Grand Drama on the Donau City
Donau City as a stage for speculative
investors in urban building
In its “second city centre”, Vienna stages itself as a modern metropolis. The focus is on an urbanistic impromptu play, with banks and real-estate funds in the leading roles. Architecture is being used as a convenient extra, and critics are asking themselves: Can this ever become a city?
There was a great sigh of relief when, in the summer of 2017, Bank Austria was finally able to announce the sale of its most important real-estate project in 250-meter-high DC Towers in Vienna’s DonauCity, which – completed in 2013 – initially stood half-empty and then was slow to find tenants. It would have been extremely embarrassing if the latest “landmark” of the Danube metropolis, which the then mayor Michael Häupl classified as a “showcase project” and a “milestone of modern Vienna”, had gone down in architectural history and in real-estate chronicles not only as the tallest building but also as Austria’s biggest shelf warmer. The investor always claimed that the utilisation was to his satisfaction. But the dark, mirrored glass façade designed by Parisian star architect Dominique Perrault prevented any apparent verification of the extent to which the media reports of success, which interestingly were often accompanied by large-format advertisements for the tower, were actually accompanied by new users of the 44,00 square metres of office space.
In any case, a real estate project is no longer considered successfully completed when the construction is finished or fully leased, but rather when the project is sold on the international investor market. In the best-case scenario, this can be achieved during the development phase, sometimes during the construction – or, as in the case of the Perrault tower, only after four years. This time, the buyer is the real estate subsidiary of the German banking group Deka, but Dutch, British and U.S. investors – and recently even interested Asian parties are within the target group of the Viennese large-scale project developers. These companies have long since stopped building for local demand for prestigious headquarters and modern workplaces, profitable retail space or luxury apartments. Their focus is on the need for large foreign funds, mainly private pension funds, to invest their money for the long term and as safely as possible. In this respect, Vienna’s large-volume office complexes and shopping centres from the last two decades are, strictly speaking, not products for the real estate market, but rather for the global financial market.
Austria’s federal capital offers attractive conditions for this, which have become rare in other metropolises: Investors are not constrained by urban planning regulations, nor are they obligated to pay overly high value-added levies when being granted permission for exceptional heights and cubic volumes. Even the implementation of urban development contracts, which have now been possible for several years and which can include private counterpart contributions for the public infrastructure and transport development of major projects, is left to the discretion of politicians alone. Nowhere is this subservience to the real- estate industry more obvious and consistent than in Donau City, the district that City Hall proclaimed in the early 1990s to be the model for a new, high-rise urban development – and nothing less than Vienna’s second centre. The prerequisites were ideal for realising a model city district on the site originally intended for an EXPO: The 18-hectare site was located directly on the riverbanks after the Danube embankment motorway had been covered and offered a direct underground motorway connection as well as a station on subway line 1 – and was owned by the City of Vienna.
However, local politicians voluntarily gave up the opportunity for a concerted project development and in 1995 transferred the property, which had been made ready for construction with a great deal of public funds, for a pittance to WED, the Vienna Development Company for the Danube Region, whose sole owner is now Bank Austria, which traditionally keeps close ties with city hall. Thus, the fulfilment of the noble goals for a car-free, mixed-use, urban and at the same time green ensemble with a connection to the water was dependent on the good will of private actors. Ostensibly, the first zoning and development plan left the location, shape and height of the large-scale structures largely open in order – according to the planning authority – “not to limit the creativity of architects too much in this experimental district”. Today, however, since DonauCity has been completed with the exception of a few remaining areas, it is evident that this vacuum of urban planning specifications primarily inspired the creativity of the property developers to “optimize” their buildings while ignoring the surroundings as well as the goals for the entire neighbourhood. This urbanist egocentricity is reflected first and foremost in the public space between the buildings that seal themselves off from the outside: It serves only the routes to and from the subway; outside the rush hour, the supposed city seems to be deserted.
Neither side ever took the only quality criterion contractually agreed upon between City Hall and WED seriously: In order to ensure appropriate functional diversity in the new centre, it had been agreed that 34 percent of the construction volume should be allocated to offices and shops, 30 percent to apartments, 24 percent to education and science, eight percent to culture and leisure and four percent to hotels. However, so far, apart from apartments for approximately 4,000 people including a kindergarten, school, and minimal infrastructure for local supply of goods as well as offices for approximately 5,000 employees, nothing that would elevate Danube City above any other urban expansion area has been created. In fact, not even the mixing of working and living was seriously addressed: While the more expensive construction sites near the subway were intended for office towers, the residential complexes were concentrated in the less accessible part of the area. Only the most recent development, which reacted, albeit very late, to the Vienna-wide oversupply of office space, resulted in many office projects near the subway becoming residential projects.
However, it is likely that many an apartment would not be usable without public funding, especially since the high density and the poorly thought-out urban development mean that not even close to all of the people who live here directly on the Danube actually see the river. The office towers also show astonishing vacancy rates, despite their prime locations and prominent architecture: Hans Hollein’s 95-metre Saturn Tower, for example, has been a regular guest in the real-estate ads of local newspapers since it opened in 2004, with thousands of square metres of vacant space.
Due to the peculiar rationality of the real-estate market, the reaction to such failures is often to build even more of the same – only even higher and bigger. This also characterises the history of Donau City. After the first decade of development, as a prelude to the second phase, WED entrusted the architect Dominique Perrault with the design of the two twin towers, 160 and 200 metres high, although the development plan in force at the time provided for a maximum height of up to 120 metres. In order to resolve this contradiction, Perrault was also commissioned to design a master plan for the Donau City, which would, on the one hand, retroactively justify the previous uncontrolled growth and, on the other hand, argue for the planned leap in dimensions. As was to be expected, the City of Vienna accepted the private general developer’s wish list and implemented it in the form of an urban development model with a new zoning and development plan adopted in 2007.
