Steel City Transforming

The new Musiktheater is the most recent step in Linz’s ongoing transformation from an industrial town into a cultural centre

Top Stories | Magdalena Liedl | September 2013

Linz’s Musiktheater cost €185 million and with the renovation of the Tabakfabrik the city is undergoing an artistic makeover (Photos: Landestheater Linz)

"Willkommen! Welcome! Bienvenido!" reads the wall of the Gasometer holding tower of Voest Alpine. When arriving by train, the first sights of Linz are the tall chimneys and smoking furnaces of the huge steel works that have dominated the City for over a century: The capital of Upper Austria is called "Steel City" (Stahlstadt) for a reason.

But in the last decade futuristic museums like the Ars Electronica Center and the Lentos have popped up between the industrial buildings, as Linz struggles to upgrade its image from Austria’s ugliest city.

The most recent step in Linz’s repositioning as a cultural centre was the 12 April opening of the new Musiktheater. Broad stairs lead up to the impressive entrance, the result of some €185 million in cement, glass and marble. Standing in front of it, only the traffic noise suggests the theatre’s location between the Hauptbahnhof and a busy road.

"We are dancing with joy," was director Rainer Mennicken’s summary of the weeks following the premiere. All shows were sold out, media coverage reached as far as New York and Capetown, and the critics were enthusiastic.

Still, it took 30 years of protests by locals, debates about the high construction costs, and constant changes of design and location to reach this point. And sustaining these early successes may not be easy: 1,250 seats in the auditorium are a lot for a town with 190,000 inhabitants and several other theatres and concert locations.

The State Opera in Vienna and the famous Festspiele in Salzburg are not far away and certainly draw audiences from Linz. Mennicken plans to establish a theatrical identity with experimental productions and technical innovations on stage.


The legacy of Linz09 

Linz always had a lively free arts scene. But being so close to the cultural centres of Vienna and Salzburg, it has had to develop unusual strategies – and not only in music and theatre. "In the ‘80s, artists in Linz were already playing with Linz’s steel city image," says sociologist Florian Huber, who has worked on a project at the University of Vienna comparing the cultural life of Linz with Vienna.

Since 1979 the annual Ars Electronica festival for culture and technology has brought artists to Linz, where they discuss the relationship between arts and industry. The cultural associations KAPO and Stadtwerkstatt were the centre of an independent music scene. "Even Nirvana played here before they were famous!" says Huber.

Since then many new institutions have been installed and projects launched, most of them focusing on modern and digital arts. The year 2009 was a highlight, when Linz was the Cultural Capital of Europe. However, subsequent budget cuts put an end to some ambitious projects.

A lot of money was invested in large buildings that are now expensive to maintain. "We have the hardware. What we have to work on is the software," admits Julius Stieber, cultural director in the Upper Austrian government.

Still, Stieber believes that Linz has a great chance in repositioning itself as centre for the modern arts. "We do not have the historical ballast of Vienna or Salzburg," he says.

While Vienna’s inner city is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Salzburg is inextricably connected to its image as Mozart’s birthplace, industrial Linz has no such cultural pre-definition.

Culture as an economic good

Sociologist Huber calls this transformation of industrial cities into centres of modern art a "global narrative". Throughout Europe, massive deindustrialisation forced cities to seek new sources of revenue – and the solution was found in tourism and modern arts.

Today the Ruhrpott is no longer known as Germany’s "black lung"; Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, the Czech town of Ostrava and Pécs in Hungary have turned former factories and warehouses into museums, concert venues and party locations.

Linz’s transformation also began in the ‘70s during an economic recession and the privatisation of parts of the Voest works. Today investments in culture aim to attract companies from abroad, and stimulate the local economy. Culture has become an economic factor like steel.

"We are still an industrial city," says Stieber. "Industry and culture should cooperate." Mennicken already plans a project for the Musiktheater’s next season on the industrial history of the city – particularly resonant as the location of the new theatre connects Linz’s city centre with the industrial areas in the city’s south.


From tobacco to dance and web design

The Tabakfabrik is supposed to do the same for Linz’s industrial East. Designed by architect Peter Behrens in the ‘30s, the tobacco factory is classic Bauhaus, in red brick with elements in turquoise and characteristic "Linz-blue".  In the company’s most productive days up to 1,000 workers produced five billion cigarettes per year.

Today only the sweet tobacco smell is reminiscent of those days. The Linz site was closed in 2009, after the Austrian government sold Austria Tabak to a British competitor, and the 80,000 square metres of floor space were left unused.

The city of Linz bought the building back for €17 million, and now cultural projects are on the way to bringing the Tabakfabrik back to life, as space is rented to creative start-ups and local companies. Where once women stripped tobacco leaves, now young web-designers, photographers and architects have set up their offices, and dancers rehearse their performances.

Cultural director Chris Müller coordinates these activities. After 10 minutes he jumps up. We can’t stay in his office; he has to show me around. "My whole job is to run around all day."

Walking through the vast halls and endless stairways he enthusiastically describes how he imagines the place in five years: a new centre in Linz’s East.

"One day, when people ask a taxi driver at the station to take them to the main square, the driver is going to ask, which one: the old one or the Tabakfabrik?"

According to Müller, the Tabakfabrik will remain a factory, but instead of cigarettes it will be producing culture. All the stages of the production – from the first ideas, the rehearsals and development to the final performances and exhibitions – should take place in the old plant.

"We just have to roll up our sleeves," says Müller as he peels back the cuffs of his black silk jacket. "Like the workers back then." By the end of the year, the new creative tenants should become the employers of over 300 people.


Who can participate? 

If Müller and the Upper Austrian government’s plans work out, in a few years Linz’s city centre will have expanded to the east and the south, and the industrial areas will be full of life, with companies and cultural institutions working together.

Still, such a development has its price: Now that the perception of former industrial quarters is changing, housing costs are increasing. Rents are already rising around the Musiktheater and expensive new apartment buildings have popped up around the Tabakfabrik.

"The question is: Who can participate in Linz’s transformation?" Huber asks. The danger is that locals will not be able to afford their apartments anymore, that owners of little shops will be forced into more remote parts of the city, as the areas around the Tabakfabrik and the Musiktheater turn into arty "in-districts," while the real creative talent is forced to move elsewhere.

When night falls it is not just the lights of the Voest’s furnaces that illuminate the city anymore: The Ars Electronica Center and the Lentos museum shine in bright pink and blue light reflected by the Danube.

As the appearance of the city changes, Mennicken is convinced that Upper Austrian capital’s image will follow suit:

"In the future Linz will be participating in the developments that used to pass it by."

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