Two recollections of moments and details from spring-times past. Above: A kite, a delighted child, and a patch of green on the shore of the Golden Horn near Fener, Istanbul, 2012. In the background, a shipyard and dry-dock dating from early Ottoman times. Below: Blossoms, greenery, and the weathered, roughly-welded sheet-metal wall and numbered spaces of an empty parking lot in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014 (the straightforward text on the signs: “paid unguarded” + “parking”).
One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.
Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster. Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings. Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge. The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting their private lives in view of neighbors or passersby. Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.
The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since. The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status. For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.
Street corners. Anchoring points in the urban landscape. Places to pause, linger, turn, or confront unexpected vistas. Apt metaphors for the start of a new year. Places devoid of meaning from the vantage points of automobiles.
Above and below: Two seemingly nondescript street corners in Istanbul, 2014.
At the top: An intersection in Gümüşsuyu near Taksim — a 1920s apartment house, a late-nineteenth-century neighborhood mosque, and a high-rise cube under construction. Straight ahead, a 45-degree plunge into the quarter of Fındıklı; a turn to the left, and a grid of steep side-streets and concrete stairways wending down to the Bosporus.
At the bottom: A hard-left-turn upwards past a rarely-used sidewalk, a recent generic apartment block, and the wall of a centuries-old cemetery at the edge of Hasköy on the Golden Horn, photographed late one Sunday afternoon at a moment when the roadway was free of its usual, near-continuous, high-speed stream of rattling bus, truck, and automobile traffic
Above: The main entranceway and facade of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank Building, the Österreichische Postsparkasse (originally the k.k. Postsparcasse Amt, the Royal and Imperial Postal Savings Bank), designed by Otto Wagner and built between 1904 and 1906. Below: The Kassenhalle, the main hall and one-time central banking area of the building.
As the 20th-century began, Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank building brought a new face to public sector architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire — streamlined, free of superfluous decoration, and with meticulous attention to the choice, finish, and unadorned display of materials, including glass, aluminum, and polished steel. Inside and out, the building marked a shift from from Jugendstil to modernism, as well as from ornate neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque displays of state power to aesthetic simplicity and perfection of the environment in which public employees worked and the general public accessed essential services — secessionist architecture geared both to the public eye and to public health and welfare.
Late-Hapsburg Vienna was a densely-populated city. For most people, housing was substandard, overcrowded, and unhealthy, as were the city’s factories and workshops and the dank rooms in which ordinary office employees worked long hours. In tenement dwellings and at work, fresh air and sufficient sunlight were rarities for the bulk of Vienna’s population. Tuberculosis was endemic and conditions for its transmission rife.
Otto Wagner’s design and implementation of the State Postal Savings Bank building stressed provision of light, circulation of air, and availability of adequate and open work space. The Kassenhalle, the main banking hall, of the building is a case in point. The photo below shows its overhead glass skylight and its opaque glass-brick floor. Together, these transmitted a glow of light directly into the hall itself, and indirectly into the postal services section of the building one flight below, thus improving ambience and saving energy at the same time.
Just as the design and implementation of the building eased the lives of those who worked in and patronized it, so did the services the Postsparkasse offered. The inception of postal savings in 19th-century Europe brought secure ways to save within the reach of the mass of ordinary people. Postal savings, however, were founded on more that government largesse; they served to channel volumes of small hordes cash out of proverbial mattresses and other hiding places and into the hands of the state, thus keeping money in circulation and augmenting governmental coffers with what were, in effect, an immense stream of ongoing, low-interest, long-term loans.
The night of November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht: the Night of Broken Glass: Throughout Nazi Germany (including Austria, which had folded itself into Nazi Germany some months before) synagogues were plundered and set afire, with crowds of bystanders cheering and police and fire brigades standing idly by. Shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, Jewish men beaten and arrested, Jewish women terrorized and molested — all this a seeming apotheosis of European religious antisemitism, exclusionary nationalism, “scientific” racism, nostalgia for a past that never was, and urban economic, social, and spatial competition.
In Vienna, all but one of the city’s monumental synagogues and modest prayer-houses were destroyed during the 24-hour rampage. How are they remembered today? Barely, and by few. Memorial plaques mark the sites of a quite a number of the city’s destroyed synagogues, but their texts are as often as not confusing and bland, with events sanitized and the perpetrators obfuscated by overuse of euphemisms and passive voice in German and by shoddy accompanying English-language translations.
