Augarten Dreams

Two leading cultural institutions are battling for a prime corner of a treasured baroque park

On The Town | Tanja Vicas | September 2007

Neighborhood residents enjoy the Augarten lawn on a warm summer’s day (Photo: Alfred Diem)

On a steamy day in late August, the Augarten closed over me, a place of retreat from the baked concrete and piping hot pavement between the park gates and my apartment several blocks away. The cool breeze is seductive in this fine old baroque park in the Leopoldstadt - Vienna’s 2nd District, and the smell of freshly cut grass conjuring up so many summers past. I pass under the broad bows of the chestnut trees and leave behind the demands of a big city during a heat wave.

But through the lush foliage, it’s impossible to ignore the clang of poles and pipes, machines grinding, motors running… I wander over to see the glint of damp muscle working in the hot sun, dismantling the summer outdoor movie theatre Kino unter Sternen (Cinema Under the Stars), a sign that summer is coming to an end.

It’s hardly an act of violence.

Still, the reverberating thuds of steel on the dry earth shatter the calm and seem to echo the controversy that some may feel threaten the park’s future. It’s a struggle between two worthy challengers -- the Austrian Film Archive and the Vienna Boys’ Choir -- who are vying for the prime real estate at the southern tip that will be just two short subway stops from Stephansplatz once the U2 Subway extension opens next year.   

The Augarten tip, located at the corner of Castellezgasse and Obere Augartenstrasse  currently houses the Film Archive at the end of a leafy garden, as well as an entry courtyard and small gravel parking area.

The heated struggle - for the construction rights to this area, for either a concert hall and children’s musical centre, or a film culture centre and cinema - has been going on since March 2007. Now, it is in its final round.  Although the people responsible for both projects insist that their plans will benefit park users as well as concert goers, allowing access to a part of the Augarten formerly closed to the public, citizens’ groups feel that any kind of construction of the park is a taboo.

"The Augarten has become a schnitzel from which everyone is nibbling away at the edges," Erwin Pönitz of  Freunde des Augarten (Friends of the Augarten) told the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company) in October, 2006. "Eventually there won’t be much left over in the middle."

During a leisurely walk through the park on any given day, the Augarten is alive with its regulars, children running from one playground to the next, or teetering on a two-wheeler down the allee; students stretching out in the sun on the grass on picnic blankets trying to do their reading; young parents pushing baby buggies through the labyrinth of green, dog owners chasing frolicking canines; and even a few joggers puffing along for "one more round".

It is easy to see what makes the tip of this elegant, yet somehow approachable park so desirable. Its history peeks out from behind every shrub: Originally the hunting grounds for Emperor Matthias, and later expanded by Ferdinand III in 1649, the park was redesigned in 1705 under Emperor Franz–Josef I after an attack by the Turks. The park as we know it today was designed in 1712 by the landscape architect Jean Trehet for Karl VI.

It is 52.2 hectares in all yet, through many smaller meadows, gardens and play areas, it has the cosiness that feels personal, filled with quiet corners that might be a private garden, yet with the flair of history in central Vienna rich with tradition and culture.

It’s not a perfect park. Two distinguishing landmarks, the two Flak towers, stand for some of the bad that the Augarten has seen, monument to the extensive damage done to the Augarten in the World War II, where tanks drove through the park and mass graves were dug in order accommodate the corpses of war victims.

As I stroll along the tree-lined avenues, I’m not alone. Elderly people from the home on the edge of the Augarten are out walking off the creaks in weary joints. In between, come groups of parents and children from the nearby Lauder Chabad Campus, a kindergarten, primary school and pedagogical academy nearby with its own synagogue.

In the background, you can hear music coming from the restaurant Bunkerei/Awawa, which often has free concerts on Saturday evenings of Klezmer or Viennese Schrammel music, as well as other bands that come to play for Sunday morning brunch.

Past the Gustinus Ambrosi Museum and the restaurant Atelier Augarten, the golden yellow Great Hall of the Augarten Palace appears from behind the trees. Built in 1714 under Emperor Joseph I, this is the factory where the Augarten Porcelain is made, a fascinating process open to the public for tours showing the production of the exquisite pieces from Monday to Friday.

Then further along is the older Augarten Palace, built at the end of the 17th century – the home of the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben) since 1948 when the choir was re-established after the war.

Music has a long tradition in the park, beginning with the morning concerts Mozart was to give in the park’s early decades. Supporters believed that  the Boys’ Choir project will carry on this tradition, not only as a concert hall where one can hear the world renowned boy sopranos, but also a children’s musical center that its supporters believe will help ensure the next generation of musical excellence.

In the world of classical music, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is "like no other of its kind in Europe," according to Dr. Eugen Jesser, president and general director of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

The children at the center will be able to learn to sing, play an instrument, as well as act on stage in musical and theatre pieces, all at prices which parents are able to afford. In this way, supporters see the centre as an asset to the community.

The idea for the concert hall came to fruition in 2006 and the early spring of 2007.

But just before the papers could be signed giving the green light for the 11 million Euro project, it was brought to a halt by the Austrian Film Archive which had found a private sponsor, and re-submitted an earlier proposal for a film and audio-visual centre.

The Austrian Film Archive, in cooperation with the Viennale (Viennese Film Festival) wants the property to create a cultural centre for film, which should combine film history with contemporary cinema. According to the architect’s plans, the estimated €6 million construction of this centre would preserve more of the original Augarten landscape than the plans for the music center.

Eric Pleskow, president of the Viennale and former president of United Artists and Orion Pictures, one of the project’s most prominent supporters, emphasises the importance of Austrian film emigration. He has offered to endow the project with materials and Oscars he has collected.

Both projects are worthy and both privately funded. But both are also objects of controversy - especially for the neighbors, who fear the increased traffic from concert goers and tourists.

"Not so," says Jesser. Visitors will be able to use the underground parking at the Karmiliter Market close by or, even better, take the U-Bahn whose Augarten stop will let people off practically at the door. The fear of large touring busses roaring through the narrow streets of the 2nd District may also be unfounded, as no parking spots are planned for tour busses or other vehicles.

Whatever the decision, neighbors hope that the Augarten will remain the "jewel" it is often called, a place that contributes to the standard of living for its neighbors. This it has done since its opening to the public on May 1, 1755, where nightingales were set free to take flight over the trees, bringing music and drama to the leafy bower of the Park grounds.

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