, I wondered? It is hard to imagine that in the not-so-distant future, 20,000 people will move into new apartment blocks on what used to be the Aspern Airfield, located midway between the cities of Vienna and Bratislava.

But this is exactly what “Aspern – The Lake City of Vienna” hopes to be. And I was here to find out what artists like Barbara Holub who has organized a series  of “performance walks” along the city border lands, have to say about the Planning Department’s vision for the new district.

On the bus to Aspern, I met a friendly middle-aged woman also headed to the Border Walks, which she had attended more than once.

“They allow you to see new, often surprising, perspectives – particularly the architecture,” she said, “things I never noticed before, that I usually walk right by.”

As we approached the Aspern Airfield where the invented city will be built, I couldn’t help but notice the extremes of this part of the city.  Street after street of expensive villas, many of eccentric design, row houses with sharply pitched roofs at odd angles, next to an arched curve like a Dutch girl’s bonnet. Barbed wire next to garden gnomes, watchdogs and rose gardens… a seemingly ideal world that needs to be defended against intruders.

At least, this is the impression I got walking through the empty, almost deserted neighborhoods whose gloomy atmosphere was enhanced even more by the gray sky and the relentless wind. And I wondered again, who lives in Aspern? And who will want to move here?

It’s a place for everyone, the brochure says, with everything close at hand: “party animals and lone wolfs, high-fliers and underdogs, cocktail dresses and diapers, high life and chill out, bike way and city shuttle, nature and infrastructure – simply everybody and everything.”

As we were waiting for the other walkers to arrive, I noticed two middle-aged men, staring at the Aspern billboard, gesturing in heated discussion. I listened more closely. The older of the two nodded and, said resignedly, “Well… they haven’t even asked if we agree to this…”

Agree to what?

“Aspern – The Lake City of Vienna” is an ambitious project whose goal is to build a city for 20,000 inhabitants according to a master plan by the Swedish architect Johannes Tovatt. Over the next 20-30 years, residential areas, a 500 acres lake, parks, schools and kindergartens are intended to bring new energy to Vienna’s 22nd district of Donaustadt, offering “a good life -  an individual life – a whole life” to the “city of tomorrow,” as is claimed on several billboards around the area. The corner stone for the lake was laid June 12 and construction is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2010.

Can a city be built from scratch? Can this ambitious plan work? What if it doesn’t?

Holub and other critics believe that growth and development of a living space should be left to its inhabitants who cultivate it according to their needs and wishes. Cities are a living organism, and cannot be designed by master plan. Set “in stone,” they fear the new city neighborhood will lack the distinct character that makes other cities so fascinating.

The Austrian artist’s ideas regarding the “organic city” spring in part from those of the American writer Jane Jacobs, who articulated the dynamics of living spaces in her pioneering work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“The idea to build a whole new city on the border of Vienna seemed to me like a pretty big undertaking whose concept, ideas and implications I wanted to explore in more depth,” Holub explained. “To me, a city is something that has grown up over years and years.”

Urban historian Sabine Knierbein agrees with Holub’s basic idea that a socially functioning city cannot be planned. “What can be anticipated, however, are regulative processes such as a infrastructural foundation that are flexible and allow for adjustments,” says Knierbein, head of the interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space (SkuOR) and part of the faculty of Architecture and Spatial Planning at the Vienna University of Technology.

“And this is why we are not building a terraced housing estate but a city that makes sense ecologically and economically,” Annemarie Hietler of “Wien3420,” the company responsible for the development of “Aspern – The Lake City of Vienna,” argues. Residents of the future city will profit from its immediate access to the public transport system as well a large portion of public space, which will account for 50% of the city in comparison to the average 30%-35%.

Aspern attracted Holub because of the overlapping of its different historical eras and the varying use of space. It was on this field, in the Battle of Aspern, that the first victory against Napoleon’s army was won; names of streets and squares like Siegesplatz (“Victory Square”) and Heldenstraße (“Street of Heros”) reflect the heroic myths dating from those times. Aspern was later used as an airfield and even later, a car racecourse. Today, remnants of corn, potatoes and sunflowers in a deserted field overgrown by weeds attest to what once was and will probably never be again.

“Besides,” Holub added, “I am fascinated by the hidden, the secrets of things, the potential of the unknown. Through the master plan, however, everything will be homogenized, leaving no room for holes, for individual projections and imaginations.” These holes, exemplifying the human desire to discover the secrets of the unknown as a source of productivity, formed the central concept of the performance walk.

This is the second of Holub’s city border walks. “I first got the idea for this kind of art performance when participating in a so-called pick-up truck gallery in Chicago,” Holub told me. In addition to the walk, a collage and billboards that deal with the use of public space will be exhibited at Schrödingerplatz in the 12th Viennese district at the beginning of July. Furthermore, a CD and a radio program (aired in November) will be produced by Holub and Bruno Pisek from Ö1 art radio.

Today about 15 participants including the artist, a photographer, a cameraman, a cultural scientist, an audio engineer and three actors had arrived to explore this architectural space.

As we walked towards our stop we saw streets that disappeared into nowhere, weed that grew exuberantly; the only two constructions on the site were a white block of massive containers with Aspern-graffiti on the walls – the “information centre” – and a playground that consisted of two metal constructions, both neatly walled off from each other. In the distance, the figure of a man in dirty work clothes appeared. In controlled motions, he was digging a hole in the wide muddy field. Holes in the middle of nowhere. Later, we learned that it was one of the actors of Barbara’s team whose performance was supposed to reflect the idea of holes and individual use of space.

At the next stop, two other actors performed a play, presenting and interpreting voices of people with international backgrounds and multiple ethnic origins, thus making visible the diverse aspects of culture and giving the potential residents a voice beyond statistics, numbers and figures.

On our way to the third and last stop, a young man adjusting a big green sail attracted our attention. “I am waiting for more wind to lift up the sail for my mountain board.” he said and pointed to a construction that resembled a skateboard, but with bigger wheels. We also saw Nordic walkers, bikers and runners who had found this former airfield of Aspern perfect for their sportive activities.

“In the future, this space will be used completely differently,” Barbara Holub contemplated as we walked towards a deserted football goal, which formed the last stop of the performance walk.

What does democracy or community mean to us? What does it mean to lead a happy life? The two actors used the isolated setting of their “stage” in the midst of wild flowers and weed to read to us the answers given by representatives of the international community of Vienna, thus continuing and completing the theme of the earlier stop. The ambitious attempt to encompass such a wide range of issues, however, made the performance seem rather disconnected and not as effective as it could have been with a more explicit focus on architectural implications, for example.

For Barbara Holub, the goal of these performative city border walks is not to bring the construction of the city to a halt but to provoke reflection on the use of public space, architecture and living in the widest sense.

“I want to open people’s eyes and minds to a different kind of art, to strengthen their senses and sensibility of perception and to celebrate the emptiness, the holes in the form of a “Counter Performance,” Holub said, and Straub added, “It was nothing and a lot, at the same time”.

Turning to go, I saw a green sail dancing in the wind. Would there be space for these pockets of spontaneity in the future?

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