From Level Zero 

Georgia Holz in conversation with
Matthias Klos and Hans-Jürgen Poëtz

During our first exploration together, I found Donau City to be an incredibly dreary place, which was certainly also due to the cold, gloomy weather at the time, however the almost dystopian atmosphere also fascinated me immensely, piquing my interest. What prompted you to deal with this particular location in Vienna’s urban framework and to initiate a project in public space? 

Klos: The urban space and its squares acquired a special significance during the pandemic. Due to the extraordinary situation, proximity and distance as well as the modes of moving around in the city took on a new meaning. In order to stay in contact with each other despite “social distancing”, walking became a form of togetherness that satisfied the demands of the pandemic. During one of our “Covid walks”, it occurred to us that we were both independently engaged with Donau City. I was dealing with it visually, while Hans-Jürgen was dealing with it acoustically.

Poëtz: We were both immediately taken by the tension between the fascination and the absurdity of the place. Donau City presents itself as a space that is not arbitrarily interchangeable. Regardless of how one may initially judge this space in its audio-visual manifestation, Donau City offers numerous possibilities for interpretation that simply leave us amazed. To develop a project not only for the location, but also with and out of the location and its history is indispensable for a site-specific confrontation, in order to ultimately create conditions that confront this space again and make it experienceable in a different way. In this context, public space offers everyone the opportunity to explore this space anew – online and on-site. 

What specific observations did you make during your walks? And what phenomena did you come across during your research that shaped your idea of this part of the city? 

Klos: Donau City was planned as a modern centre. The infrastructure for automobility, including roads and parking garages, was relocated to the underground levels -2 and -3. Level zero is car-free and connects the residential and commercial buildings, including the tallest buildings in the city. The quarter will eventually provide housing and jobs for about 15,000 people. The Austria Center Vienna congress centre, which is integrated into the quarter, is directly connected to level zero with its extensive forecourt, which has recently been given a roof.

Poëtz: Level zero, which is of interest to us, is a windy and draughty open space that creates a perceived distance between the building structures. Attempts to make it more attractive through partial greening, invigorating elements and play areas for children have ultimately left the fundamental question of an overarching idea or cohesion of this urban environment unaddressed. One moves into a structural design that gives the impression that people are seen here more as a logistical problem than as a social phenomenon. The presence of Covid vaccination stations and so-called “testing streets” further reinforced this dystopian character.     

Klos: What attracts me is the appearance of Donau City as a place where everything that one associates with Vienna on a touristic level is not present, which makes the quarter a “non-place”, so to speak. At the same time, automobility is always present, even if it is not always directly visible. The district is car-free at the ground level, but the hidden organisation of automobile traffic underground is strangely expressed upwards. The covered streets and parking areas rise like moisture. 


This creates areas and places with peculiar, somehow incongruous dimensions that seem disconnected and undetermined, like leftover zones of distance. Then the unexpected breakthroughs and glimpses into the underground, the change from the sunny promenades to the dark, resounding minus levels. If you use the few usable and permitted exits, you come across signs that point out that the tunnel system is life-threatening for pedestrians and that their entry is strictly forbidden.


Taken together, it is these ruptures and confrontations that lead to the very directed appearance of level zero that interest me on a visual level. How does what has been pushed down reveal and structure the appearance of the pedestrian areas? What structures, schemes, constitutions, densities or states and qualities result from this? I am interested in the resulting unplanned arrangements of the development and how they relate to their surroundings. How does one approach this inharmonious staccato of fragments and solitary wasteland? Somewhere between analysis and speculation, it is a matter of locating the interactions of these conglomerates of fissures, crevices and caesuras, with their compacted residual areas, structural deficits and visual drainages. 


