Beyond Baroque

Vienna retains the majesty that befits a former imperial capital but has shed its royal reserve. Helen Anderson meets the characters changing the face of the Austrian capital.

"We are all mad here" says a bright sign on a boxy grey building, but I'm wet and cold and I go inside anyway. "Don't feed the monkeys" warns another sign over a desk, among lion crates and trapeze ropes. Young men wearing retro Habsburg beards shift amps and guitars. Couples in vintage sneakers slouch on mid-century lounges. Two pairs of legs entwine python-like beneath the curtain of an instant photo booth. Only the steady arrival of people wheeling suitcases indicates whether I'm standing (a) backstage at the circus, (b) in a university refectory, or (c) in a hotel lobby. "Yes, we are a little bit mad here," says a harried blond behind the desk at 25hours Hotel, adding, "You see how it is in Vienna."
The hotel, a little like the city I've come to love, isn't so much mad as intense, full of ideas, with a sense of humour and a taste for life lived in public. The ballrooms and concert halls, salons and coffee houses for which the city is famous are expressions of the Viennese sense of occasion. Tonight's occasion is the Vienna Philharmonic's annual Summer Night Concert in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace, although when an icy wind turns my umbrella inside out I head instead to the closest bistro. On the edge of the MuseumsQuartier, one of the largest arts districts in the world, Glacis Beisl sits on the old city walls and behind a garden. On a cold summer night it's a model of gemütlichkeit, a word referring to the kind of cosy congeniality that epitomises Vienna's coffee houses and beisls, its bistros.
German is precise but also highly evocative, a language full of muscular words capable of describing complex scenarios and emotions. Many are drafted permanently into English: zeitgeist, schadenfreude, angst, kitsch. Other words, such as gemütlichkeit, can't be properly translated without being experienced, but imagine a low-lit room with a terrazzo floor, a few stuffed and mounted deer heads, dark wood panelling, tall banquettes and buzzing with conversation. On bare tables are simple, well-turned dishes of Wiener küche - Viennese cuisine: char, white asparagus, roast pork, cabbage and dumplings, and glasses of grüner veltliner and zweigelt. Later, in my circus-styled room painted with faintly disturbing clowns and bearded ladies, I catch the telecast of the Schönbrunn concert, showing a crowd in raincoats laughing and waltzing in the rain.
I came to Vienna late and only recently - three years ago, during the first snowfall of December. I wouldn't say I was dragged here, but without a love of classical music and an invitation to celebrate a milestone birthday I might not have made the effort. I'd imagined a city of intimidating grandeur, slightly stultifying imperial history and high culture. I found all that. With a marzipan-pure layer of fresh snow, the extraordinary architectural majesty of the city is exaggerated. With rubbish bins and cars veiled in snow it seems not so different from the city in which the Habsburgs ruled their empire for 640 years. We absorbed the work of Klimt and Schiele, and their Secessionist cohorts by day, then listened to the canon of Western classical music performed by night. I was impressed by the splendour, yet in the chill of that winter I was charmed most by the human scale and warmth of Vienna.
From the Altstadt, our gallery-hotel hybrid in the bobo neighbourhood of Spittelberg, we chanced upon a kitsch-free Christmas market where friends gathered in the snow with mugs of Amarena-cherry chilli punch and glühwein, inhaling bonhomie, and the smell of woodsmoke and waffles. In the magnificent Baroque Kunsthistorisches Museum, I lounged undisturbed on a well-worn sofa in the Bruegel room surrounded by a third of the surviving masterpieces by the Flemish humanist painter. Pieter Bruegel's earthy, often comic tableaux of 16th-century peasant life seemed the perfect counterpoint to the imperial splendour of the museum. And over a mélange and apfelstrudel on a threadbare red-velvet banquette at Café Sperl, I thought about the meaning of gesamtkunstwerk, a term popularised in Vienna at the turn of last century meaning "complete artwork". It's in the city's coffee houses, I concluded, that the alchemy of art, architecture, craft, hospitality and history finds its finest expression.
