Vienna's New Look

Austria: The capital city that owes so much to the past enters the 21st century with a fresh approach to culture and the arts.

November 18, 2001|By Jane Wooldridge | By Jane Wooldridge,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

At first glance, Vienna is still exactly what you'd expect. Baroque palaces and dancing Lipizzaner stallions. Sugary apple strudel and chocolatey Sacher tortes. Cobbled plazas filled with the strains of Mozart and Beethoven, Strauss and Brahms.

But peer beyond the graceful 16th-century facade of the former Hapsburg riding stables at the newly opened Museums-Quartier, and you get a glimpse of something livelier, smarter and hipper in the Austrian capital.

Roll over, Beethoven. Vienna, paean to all things proper and past, has gone giddy with a 21st-century blast of what's new.

"This was a sleepy, backward, dull city, but in the last few years it's just exploded," says Hebe Jeffrey, a tour guide who has lived here for nearly two decades. "It's really looking forward."

You can see it in a quaint corner of centuries-old cobblestone lanes with a night scene so lively that it earned the name Bermuda Triangle -- because, explains Eva Draxler of the city's tourist office, "people get lost there and show up the next morning."

In the Naschmarkt, Vienna's traditional meat and vegetables market, new cafes are drawing even the most famous Viennese for snacks of wine, olives, cheeses and scuttlebutt.

At the Raimund Theater, an updated production of Hair -- staged in the English / German amalgam colloquially called "Denglish" -- has proved so popular that it's been held over for an additional year.

And the change is most especially noticed at the MuseumsQuartier Vienna, the vast complex of museums and artists' working spaces that has become Vienna's symbol of past-meets-future.

Here, within a circle of historic buildings, stand two starkly modern boxes: new quarters of the Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna, sculpted in dark gray basalt, and the Leopold Museum, a cube of white limestone that is home to a collection focused on Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele.

In total, the $180 million MuseumsQuartier contains more than 200,000 square feet, ranking it as one of the world's top 10 cultural centers, according to MuseumsQuartier officials.

Facilities include Kunsthalle Wien, with spaces for theater, dance and opera presentations in a former royal riding school; shops, restaurants and cafes; an architecture center for temporary exhibitions; an information center dedicated to the arts; ZOOM children's museum; and a children's theater slated for start-up next September.

Twenty organizations -- including the interdisciplinary Festival Vienna -- will call the center home. In addition, the MuseumsQuartier includes an artist-in-residence program.

In the middle of Europe

The MuseumsQuartier has been 25 years in the making. The project marks what is common in the United States but rare in Austria: partnership between private companies and federal and local governments.

"Austria has changed," says MuseumsQuartier Director Wolfgang Waldner. "Now we have a fantastic contemporary arts center" -- just steps from the city center and across the street from Vienna's palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum, which houses a fine collection of period artworks.

Spurring this transformation, perhaps, is Vienna's geopolitical shift, says Draxler.

In the Cold War years, she explains, "we were on the fringes of Europe. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, we're in the center."

Invigorated by its new importance, this city of 1.8 million has sprouted new museums such as the innovative Haus der Musik, which features interactive sound exhibits and a chance to virtually "conduct" the Vienna Philharmonic in a multistory building open each night until 10 p.m.

On a recent visit, one of the hottest exhibitions in town -- at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, called MAK -- showcased photographs, paintings and sculptures by film star Dennis Hopper.

The Danube Island area now boasts 25 miles of inline skating and biking trails; each June 20, outdoor stages are erected for a three-day music festival that draws 3 million visitors between the ages of 18 and 25.

Vienna's Red Light district, the Arches, has become a haven for the electronic music scene. Tickets to the annual AIDS Life Ball fund-raiser sell out months in advance. More than 110,000 attended June's Long Night of Museums, where a $10 ticket buys entry to 50 top museums from 6 p.m. to 1 p.m. The 2-year-old museum night has proved so popular that this month, the city staged its first Long Night of Music, with performances from rock to classical at concert halls, cafes, bars and club.

That's not to say the traditional side of Austria suffers.

The Theater an der Wien celebrated 200 years of operation recently with a new Music Mile Walk of Stars, embedding 70 black-and-white permanent stars marking the contributions of classical music's hall-of-famers on the mile leading from the theater to St. Stephen's Cathedral in the city center.

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