Vienna’s Gartenbaukino Undergoes Extensive Renovation

After a year of consecutive lockdowns, even the most enduring of Austria’s cultural institutions are getting disheartened. But while most cinemas are desperately waiting to reopen, Vienna’s Gartenbaukino is taking advantage of the situation with long overdue renovations, scheduled to be completed by October, in time for the Viennale film festival.

First opened in 1919, the revered institution on Parkring has been in its current form since 1960, when it opened with the Austrian premiere of Stanley Kubrik’s Spartacus with star Kirk Douglas present. Since then, little has changed for the majestic single-screen cinema, which is both a blessing and a curse, as general director Norman Shetler confided at the project presentation on March 22. While its characteristic space-age interior has remained largely unchanged, the building’s utilities are also frozen in time, thus badly obsolete. Shetler wants to “bring back the spirit of the sixties” with a general overhaul, while also bringing the Gartenbau’s technical underpinnings into the 21st century.

The project is being overseen by architect Manfred Wehdorn, who is committed to retaining the historic retro charm. In a conversation with Metropole, Shetler emphasized the challenge of remaining true to the original style, as some parts of the building were not documented in color photographs, leaving elements open to speculation. However, Wehdorn revealed that the “new” look will definitely be colorful, underlining its early ’60s aesthetic. It may even seem tacky to some today but, Wehdorn insists, “We couldn’t live without kitsch!”

Of course, such projects don’t come cheap: The refurbishment is primarily funded by a joint effort of The Austrian government and the City of Vienna, the city contributing €2 million out of an estimated €3.36 million. City Councillor for Culture Veronica Kaup-Hasler (SPÖ) reiterated her commitment to protect cinemas “even under these difficult economic conditions,” important as spaces for shared experiences that cannot be replicated by streaming services. Another €600,000 is provided by the Federal Ministry for Arts and Culture, with State Secretary Andrea Mayer (Greens) considering the renovation “exemplary” for the local film industry. 

Back to the Future

Still, every little bit helps in such a major undertaking: To involve Vienna’s cineastes, the Gartenbaukino has also launched a crowdfunding campaign which will run until June 20. €200,000 are needed to renew the worn seats, familiar to anyone who has spent an evening squirming to get comfortable in the otherwise atmospheric movie theater. 

So far, the initiative has received overwhelming support, raising over €180,000 in less than four weeks. Shetler told Metropole he was “thrilled and overwhelmed,“ stressing that “all additional donations help a lot.” To him, the community’s response not only pays tribute to the strong connection many feel with the Gartenbaukino, but is also proof positive that the Viennese are willing to put their money where their mouths are and back their well-loved cultural institutions.

In return for their loyalty, donors can purchase packages ranging from €15 to €5,000, which include perks like workshops on analogue cinematography, pre-sale tickets, and special private events. For €360, cinephiles can even get a name plaque on one of the 736 seats, which will be “a lot more comfortable after the restoration,” as Shetler assured at the presentation. “I promise!”