South Station Bids Farewell

A new Südbahnhof rises from the rubble; will the old one be bound for oblivion?

On The Town | Christopher Anderson | December 2009 / January 2010

A swarm of rail enthusiasts in Vienna’s Südbahnhof crowded around tables strewn with second-hand clothing, outdated timetable books, and paper placards indicating train lines like "Wien Westbahnhof – Linz – Salzburg." A row of familiar blue signs, which once adorned stations in unfamiliar places like Aspang and Hartberg, lined a nearby wall like snowboards waiting to be grabbed.

"Seven euros!" a volunteer hawker announced to a man examining a scratch-ridden motorcycle helmet.

"I only have five," the customer muttered.

"A fiver and it’s sold," the vendor chimed. "Besides, it’s going to a good cause."

In preparation for the closing of Vienna’s South Station, the train-themed flea market with proceeds benefiting charity organisations blended in with the Saturday travelers bustling through the vast open interior of the 48-year-old structure. Yet, the Bahnhof had a visitor of another type today: onlookers who came to photograph, to observe, and to take in a few last impressions of the often disregarded place.

After a half century of service, the building will close its doors on Dec. 13, transferring the majority of its activity to the distant Meidling station in the 12th district, and face demolition in the first week of the new year. By 2012 Vienna’s new main train station will rise out of the rubble and stake its claim as the city’s central rail hub.

While much of the rhetoric about the project concerns the future role and functioning of the modern "Hauptbahnhof," the historical legacy of what many Viennese see as an eyesore of a structure remains unclear. Then again, those just passing through for a few days may not mind the architecture at all.

"It’s normal," remarked a Spanish traveler as her eyes surveyed the drab interior. "Nothing special. It doesn’t bother me." The building served its purpose and met her needs as a traveler, which did not include any sort of aesthetic demands.

Back in his ignorant tourist days, this writer had gawked at the unappealing mass of concrete, the glasshouse ceiling and facade caked in dust, and the unremarkable exterior, the inevitable result perhaps of practical, post-war planning. A musty stench had hung in the still air, as if a soldiers’ body odor had lingered over the decades.

The future central station will become the fourth to occupy the site, stretching back to the Gloggnitzer Bahnhof completed in 1841 to eventually connect Austria to its distant imperial port Trieste. The Gründerzeit – the so-called Founders Era – brought plans for a bigger and better station, completed in 1874 in the neo-Renaissance style.

A reminder of that second station once kept watch over the current hall. After the strategic structure was partially bombed during World War II, one of the eight lions perched on the four corners of the building was placed there as a reminder of the building and St Mark, patron saint of Venice. In a similar vein a statue of Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sissi, occupied Vienna’s Westbahnhof as a memento of the previous 1859 station.

Although Sissi and the Lion have been removed due to reconstruction of both stations, Austrian Rail authorities say the two will be carefully restored and offered a spot in the future ones. In the meantime another one of the Lion’s remaining five siblings can be viewed 20km to the south of Vienna in Laxenburg, site of a former Imperial summer residence.

Looking at the Bahnhof today, one wonders if relics of this much-maligned building will all of a sudden find their place in a museum or on an auction block. Given the people scurrying away with new treasures from the flea market, there must be some value in the paraphernalia.

"I’m going to hang them up in my room," said one German girl, a smile gleaming from her face while lugging around three large signs depicting a rail network, station name and emblem. The cost?

"100 euros for the three."

Seem high? In fact, the highest price tag of the day was attached to a man-size blue disc with a white lightning bolt, the Schnellbahn insignia. 200 euros, unless you barter well.

Knowing everything will be relegated to the history books, the aesthetic eye begins to search for other potential relics. The metallic numbers above each ticket window and the "Südbahnhof" awning seem to have a long-lost font that may be back in style in a few years. The large pillars reaching up to the roof could surely be salvaged for their red marble. Even the basic clock takes on the stature of relic, when one thinks of the 21st century version that will don the new monument to modernity.

After taking the time to absorb the atmosphere of the out-dated station, one is reminded that the loss of something undesired is still a loss.

This third Südbahnhof will surely be remembered as a necessarily functional result manifestation of post-war rebuilding, but how? For the second station the lion was a remembrance, recalling Austria’s connection to Venice. In fact, if you stand in front of Venice’s Arsenal, today, you’ll see the emblematic lion pilfered from the Ancient Greek city-state of Delos’s own monumental row of lions, also serving as a remembrance of empires past.

Perhaps, the building is forgettable. But then, maybe one doesn’t remember it until taking the time to appreciate it. In the remaining fortnight of its existence, there is still a chance to discover unnoticed details, and forge memories that might be pleasant enough to endure.

Other articles from this issue