Everyone serves coffee these days, but no one has created a coffee society like the Viennese. In his 1943 memoir, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the Viennese kaffeehaus as "a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals".
Café Sperl still has 20 or so papers mounted on reading sticks, but WiFi, too. The most successful of Vienna's 100 or so traditional coffee houses are "innovating slowly", says Berndt Querfeld over a mokka at Café Landtmann this northern summer. It's one of seven historic cafés he owns in the city. "The Viennese are more open to change these days, where change makes sense," he says, "though they'll always complain loudly in the beginning."
Six years ago Querfeld built a wintergarden at the 140-year-old Landtmann to appeal to younger patrons. He banned smoking (many of the city's coffee houses remain defiantly, and legally, smoky) and introduced WiFi at all his venues, but his biggest gamble was buying Café Museum in 2009. It was once nicknamed "Café Nihilism" for the monastic simplicity of its interiors, designed in 1899 by the radical Austrian architect Adolf Loos, and it attracted similarly radical thinkers in Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Robert Musil. "The evolution of culture is synonymous with removing decoration from utilitarian objects," Loos declared in his 1908 manifesto Ornament and Crime.
In 1930 Café Museum was redesigned by Josef Zotti, and was given padded furniture and booths; then in 2003 it was restored to something approaching its original train-platform nihilism. By then patrons hated it, and the café eventually closed. Querfeld moved in and refitted it with upholstered furniture, stylish retro fixtures based on Zotti's originals and a new menu, and patrons returned.
Under Café Museum's Deco-style chrome-ball lights, I tuck into a plate of Zotti's favourite schinkenfleckerln, a rib-sticking ham and pasta casserole baked beneath cheese. This is my third visit to the city in three years> (and my first, and possibly last, schinkenfleckerln).
As Europe has plunged into economic crisis, Austria and its capital appear to have blossomed. Named the world's most liveable city since 2009 in the annual Mercer Quality of Living survey, Vienna has the wealth to maintain and extend urban infrastructure, but also a dynamism fuelled by the ambition of young creatives and entrepreneurs.
"The city seemed to sleep for a long time," says Dr Andreas Nierhaus, the curator of architecture at Wien Museum, as we view the humble Loos living room in his collection. "But the pace of change has picked up. The economy is growing and one of the challenges is to find homes for 25,000 new residents each year."
The Vienna University of Economics and Business, the largest of its kind in Europe, opened in October, its central building designed by Zaha Hadid. In recent years the banks of the Danube Canal have been populated by beach bars, clubs and gastrodomes such as Motto am Fluss. The Baroque state rooms of Prince Eugene of Savoy's Winter Palace in the UNESCO-listed 1st district have opened as a contemporary art satellite of the city's palatial Belvedere museum. The massive redevelopment of the main train station, due for completion in 2015, will turn it into a hub for central Europe.
Two former palaces are being transformed into the Golden Quarter, a luxe pedestrian shopping precinct in the 1st district. Although the quarter is still under construction, Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, Miu Miu and Vivienne Westwood have moved in, and a long list of international names - from Yves St Laurent to Church's - are lined up to arrive next year. A new Park Hyatt will be among the tenants, stoking a booming hotel industry - about 3000 new beds materialised in the city in the past year, many of them with four and five stars.
One of the most prominent newcomers this year, the Palais Hansen Kempinski, is the epitome of a palace hotel - monumental proportions, lots of marble - yet this seven-storey complex fulfilled its destiny as a hotel only this year. Its 100 metre-long façade forms part of the splendid Ringstrasse that encircles the city and it bears all the Neoclassical hallmarks of the boulevard's chief architect, Theophil Edvard von Hansen. The Danish-born Austrian designed the hotel for the world exposition in Vienna in 1873. It became a police headquarters and municipal offices, but never a hotel. After two years of renovation it has emerged with 152 rooms, a cigar lounge, restaurants and bars, a ballroom and a spa in which Viennese 1920s-style etched glass, Ottoman-style mosaics and folding screens reflect the city's location on the border of Eastern and Western Europe.
