Traditional Vienna is subverting the rules

    • 15 April 19
  • How the Austrian capital became cool again

“At first glance Vienna’s very formal. But it’s also a very subversive city” “Ten years ago Vienna wasn’t seen to be a cool city” says Gabriel Roland, Vienna Design Week’s Head of External Partnerships. At first glance it’s formal, even in how the architecture presides gallantly over the city. And yet it’s also a subversive place, although not openly rebellious. You need to know where to look.”

To an outsider this city possesses a Cinderella-like charm where, on almost any given day, it becomes the stage for the Viennese to dress-up and head to a ball while tourists look on in wonder.  But from the traditions of classical music and dance, to the more clandestine creative conversations held in the Viennese coffee houses of old, comes a new and equally enigmatic Vienna.  

You just need to go looking for it

“In a small diverse city we are open minded and look beyond borders.”


Underneath its formal veneer is an open-minded, diverse city alive with cultural activity in its broadest sense. 


You have the luxury of visiting vivid markets mixed with migrant communities, before heading across town in under 30 minutes to experience a refined classical performance in the city centre, and then catching an avant-garde improvisation in a hidden gallery.


Despite its air of grandeur, there is a sense of acceptance of all, and a freedom of expression, but why is this so?


But while Vienna historically demonstrated its wealth in the form of impressive building façades, Roland revealed that behind them was a grimmer reality where workers coming into the city crowded 10 to a 300-sq.-foot flat.


Vienna’s housing crisis happened over 100 years ago and city planners since the 1920s did some clever things for housing and social cohesion when leading architects were hired and given much freedom to design while keeping costs low. Today, 60% of Vienna’s nearly 1.7 million inhabitants live in good quality subsidised apartments.


This elevated standard of housing, in a deeply artistic city gives people the freedom and inspiration to choose creative pursuits for their livelihood, which is why creative experimentation is something that thrives in Vienna. 


“The young art scene doing something differently is fuelling this feeling of cool”


Just as Adolf Loos before them was a provocateur of his time, who broke from the decadent, decorative traditions of the Vienna Secession in pursuit of the pure and simple; so to are the young artists doing things differently today.


They can be found experimenting in independently run art spaces, yet over a decade ago they lacked a platform for expression, that would also bring an international focus on this city’s great reputation.


Something that Vienna Design Week’s Director Lilli Hollein, along with founders Tulga Beyerle and Thomas Geisler realised, and so in 2007 Vienna Design Week was formed.


Now the 10-day festival welcomes 40,000 visitors under Lilli’s skilful curatorial eye proving that Vienna is a “City Full of Design” attracting creatively inclined expats to return home.  A benchmark of the positive influence this event is having.


“Vienna is very creative, we have people who are established but also people who work in a very irrational, passionate way.” 


In true Viennese style, Vienna Design Week is about inclusiveness and a rich and diverse programme. From choosing overlooked corners of the city to turn into stages for design; to inviting countries such as Romania, Hungry, Czech Republic, and in 2019 Finland, to co-host the festival.


Passionswege, one the festival’s formats, pairs established and small craft-based studios.  Bringing together the old with the new, – creators of wood, textiles, silver, even candy – to experience the creative process from both sides.  Drawing satisfaction from the process and potential, as much as the object itself.


Also on the programme is Stadtarbeit, or ‘City Work’ dedicated to projects that address issues of social development as much as urban design — dedicated to social space, improvement of communication between different population groups, and better living conditions for all.


Unlike the overcrowded big city design festivals, this one is gaining a reputation for staging an intimate, showpiece for the local creative scene in a city of contrasts.


Asked again about Vienna’s subversive side, and this time Roland reveals that “what seems like a light-hearted joke will often hurt you for 10 years!”.


Learnings for makers of cultural districts


Put rules in for people to rebel against

Build the platform for people to come together, creating moments in the creative space that allow for something to happen.


Think of art as research 

Artistic interventions can create communications between different groups, uncovering stories typical research could miss. This in turn creates content that can then be communicated in interesting ways.


Value the process as much as the outcome

Unlike many design fairs Vienna Design Week curates the process, but doesn’t prescribe the object. Facilitate creatives with unique skills coming together showing how the process creates potential.


Find the right people and the content emerges

Good curation allows for spontaneity. It’s all about bringing the right people together for communication.

Gabriel Roland, Vienna Design Week