Poëtz: Juxtaposed set pieces, connected by ramps, voids and mirrored surfaces, transform the site into a kind of sound sculpture that arouses my artistic interest. From below, the sound of traffic is reflected through the up to three-story openings to the building masses far above and mix with sounds of construction sites, remodelling, voices and hidden vibrations. Thus giving this place a very individual acoustic footprint. The wind blows through the area again and again, whistling, breaking and washing through it, resulting in different acoustic conditions. When the wind finally does die down at certain times of the day, an extremely eerie calm descends. It is a thrown-together non-place where, due to its location and surroundings (water, park, infrastructure, space), everything that was needed to contrast the aesthetically old Vienna with an aesthetically modern Vienna was there, even with an “international heart”.


I remember well (laughs) when we took a short break on a bench near the Ares Tower during our first site survey together. At that moment, a bicycle messenger drove by with her mounted speaker playing music. The tune rang out, “We’ve stopped in the world’s most boring landscape, we’ve talked, and we’ve found that we like it here…” As we looked at each other and almost simultaneously uttered the title of Tocotronic’s “Let There Be Rock”, we realized that we needed to further explore the connection between the visual appearance of a place and its acoustics as a multidisciplinary project. Where are the hidden qualities of the place? How do these newly-created places function? What are they used for? What happens when you examine a newly created place apart from its function? What structures do they have to fulfil? What potential is recognizable? What is perceptible? How can a modern city as a public space create places to linger in contrast to the speed of society – places of sensual perception and places of discourse? Is this even a concern? What does justice to the particular location? How does one perceive the respective place in the midst of movement and its surroundings? How do we look to the future?  


No matter how one initially answers these questions, they always refer to an essential component of any artistic engagement – the place where something occupies space. Until the 19th century, the public sphere and public space were identical, since significant communication took place in a direct manner, particularly at squares. With the increasing spread of information media clear, which decoupled communication from spatial presence, it became clear that the form of communication affects the shape of public space.


Does that mean you also want to reactivate public space as political space with this project? 

Klos: Of course, we ask ourselves the question of “architecture as a medium of the social” and the political dimension of urban space. Heike Delitz coined this phrase, but it is not meant in the sense of the mediality of architecture in terms of its appearance, for example its material surface, but rather in the sense of architecture as a medium in which an idea of society is manifested. Architecture is not the mirror of social togetherness; it determines and establishes which type of society and which forms of subjects are involved in it. With much irony or sarcasm, one could say that Donau City seems to have been built for a pandemic. It is amazing how well suited the place is for the logistics of many people.


The development of this quarter is characterised by shocking ignorance on the part of the city government – in fact, one can speak of a total urban planning failure. The downright anti-human architecture and the uncontrolled architectural growth becomes obvious when entering the area for the first time. There is no space which invites one to linger; the public areas seem to be designed as transitory spaces that are merely meant to be crossed. The question arises as to who actually “uses” this urban space at all and how. What insights have you gained about the residents and users, who are you addressing with your project? What formats would you suggest? 

Poëtz: In a time that has been severely impacted by a pandemic and is now questioning conventional procedures and forms of art publication, we would like to reverse the usual project approach. Instead of a documentation of past events, we start with an open and expandable research inventory from which we would like to continue working. Our goal is to illuminate this non- or un-place from different perspectives (visual, acoustic, architectural, art-historical, sociological, literary, urban planning and social) and to make the process experienceable on an accompanying website. Our project is intended to be a process-oriented inventory, in which knowledge from and about the residents of the quarter will also gradually be incorporated. The final results will be presented in a relaunch on the project website in November 2023 and will serve as a tool for a multidisciplinary exploration of Vienna’s Donau City until May 2024.  


Klos: Until then, we would like to test Donau City as a place and space of gathering that can be individually expanded. As an ongoing and open compendium or vade mecum that gathers contributions, recordings and individual notations from different perspectives. For this purpose, we invited authors from various fields in advance to cast glances at the area from different perspectives. 


One contribution is Patricia Grzonka’s walk with a resident, where both discuss the development and life in this part of town. From a personal perspective, which begins with a shared coffee on a balcony, one accompanies her on a walk in Donau City. In the process, the structural conditions, the background of the striking architecture and ongoing construction projects are explored, all the way to what is considered “the soul of the quarter”.


