Beauty and genteel culture? How dull. A Brit with a penchant for bad taste shows that Vienna has more to offer than Sisi and Sachertorte.
Ugly things provoke revulsion, but the façade that Eugene Quinn is pointing at elicits pity at best. Purple tadpoles on a pink background; faceless women and a single eye decorate the outside. A gutter juts from the eye’s pupil. “In bad weather, the house cries,” says the city guide, sounding amused. “Is this house ugly?” he asks the group. Most lift their hands, only a few disagree. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Quinn, 48, is wearing hi-vis garbage collectors’ pants. He holds up two crumpled pieces of paper on a stick, proclaiming “Vienna Ugly” in Comic Sans font. His mission is to take visitors to the ugliest places in Vienna. His tour starts at a World War II anti-aircraft tower, pokes fun at the gilded statue of Johann Strauß in the city’s main park, and compares the building of the Hungarian Cultural Institute to Russian president Vladimir Putin: “Aggressive and proud – a small building with megalomaniacal ideas.” Obviously the Vienna Ugly tour only works in a city that is as beautiful as Vienna, says Quinn. In the former imperial capital, magnificent buildings are the rule, rather than the exception. The centrally located Ringstraße street is a prime example: It is lined dramatically by the Volksgarten park, the Spanish Riding School and the Austrian National Library. The parliament building opposite resembles an ancient temple, complete with white columns and marble sculptures. Down the road, the city hall with its turrets seems to emulate a Disney castle. Even the apartment buildings on the Innerer Ring, painted bright yellow and ivory, are beautiful. Vienna’s fairy-tale backdrops are its best assets. The city knows this, and it maintains them well.
Quinn’s tour of Vienna’s architectural atrocities takes two and a half hours and includes monstrous roof structures, artificial rock faces and the Ministry for Innovation, which seems to have emerged from an architectural netherworld. Here, the paradoxical nature of ugliness is particularly poignant. The buildings make such good viewing because they do not conform to the usual esthetic norms.
Eugene Quinn hails from London and moved to Vienna eight years ago with his Austrian wife. In 2012 they set up the “space and place” culture project and have been organizing playful assaults on the city’s public spaces, including coffee-house conversations between Vienna natives and migrants and an olfactory tour called “Smells like Wien Spirit.” It is a playground for grown-ups. “We like to play with the image of the city,” says Quinn. What may seem absurd to some, is just ridiculous enough for him. But just like beauty cannot exist without ugliness, the jester would be nothing without an adversary. Quinn found his nemesis in Vienna’s Chamber of Commerce, which stipulates that tour guides must obtain a license and undergo training to conduct guided tours. Preparing for the exam takes two years and costs almost 5000 euros. The Chamber of Commerce once fined Quinn 380 euros for lacking the necessary certificates. This explains why he wears his garbage collectors’ pants. He is also barred from showing his groups around any of the usual sights and is not allowed to talk about historical dates. This, according to the Chamber of Commerce, is the way to distinguish his tour from “real” guided tours. The Kafkaesque disputes even made Germany’s main news program, Tagesschau, and were featured in the Guardian, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and USA Today. Quinn will only comment that he is not interested in fighting the authorities, but the city’s image. “Many people think that Vienna is hopelessly old-fashioned, but that is not true.”
Many people think that Vienna is old-fashioned, but that’s not true
And yet many conservatives still hanker for a golden age in which Austria was more Austrian than it is today. The Viennese live with one foot in the past. They will not be told they cannot smoke in a café. They navigate around the horse-drawn carriages and horse droppings in the city center without complaining. Hype is an alien concept to them. As comedian Karl Farkas once said: “The Viennese look confidently into the past.”
Innovations take a bit longer to establish themselves here, compared to other metropolises. For example, the slowly changing nature of the Naschmarkt market, which consists of a long line of dark green pavilions with striped awnings. Cafés and restaurants only started opening here eleven years ago, and have since turned the paths between the stalls into the city’s catwalk. At one end, affluent Viennese catch the sun and enjoy oysters; the other end is a meeting place for students.
At the Neni café, the Molcho family serve dishes from their native Israel: shakshuka, tabbouleh and hummus. Mother Haya Molcho opened the restaurant with her sons Nuriel, Elior, Nadiv and Ilan. The Molchos experimented right from the start, serving mulled wine in winter, and in summer holding fashion shows and getting street artists to decorate the awnings of the pavilions. “In the beginning, we had to expect a ‘no’ from the city authorities in response to any creative requests. That was really obstructive,” says Nuriel Molcho, who is responsible for the café’s marketing. “In Vienna, ‘new’ is never good – until even the city government realizes that the changes actually work well.”
The Neni café has since become a brand and has turned into a small food empire with branches in Hamburg and Berlin, with Amsterdam, Paris and Munich set to follow. Haya gives lessons at her cooking school, while Ilan handles the distribution of the brand’s supermarket range. The Molchos also opened a beach bar on the lower footpath along the Danube canal, previously a gray concrete wasteland, where two solitary bars held the fort and only graffiti artists and joggers ventured into some stretches along the waterway. The Molchos bought a pavilion there, refurbished it in the Bauhaus style and called it Tel Aviv Beach. “Today the canal is booming,” Nuriel Molcho says, adding that the city government is becoming more and more accommodating. Bars that relocate to the canal area enjoy more generous licenses, like being allowed to play music until 2 a.m. Molcho, in a straw hat and shorts, is standing next to a bathtub, filling up water balloons. The brothers are celebrating their beach club’s sixth birthday. Rubber flamingos hang from palm trees, and fans disperse cooling water vapor around the place. Now and then a water fight breaks out. Most guests laze around on deckchairs – a cigarette in one hand, a mojito in the other – and watch the sun go down.
Vienna is a city of spectators, says Eugene Quinn. “The Viennese like watching shows, but don’t want to be part of them.” The former BBC journalist eventually came to an agreement with the Chamber of Commerce, and the Vienna Tourist Board now lists Vienna Ugly on its website. Today, Quinn wants to show us around the new campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business in the Leopoldstadt district, as a contrast to the city’s old town. The curved library building was designed by star architect Zaha Hadid. White, rounded surfaces rise up from the floor in the foyer, punctuated by narrow windows. Quinn often prepares his tours in the neighboring Teaching Center, with its facade of slowly oxidizing steel. It is Quinn’s favorite design: “At first glance, you wonder what has happened to the poor building, the rust makes it look so vulnerable.”
The universities and their relaxed admissions procedures draw many students to Vienna, a quarter of whom are from abroad. They form a bulwark against conservatism, aided by iconic institutions like the city magazine Falter, which shines a spotlight on corruption and nepotism in the city. The left-leaning FM4 radio station broadcasts progressive shows – partly in English – while pop band Wanda and author Stefanie Sargnagel with her downbeat comedy are shaking up Austrian pop culture. “In the 19th century, Vienna was a radically avant-garde city. Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud did a lot of crazy things here,” says Quinn, adding that the imperial past is being dug up, romanticized and artificially preserved for the sake of tourism. “But Vienna can’t just be all about Mozart and Sachertorte cake.”