Swimming Across Town | The Danube Canal (Re)opens to the Public

A cooperation between the Kunsthaus and the urban design project Schwimmverein Donaukanal hopes to persuade the public of the pleasures on their doorstep.

As we enter the magical Gastgarten of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Kunsthaus Wien, Director Bettina Leidl swept up to greet us, big smile and playful elbow bump, as the times require.  “Did you bring your swim suits,” she teased, as we were dressed in what among journalists passes for eveningwear.  “In den nächsten Tagen,” we promised.  

The July 9 event launched a cooperation between the newly founded Schwimmverein Donalkanal – a group primarily of students and faculty from the Academy of Applied Arts (Angewandte Kunst), but also architects, urbanists, historians, swim trainers and enthusiasts – and the Kunsthaus, to bring public swimming back to the Danube Canal. 

Bettina Leidl, (c) Dardis McNamee

And truth be told, it was a very alluring prospect to be able to go for a paddle in the Donaukanal, which is all of a 5-minute walk from our apartment.  Perhaps the bigger surprise was learning that this is not really new. It has actually been permitted “all along,” – for at least the last 15 years, since regular water testing documented that the treatment system completed in 2003 meant that no drainage, run off or other pollution now enters the canal.  But unsanitary memories persist, and the organizers admit it will take some retraining to get very many of the Viennese into the canal.   

“It’s the same water as the Danube, actually,” Leidl went on cheerily, “and we all swim in there.” Point taken. 

The mistress of ceremonies for the evening was design student Amelie Schlemmer, who had taken her first dip back in May when the water temperature was a bracing 13° – an experience she described charmingly as “having something unique about it” – and has since become a passionate Canal swimmer. The Verein, she told us, was a “Social Design” project at the Angewandte, to reclaim the 850,000 m2 of the Danube Canal as a “liquid public space” freely available to all, and to revive the long history of public swimming – which includes a famed swimming race “Quer durch Wien” launched in 1912, and from after The Great War until the Anschluss in 1938, with tens of thousands watching from the shore. Over the years, the Jewish sports club HAKOAH sponsored many champions and three times, counted women among the winners. Through the 1930s, the banks of the Canal became – ironically, but perhaps also affectionately – the “Riviera of the Unemployed”. 

(c) Kunsthaus Wien

For one of the members, design student Fabian Ritzi from Bern, the Schwimmverein project was obvious.  “In Switzerland we always swim in our rivers,” he said, “ and when I saw the Canal, I immediately wanted to swim there.” The routine in his home city was that “you walk upstream and ride the current down, get out, dry off, eat some Pommes, and do it again.” 

So Pommes was on the menu for the evening – the sweet potato variety, actually, with guacamole dip, accompanied by a slightly unnerving, green Punsch (to match the color of the water), a mix of curacao, white wine and lemon juice that was actually delicious.  We felt a little guilty for landing the Pommes without the plunge. But not all that guilty.

We then heard from the array of architects, city planners and swim trainers, a water quality expert and a public safety official.  We were particularly interested in the remarks of Stephan Hann, from the Institute for Analytical Chemistry at the BOKU (Universität für Bodenkultur, alias, Natural Resources and Life Sciences).  “I would happily jump in,” he gushed, having actually just come out of the water. The current isn’t dangerous, at least for confident swimmers.  “Just don’t go in when a boat is going by,” he said, off handedly. And in fact, this is one of the few real risks, requiring a little research into schedules for the DDSG. But this is Vienna, and like the sports in the Prater, it’s “at your own risk.”  The city’s not responsible for our foolishness.

Then, a final word from safety expert Wolfgang Zottl of the Samaritans.  He had no intention of spoiling anyone’s fun, he promised. There were just two things:  1) Don’t “jump in” the water. “Please, walk!” (The Verein members grimaced.) Also, it’s good to wear rubber beach shoes, as it’s hard to know what’s under the surface. And 2) never swim alone. Go in pairs or better, in a group. There is no organized help; no life guards, no security boats.  

As the event broke up, the swimmers moved gradually through the guests to the bright orange cube of changing rooms, showers and lockers the young designers had put up for any and all swimmers, with locker keys, towels, bathing caps, beach shoes and other equipment available to borrow or purchase at the Kunsthaus shop.  Schlemmer and several of her fellows – all frighteningly fit – had come dressed for the water, and now headed off for the Hundertwasser dock just down the Weißburgerlände from the museum garden.  It was a balmy evening, the water 19°, lovely for a swim. Hundertwasser himself had been an enthusiastic swimmer…

One day, perhaps.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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