Phantasm and Reflection: Two Photos of Monuments without Words
The photographs above and below portray two impressive memorials to two Viennese synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht. Both eschew words for silence and didacticism for emotion.
The photo at the top was taken through a large plate-glass plaque set as a memorial on the corner of the Eitelbergergasse and Neue-Welt-Gasse in the posh Viennese suburb of Hietzing. The plaque stands across the street from the one-time site of the “Neue Welt Tempel,” a freestanding structure, quite modern in its time, designed by architect Artur Grünberger in a style seemingly influenced by the Viennese Secession. The Neue Welt Tempel was constructed in the late-1920s and early-1930s in the midst of Hietzing’s quiet tree-lined sidestreets and Jugendstil mansions.
Silkscreened onto the surface of the glass plaque is a finely-rastered, semi-translucent reproduction of an archival photograph of the exterior of the Neue Welt Tempel taken sometime in the mid-1930s, probably from the exact location where the plaque now stands. By positioning oneself at just the right angle and distance from the plaque, a viewer is treated to a mirage … suddenly, the present and past are juxtaposed, and a ghost-like image of the Neue Welt Tempel appears to sprout from the surface of the yellow apartment house now standing on its former site. For a moment, the Neue Welt Tempel reappears as if still there … and then, just as suddenly, juxtaposition is lost and the illusion fades.
In the photograph below, a sparse, minimalist garden fills the length and part of the width of the one-time footprint of the 1870s, Neo-Renaissance style, “Turnertempel” synagogue at Turnergasse 22 in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, not far from the Gürtel and the shopping thoroughfare of Mariahilfestrasse. The greenery at the edges of the garden offsets the starkness of the gravel surface, concrete pathways, and benches of well-weathered wooden beams. The trees at the left of the photo are lindens. Summers, the scent of linden blossoms fills the garden and, as the weeks pass, fallen linden petals turn into perfumed dust that cushions the garden’s gravel surface. The total effect is apt: life emerging from, but never quite obliterating, destruction.
This past summer, I stopped at the Turnergasse memorial garden a number of times to read, write, reflect and rest. There were few other visitors: workmen on lunch and cigarette breaks, an occasional pair of daytime beer drinkers, small numbers of neighborhood residents, judging by their appearances and voices, immigrants mostly, from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Did they know what once stood at the site where they were sitting? Were they aware of its fate? Could they sense the one-time prayers, concerns, and celebrations of people who had preceded them, and who had played an out-sized role in Vienna’s former greatness and in the shaping of the city in which they now live and the rights and security they now enjoy? Probably not. Most people in Vienna, like most people elsewhere, are propelled by the intentionality of their own immediate concerns. But for those of us open to it, to those of us who bear the weight of its absence, a presence seems to hover in the garden at Turnergasse.
Footnote on Resources
For the past months, a small exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum showcased the research and meticulous computer-generated recreations of the exteriors and interiors of Viennese synagogues and the urban contexts in which they once stood, done by Bob Marten and Herbert Peter, and published in book form some years ago as Die zerstörten Synagogen Wiens: Virtuelle Stadtspaziergānge and later in English as The Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna.
Two magnificent, successful works of brutalist architecture, both set at the very outskirts of Vienna …
The “Wotruba” Church
Above: The Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, set on a hilltop in suburban Liesing, at the edge of the Vienna Woods. The church is popularly called the Wotruba Church, after its designer, sculptor Fritz Wotruba, who died one year before the structure, comprised of more than 150 massive concrete blocks, was completed in 1975.
Despite their weight, the blocks comprising the Wotruba Church appear to float, and the large glass windows on three sides of the church give it a gossamer appearance usually not associated with concrete structures. When circumnavigating the exterior of the church, visitors are treated to a kaleidoscopic view of seemingly random shapes and plays of light that appears to change with each step. The front lawn of the church offers a spectacular panoramic view of Vienna and far beyond, northwards, to the Marchfeld, the great Moravian plain.
Two curious footnotes: Between 1938 and 1945, when Austria comprised an integral part of Nazi Germany, the hilltop upon which the Wotruba Church stands had been the site of a Wehrmacht barracks, making the envisioning and building of the church an act of expiation of sorts (to the degree that expiation is possible). Also, one of Wotruba’s early pupils, sponsors, and lovers was Anna Mahler, the daughter of Gustav Mahler and Alma Schindler, Mahler’s wife at the time and the future wife of Walther Gropius and, later, of Franz Werfel.
