Towers of Burden

The fate of Vienna’s looming flak-towers remains undecided, amid questions of deterioration, cost and historical consciousness

News | Ingrid Salazar | October 2009

Looming high above the green fields, chestnut trees and buzz of activity in the Augarten, stand two towers: lonely, broken and ugly. They are constructed from several hundreds of thousands of tons of reinforced concrete, reminders of a painful past that have been left at the margins of politics, history and Viennese life. They are the flak-towers, two of six in Vienna out of an original 16 built across the Third Reich to fend off Allied bombings in WWII.

Built between 1942 and 1945, these anti-aircraft towers (Flak is an acronym for the German term Fliegerabwehrkanone or anti-aircraft gun) were ordered by Reichsführer Adolf Hitler in 1940 to protect the German capital of Berlin, the key port-city of Hamburg and the "Ostmark" capital Vienna. They were built in pairs, a gun tower (Gefechtsturm or G-tower) next to a smaller lead or radar tower (Leitturm or L-Tower) and served two purposes: military, as artillery bases and bunkers, and propaganda, a sign of strength of the Third Reich.

As World War II came to a close and with Hitler’s defeat eminent, original plans to convert the towers into decorative memorials for Germany’s fallen soldiers and as a tribute to the Fuhrer himself, changed to plans of destruction by Allied forces. Still, the solid construction of these buildings made total destruction difficult, and as myth has it, when the British occupation forces failed to destroy a flak-tower in Hamburg, the German public shouted in unison "Made in Germany! Made in Germany!"

In fact the strength of the towers was a testament to German architect Friedrich Tamms, who also masterminded much of the construction of the highway and bridge systems of the Third Reich, earning him a reputation that lasted long after the war. In 1960 he was asked by the Austrian government to consult on a city-planning concept and was later given an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Vienna in gratitude for his services.

Despite Tamms’ architectural feat, all but eight of the towers have been totally or partially destroyed over time (all six in Berlin, and two of the four in Hamburg). All six in Vienna remain standing, having resisted attacks and been judged too close to other buildings to destroy safely.

So, these six towers live on, forming a protective triangle around Vienna’s St. Stephan’s Cathedral and shielding within their walls tales of forced labour and prisoners of war put to work in their shadow. The towers stand in their original positions in the Augarten (Vienna’s 2nd district), Esterhazy Park (6th district), the Stiftskaserne (7th district) and Arenberg Park (3rd district).

Their massive presence is hard to ignore. Some of the towers are also a risk. The four that are currently unused are in varying states of filth and decay, and despairing of government action, citizens in the Augarten and the Arenberg Park are organising.

In 2006, a student movement demanded that the towers be used to foster "historical awareness" about the Nazi era, and one of the Arenberg Park towers was converted to an exhibition space and opened to the public. The students soon wore out their welcome, however, and a year later it was closed by the police citing safety fears.

Another group fighting for "historical awareness" is the Interdisciplinary Research Association for Architecture and History (iFAG). Their aim is to again open the tower in Arenberg Park and turn it into an "open / accessible memorial," dedicated to the forced laborers. Along with a commemorative plaque calling attention to the towers’ past, guided tours would be offered.

"Public discussions only deal with their exterior (Is it beautiful?) and their interior (Can we use it efficiently?)," said Ute Bauer, architectural historian and head of iFAG, "Their history is reduced to the aerial war and its [civilian] victims. In my opinion this is not sufficient at all. The role of the flak-towers is not clear, neither to the public nor in politics, so they are not part of the official remembrance."

She is against any commercial uses for the structures, claiming that this blurs awareness of their historical importance. Most important, though, is to document their role in Austrian history.

"The six flak-towers in Vienna to this day have not been studied; one doesn’t know what they served for nor why they were built, and any will to remember has been crushed," said Bauer, in an interview for the ORF in March. "That is really telling of how Austria is handling its past.

"In a few years there won’t be witnesses to history anymore, the NS-era will be explained by the medium of books, documentaries or movies. The flak-towers are essential as authentic relics and as material witnesses to history; it happened there, it has to be remembered."

Not everyone agrees. Many find the adaptive reuse of the structures appropriate, perhaps emblematic of a healing process any society needs to go through after the trauma of war.

"Just look at the Haus des Meeres," pointed out a Viennese man in his 60s at a neighborhood café. "They took something old and ugly and made something new and fun for the Austrian people."

The idea for the Haus des Meeres or House of the Sea, a private zoo and aquarium housed inside the flak-tower (the L-tower) in Esterhazypark was conceived in 1957 by scientists and members of the business community who wanted to create Austria’s first salt water aquarium and research center. A climbing wall was later added to one of its facades.

Recent discussions about a project to build a restaurant on the roof of the Haus des Meeres in the shape of a manta ray have created an ideal moment for some such as Bauer to come forth and reopen debates about the purpose and future use of the flak-towers.

The future of the restaurant project still remains open, as residents of the 6th district, where the tower is located, are being surveyed and asked to answer "yes" or "no" to the project.

Another of the flak-towers adapted for a new use is the partner to the Haus des Meeres tower, the G-tower, located in the Stiftskaserne, an active military base. It is used mostly for radio signal transmission and radar purposes. As with all of the towers except the Haus des Meeres, it is not open to the general public.

Other attempts to create modern uses for the bulky eye-sores, such as for data storage, warehousing, housing contemporary art, or a roof-top hotel have not materialised.

The new restaurant proposal for the Haus des Meeres has again been highlighting the question of the towers’ future. As decay worsens and creative business plans emerge, the question will be increasingly hard to ignore. A compromise of past and present may be the best answer.

Standing in the shadow of the tower in the Augarten, two young women gaze up at the towers. "They are relics of older times," comments Manuela Andres, a German living in Vienna. "They are reminders of the fact that war was ‘here’ and not something to ignore." She liked the fact that some of them were in use, "but they should also house museums," she said, "making their history accessible to the public."

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