In this text, Clemens Kirsch examines Donau City from its historical development to its current architectural appearance as a “failed hope”. Reinhard Seiß expands the view to another context and analyses the influences of the real-estate market on planning and urban planning policy. 


And residents of the district are invited to submit reports, statements, observations and stories about the space, the location or life in Donau City on the website. Daniela Schaudauer has developed a toolkit for an individual spatial analysis that can be used as a guide for a perception walk through Donau City. 


After all of our walk-throughs with others, it can already be stated that the impression is always similar to the one that you, Georgia, formulated in your question. 


Poëtz: If we are looking for places to linger, we think there are two options. Either we go to one of the high-rise buildings and enjoy the view of the surroundings from the top of it. Or we flee from the built-up area. Along UNO City, we are shielded off by a fence suggestive of barbed wire. You also wouldn’t want to stay at the subway station for very long. Perhaps the Wiener Linien will build more stations that deal architecturally with metaphors. Perhaps these new stations will get a chance to create a structure as a constellation of elements that can enter into mutual relationships rather than equating the designation of a metaphor with its destruction. Similar to a hotdog stand in the form of a hotdog that suppresses all other metaphors. Or, as Alfred Dorfer so aptly put it in his cabaret program‚ ‘Fremd’ (Foreign): “If there is a picture of everything and everyone, then the performance has a break.” 


If you decide to take a walk, you reach the waterfront along the Reichsbrücke, which is vibrating from the subway, to finally find a place to linger. If you leave the area to the northwest in the direction of the residential buildings, you can either relax wonderfully in Donaupark or stop briefly at my personal favourite spot on the way there. At the end of Donau City Strasse, on the left-hand side of the street, just before you enter the park, there is a staircase leading to nowhere. Or is it perhaps intended as a stage to look out over this part of the city? At the top of the glass parapet, you can enjoy a wonderful view of Kahlenberg, and if you lower your gaze, it is like literally taking a seat in the middle of traffic where you can simultaneously listen to the poetry of the street noise, in the spirit of John Cage: “Music is not what you hear or what you listen to, but everything that happens.” This is a place that shows our relationship between the absurdity and fascination of Donau City quite well. 


Ultimately, everyone is cordially invited to explore this quarter on their own (offline and online) or to be accompanied by Ralf Wienkötter. In his text contribution as well as during guided tours on site, he explores the question of how such a place can be conveyed. 


Donau City seems to be characterised by exactly that “desolation” and emptiness which the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre already noted and criticised in the 1960s in the “new urban centres”. In Donau City, the gaps which affect the social space are particularly dramatic. There are hardly any opportunities for social interaction – what suggestions for ways to fill these voids and enable encounters do you make with your project? 

Klos: Exactly, our focus is on what Lefebvre criticised more than half a century ago. The question is: Why was it done anyway? We offer an opportunity to explore and engage in the quarter. Both on site and along the multidisciplinary contributions gathered on the website, visitors can engage and explore the quarter. 


Poëtz: We want to create conditions for a new, specific perceptual situation to arise at a particular location and to initiate a process. In doing so, we would like to address the space, its socio-spatial formation, its “desolation” as well as its sensual appearance in order to enable encounters. For Lefebvre, cities are spaces where knowledge, works, techniques and riches are accumulated. They function as centres of social and political life. However, the “rulers of cities” are often interested only in the power and wealth of their position and not in design or purposeful investment.


This horizon already exists and has its own properties, but at the same time it must be discovered and created through experience. Or as the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it: “We need not ask ourselves whether we perceive the world, but rather say: The world is what we perceive.” Starting from level zero, very much in the sense of Umberto Eco, we propose a field of interpretative possibilities that stimulates perceivers to a series of ever-changing interpretations and enable mutual relations.


In the context of this project, what does the term poetics refer to, and what method(s) does it target?