Housing Estate at Alterlaa
Below: A partial view of but one of the immense apartment blocks comprising Wohnpark Alterlaa (the Alterlaa Housing Estate), also at the edge of Vienna, designed by architect Harry Glück and built in the late-1970’s and early-80’s. The saw-tooth design of the windows on the upper floors ensures that apartments are filled with light throughout the day. The curved set-back of the lower floors ensures ample sunlight and rainfall for nourishing balcony gardens and also creates a lush “hanging-gardens-of-Babylon” appearance that offsets the deliberate roughness of the concrete exterior.
Despite its seeming inhuman scale, the results of formal surveys and anecdotal inquiries suggest that Alterlaa complex is beloved by its residents. Echoing the tradition of Viennese social housing shaped in the “Red Vienna” of 1919-1934, the complex contains social amenities: rooftop gardens, ample meeting and club rooms, swimming pools and sports facilities, creches and kindergartens, and even its own church. Grounds between the towers are landscaped and well-lit, and shopping and public transport are nearby.
In all, there is a feeling of community among the residents of Alterlaa. The positive side thereof is that the physical attributes of the complex may have indeed succeeded in their mission of creating appealing private and public space. Also, the relative isolation of the site fosters self-containment. There is a more problematic side, however: whether and to what degree the relative homogeneous demographics of Alterlaa may have contributed to the satisfaction of its residents.
Unlike the great working-class public housing estates of the 1920s and 1930s Vienna, Wohnpark Alterlaa is a cooperative, rather than municipal, housing development. The economics of cooperative apartment ownership skews the demographics of Alterlaa middle-class-wards and, thus, in terms of the class and ethnic matrix of Vienna, “ethic-Austrian-wards” as well. It is an open question whether such relative class and ethnic homogeneity eased the way to community or, more negatively, to a “bastion mentality” that creates solidarity and contentment in the face of perceived external threats. These, however, are matters for investigation by the experts.
Afterthought: For the tragic saga of a paradigmatic unsuccessful municipal housing project conceived in the racist, class-ist mold of 1950s and 60s urban renewal as practiced in numerous American cities at the time — and designed by the future architect of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan (mourned since its criminal destruction in 2001 but a resounding, resented flop in its early years) — see the excellent documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
Five fast-food “boxes” in Favoriten, the 10th district of Vienna. A (somewhat lengthy) bit of background plus a few reflections — mostly factual but partly speculative — on the content of the photos follows the last of the four images below.
In Vienna, during the 19th-century, wandering vendors sold cooked sausages from baskets and from portable bins — low-cost fast-food for time-pressed workers, many having no cooking facilities in their rented rooms and over-crowded apartments.
By the early-20th century, wheeled sausage carts appeared on the streets Vienna. From the 1960s on, semi-permanent kiosks — würstelstände — took root on the city’s sidewalks and street corners, serving food and drink and providing places to linger and gather — cafe-restaurants, as it were, for people with the shortest of lunch breaks, the thinnest of pocketbooks, the most work-soiled hands and clothes, and the strongest of appetites. As the decades passed, Vienna’s sidewalk würstelstände increased in size, variety, and numbers, and their menus evolved to reflect waves of demographic change.
Today, the backbone of würstelstände offerings remains “traditional” sausages, their origins grounded in the tastes of 19th-century economic migrants to Vienna from the one-time expanses of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: Germanic white and frankfurter sausages, Polish kielbasa, Slovenian meat- and cheese-filled sausages, and paprika-laden sausages of putative Hungarian origin. In recent decades, however, such “traditional” sausages yielded counter-space to fast-food dishes descended from the cuisine of more recent economic migrants from Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Middle East, as well as to Austrian oversimplifications of Asian cuisine. The results have shaped new “traditions” that challenge the imagination and, more painfully, the digestive capabilities of all but the hardiest diners. Not least, the offerings, menus, and signage of the present generation of Viennese würstelstände have also brought about linguistic transformations that compromise the integrity of German, Turkish, and other languages.
