Is Vienna Cool?

Vienna may top the rankings of quality of life, but what about those mysterious qualities that make it “the-place-to-be”?

News | Eugene Quinn | February 2012

Several recent surveys have deemed Vienna the vanguard in quality of life (Mercer) or green-friendliness (Siemens). But is Vienna fashionable? Is it ‘in’? The term ‘cool’ brings to mind the New Yorks and the Berlins.

What about Vienna?

Cities like New York never seem to grow stale; they remain at the cutting edge, always curious and changing. They’re creative and open, with a diverse social scene and vibrant nightlife. But just what is it that makes them ‘cool’?

Clemens Foschi, a conceptual designer and producer for Name>It Positive Media, sits in the tremendously smoky Elektro Gönner, a grooving locale on Mariahilferstraße, reflecting on the concept of ‘cool’. "It means not showing excitement openly. Viennese are world champions at that." Is it just because excitement comes on its own, with the cultural complexity of the territory?

A good place to see the city’s appealing diversity on display is on one of the riotous brass nights in Ost Klub. The Donaukanal has emerged as the new outdoor party scene during the warm months, identified by Foschi as the most interesting development in the city.

Donaukanal bar pioneer and entrepreneur Bernd Juni thinks Vienna falls short. "You need to suss out a space between your rivals and play with the possibilities," he urges. "Who’s doing that around here? It’s not gay enough, not black enough, too few freaks."

And despite all the beer, locals hardly let loose. The August 2011 Vienna Street Festival, in which trucks with sound systems and on-board dancers paraded along the Ring, illustrated such a problem.

At Berlin’s Love Parade, half a million people on the streets become the event. At the Viennese version, locals stood around watching and waiting for something to happen. It never did. They didn’t seem to get that they could be the event themselves, if they had the right approach.

This city, like many others seems to do better rethinking things they already do well. The Life Ball, for example, each year in May or June, and the Regenbogenball in February and their parade in June, have taken on a life of their own: A Viennese staple, redone for gay pride – wild enough for the most jaded.

On the airwaves of FM4, you'll hear a world-class English-language station, adventurous, inviting, and progressive in its politics, in spite of being part of the state-run ORF. This projects a vital image, in contrast to other Austrian stations. "You cannot find similar stuff in Berlin", says FM4 literary editor Zita Bereuter, adding, "and it’s a station people are envious of."

According to public affairs entrepreneur Verena Ringler, politics are intimately linked to places being in or out of the vanguard. "This town is the ‘new hip’ because it doesn’t just do one or two things well, but many things, and for many people."

Initiatives such as the expansion of the bike lane network and reduction of the cost of an annual pass for public transport reflect this. Hence the accolades in the rankings.

"Vienna is not just hip for the rich," she adds, "but for the vast majority. Cities whose ‘cool’ factor is democratically distributed tend not to throw that into the face of the world. ['Cool'] is part of the city’s programme instead of the city's performance at tourist fairs."

Ground-breaking architecture plays a role as well. Consider the new Sofitel on Donaukanal, which glows after dark with the lush psychedelia of Pipilotti Rist’s three striking ceilings. Although decades old, Hundertwasser’s playful interventions still break out of the urban mould, and his Spittelau incinerator still looks astonishing. How many other cities draw attention to their unprepossessing utilities, transformed in such a spectacular way?

Unlike some we talked to, Zita Bereuter remains positive in her outlook: "Vienna, unlike Berlin, has traditional stuff, but also new stuff. Vienna builds on traditions, which can be a real treasure, and also a handicap."

For film producer Peter Waldenberger, Vienna is "not at all cool. It's a boring city full of rich, xenophobic people." In spite of his initial dismissal, he points out another vital element of the cityscape: "the outskirts, woods, nature. It's a really green city."

As with jaded Londoners, the Viennese have that essential cool element of decadence, of sounding bored with their scene. A foreigner may enjoy living here more than an Austrian-born spouse. And it’s important to add that even those most critical of the city do continue to live here, rather than acting on their criticism by moving to somewhere supposedly more fresh.

Is the scene pioneering anything, or reflecting what has already been trail-blazed elsewhere, in music, design and fashion? Mostly, the latter. More fresh air is needed.

"[Vienna] doesn’t shout out like a market crier: ‘Hey, Check out how hip I am!’," Bereuter explains. Instead, "Vienna whispers seductively, like a lover: ‘I show you something.’ But you need to be open to hear the whispering (in the evening, but also during the day)."

In the end, ‘Cool’ is unmeasurable, just a feeling in the air. It is also subjective – so don't take my word for it.


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