Seestadt Aspern

In Vienna’s New Seestadt, a Rich and Unexpected History

When we moved to the Seestadt Aspern in November 2020, we couldn’t help but feel ghosted by the real Vienna: Where was the cultural scene we loved, the history we found endlessly fascinating? With this move, we certainly weren’t going to walk in the steps of Brahms, Dvorak, and Richard Strauss every time we headed home from the U-Bahn. Not that Seestadt wasn’t impressive: It is one of Europe’s largest urban development projects, a community unto itself, where we could spend more time outdoors, and help create community. But was this all there was?

Every day, returning home from the city center, I would glance at the road on the other side ofthe U2 Seestadt station, leading away from the project. Where did it lead, I wondered?

So on one crisp April morning, I decided it was time to find out. Crossing under the metro station and further passing the Technology Center Aspern on the right and cultivated fields on the left, we braced ourselves for the ever-piercing wind and followed the new bicycle and pedestrian roadway with no precise endpoint in mind. As the road curved to the right in the direction of Essling, we noticed a wooden bridge leading into a young forest, judging by the thicket that framed it on two sides. Shrubs, trees, and bushes in colorful bloom, an invitation to explore. What was beyond the walkway? And why was it here in the first place? As we made our way across, we noticed the metal panels that intersected the wooden ones, suggesting historical layers difficult to decipher, with writing in both directions, one to be read coming, I realized, the other going. But my husband and toddler were already well ahead, planning our picnic for the next day at one of the wooden seating areas nearby. “I’ll be right there,” I called behind them, a code that they should not wait.

Wooden bridge leading into the young forest (C) Anca Tigan

Living Memorial

In one direction, the panels told the story of how, on April 9, 1987 – 34 years before almost to the date – 400 Viennese school children planted a memorial forest for Vienna’s 65,000 Jewish Holocaust victims. “And with every tree, we bring a little bit of hope into people’s hearts,” while adding to the city’s green belt that helps keep Vienna’s air clear. A footbridge of memory reaching out from the past, through 1987 to the present day, and into the future, when the thicket will be even denser, the shrubs higher, the trees taller.

On the other side of the walkway, a glade opened out onto a quiet scene of a man throwing a ball with a young boy and a dog, while on the crisscross of paths behind them, people were jogging or walking. There were the two seating areas that had been the object of such intense discussion earlier, where we could picnic next to the memorial stone put up in 1988, the first to Vienna’s murdered Jews erected in a public space. Oddly, or perhaps not, I felt at peace, breathing in the fresh air and delighting in the flush of spring that enveloped the scene. Maybe the father throwing a ball with his son was himself one of the 400 school children who had initially planted the memorial forest. Maybe descendants of the victims were among those jogging along the paths ahead. Some who lived in the Seestadt surely connected on a personal level with the memorial forest. When it was planted 34 years earlier, few anticipated that it would serve as a recreational area for the new community of 20,000 who would come to live there. Like in any place where time was at play, memories and mementos would layer with the buzz of the present in an enterprise known as history.

Setting Aviation Records

In the opposite direction, the wooden bridge told the story of Flugfeld Aspern, the legendary airfield that had been on the Seestadt site.

One of the world’s most modern airports when it opened in 1912, it was a place where history was written first-hand: I could easily recognize the outlines of the fields, thickets, and hangars from a century before, when the airfield was the site where 18 world records were set, establishing Austria as a leader in early aviation. It was here that the world’s first international airmail flight originated, on a route from Vienna to Cracow, Lemberg (Livov), Proskurov and Kiev. It was here that the landing of Graf Zeppelin was covered live in 1932, to the delight of the Viennese who came out to witness the event. And finally, as history would so often have it, it was at Flugfeld Aspern where key Nazi officials landed on March 12th 1938, followed by its transformation into a vital airbase for the Luftwaffe.

Asperner Flugfeld was one of the world’s most modern airports when it opened in 1912 (C) Anca Tigan

One of the earliest pioneers had been Lilly Steinschneider, one of the two women pilots allowed to fly in competition. During the Second International Flight Week at Vienna-Aspern in 1913, the engine of her aircraft cut out, forcing an emergency landing which badly damaged her plane, but from which she walked away uninjured. The Viennese satirical magazine Kikeriki was suitably wry, writing, “Thank God, she wears reform pants!” – a not so veiled allusion to the changes in women’s fashion from corsets to so-called “reformed clothing.”

A century later, all the street names in Seestadt have been dedicated to women, to finally begin to balance the preponderance of men’s names everywhere else in the city. I’m keeping my eye out for pilot Lilly Steinschneider, who more than anyone, has earned a commemoration there.

So, as I rejoined my family in the young forest, I realized that even without the famous composers, Seestadt would be a special place. This district too has a layered history, far more than I had previously grasped, as well as a living, evolving part of this multi-faceted city. During construction in 2013, workers discovered the remains of a prehistoric settlement, as well as four burial sites for horses killed during Napoleon’s defeat here in 1809. And then there was the airfield, whose dug-out concrete was now being reused for new roads, building upon the past and looking into the future. Now, I decided, not only would Seestadt offer housing and work for 25,000 people within a decade, but it would be a place for us to put down roots and make our own contributions to the life of the city.

The author of this post is indebted to Dr Gregory Weeks for his support with the research for this piece.