Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

April 17, 2005 Vienna again.

The next day I headed east, across the Ringstrasse, past the train station, and into a quiet residential neighborhood. The contrast with the Innere Stadt was striking. The old city, inside the Ringstrasse, is quaint, crooked, and charming. Streets mix with cobbled alleys, pedestrian walkways, and staircases. laborate baroque churches face onto bustling plazas; coffee houses, ice cream parlors, and outdoor restaurants vie for attention with bookstores that made

me wish I read German, stationery shops selling beautiful sheets of wrapping paper in every color, and windows cluttered with antiques.

Outside the Ringstrasse, the city was quiet. Silent buildings lined the streets, their muted facades textured like adobe in the dim gray light. It was like walking out of an impressionist painting, sparkling with sunlight and color, into a soft pencil still life in pale shades of gray. The streets were empty, the shop signs blended in instead of calling out to passers by who weren’t there. One street was like the next, pastel structures blending into gray sky.

My destination was an apartment house and a museum designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a painter and later an architect who grew up in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century. His buildings seemed to have something in common with Gaudi’s work in Barcelona; no straight edges or corners, ripples and hillocks in the floors, an attempt to create something that feels organic instead of mechanical. The apartment house wasn’t open to the public, but I went into the museum lobby and climbed its staircase, to get a sense of what the space felt like. Nice, comfortable, much more tactile than more conventional space would be. Apparently the apartments are in great

demand, and it’s very hard to get one. I wonder if that’s because of the design itself, or because the design creates a sense of community that makes the building a congenial place to live. I wouldn’t enjoy living in that design – the colored tiles and curved edges define the character of the space too strongly, it would be hard to adapt the space to one’s own aesthetic. But the sense that each space is unique, the plantings integrated in to the design, the outdoor space associated with each apartment – these would make it a good place to be. A bit like living in Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, where no two units are alike, and each has an outdoor aerie built into the complex design.

From the Hundertwasser houses I headed across the Danube Canal to the Prater, an amusement park graced with a splendid ferris wheel. I love ferris wheels, but it was a cold, windy day, and I wasn’t about to ride on it. The park was deserted, the snack bars had no customers, the rides were stationary and silent. The wheel itself was stunning, though, silhouetted against the gray sky. I went into a restaurant for a lunch of bratwurst and beer, sitting at a wooden table in the empty room. The blonde woman behind the counter was friendly, seemingly amused to have a tourist there on such a grim day. Her building looked solid and venerable, a big square room with a loft like the upper level of a barn, constructed around a massive stone chimney and fireplace. It seemed older than its current use; perhaps when it was built, the fireplace was actually used for cooking, instead of roasting sausages on a modern grill. The Prater has been an amusement park for centuries; perhaps this place was a restaurant for just as long.

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