How Vienna turned a landfill with a dark history into one of its biggest public parks
It’s 2019 and everybody loves plants. But before Instagram inspired a thousand apartment jungles, before we gave our snake plants the appreciation they deserve for oxygenating our bedrooms and promoting restful sleep, the city of Vienna had already recognised the link between green spaces and wellbeing. ‘Soziales Grün’ or the Social Green Space has been a buzzword here for decades.
In the early 1960s, mostly recovered from the war, Vienna undertook what was at that point its most ambitious social greening project. When the plan was first proposed, the mayor, Franz Jonas, had two goals in mind. Firstly, to send a message internationally that Austria was open for business. Secondly, to invest in the wellbeing of Vienna’s residents for future generations under the maxim ‘green space for urban people’.
And how did they plan to achieve this?
By hosting the biggest International Garden Show that Europe had ever seen.
This idea was not as mad as it might sound. Throughout the 50s, Germany had hosted numerous garden shows in cities in various states of recovery from the war. They generated visitors and income for a city, gave at least the impression of economic prosperity, and built bridges between regions, even countries, through friendly competition. After the shows were over and the turnstiles were taken down, the parks often remained free for the city’s residents to enjoy.
Franz Jonas wanted in on the action but, when a competition to find a garden designer to put the show together yielded neither a suitable candidate nor a location for the show, he turned to one of his own, the director of the Vienna Parks and Gardens Department, Prof. Ing. Alfred Auer.
Auer quickly put aside the idea of using one of Vienna’s existing parks, such as the Prater or the Lainzer Tiergarten for the show. The reasons for this choice aren’t particularly clear — perhaps the Prater, though accessible, lacked the necessary infrastructure. Perhaps the slope on the Lainzer Tiergarten was deemed too steep. Maybe there was simply too much imperial history in both of these parks and they wanted to make a strong statement by giving the city something new. Either way, an unexpected location was chosen: a vast swathe of landfill on the east bank of the river Danube.
It had always been clear that Vienna would have to expand into to the land on the east bank but, for hundreds of years, there had been problems just with building there, let alone making it an attractive place to live.
Until the 1870s, when the first of the city’s flood defences were built, the east bank regularly found itself underwater. The landfill was created around the same time, first taking waste from the nearby gasworks, then from private contractors and then from the city officially.
The city did build houses there in the 1920s and 30s (notably the Göthehof complex of 650 apartments, a kindergarten and a library around a massive shared courtyard) but the fact remained that these houses were 5km from the city centre. If the Viennese still make jokes today about taking their passports when they visit friends on the east bank, how much more must that have been the case before the city’s underground was built?
And even as communities were constructed, even as they were provided with schools and swimming pools and medical facilities, the landfill was still sprawling out to meet them.
The situation only worsened in the 1940s. The Nazis used the land at the edge of the landfill as an execution ground, murdering 129 people there. A memorial service is still held for the victims every year on the day after Austria’s national holiday. After the war, the illegal ‘wild settlement’ of Bretteldorf grew on the edge of the landfill, with many of the 1000 residents making their living by combing the dump for valuables. Every time the landfill expanded, the residents of ‘the slum of Kaisermühlen’ were pushed out. The final ‘settlers’ left in the late 1950s, when the city expanded the landfill for the final time.
When Franz Jonas and Alfred Auer set out to create their park, no one would have envied them their to-do list. The goal was rehabilitation, both of the land on the far side of the river and the international reputation of the city. They had to appeal to potential visitors from outside Vienna, but also to the city’s residents, for whom the park could be an incentive to live and work in a part of the city with an unpleasant history. It was a balancing act which put pressure on every decision that Auer made. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion.
Auer’s ‘Donaupark’ (Danube Park) was 600Km2. The area is largely flat, sloping gently down towards the Alte Donau section of the river. His team built 25km of paths around large meadows. They dug a 30,000m2 lake, the Irissee (Iris Lake), and they built the excavated soil into a hill with a coffee house at the top. The park was natural, rolling and open, very much in keeping with the philosophy of accessible social greening but in striking contrast to the manicured, symmetrical gardens of the palaces on the other side of the city. Auer planned to plant 1.5 million flowers, 2 million perennials, 50000 shrubs and 40000 conifers, and they all had to be established before the garden show, which would need a backdrop for a vast range of exhibitions.