Klos: We were interested in gathering perspectives to take a kaleidoscopic look at the quarter. In a way, this is a first step towards possible new perspectives or approaches. Through this kind of amplification and reduction, as described by the spatial planner André Corboz, a foundation is to be laid for the future poetry of this particular urban space in Vienna.


Poëtz: In dealing with an architectural space, the basic idea of our project is not to add something to the place or to oppose it, but to look at what is there from other angles in order to develop new antennas and sensors for the surroundings. Poetics is, after all, the study of poetry, the word comes from making (poiein), and actually one can also read the urban space as a text, Donau City as condensation. While for Aristotle art imitates nature and not vice versa, we follow an approach Oscar Wilde remarked on in relation to the fog painted in London by the Impressionists: Art first enables people to become aware of their surroundings. The urban space itself becomes the object of investigation and forms new interfaces of observation.          


What potential do you see on the part of art to activate an aesthetic or poetry of public space, even in an un-place like this?

Poëtz: The aspiration of art in public space today should be to counteract the flood of information and images.  This should not only create places to linger in the midst of a hectic life in the public sphere, but also places for sensory perception and exchange. However, the result should not just amount to street furniture, but it should be acceptable to present a perceptual and thought-provoking event to the involuntary gaze of the audience. It is also about failing, accepting contingencies and unpredictability in order to gain new insight in the process. Last but not least, the focus is on sensitising and sharpening the senses. In his conception of aesthetic judgment, Kant already pointed out that aesthetics is not a theory of beauty or art, but a theory of sensory cognition. Perception and reflection are crucial components that operate independently of the concept of beauty. 

Klos: It is essential that space is not simply defined as an interchangeable place in artistic engagement. Here lies great potential for site-specific art in that it activates places, their history, topography, architecture, social spaces, people and sensory dimensions to create new perspectives. Through poetic snapshots and the search for traces in a non - or un-place, hidden aspects can be made visible. The existing is thereby not only passive material, but also a co-author that raises new questions. 

Even so, funded art in public space is always part of an urban development idea of whatever kind. However, it should not compensate for planning and implementation deficits – unless the projects are given the same budgets as those for planning and implementation. Otherwise, in such a context, art tends to become part of greening attempts involved in urban-planning. 


The short history of Donau City is characterised by speculation – speculation with building land, real-estate objects and their returns. Here in particular, it seems productive to contrast the destructive processes of financial capitalism with the speculative space that art is able to open up. What speculations about a different past, present and especially future of this quarter have you made? 

Klos: In a process-oriented inventory, we would first like to explore this speculative space. Our goal is to turn to what exists, to trace it from different perspectives and – as far as the budget allows – to record and document it in detail. The elaborations and results of our artistic exploration will develop over the course of the summer and be presented on in late fall.


Poëtz: If we look into the past, Donau City appears like a three-dimensional modern religious painting. At the bottom is hell, a nightmare flushed to level zero. The higher we look, the more heavenly it becomes, with all the amenities. When we look into the future, we see a doomsday atmosphere in Donau City. It is a peculiar decay that shows aesthetic traces of a former high culture. As a side note, Donau City would be a great location for a zombie movie, both visually and acoustically. If we look at the present, we are inevitably reminded of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros. Donau City presents itself with a dystopian character, where past, present and future seem to take place simultaneously, providing space for multiple apocalyptic speculations. However, we do not want to define these speculations, but to show them and make them possible. It is first of all about creating conditions so that new perceptual situations can arise in a certain place and this speculative space is opened up in the first place. 


The opposite of future is mental standstill. As long as people with different perspectives ask about it, work together on it or argue about what can be and what should be, there is an everyday “tomorrow” as well as distant utopia. From Level Zero, new ways of seeing and listening should open up, show different ways of reading and try out new approaches and ideas. Or, as John Cage so rightly said: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Georgia Holz
(Art historian, curator, author and lecturer
at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, Department of Site-Specific Art)

Matthias Klos

Hans-Jürgen Poëtz
(Media artist, designer and art historian)

English translation by Jennifer Blaak