Design for Chaos | Otto Wagner’s Steinhof

Steinhof is a Wiener Melange of health and history and now the city adds housing to the mix.

For centuries, to be considered mad was a life sentence of degradation and worse. As fairy tales tell us, beautiful people are good but the ugly, crippled or deranged are evil. It took ages for mental illness to be decriminalized and acknowledged as a faultless state to be treated rather than punished. Fortunately, Vienna enjoyed an enlightened medical elite and an imperial family inclined to finance progressive social programs (see related article p 36). The first AKH (General Hospital) was opened under the reform minded Josef II in 1784 and boasted its own Narrenturm (Tower of Fools). And, in 1907, Europe’s largest clinic for the mentally ill was opened at Am Steinhof, an old stone quarry. It was huge, with 34 buildings and over 2,000 beds in a pastoral setting and masterminded by the great architect of fin de siècle ­Vienna, Otto Wagner.

Steinhof Direktion
Designed by Otto Wagner and Carlo von Boog, the expansive Otto-Wagner-Spital at Steinhof boasts many elaborate Jugendstil details in and around its 34 buildings. // © Häferl

You can ride all the way from the Ring with the 48A bus, to the last station Baumgartner Höhe. From there, you stroll past the first of the 60 or so Pavillons that make up Otto Wagner’s ensemble, a world before medicine became glass, steel and gigabytes. Each of the buildings has its individual charm, often with elegantly spacious balconies and terraces where patients could recuperate body and soul. Unsurprisingly in the city of Sigmund Freud, therapy of the mind was already writ large, and today there is still an equine therapy program for children. Many different buildings made up the complex, some housing specific medical functions, others workshops, kitchens and living quarters, even its own theater.

On the way from one to the other, you pass flower beds and fruit trees, friendly stone lions, lamps and railings in elegantly fluid Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) metalwork. This was an era of tasteful grandeur even for functional public buildings. The current sad state of disrepair is a reminder of shifting financial priorities.

The compound’s crowning glory was, and is, the splendid and recently restored Otto Wagner Kirche, a Jugendstil firework in gold and white, majestic stained glass windows designed by ­Koloman Moser and awe-inspiring mosaics, guarded by rows of serene gilded bronze angels. Though indisputably magnificent for us, it was a touch too radical for the conservative taste of the Habsburg sponsors. Official records show that the church was formally opened by Archduke and heir apparent Franz Ferdinand on Oct 8, 1907; contemporaries remembered that he stalked out in a huff before the service ended.

Shadows of the Past

Despite the glorious setting, the institute’s history casts dark shadows. Between 1940 and 1945, Steinhof’s child patients provided the human raw material for horrific experiments directed from Berlin. Nearly 800 died as guinea pigs for new serums and treatments. Survivors remember workers casually pushing handcarts with jumbled corpses of children along the peaceful gravel walkways. Parents received coolly official condolences, often with the laconic remark that the child was too handicapped or sick to have ever become “a useful person.”

There is a permanent documentation, for those with a taste for the macabre. Just book the full tour, jauntily ­labelled “Jugendstilführung am Lemoniberg” – a local moniker in reference to the church’s lemon-like dome. It’s a fascinating repertoire of anecdotes and curious facts, from the grim to the cheerful, as if entry to the glorious church was not reward enough.  Expect to finish the visit feeling an expert on ­Jugendstil, perhaps uplifted – but almost certainly a little sad to have arrived a hundred years too late.

Under Construction

Today controversies continue, but in keeping with our times it’s a typically Viennese clash between aesthetics, public health and bureaucracy. In 2006, plans were submitted to move the psychiatric wards and make space for 600 new apartments among Wagner’s elegant pavilions. The outcry was immediate; the follow-up took a little longer. Conservationists knew they had good reason to fear the worst when Friederich Dahm of the Bundesdenkmalamt (Federal Preservation Office)  was quoted as saying: “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something getting built.”

For the critics, it is not only the aesthetic outrage of trashing Wagner’s unique architectural vision, it is also about financial mismanagement: In 2011, Die Presse reported that construction would definitely begin in 2012, but Mayor Häupl’s office intervened and revised plans were published in 2014: only 140 new apartments, with construction to begin in 2015.  Well, it didn’t.

Skipping a few years of proposals and counter-proposals, on Feb 14 of this year loggers finally started felling the first of 98 trees, creating 120 new apartments (for now) and giving the tabloids a field day.  Patrik-Paul Volf from the office of Vice-Mayor Maria Vassilakou (City Planning, Traffic and Citizen Engagement) confirmed with some pride that the approved plan was a substantial reduction from earlier proposals, in accordance with Bundesdenkmalamt guidelines.

Thanks and now leave the room

Of course, no saga of bureaucratic chaos in Vienna is complete without the passionate involvement of a lively Bürgerinitiative (citizen action group). Christine Muchsel of the association Steinhof gestalten (Shaping Steinhof) has been following the developments closely and has a cynical take on how things work in Red Vienna: The SPÖ (the Social Democratic Party) is accustomed to regarding public property as its own and acting accordingly. And although the city’s public housing policy is generally considered a model of enlightened management, there is a downside: qualified experts rarely voiced their opinions during the ongoing Steinhof debate. “There is an effective blacklist of any who criticize,” she said.

And then there is the much-vaunted citizen Mediation, the semi-public ongoing discussion. Muchsel considered it a Schmäh (uniquely untranslatable, roughly a scam with charm and humor). Muchsel and her companion-in-activist-arms ­Wolfgang Veit made enough noise to be put on the commission as observers without voting rights, where they were part of endless discussions and then dismissed with thanks. “Their attitude was:  We’ve done the mediation thing, now leave us alone to do what we want anyway,” Muchsel told us.

Where there are children

Gesiba is the not-for-profit city-owned developer responsible for the project.

Gesiba housing at SteinhofA rendering by Gesiba’s proposed housing project. The city-owned developer has repeatedly revised their plans for affordable housing in Steinhof. // g Schreiner Kastler Visuelle Kommunikation
Chief Executive Ewald Kirschner was crisp and precise: Construction will definitely begin on the first 65 apartments this month, completion in 2018.

So why all the criticism and confusion? His reply was robust: The new apartments will be affordable city-owned housing, expert recommendations have been followed and citizen concerns addressed. And anyway, the ­Gesiba development only effects 3 per cent  of the total area (technically correct, but disingenuous – the development impacts hugely on Otto Wagner’s ensemble).

His main point was social continuity: The original concept indeed entailed a self-sufficient community (multifunctional, in planner speak), including living quarters. Finally, he played the unassailable kiddy card: “Where there are children there is life.” Gesiba’s mission statement is “Fair Living”. Fair enough.

So take a trip to the Steinhof. Stroll in the beautiful ground, admire great architecture and bathe in local politics. All for the price of a bus ride.  “Fair” in every sense.

Steinhof grounds

English language tours of the church and grounds must be booked in advance
Up to 12 people: Fixed price €90
13 or more: €8 per head
Katharina Baier

(01) 910 60-1 10 07

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.


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