Jonathan Glancey, 30 May 2019
“Karlskirche is a celebration of the effervescent spirituality of the high baroque”, writes a one-star Trip Advisor reviewer from Australia of the famous Viennese church, “and it has been turned into a cheap money-making circus.”
Working my way past a cacophony of shouty men in cheap red tunics selling tickets for Vivaldi concerts, I step inside Karlskirche, pay €8 at a crude Po-Mo booth and enter the nave. I take one hard look at a pair of enormous reflective Christmas balls dangling from the dome and at a makeshift lift-shaft ferrying a flashlight of boisterous tourists up to the church’s cupola, and walk back out.
The Christmas balls, I learn are “artworks” by the Argentinian architect, Tomás Saraceno. Hung in the atrium of a shopping mall or the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern they might be fun. The makeshift lift-shaft - a leftover from the early 18th Century church’s latest restoration - is now a permanent addition to Johann Bernard and Joseph Emmanuel Fischer von Erlach’s ecclesiastical tour-de-force. These unholy interventions do their unintentional best to undermine the architectural integrity of Karlskirche, to dominate and obscure existing works of art and, indeed, to make the building feel like a tourist circus. A Baroque church is no longer sufficiently theatrical for tourists hungry for novelty. It must be filled with fun things to gawp at and climb.
Why should anyone today expect anything else of a major architectural monument in a much visited city centre? We must, in fact, brace ourselves for many more tourist experiences like Karlskirche. Now that major city centres worldwide are fecund breeding grounds for bombastic commercial developments - Vienna is ringed around with them - so the apparent need for diverting “artwork” buildings and structures, old and new, in between them. The prime goals of these - raking in money aside - are “awesome” views, selfies, loud “OMG” phone calls and whooping.
Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, a titanic new commercial development of indifferent skyscrapers, offers tourists the Vessel, a 150-ft climbing frame comprising 154 flights of interlocking stairs and eighty landings designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Stephen Ross, CEO of Related Companies - Hudson Yards’ developer - describes it as a “12-month Christmas tree.” Forget the Rockefeller ice-rink at Christmas. Book your slot and climb the empty Vessel to divert your attention from historic Manhattan.
While in Vienna, I happened to look down from the immense heights of the Twin Tower office building, designed by Massimiliano Fuksas, to the Gemeindebauten, those ambitious and architecturally distinguished apartment blocks built by the city between 1918 and 1934. This was the era of Red Vienna when the city was run by Social Democrat administrations determined to provide a growing working class population with truly decent homes. In those years, the city built 348 new buildings with 64,000 flats for 222,000 people. Adventurous visitors to Vienna take trams to see these “superblocks”, and especially the munificent Karl-Marx-Hof completed in 1930 to designs by Karl Ehn, the son of a carpenter trained under Otto Wagner.
Ehn’s apartment blocks are more thrilling, more deserving of visitors’ attention, than any new commercial eyecatchers or playpen church artworks shaped in an era when social housing in so many cities is mostly a very sorry thing indeed. Imagine if the collective effort spent by architects, artists, engineers and designers on futile urban gestures - all that climbing up things - was invested in buildings and streets aimed at raising the standard of life for tens and even hundreds of thousands of city residents.
As for city churches, these might yet stimulate new art in tune with the buildings themselves. Walking in Vienna, I heard a snatch of music from an apartment window that I recognised but hadn’t heard for a long while. This was By Your Grace a track from Gandharva, an album of 1971 by Beaver and Krause recorded live in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. This French Gothic building (1910-64), by Lewis P Hobart, is not an architectural masterpiece, yet its long nave, high vaults, sonorous organs and seven-second reverb decay time allowed the experimental Californian musicians and the baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan to create music at once uplifting and serene, as cathedral architecture itself should be. And, although this music excites and endures, it has left no mark much less disfigured the fabric of a historic building. Can we make a promise to ourselves as we further develop our cities to resist empty tourist gestures and, instead, to create worthwhile buildings and art for all time and everyone?