La Grande Tristezza 
Or: Failed Hope

Clemens Kirsch

When I think of Danube City, vulgo the “Danube Plate”, my mind associates it with the title of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich (now entitled “The Sea of Ice”). The piled-up sheets of ice can be seen as representing the piled-up building masses which can be found in this area.  

How could it come to this? And what were the spatial and infrastructural parameters of this development? 

Today’s Danube City was the “waste product” of an infrastructure project that had a drastic impact on Vienna: the Danube regulation of 1870-75. In the years following this project, the area was used as a garbage dump until the International Garden Show (WIG 64) in 1964 initiated the creation of a first open space and urban planning focus on this part of Vienna. 

The Donauturm (Danube Tower), erected as the highest building in Austria at that time (252 m) in the course of the garden exhibition, perhaps already cast its shadow, as a solitary phallic symbol, from the periphery to the future shaping of the “Plate”. 

Subsequently, various other infrastructure projects defined the framework of development: In 1973, Vienna International Centre (VIC) was built at the edge of the park as the third headquarters of the United Nations. After the collapse of the Reichsbrücke in 1976, the area was connected to the emerging Vienna subway system (U1) which was part of the new construction of the bridge. In 1987, in addition to the VIC, the politically controversial construction of the Conference Centre (1982 referendum against the construction) was opened.  

The Second Danube Regulation which was carried out from 1972–88 (“New Danube”, Danube Island) marks another formative and spatially limiting parameter of the area.

The joint application of Vienna and Budapest to host EXPO 95, which was submitted after the fall of the Iron Curtain but was overturned by a referendum (May 1991), resulted in further infrastructural measures on this site: The construction and overlaying of the Danube embankment freeway literally created the “tabula rasa” for the further development of the site in its present form.

Over the years, there have been repeated proposals to enhance the area with an attractor of supra-regional importance – be it by establishing a university location (TU, WU, University of Applied Arts) or a museum building (MUMOK).

In the years following the thunderously failed EXPO experiment, further development was placed in the hands of the WED (Wiener Entwicklungsgesellschaft für den Donauraum AG = Vienna Development Company for the Danube Region. Since 2016 sole owner: Bank Austria), in order to develop further concepts according to the urban master plan of 1991/1992 (architects Krischanitz and Neumann), providing plans for how the area, which in the meantime has excellent infrastructure, could be made usable.  

In 2002, for example, a design competition was held for the last vacant site near the Danube, from which the French architect Dominique Perrault emerged as the winner. In 2014 and 2021, the office tower DC1 and the high-rise DC3 with student apartments were completed respectively, the residential towers Danube Flats and DC2 are currently under construction.

In STEP 05 (Urban Development Plan), the Danube embankment was included as a “Waterfront” zone for the first time in the extended long-term planning of the city of Vienna, in an attempt to bring the city closer to the Danube again. Since 2018, the waterfront area adjacent to Danube City has been successively redesigned as “CopaBeach”. 


The Status Today:

Ca. 50% of the area is occupied by the two large complexes, the headquarters of the United Nations and the Vienna International Centre. The central arrival point for users of public transport is the U1 stop Kaisermühlen/VIC. From this location, the central, commercially used area (offices, hotel) is very well accessible by foot, while the zone with apartments located to the northwest of this location is only poorly or not at all accessible using public transportation.

Openings in the form of incised courtyards are placed at various locations on the site, allowing subcutaneous views of the infrastructural underground. Except for the water’s edge in the southwest, the entire Danube City is enclosed by, in some places, highly frequented streets, which have much more of a separating than connecting effect here.

Thus, despite the theoretically good connection to green and open spaces in the southwest (Danube) and in the northwest (Danube Park), visitors coming from outside tend to experience the new district as a hermetically sealed “island”. 

The pedestrian connections in the interior have hardly any greenery or large-scale planting in the form of trees. In addition, the quality of stay suffers primarily from a lack of wind comfort. 

Still in the spirit of the “Athens Charter” (1933), a functional separation of living and working in the sense of mono-functional uses was implemented as far as possible. The mixing of individual areas of life within a building complex or a hybrid typology for a hybrid urban district was not even considered here. 

Likewise, there is no ensemble effect of the individual buildings. In addition, the individual buildings do not have an above-average architectural or urban quality. Rather, walking through the area creates the impression of a hodgepodge collection of speculative objects which stand alone and are used separately. 

However, when it came to branding the individual properties, the real estate developers and brokers weren’t skimpy in terms of creativity: “DC Tower” 1–3, “Andromeda Tower”, “Tech Gate”, “District Living Vienna”, “DC Living”, “DC Waterline”, etc. Perhaps there is also a longing for “internationality” hidden behind the predominantly English-language designations? 



From today’s perspective, the hope of turning Vienna into a bi-, if not even multi-central city by building on the “Plate” which was originally harboured in the course of the EXPO planning, can safely be considered a failure due to the further conceptual and structural development. 

You can’t shake the feeling that the city of Vienna has quietly abandoned its once noble goals and left the field to the apologists of “concrete gold” when it comes to marketing and praising the location. 

What the added value or even “gain” for the city of Vienna is supposed to be - apart from a perhaps photogenic skyline from a distance – is closed to the viewer and user. 

Thus, Danube City also stands as a monument to urban planning that, although it provided the necessary infrastructural measures in the background and underneath at great expense to the general public, has withdrawn itself substantially from its responsibility to formulate the specifications for a lively, sustainable, high-quality development and use that benefits the general public and has left the “utilisation” and forming of this district to financial capital. 

And as always, the final question is: Cui bono (For whose benefit)?

Clemens Kirsch

(Architect and open space planner)

English translation by Jennifer Blaak