Although the meadows were left empty throughout the garden show, there were attractions all around them. First, there were the flowers — a rose garden, a dahlia garden (it was the 60s, after all), an alpine garden, model allotments and an exhibition from a tree nursery to name just a few. Then there were the exhibits designed to make a visit to the Donaupark a whole day out for the family — a floating performance stage, multiple restaurants, mini-golf, a children’s playground, a cinema, a library, pools to splash in. In the spirit of international cooperation, there were also ten ‘world gardens’ exhibiting plants and artwork from countries as far away as Indonesia.
To tour the exhibits, guests had options. Naturally, they could walk the wide paths and take everything in at a leisurely pace. However, Auer had also built a miniature railway with stations in each corner of the park, and a chairlift offered guests yet another perspective as it carried them on a triangular route above the flowerbeds.
At the very centre of the park, the city had also built the Donauturm (Danube Tower), a massive concrete pillar with a rotating restaurant at the top, offering a bird’s eye view of the garden show and unparalleled views of the city beyond. At 252m, it is still the tallest structure in Austria. The views must have been even more spectacular in the decades before we took flying into the airport over the city for granted. The tower was not uncontroversial when it was opened, but it did have the effect of bringing a diverse crowd of visitors, not just plant enthusiasts, to the park.
The garden show opened on the 16th of April 1964 and was an immediate success, drawing 25000 visitors on the first day. It sold tickets until the 11th of October, during which time 2.1 million people visited. Thereafter, the turnstiles were removed and the park stayed open for free. To this day, you only need to pay if you want to ride on Auer’s miniature railway.
Not only was the garden show popular, not only did it generate money for the city, international interest, and general good feelings, it also became a symbol of economic recovery. By 1964, Vienna was enjoying a boom after the war. There had been growth in the 1950s and it had trickled down to many of the city’s workers. Archive footage of the event shows many families driving to the park in their first cars, or people taking pictures of their children among the flowers with their first cameras. On top of this, the 45-hour working week had just been introduced in Austria, giving people more leisure time to enjoy the outdoors without leaving the city.
Today, people still use the park as an escape, but the chaos of the garden show is long gone. Spectacle is confined to occasional outdoor performances on small stages in the summer, or family birthday parties with balloons strung up between the trees.
The Donauturm is still there (today you can even bungee jump from it) but, unfortunately, most of the other structures from the garden show have been removed. The last of the exhibition halls went in the 90s, with the completion of the office and living complex of Donau City on the edge of the park. The chairlift and the coffee house were taken down in the 80s, though there is still a mosaic where the coffee house was. The international gardens are also gone, though the free tennis courts in the park correspond almost exactly to where they once were. Vienna’s kids might have been especially curious to visit the Astronaut Garden, also lost, where the designers of the 1960s speculated on what crops we might be able to take to, even grow, on the moon.
Perhaps most sadly, we’ve lost some of the exhibitions which, while they were curiosities in the 60s, seem increasingly relevant today. The show included what was essentially a farm to table restaurant, serving produce from the gardens and inspiring people to grow their own. Perhaps the biggest loss is the 41m ‘vertical greenhouse’ designed by Othmar Ruthner. The greenhouse explored the concept of vertical farming with an eye to making efficient use of land in areas at risk of famine. If the greenhouse still existed, perhaps even if it had been better documented while it was still standing, projects such as this could have played a role as we confront the 21st century’s most pressing issues.
Though it no longer sees 10000 daily visitors, Vienna still holds the Donaupark close to its heart. We wonder how much more excited the city’s children would be if they could have a ride on the chairlift after they were finished on the train, and we’re sad that we’ll never see a brass band playing on the Irissee, but the simple open space is attractive too. In fact, the city uses the park now just as Franz Jonas and Alfred Auer intended, as a social green space, an escape from the madness of life in a major European capital, an extension of our living rooms. It’s fun to sit in the middle of a meadow and imagine the park when it was newly opened. It’s a little uncanny to think of all the history that’s buried underneath you. But, for most of us, it’s just nice to have a place to go that’s quiet, open, and that’s been given back to us.