Above Level Zero // 
On the Danube Plate 

Patricia Grzonka

From Brigitte’s balcony on the 8th floor, you can see across the Danube toward downtown Vienna. The sky stretches infinitely far above it. On this pale February afternoon, the sun shines in mildly through the balcony window. The sparrows come to visit: They nibble from the wintering flowerpots – a small paradise. You feel aloof and slightly like you are at a summit station. “The cuddly white sofa with the light-coloured, curly-haired and fuzzy fur cover has been here for only two days”, my hostess explains. The white sofa suggests a snowy surface on the mountain, and the view is also right: From a distance, you can make out St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the church at Mexikoplatz, the Great Wheel, the AKH and Hundertwasser’s district heating tower. But there are also a lot of construction cranes lining the other bank. “You’ll be left with the river, the island, and the sky, once they’ve blocked out the skyline with the building over in the Second District.” 


Brigitte is one of the nearly 200,000 residents of the district called Donaustadt.  Strictly speaking, she lives in the quarter called Kaisermühlen and even more precisely in Donau City, the quarter that has emerged since 1996. The fact that there is still a lot of building going on here is due to the continuous growth in population since the 1990s, which will soon make Vienna as big as it was in the early 20th century, when the city was home to its highest number of citizens. In terms of urban planning, Danube City is an absurd construct, an unplanned, rather coincidental conglomerate of highly diverse buildings – new buildings – which were built partly on a former landfill site and partly on top of a covered highway. The casual name “Danube Plate” refers to the roof over the A22 motorway on the Danube embankment. 


A walk in the “Donau City Residential Park” is always just a snapshot. Everything changes: Dominique Perrault’s second tower – DC2 – Home and Office – was originally planned as a counterpart to the waved façade of Tower No. 1; after a long construction stop and an adaption of the plans, it is now being built primarily as a residential tower. The new student dormitory by the architectural firm Dietrich/Untertrifaller, which is located halfway along the U1 subway line, has 832 apartments and an inner courtyard whose illuminated garlands, already positioned in February, charmingly mask the slightly claustrophobic courtyard situation. The development of this part of Vienna is the result of a political decision. After plans for a joint EXPO between Vienna and Budapest for 1995 fell through, the development plans were realigned. The fact that the city has never really taken care of the area noticeable when you look for the typical qualities of a neighbourhood: Where is the central square? How can I find my way around? Where would I like to meet with other people? What public facilities can I find here? 


There were attempts to bundle the projects, Brigitte says. A university was once considered, but the fact that the business university was then built next to the Prater – and, incidentally, steals valuable green space from it – is also an expression of political will. A museum wanted to build a branch here, but this idea literally got stuck in the sand of the Danube banks. A plus was the Copa Cagrana: those informal stalls, snack bars and pubs that settled on the side facing the “relief channel”. A few years ago, they were demolished by order of the city, today this area is called CopaBeach. This was also a consequence of political will. The struggle between private initiative, individual freedom and bureaucratic regulations rarely turns out in favour of popular fun. That is, unless it brings commerce. Brigitte’s favourite objects on the plate are the ramps. Ramps and stairs connect all possible levels, the car-free level zero with the underground levels two and three, and all of these with the “diagonal” – the central axis of the urban master plan, which originated from the EXPO project. The level plan came later, in the 1990s, from the architects Krischanitz and Neumann. The ramps are all that is left from this plan; they are high, low, crooked, wide, narrow, sometimes absurd. They symbolise the lack of coordination and the minimalist design will, with the help of which the urban planning deficits are ironed out again. 


When Brigitte moved to “Donau City Residential Park”, that was in 1999, she was among the first residents of the Delugan-Meissl-Beam building, a massive block (the architects are the namesake here) built parallel to the Danube. In fact, she was often one of the first: “Because back then, no one went swimming in the Danube, and now the shore here and on Danube Island opposite are the purest recreational paradise.” And: “Nobody rode a bike there yet, either. Today, a lot of things take place underground: Not only do people with motor vehicles reach their garages via the Danube embankment motorway, but also pedestrians escape to level -3 when the wind is strong – even though this is forbidden.”


Brigitte used to work at the Architekturzentrum Wien. During my visit to the current collection exhibition there, my gaze falls on the short film and silver model of a historic building project: shimmering y-shaped structures that interlock. A model of the UNO City from 1970, which comes from the estate of the architect Johann Staber, who died a few years ago practically forgotten and impoverished in Vienna. According to a Kurier report from April 2020, the door to his office had to be forced open, and the piles of documentary material and the model of the UN City attracted the attention of the intruding workers. Staber came from Graz, where he had studied at the Technical University, and initially worked in Oswald Haerdtl‘s office in Vienna. His participation in the architecture competition for Vienna’s largest construction project since the construction of the Ringstrasse, with a total of 656 entries, ended in a surprise coup. International offices won the international architectural competition: the team of Argentinian-American architect César Pelli, the British architects BDP and the German architects Fritz Novotny/Fritz Mähner. All of these designs, however, were said to have serious disadvantages, and Staber’s design – that of a nobody, but an Austrian – was convincing, thanks to the uniform illumination of the offices which was ensured throughout, the moderate building height and the striking y-shape of the structures, which developed significance like the logo of a brand. Legend has it that this original design idea came to Johann Staber while looking at the connecting part of a vinyl single, that clip-out black centrepiece of the small record that has long since become history. The Spiegel smugly and angrily wrote: “An unknown Austrian was finally awarded the contract against the entire international architectural elite,” which was understandably annoyed. UNO City was opened on 23 August 1979. It was thus the first structure to be completed in this area above the Danube. 


Today, the apartments being built here are called Donauflats, and the roofing elements in front of the entrance to the Perrault building are called the ‘parapluies’, with reference to their umbrella-like appearance. They had to be erected to break the wind that often mercilessly blows here. Everything is changing, the diagonal, that sloping axis from the first master plan, is still there, but it is strikingly capped and cut off from the newly emerging education campus towards the Danube. What is being created here? A school with obscure intentions. The large-scale construction boards with pretty renderings lack any profound information. “You know, I did some research,” my companion explains, “the name of the school is ‘Stella’, it’s an Opus Dei project.” What? Opus Dei, that arch-Catholic association that was founded under Franco’s fascism in Spain and continues to spread throughout the world. The city of Vienna has completely washed its hands of the planning and is no longer paying any attention to what is going on. Near Vienna International Centre – UNO City – this is a very attractive location. 


“It annoys me that such a fabulous place is being treated so carelessly in terms of urban planning. If you compare it to other cities, it’s actually quite shocking. The ambitious planning approaches that once existed have been watered down increasingly, and now building here just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”

In the meantime, we have returned to Ströck, the café/bakery where we met. It is the soul of this part of town. Brigitte’s words ring in my ears: “I moved here because it appealed to me to move to a place that has no history, to an apartment where no one has ever lived before, to a place where nothing has ever stood.” 

Patricia Grzonka
(Art and architecture historian and critic)

English translation by Jennifer Blaak