Reading the mission statement suggests that Perrault was hired less for his urban planning expertise than for his prominence – to be able to use his name in order to more successfully market the properties that were still planned. In any case, the explanatory texts of the Parisian architect seem more lyrical than technically meaningful: “This strong and yet open silhouette becomes a kinetic landmark” – Perrault describes, for example, the complete arbitrariness of the height development of the building and goes on to explain: “The horizontal expansion to the river enables the vertical expansion of Donau City. Gradually, a new silhouette will emerge in the global vision of the city of Vienna.”
The fact that the realisation of his two towers stalled for several years despite an immense PR effort by WED as well as City Hall, was due less to the onset of the financial crisis than to the already chronic oversaturation of the Vienna office market and the correspondingly low rents. In such cases, however, the Danube metropolis knows a remedy: If the expected return per square metre falls, the projects are simply made higher in order to achieve the same profit again in the end. The lucrative special permit to build the Perrault towers 220 and 175 metres high was justified by a local councillor from the social democratic majority faction with the argument that no one could see the difference in 15 or 20 metres with the naked eye anyway. Every ordinary builder who has ever had to wrestle with the building authorities over deviations within the centimetre range will have their own opinion about this statement.
While DC Tower 1, including the roof structures, eventually reached a height of 250 metres and thus – completely disproportionately – towers above all the other towers in the high-rise area by a factor of one and a half, the realisation of its smaller twin was initially postponed indefinitely due to a lack of demand. In 2016, however, the building site, including the building rights, was successfully sold to a real-estate fund of the German Commerzbank. At the end of 2022, the time had finally come: Nine years after the completion of DC 1, construction work began on DC 2, which from today’s perspective can at best be regarded as a latecomer, and only as a younger stepsibling rather than a twin. On the one hand, because in the meantime – rather spontaneously – another tower called DC 3 has already seen the light of day, although this could not really be read from Perrault’s master plan. And on the other hand, because DC 2 was changed so much by its current architects Dietrich/Untertrifaller that it no longer has anything in common with DC 1. As a precaution, Dominique Perrault had already assured after the completion of his tower that the idea of creating a city gateway with DC 1 and DC 2 would work in terms of urban planning even without the second tower.
Architecturally, the Parisian building artist never wanted to define what exactly the façade of his skyscraper, which is quite banal on three sides and almost expressionistically deformed on one side, is supposed to express. On a tour of the site with journalists, he fantasized about a “glass monolith that stands like a geometric waterfall next to the Danube”, while in a television interview he emphasized how important this water metaphor was to him, announcing that he had been inspired not by the river, but rather by the archaic sculptures on Easter Island.
Unfortunately, in Vienna, a well-known architect and a few fashionable buzzwords are enough to generate bright enthusiasm or at least uncritical acceptance for mediocre to trivial projects, not only in planning policy and administration, but also in most of the media. If Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes were not about supposed weavers, but about master builders – it would have to be set on the Danube. For, under closer inspection, Perrault’s ranting about the open space and urbanity surrounding his office and hotel tower also proves to be insubstantial. Instead of continuing the concept of car-free public space, WED removed a good portion of the area in front of DC 1 from the pedestrian level and lowered it – like a moat – to the level of the underground car park. This means that business partners and customers of the office tenant, as well as hotel guests arriving by car can emerge from the underground street network of Danube City and drive up in the open air in front of Perrault’s prestigious glass tower, instead of accessing it only via the garage, as is common elsewhere on this site.
WED also likes to emphasize that the DC Tower meets the energy and sustainability requirements of the EU Commission for a “green building”. But the question arises as to how far – and above all, how long – a technically highly equipped building like the DC 1 can be environmentally compatible at all. After all, in ten years at the latest, the building technology used today will be obsolete, and retrofitting or renovating the 250-metre-high glass tower will be significantly more expensive than for conventional buildings. It is also doubtful whether the low returns on the Viennese office market will be able to support this economically. Since the tower has been sold, this doesn’t matter much to the builder – but the customers of the pension fund that owns it will notice, at the latest when they retire.
This kind of urban development is also a losing proposition for Vienna – quite apart from the cost of public development, which has made countless speculative projects possible in the first place, and irrespective of the democratic-political damage caused by favouring a few investors over tens of thousands of conventional landowners and developers. This is because urbanisation driven by the real-estate industry is ruining the urban structure that has evolved over time, with its mix of small parts: Politicians sell every office job that is built as a new job. In reality, however, the glass towers are often filled by office tenants who have been enticed to move away from other neighbourhoods with older building stock – which is then left permanently derelict and, given the oversupply of office space, has little chance of redevelopment and reuse. Simultaneously, the new office complexes waste expensive infrastructure and scarce building land that could just as easily be used for urgently needed housing.
Donau City has undeniably become an example of the real-estate market’s inability to self-regulate and its unwillingness to even begin to create something resembling a city. And the DC Tower also lives up to its role as a “landmark” – in the sense of a monument against an unrestrained, even irresponsible planning policy. Seen in this light, it is actually even good that the towers on the Danube can be seen from afar.
(Urban planner, filmmaker, specialist publicist in Vienna
and member of the German Academy for Urban and Regional Planning)
English translation by Jennifer Blaak