The Pulse Of Vienna

2,000 Years of History at the Wien Museum - In One Platz

On The Town | Michael Freund | September 2008

The Naschmarkt in 1894 (above) and the City Museum as planned by Otto Wagner | Pictures: Wien Museum

We should all be so lucky: to take our address and turn it into a major exhibition. In the case of the current show at the Wien Museum, however, it was much more than luck. To begin with, its location at Karlsplatz is not just any old address. This is one of Vienna’s major public spaces, arguably the dominant square of the city. So to make it the focus of a thorough historical and cultural investigation was a natural choice – and a lot of work. But, as one can see until the end of October, it was well worth it.

The first thing the curators realized when they started looking back over 2000 years of history was that except for the last two centuries, the location was not only not called Karlsplatz – it was not even a square at all, whether round, square or of any other shape. Rather, for the longest period it was a kind of no man’s land, traversed by a little river (what came to be called the Wien, or Wienfluss) and bordering on the old town of Vienna – and its predecessor, the Roman fortress Vindobona.

It is in the second century A.D., then, that the exhibition begins. We see the wolves, boars and reptiles that roamed the area, the vegetation of the primeval forest, and the first signs of civilization that marked it: leftovers of Roman settlements, graveyards and road signs of the paths that connected Vindobona (today the Northern part of the first district) with outposts in the Rennweg region. In displaying these and later historical evidence, the Wien Museum relies on its trove of archeological finds. At the same time, it keeps the history of the area flowing through in the right doses of simulation, pictures and explanatory text.

What is perhaps most attractive about this exhibition is the way in which it mirrors the history of Vienna in a particular spot: It takes, as the title suggests, "the pulse of the city" – an apt metaphor, since this is really where the arteries of the modern metropolis meet – three subway lines, several bus and tram lines, major motor throughways, not to forget the original Wienfluss, until recently the cloaca maxima, the underground sewage conduit (made famous by The Third Man; the dramatic underground segment of the 1949 movie can be seen in the exhibition. And if you want to see the whole film: it plays every weekend at the Burgkino on the Ring).

But back to the evolution of the square: For centuries after the Romans left, the river ruled and meandered its way to the Danube. Only a small bridge enabled the Viennese to reach the Southern parts of the region, the villages in what are now the 4th District, and perhaps the Heiligengeistspital, one of the big hospitals that were being built just outside the city’s perimeter.

When the Turks came in 1529 and 1683 and almost took Vienna, they thus found a town surrounded by greenery and meadows and not by buildings behind which they could have hidden. The city government made this natural shield a permanent defensive device: Until the 19th century, when it became militarily obsolete, the belt outside the city wall was a vast grass and bush zone – with not a Platz in sight.

In fact, even when the monumental St. Charles Cathedral was erected in 1713, it faced anarchic wilderness. The exhibition shows many paintings capitalizing on the romantic contrast between nature and the church, showing vast expanses of land under moonlight and pilgrims contemplating the town on the horizon.

By the nineteenth century, however, when the city wall was torn down and made room for the Ring and when all the modern administrative, cultural and business headquarters were built on the former Glacis, our particular area received a name and was assigned a function. Karlsplatz became the foremost exchange hub between downtown, the other districts and the thoroughfare to the South. It housed the original Naschmarkt (approximately where the Kunsthalle Project Space is today), and by the end of the century, it was cleared of all wilderness: The Wienfluss was channeled into an underground bed. Next to it, the Stadtbahn, connecting Hütteldorf with Heiligenstadt (today’s U4), passed underground, while Vienna’s most visionary architect of the turn of the century, Otto Wagner, designed its station buildings aboveground –one of which today serves as a café and art nouveau attraction.

Wagner also had plans to build a monumental Museum for the City of Vienna right next to the Karlskirche. Had he prevailed, the curators of the show note wistfully, we would now see the exhibition in a world heritage site. Instead, the Museum that came into existence only in 1959 is a relatively modest, albeit well-executed, late-modern institutional building.)

The Second World War left the Karlsplatz mostly intact. In the years afterwards, high-flying plans to "modernize" the whole neighborhood contrasted with the down-to-earth reality of the city’s biggest black market, in Resselpark. Again, the exhibition very effectively ties the exhibit pieces to an explanation of Viennese life in general.

Karlsplatz ultimately became a victim of the traffic-happy sixties and beyond. Like other neuralgic squares in Vienna (Europaplatz at the Westbahnhof, Südtiroler Platz, Wien Mitte), it almost lost its identity and became a platform for moving as many people from A to B as possible.  It is now hard to imagine (and will hopefully never again be in the minds of Vienna’s city-planners), but in the seventies there were serious considerations to raze the Naschmarkt and lead the Westautobahn from Salzburg practically to the doorsteps of Karlskirche.

On the other hand, the square also witnessed the city’s first big step toward an efficient subway system. In the early seventies, the building of the U1 and its interface with the U4 turned the area into Europe’s biggest construction site.

We can see in the museum what it looked like, because Hollywood noticed: The climactic scenes of Scorpio (1973), a shootout between Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster, was shot on location between the scaffolds and abysses of Karlsplatz.

As if all this weren’t enough, there is a video animation concentrating 2000 years of history into some fifteen fast-forwarding minutes. And outside the museum a crane lifts interested visitors up 35 meters from where on a clear day, you can’t quite  see forever… but  you do see the fascinating panorama of all of the real Karlsplatz as it is today.


Am Puls der Stadt, Wien Museum, Karlsplatz. Until October 26.

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