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Reinventing Vienna

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Photo: Adam Friedberg

The city has been developing as a center of applied design for more than a decade, handing out public housing commissions to developers who hire creative young architects, and successfully encouraging the private sector to do the same. This has caused a riveting fusion reaction, releasing new energy from the two distinct periods of Vienna’s past—Baroque imperial Vienna and the revolutionary Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, and the Wiener Werkstätte of Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. What gives the city its palpable excitement is the way the periods juxtapose: clashing, communicating, coexisting. “It’s necessary to fight against tradition, as it’s so present, so evident,” says Dietmar Steiner, director of Architekturzentrum Wien, the city’s architecture museum. “You have to fight history to create something interesting, but believe in it, too.”

The newest hotels and restaurants reflect Vienna’s regilded cosmopolitanism. The menu at Österreicher im MAK—the new home of Austria’s star chef, Helmut Österreicher, inside the MAK design museum—serves Wiener schnitzel alongside sesame tuna over couscous, and its garden tables are set under “sun squares,” an abstract system of canvas sails designed by Gerald Wurz. Design is omnipresent in these places: Indochine 21 serves up highly refined French-Vietnamese food in a room punctuated by red umbrellas. At Fabio’s, just off Graben—the pedestrian-only main drag that links the Hofburg Palace area with Stephansplatz—an award-winning steel-and-glass façade is cantilevered onto the street. The restaurant more than lives up to its motto (Eat. drink. man. woman) and fashionable reputation, with its leather bar and walnut wood paneling. The Do & Co Albertina restaurant has a wide terrace with a view of the Hofburg Palace complex and an interior decorated with leather banquettes, a marble bar, and floors and walls hung with huge blowups of Schiele paintings.

In the neighborhood known as the Gürtel—a former red-light district—bars and clubs are now tucked into arches beneath an elevated railway track (designed, as were six of Vienna’s most famous subway stops, by Jugendstil architect Otto Wagner). Traditional Vienna, meanwhile, is going strong: The classic Austrian restaurant  Julius Meinl am Graben, in the gourmet shop that is Vienna’s version of Fauchon, is always full.

Palais Coburg’s owner, Pühringer, who moved to Austria because of its attractive tax laws, went looking for a building for his foundation, and ended up buying the former summer residence of Ferdinand von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, built atop the old walls of Vienna in the 1840’s. After three years of planning, three more of refurbishing, and an expenditure of $125 million, it opened as a hotel in 2003. Each suite is named after a member of the Saxe-Coburg family, and is completely up-to-date. To the side of the spare, modern lobby, a staircase leads down to an excavated section of the 16th-century city walls, on display in situ.

The more intimate and completely modern Do & Co Hotel opened in spring 2006 and features rooms and suites with dramatic curved walls. “This is the new Vienna opposite the old,” says Dogudan, who also owns Demel, the traditional pastry shop. “The city has well-preserved history alongside modern art and young people. Great classical music and famous DJ’s. It’s a good balance. Young people like it. Old people like it.”

At lunch at Milo, Wolfgang Waldner, director of the MuseumsQuartier, or MQ, the city’s new, self-contained museum district, explains the similar social balancing act on display in one of the arms of his complex, Quartier 21. It houses an ever-changing group of 50 tenants—fashion, media, Internet, video, art, performance, and publishing companies—all with renewable two-year leases. “The idea is a counterweight to permanence,” Waldner says. He hastens to add that government support isn’t limited to new projects. In the past 10 years, he says, the Austrian government has invested $13.7 billion to upgrade Vienna’s world-class roster of existing museums as well. Private interests are putting up money too. “People are investing in their buildings, restoring the façades, making the city even more beautiful,” says Elisabeth Gürtler, owner of the venerable Hotel Sacher, which recently added two floors.

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