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Reinventing Vienna

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Photo: Adam Friedberg

'Vienna was always a meeting point,’ Dr. Erhard Suess was saying. ' Now we are a gateway.’ Suess, the fiancé of a close friend, was having a coffee in the Onyx Bar at the Do & Co Hotel, which occupies the top floors of Haas Haus, a cylindrical, concrete-and-mirrored-glass postmodern landmark dropped into the heart of the centuries-old former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Hans Hollein. The sixth-floor space has windows about 30 feet high looking straight across Stephansplatz at the tiled roof and towers of the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The clean-lined, hard-edged interior of the bar, with its bird’s-eye view back through the centuries and international clientele, is a metaphor for the new Vienna, a place where old and new and East and West are mixed into a potent postnational energy shake.

Suess, a psychiatrist and neurologist on the faculty of the medical school at the University of Vienna, is just the man to analyze the disparate forces reshaping his city. “During the monarchy, people from all the crown countries moved to the capital and influenced its cultural life with everything from Czech cooking to Romanian literature,” he says. But after World War II, Vienna was pushed to the far eastern limit of Europe, its back against the Iron Curtain. Later, during perestroika, Austrians were active investors in economic and infrastructural developments in Eastern European markets, and local companies did very well. “The roads, the buses, the banks—everything was either built or owned by Austrians,” said Suess, exaggerating slightly. Still, Vienna, so long on the sidelines of Western Europe, found itself at the Continent’s center of gravity again, and in recent years it’s been reshaped by the currents of capital and expertise flowing from all directions, especially from the former Soviet Bloc. “We are not NATO, we are not Eastern Bloc,” says Suess, pointing out the advantages of political neutrality. “A lot of foreign people are coming here to exchange ideas,” says art dealer Georg Kargl, of Galerie Georg Kargl. The city has regained its multicultural dimension. The Do & Co Hotel, for instance, is owned by Attila Dogudan, a Turkish-Austrian. Another new hotel, the Levante Parliament, incorporates a gallery exhibiting glasswork by Romanian artist Ioan Nemto. A third, the ultraluxe Palais Coburg, was built by an East German–Austrian money manager, Peter Pühringer. Vienna is a world city again.

Vienna is, to be sure, still the city of Freud and Wittgenstein, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, the Boys’ Choir, and the Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School. The ubiquitous imperial insignias and red-coated, white-wigged concert touts stationed throughout the city ensure that you never forget it. But now, as Vienna’s 21st-century renaissance takes hold, its contemporary scene is as much of a draw as its favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus. Perhaps even more so, for it offers up the added value of novelty—even to the Viennese, some of whom still remember, as one resident put it, “a gray, dirty, boring city where you couldn’t get a beer after midnight.”

The local government has deliberately nudged its glorious past into a discourse with the present, aiming to “fill this historical stage with young life,” says Norbert Kettner, former managing director of Departure, a five-year-old economic development agency that supports creative businesses. “We want to change the state of mind.” With the opening of the East, Kettner says, jobs began migrating away from most Western European cities. And when Austria joined the European Union, it had to liberalize its immigration laws and economic policies. “This all could have caused decline,” he says. “But the city was smart enough to ask, What do we do with this new situation?You take your heritage not as a burden but as a basis upon which to build.”

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