Concrete and steel

mak towerThe apartment we’re renting in the Landstrasse district of Vienna is more or less halfway between an immense drum-like tower and the Wittgenstein House. The tower forms part of a reinforced concrete fortress, which we can see looking left from the entrance to our building. It rises in a small park behind a block of social housing that bridges the road and bears the name Kurt-Steyrer-Hof. I thought Kurt Steyrer might be the architect but he turns out to have been a minister of health (with, unusually in these expert-wary days, an actual degree in medicine) and the unsuccessful rival in the presidential elections of 1986 of Kurt Waldheim; he survived Waldheim by a month, dying in 2007, although the building appears to predate this by several decades. The fortress itself, I discover when I walk under the arch of the K-S-H and into the park to look at it more closely, is an almost windowless rectangular building, 187 feet square, unadorned by graffiti, with not one but four round, squat drums rising from a jutting-out tray-like structure to tower above the surrounding trees to a height of 137 feet. It’s the kind of thing an unimaginative child might erect on a beach for the pleasure of seeing it later washed away.

The fortress was built, I discover (on the Internet – there is zero information at the site) by the Nazis as one of six flak towers in the city. Flak is short for Fliegerabwehrkanone, and means anti-aircraft gun, although the purpose of this building and the other five like it was surely not to protect the city so much as to intimidate its people and to instil the fear required by an occupying force. It’s a mixture of brutalism, and not just in terms of an architectural volumes, but as a way of coercing the space around it, and some hellish castle Mervyn Peake or George Martin might have imagined, as the place where all hopes go to die. You imagine birds avoiding it, swerving in flight. One quarter of it, I read, has recently been restyled as an exhibition space, MAK Tower, but is currently closed for repair. Restyled or not, repaired or not, it can’t be removed; it’s too large to be demolished by explosives in the confined spaces of the residential district around it. It’s simply there. A reminder, as Kurt Waldheim was a reminder.


wittgensteinhausWe visit Haus Wittgenstein three days after our arrival, after a generous Frühstückof eggs and cheese, seated outside a café in the unrelenting heat. TripAdvisor, while including the house in its list of Things to do in Vienna, is unenthusiastic, with a handful of (actually four) ‘average’ reviews that are less about the house itself than about its current role as home to the Cultural Department of the Bulgarian Embassy. The house is surrounded, and partly concealed, by a high white wall. We come to an ironwork gate, with a Bulgarian flag above it, which is open, and walk through, and then up some steps until we reach a closed door. There is nothing to indicate that the building before us actually is the building part-designed by Wittgenstein, little more than a dozen years before Hitler, his classmate in Vienna, ordered the construction of the flak towers. No sign, no plaque; the place as anonymous in its way as the looming fortress just half a mile to our backs. But where that is grey and seems to absorb what light there is, this is brilliant in the sun, a game of shadows and glass. There is a small bell, which we ring.

We’re ready to leave when the door opens onto a large hall, at the far end of which is what looks like a galley kitchen, where a middle-aged man in a singlet, his hair just-out-of-beddish, is eating a plate of pasta. He jumps up in a confused way, as though he’s been caught out, grins wildly and waves his fork towards a thin woman approaching from the right. I ask her, in English, if this is the Wittgenstein house and, assuming it is, if we can visit it. She nods – a surly nod, if such a thing is possible – and silently produces a small tin cashbox from a drawer in the only piece of furniture in the room. Five euros and forty cents, each, she says and detaches two tickets from a paper-clipped wad. When I give her a twenty euro note, she shakes her head. We manage to find the correct amount. No photographs allowed inside, she says. Information there, she says, and points to a rack with some photocopied sheets of information and a faded ground plan. Can we just walk round wherever we want? I ask. She shrugs, slides the money into a small plastic envelope, locks the cashbox and puts it back in the drawer. Thank you, I say, but she has already moved away, only to stop at the door into the kitchen, with the still-grinning man behind her, from which point she turns to watch us as we start to explore.

The spaces are large, as perfectly proportioned as one would expect from a philosopher-architect, a series of interlocking volumes filled with light, freed of such fripperies as skirting or cornice. The double doors between each room are engineered from steel and glass; they seem to have been made for giants, or the gods Wittgenstein’s sister once remarked were the only suitable occupants of the house. Their handles, like the handles of the windows, are minimalist works of art, although some of them, I notice, are missing. Giuseppe is enchanted by the radiators, which Wittgenstein apparently spent a year designing. We move from room to room, the woman following us at a distance. We go upstairs and find a sloping glass roof creating a sort of greenhouse to one side of the first floor landing, with some straggling houseplants beneath it. There is a library, with no one in it, the shelves filled with the sort of books one might find in a rundown second-hand bookshop, but in Bulgarian, battered and spineless, dusty, reeking of neglect. A woman’s handbag lies open on the desk and I wonder if the ticket-seller-cum-surveillance operative also moonlights as librarian, or vice versa, and there she is suddenly, at the door, her expression unchanged. We smile and move past her into another room, and then another. Apart from the library, only one room is furnished – a long table, a second woman at one end of it, keying into a laptop, ignoring us as we look at the paintings that decorate the walls. Outside, a terrace with the inner wall almost hidden by stacked boxes that held, or still hold, bananas. Wittgenstein once said “I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.” He didn’t much like the house in any case, accusing it of lacking ‘primordial life’, but I think he’d have ordered its demolition if he could have seen it as it is now, uncared for, abandoned, with its travesty of a library, in the hands of Bulgaria’s equivalent of the Stasi.

And I’d love to know what happened to the missing door handles.


whiteread viennaWe’re wandering around the centre when we find ourselves in Judenplatz, Rachel Whiteread’s memorial to the Holocaust at the far end of it. It’s one of those works of art with no aesthetic merit to speak of that, once understood, say something that can be said in no other form, and are therefore art. All works of art require context, memorials perhaps more than any other, and the context of this, both external and intrinsic, is relentlessly to the purpose. It’s a concrete block, as closed to the world as the windowless flak towers, as luminous and contained in the August sun as the Wittgenstein House. Approaching it, the evenly rippled surface of the concrete reveals itself as hundreds, maybe thousands of books turned inwards, and therefore unreadable. More than that, unidentifiable, untitled, unauthored – a library as lost as the library that might have graced the philosopher’s house if it hadn’t also, in its way, been condemned to silence, a library of ruthlessly organised shelves in which the philosopher himself, three-quarters Jewish and gay, might easily have been included. Each nameless book the monument contains, without which it could not exist, is both text and person, story and object, each text is both unique and of equal, inestimable worth, each text and what it might tell us is closed to us and will remain so, for ever. The library has doors, or what look like doors, but here they are handleless by design; there are no windows. The monument, like the other two monuments we’ve seen, is made of those archetypically twentieth century materials, concrete and steel, the latter the source of the immense wealth of the Wittgenstein family.



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1 Response to Concrete and steel

  1. Such excellent writing.

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