The Austrian National Library closes at 9:00pm. The last time I stay until closing, I walk out, as I did many times before, into the orange shades of the setting sun, and the dark blues of the coming night. From the top step of the library, I can see the monumental projects of the late 19th century: the Baroque face of the Naturhistorische Museum watches over its twin, the Kunsthistorische Museum, while further on, a winged woman drives a horse drawn chariot atop the gilded columns of the Austrian Parliament.
Gothic masonry rises and falls like a cardiac line, forming the Rathaus—a dramatic contrast to the white, rusticated opulence of the Burg Theater just across the street. And, of course, there is the library itself: a curving bracelet of columns that wraps around the vast expanse of Heldenplatz. It was here that Austrian soldiers danced to Strauss’s “Radetsky March” under the paternal gaze of Franz Josef, and, after the war, that throngs gathered to hear Adolf Hitler speak.
On March 15, 1938, he stood before thousands on the balcony just above where I stand, and announced the annexation of Austria. “I would not have cheered him on” is the thing one who knows the history may say (given the circumstance that one had the option to cheer). But standing in the vastness of these grounds, watching the balcony sail out over strong columns, it is not hard to fathom how so many anxious bodies, amidst economic struggle, an abruptly cut empire and divisive internal dissension could have been captivated by the image of a single man speaking over them. “I would not have cheered him on” we should still maintain, but we should also ac- knowledge the context including the influence of the space. In its largeness and centrality, and, most of all, in the splendor and the ornament that construct the facade, one finds a surface conducive to grand discussions about empire, war and education.
Though the ornament of Vienna is most triumphant along the Ringstrasse, it continues in strong beats into the center and radiates out into the surrounding districts. Vienna is a very ornamental city, covered in the balustrades, cartouches, pilasters and relief work that architects a few decades ago considered anathema to modern practice. These buildings are mainly ornamental facades—it is the decoration of their faces that matter.
Though it has not always been the case, the word “facade” carries overtones of pretense, artificiality and insincerity. We want to take off the mask, strip away the ornament and get to what is “real”. This unveiling impulse, or desire to see “behind” things, has a long history. Greek mythology gave us Pandora who opened the jar primarily containing all the world ills and it also gives us Prometheus who showed man how to burn the shroud of night with stolen fire. These unveiling actions had mixed results, and though the consequences are all mythical, daily living often gives us personal examples. Finding out that a friend has talked behind our backs, or (less tragically) that we had a surprise birthday party awaiting us with are moments where we confront the idea that knowing everything may not be wholly beneficial or wanted.
There is also a long history to the desire, even need, to cover up. Who would not want the magic ring of Gyges, which turned its wearer invisible, or would not savor Odysseus’ sly transformation into “No Man”? These acts, too, were no less fraught with draw-backs than filled with gains. The general, not so gratifying, lesson from these ancient stories seems to suggest that we must constantly shuffle between putting on and taking off. Vienna does the “put- ting on” well, but I wonder if in other cities and other spaces this is only seen as willful duplicity.
If the built space of the city can be taken as somehow characteristic of the subjective space of the minds of the people who live there, what does the subjective space feel like when the built space is mostly concrete, glass, brick and steel? While these modern materials can certainly be used to create something attractive, and something of worth, they do have very different aesthetic qualities than stucco, stone and plaster. The first set of mate- rials may connote the efficiency and frankness of industry. The second remind me of the plasticity and embellishment of theater.
Theater, so popular in Vienna—with the oldest still running today dating from 1778— seems like an apt metaphor for the city; the buildings and people are ac- tors behind facades and man- ners. On restored palaces, long disinherited aristocratic names find a new court as tourists snap the letters spelling “Palais this” and “Palais that” emblazoned in the plaster above doors, as if they were current celebrities. Walking the Ringstrasse, I cannot help but think that the experience was staged; it is a play where each quick act represents another scene from history.
After a while, the grandiose, six-story “renter-palaces”—as the apartment buildings are called— can seem as though they are hiding something. If corrup- tion, or at least disproportion in power, does not manifest itself in tall, opaque towers and broken neighborhood windows, then be- hind which crisp facades are they hiding? But when we ask this question, we betray a lack of nu- ance. Opaque towers and broken windows are as much aesthetic matters as a Viennese facade; what they signify of the truth of matters is no less straightfor- ward. Chisel the stucco away, get under the skin of a Viennese building and you have a face of brick and mortar, but it is a face all the same.
It is the virtue of the post-mod- ernist to show us that the “frank- ness” and “brutal honesty” of the modernist was as much a persua- sive rhetoric as the “delicacy” and eclecticism of the historicist be- forehand. Man only removes one face to replace it with another. And why would we expect oth- erwise? We use the face to com- municate with the world, to help others understand us the way we want to be understood. But, at the same time, any time that we see a face we also project things onto it—memories, associations, anything that will help us interpret what we see. The problem is not so much that we interpret faces, but rather that we let our interpretations become value judgments, which set a matter naturally fluid and complex into a hardening concrete in which it becomes a static target with an all too unyielding meaning.
The many architectural “faces” I saw in Vienna once ex-pressed the liberal values of the late 19th century bourgeois, confident that they were the masters of history as expressed by their extensive sampling of past styles. Later, these same faces were used to celebrate the cultural renown of a city stripped of political power under Nazi propaganda. If one finds photos of the city after 1945 you will find many of these faces leveled or left smoldering. Here they evoke a certain melancholy, yet at the same time also a smug satisfaction. Beautiful, in a ruined way. Today, shining anew, they are signs of Vienna’s comeback— a testament to the reinvention of a city that went from capital of an empire to capitol of a landlocked country. The physical face remains largely the same, but what is expressed shifts through time. The shifts are not total, and so past states are allowed to mix and compete with present. Is it a museum, a propaganda showpiece or an anachronism we may ask of a single building in Vienna or the city as a whole? But perhaps we should delay this question which tries to get “at the heart of a matter”, and instead meditate on the surface.
If we stay here, on the face, we may have to accept fewer conclusive arguments and discussion, but in return we can learn to inhabit an ambiguous space not so focused on uncovering any one “real” reality, but able to constantly negotiate the varieties of rhetoric we make about ourselves and that others project onto us.
Back on the steps at National library, I take one more look at all the “faces” of Vienna. Given some personification, I wonder, what would these built faces think of my own? The general structure is like that of any person: pairs of ears and eyes, a nose, etc. Details begin to differentiate me: black skin, brown eyes, black hair, but only to a certain extent. My glasses and perhaps how I groom my hair are the only ornamental features. Taken all together this is the face they would see. Would they judge it right away, as friendly or foe, trying to hast- ily move past appearance to an unambiguous essence—which I have failed to locate. Or maybe they would be hesitant, observe my face for a while and try to see what I am working and re-working to express through it? Who knows? Regardless I will still have one.