A couple of subway stops away in the 4th district, three architecture students are converting shopfronts into "street lofts" for travellers. "We started with the aim of bringing life back to neighbourhoods with empty ground-floor shops," says Urbanauts partner Theresia Kohlmayr, as we walk around the corner from her office to a former tailor's shop. Behind the nondescript façade is a layered window adjustable for privacy or voyeurism and a cleverly designed room with a welcome note sitting in an old typewriter, along with bespoke toiletries, a generous minibar and light spilling from behind a wall-sized photograph. There's no reception - instead, Urbanauts has partnerships with neighbourhood cafés, bars, clubs, a hammam and providores, and offers free bicycles.
"This allows travellers to explore a city in their own way," says Kohlmayr. Urbanauts opened another two lofts this year, and aim for 10, with fashion and homeware offshoots under way.
Nearby, in the Neubau neighbourhood in the 7th district, Barbara Irma Denk founded a project called 7tm, which promotes indie Viennese designers by offering guided and self-guided tours ("Get into the
Off Vienna!" urge her illustrated maps). In 2008 she started with 25 projects on the map; now there are 65. "7tm is about individuality," she says. "Each business is unique and together they convey the feeling of an exceptional experience to adventurous consumers." Among the shops are made-in-Vienna, handcrafted, vintage and fair-trade projects such as Madames with a Mission (its mantra: "keep it simple and sophisticated"), Modus Vivendi, Cadê? and Ina Kent's Bags Tell Stories. My favourite is Lena Hoschek's bombshell boudoir showing her signature dirndls, the traditional alpine peasant frock deconstructed and reimagined with a burlesque edge.
Bold ideas can be seen in the conversion of a former brothel in the 6th district to a cocktail bar named Puff (from the German slang for brothel) by the Viennese design duo Walking Chair. Staffed by some of the city's best barmen, the low-lit room has black leather booths flanked by curious cocktail machines, like antiquated IV drips, in which liquor flows theatrically through bowls and vases. One of the year's most anticipated openings was Konstantin Filippou, an eponymous restaurant by the 33-year-old Greek-Austrian Michelin-starred chef, where a Zen-calm, bare-table dining room and small seasonal menu eschew the conventions of the buttoned-up 1st district.
Some of the most ambitious ventures in the city marry new ideas with a strong sense of tradition. The bitter-orange perfume spritzed on a spring-blossom dessert at the two Michelin-starred Steirereck, for example, and delicate, dried citrus wafers at meal's end are sourced from old, rare varieties at Schönbrunn Palace's orangery. On a leafy bank of the Danube Canal and surrounded by Stadtpark, Steirereck has a terrace garden full of rare and largely forgotten plants (alpine sorrel, tree spinach, sea purslane) and these make their way into Heinz Reitbauer's highly botanical tasting menus. A dozen or so fresh herbs make a live appearance in pots on the tea trolley.
On another trolley are 20-odd varieties of bread, several of them from one of Vienna's finest artisanal bakeries, Joseph Brot vom Pheinsten (Joseph Finest Bread). The bakery is a study in low and high tech; owner Josef Weghaupt and baker Friedrich "Fritz" Potocnik make nine kinds of handmade double-baked organic sourdough loaves "the old-fashioned way" and sell from a minimalist and slickly branded shop in the 1st district.
Late one night, after watching a rollicking performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna State Opera, we wind up at the American Bar, though everyone calls it the Loos Bar. It's tiny, dark and smoky, a textbook example of fin de siècle architectural audacity by the rebel Adolf Loos, with a coffered mahogany ceiling, back-lit onyx wall tiles and mirrors, and a green-and-white chequered marble floor. It's so crowded that no one's a stranger after a Manhattan or two. On my left, two bankers enter a debate on my behalf over who serves the city's finest Wiener schnitzel. On my right, a Canadian architect studying the work of Loos embraces his old friend, an Australian violinist living in Berlin, fresh from a performance in one of the city's concert halls. Within moments we, too, are old friends. It's mad, in a Viennese kind of way.