Vienna's Invisible City

project status: Taught in Fall 2014

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept this inferno and become such part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”   –  Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, 1972

On top of Vienna’s historic city, a second city is being built. Its magnitude equals the illustrious Red Vienna program: in effect, within the Gürtel an estimated 80.000 housing units are waiting to be developed. These roof-top extensions can no longer be considered as a mere architectural phenomenon; instead they are a massive project of urbanization. What drives the development of this second city on top of another? How will this second, new city transform the old one? How can we grasp the scale and scope of this transformation? How can we experience or even access this new city? Who, in fact, are its inhabitants? And what holds them together? Pursuing these questions, one goal of the studio is to produce an Atlas of Vienna’s invisible city.

While historically, every major wave of Vienna’s urbanization has been defined by the architectural manifestation of a collective idea that is the city (think of Red Vienna’s communal facilities or even the public parks and cultural institution puncturing the Ringstrasse), todays penthouse stratum is the aggregate result of pure private interest. There is no collective vision for Vienna’s second city; at best there is a concern for the preservation of the old one it is built on top of. More importantly, however, there is not even an effort to hide the absence of a common interest; in the contrary, the assertion of its private and exclusive character is the motor of its growth and promotion. Somewhat paradoxically, exclusivity is driven by the simultaneous desire to be in the center of the city, and yet detached from it; privacy doesn’t result from isolation, but instead from overlooking the other. The studio will engage in a series of polemic explorations of how to make Vienna’s invisible city accessible to all, imagining new types of public space, artificial vertical landscapes as shared resource giving ordinary citizens the right to Vienna’s second city: urban commons punctuating Vienna’s skyline.

Thus we will explore a form of urbanism that goes beyond neoliberal individualism and seeks shared needs and desires without reverting to nostalgic ideas of collectivism. How can we design spaces that incite appropriation and self-organization, yet at the same time don’t refute architecture’s iconic power? How can we conceive stimulating spaces, which also have the capacity to resist instant commodification by a society of spectacle?

We will explore the possibility of an architecture that is programmatically undetermined, yet highly specific—spatial environments gaining specificity through structure, infrastructure, atmosphere and sporadic programmatic seeds. These spaces are incomplete without events; they can’t just be consumed; they only gain their full potential through appropriation. Yet the vagueness and porosity of these spaces, similar to a virgin landscape, involves an act of settlement as well as a constant negotiation between its users. Thus we will explore a type of spaces that challenges top-down design and bottom-up tactics as incompatible paradigms, and open the discussion for negotiating between two. Both are essential for the vitality and resilience of any urban milieu. But the moment when the formal and informal begin to intersect also harbors the greatest potential for conflict. Here in the agonistic city lies the promise of reviving architecture’s political bearing. 

Project Seminar - Held in conjuction with studio a project seminar will situate the design work in a broader theoretical context addressing issues of urbanization, social justice and urban political economy. It will provide a series of hands-on skill workshops, as well as a platform to reflect on design methodologies. The seminar will include guest lectures by theorist Robert Temel on the regulations and politics of Vienna’s rooftop extensions: engineer Peter Bauer on structures of rooftops in Viennese Gründerzeit houses, sociologist Mara Verlic on Viennese real estate and gentrification processes, architect Nasrine Seraji on Paris’ roofscape.

Complementary workshops on Rhino and Grasshoper were held by Werner Skvara and on digital fabrication (cnc-milling, laser cutting) by Günterh Dreger.