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PRINT Summer 2001

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the Vienna Museum Quarter

FROM THE STREET, everything looks more or less the way it has since the Baroque era. Vienna's once-upon-a-time imperial stables, commissioned by Emperor Karl VI in the early eighteenth century, present an unadorned two-story facade stretching about a quarter of a mile along the city's Museumsplatz. Only on passing into the central courtyard do visitors catch sight of the monumental structures that have risen within.

Opening to the public later this month, the MuseumsQuartier, or MQ as its logo (already emblazoned on coffee cups and Frisbees) has it, is a “cultural cluster” that will eventually house some twenty institutions dedicated to art, dance, film, architecture, theater, and new media. Acres of usable space, innovative architecture and restoration, and hearty city support have drawn these organizations, some newly formed and others long established. The MQ is doubtless an enormous undertaking, but since the earliest planning phases in the mid-'80s debates have centered around a vexing question: Will Vienna end up with a cultural graveyard tailored to the needs of tourists, or will the seeds of current artistic production take root in the ancient walls?

Those old walls, the restoration of which has been led by Manfred Wehdorn, are now joined by the new walls of three contemporary buildings designed by the architectural firm Ortner & Ortner. The first of these, a mass of white limestone, will house the Leopold Museum, renowned for its seasoned classics of Viennese modernism. Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, and Richard Gerstl will surely draw crowds. The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MUMOK) takes up residence in a new structure of dark gray basalt lava (a material meant to mirror, according to press materials, the “recently solidified” status of modern art). MUMOK's second-class collection of twentieth-century art is improved by stock from the Pop-heavy Ludwig Collection. And the Kunsthalle Wien, dedicated to contemporary art, moves into a red brick-faced annex behind the former winter riding hall, in which the Vienna Festival will continue to be held every spring.

A children's museum and the Architecture Center of Vienna will be among the inhabitants of the preexisting buildings. The Fischer von Erlach Wing, which fronts the whole complex, has been thoroughly renovated and dubbed “Quartier 21.” It will house the Public Netbase, a Center for new-media art; the Depot, a forum for lectures with an accompanying lending library; Basis Wien, a central database on Austrian contemporary art; and artist studios. The eyes of the MQ planners, which have obviously been ogling the British Culture Trust, are shining: Quartier 21 will be the poster child for youthful creativity.

Like other spectacular recent cultural endeavors—the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Tate Modern in London—the MQ is one of those architectonic icons that could transform perceptions of a city. While London long ago wiped away its image of having nothing more to boast than pubs and a queen, Vienna's battle with its reputation for cozy antiquation lingers on. The MQ may begin to scrape off the lime deposits on the venerable though not very cool Vienna, but it can't be too aggressive because it's precisely the city's Hapsburg and Jugendstil histories that bolster tourism. And so when Ortner & Ortner designed a “Library Tower” that would have been taller than the original stables, making the whole complex visible from afar, a fierce, conservative media campaign ensued, and the project was scratched. It is symptomatic of the long repression of cultural modernity in Austria that modernization in the MQ has come up against such historicizing barriers.

In 1986, when the competition for the MQ was announced, Vienna had a lot of lost ground to make up. Having long promoted itself as a city of music and theater, Vienna neglected its art. (In recent memory, some of the collections in the Kunsthistorisches Museum couldn't be viewed after nightfall for lack of electric lights—and this at one of the largest art museums in the world.) Will the new MUMOK building suffer from or remedy this lamentable condition? The architects Laurids and Manfred Ortner have indeed captured beauty in stone, but aside from a few embrasure-like openings and a panoramic window in the upper story, MUMOK's facade remains sealed. The basalt takes on a symbolic presence of petrification. Modern, yes, but inactive as a cooled volcano; modern, yes, but filtered through nationalist incorporation into the Leopold Museum; modern, yes, but representing a lack of transparency between culture and society.

A poignant irony appears to be afoot: Where a hundred years ago Arabian stallions trotted, cheerful masses will soon swarm into the mild night after summer days of cultural reverie. But will visitors find their cultural treasures—once enjoyed solely by aristocrats—wrapped in an architecture of encapsulation, the museum as mausoleum?

Matthias Dusini is a Vienna-based art critic.