Each of the five kiosks portrayed in this post expounds on this tale. All are located along a short stretch of Quellenstrasse in Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th district. From the late-19th-century until the Second World War, Favoriten was a district of factories, brick and tile works, garden farms, and craftsman’s ateliers, and the home of people who worked in and around them. At the start of the 20th-century, the distinctly working-class population of Favoriten comprised large numbers of descendants of emigre Czechs as well as other groups including more than 8,000 Jews, many originally from Hapsburg Galicia. (Favoriten’s immense synagogue, destroyed by arson during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November, 1938, was one of Vienna’s largest). By the middle of the 20th century, the district’s Czech population had folded into mainstream Vienna, and the Jews of Favoriten were segregated, terrorized, deported, and murdered by and at the behest of Nazi Germany, of which Austria formed an integral part from 1938-1945.
In the final days of World War II, a large portion of Favoriten’s industrial and housing stock was destroyed by aerial and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house combat. A massive rebuilding program began in the 1950s. By the 1960s, an exodus of Viennese from Favoriten to more attractive housing estates and, eventually for some, to more upscale suburban quarters, made room for new arrivals. The first to settle were Turkish “guest workers” followed by their families and then by subsequent waves of Anatolian immigrants. During the decades straddling the turn of the present century, Turks were followed by Serbs, then Bosnians, and, in more recent years, by Chechens, Afghans, Iraqis, and other peoples fleeing places of conflict.
Thoughts on the stands portrayed
The signage of Evin Imbiss, portrayed in the first photo above, is a study in multi-cultural amalgamation. Evin is Turkish for “Your House” and Imbiss a German word for snacks and, later, for snack-bar. A click on the photo will enlarge it, revealing a menu guaranteed to challenge all but the hungriest adolescents or anyone with a penchant for the tortures of culinary post-modernism. For a half-century now, foreigners in Western Europe have been continuously badgered and oft-times harassed to “integrate.” In its name, offerings, and even its yellow decorative highlights (which seem to blend with the yellow of the building behind it and with the logo on the phone-both at the left of the frame), Evin Imbiss provides an apt, albeit unintended, symbol of a merger of identities.
The stand portrayed in the second photo, Würstel Box, bears a straight-forward, more Germanic, generic name: Würstel being the diminutive of Wurst and Box an anglicism for kiosk. The regular clientele of Würstel Box, however, consists of an uninterrupted day- and night-time stream of somewhat boisterous and moderately antisocial habitual high-volume beer drinkers drawn from nearly as many nationalities as now populate the district.
Tiger’s Box, portrayed in the third photo, with its wonderful slogan, Tierisch Gut! (“Beastly Good!”), sells takeaway noodle dishes, bland Austro-Anatolian re-imaginings of Asian mainstays. Note the black-lettered text on the left side of Tiger’s Box, partly obscured by the stand’s half-lowered louvered protective gate. The full text, a vestige of the days when the stand that, in its present incarnation, houses Tiger’s Box sold döner kebab (nb. Middle Eastern shoarma, Greek gyros) reads: “Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen,” in English: “Eat kebab, forget your problems” — a straight-forward spiritual prescription of sufficient wisdom and simplicity to warrant adoption as a mantra.
“Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen” also reveals a linguistic shift made by the word Kebap, a phonetic spelling of kebab, a Turkish catch-all word for roasted or grilled, cubed, sliced, or ground, and sometimes skewered, meat dishes. At Viennese street kiosks such kebabs are served in bread, Middle Eastern, Turkish, or traditionally Viennese. As a result, kebap transitioned from signifying meat dishes to meaning meat sandwiches, and then to meaning sandwiches in general. Going one step further, kebap may have also made a third leap to mean snacks in general. As evidence, note the sign at the far right of the photo: “Kebap Haus,” underscored by its very non-kebab menu: Pizza, Schnitzel, Fisch, and, as an afterthought, Felafel.
The facade of the stand in the fourth photo has an elegant contemporary finish but the modestly small print of the menu stenciled on its display window mirrors the standard neighborhood fare visible in its interior: i.e. pizza and döner.
The stand in the fifth photo takes the word kebap a quantum leap further on a trajectory from its eastern and carnivore roots westward and vegetarian-wards via the somewhat contradictory offering of Gemüse Kebap, i.e. Vegetable Kebab. Not surprisingly, the display window on the other side of the kiosk, not visible in the photo, betrayed an immense, slowly-turning, very non-vegetarian döner kebab.
All five photos were taken with with a dated and increasingly malfunctioning Fuji X100 digital camera augmented with “50mm-equivalent,” screw-on “tele” converter. I’ve also taken a few photographs of the stands on medium format film; depending on the results, I’ll consider posting a few examples following long-overdue processing and scanning.