University of Vermont


A Comparative Study: Austrian Preservation

by Sabina Wiedenhoeft

As part of the annually grant funded spring research trip, I traveled for a two week period in March 1995 to Austria. Meetings with professionals active in various aspects of the field provided insight into Austrian preservation policies and philosophies and their commitment to international preservation issues. Research was greatly facilitated by familiarity with both the language and the country from many previous trips.

During the first week I visited Graz, the capital city of Styria, in the southeastern part of the country which is distinguishable for its medieval walled city center with clay tiled roofs. Dr. Hasso Hohmann, from the International Urban Forum Graz, conducted a private tour of the historic city, pointing out preservation concerns that his agency has dealt with since its founding in 1978. As he pointed out, most of the historic buildings in the downtown area have undergone significant changes over the past century, as shop owners have changed their storefronts to conform to modern standards. Although this precedence started as early as the mid-19th century, the International Urban Forum Graz became especially concerned over the future of historic buildings as the trend for shop display areas extended to open glass areas.

Although Austrian state law requires all historic property owners to apply for permits before any alteration work on historic buildings can proceed, many owners were finding ways to illegally make the desired changes. Preservation action groups such as the International Urban Forum Graz not only act as advocates for preservation but also act as police agencies for local projects. Their responsibilities in these projects include the preservation of historic fabric as well as integrity of shape, form, and overall appearance for new additions.

Graz has a tremendous mix of historic buildings that embellishes the city with diversity and charm. The many accessible narrow passages between buildings and the many public courtyards augment that charm and provide an element of mystery and discovery to the explorer. What makes it all work is the fact that the main thoroughfare through the downtown area, the Herrengasse, was converted to a pedestrian mall, extending more than 20 blocks. Pedestrians can wander freely and safely while sharing the wide, cobble-stoned road only with the light rail train that runs down the center of the street with stops at each major intersection. With benches, extensive plantings, and even a play ground in the middle of the pedestrian zone, a very pleasant, relaxed and pollution free environment is achieved.

Meeting with the State Conservator for Styria, Dr. Friedrich Bouvier, reconfirmed the tremendous success that protection of historic buildings and art has achieved in Austria. He pointed out that Austria, in 1928, passed a law automatically protecting all public owned buildings with government funds and that Austria does not set an age restriction on eligible properties. This extensive list includes churches, museums, and state, country and local government buildings. As a result, a significant portion of urban architecture will always remain intact in Austrian cities. In general, preservation receives much wider recognition and support in Austria, however, certain threats do exist. Dr. Bouvier mentioned problems of contractors trying to bribe commission members, having inadequate penalties for poor workmanship, and having the laws be too complicated for homeowners to understand. In addition, reuse of vacant castles and palaces pose regulation problems as builders are eager to subdivide these large spaces into apartments.

I explored the issue of farm building protection in greater detail with Dr. Viktor Pöttler, the founder and director of the Austrian Buildings Museum in Stübbing. During the early 1960s, Dr. Pöttler started to collect representative farm buildings from all regions of Austria in an effort to create the first open-air museum of its kind in Austria. He chose the particular site in Stübbing because it is situated in an isolated valley with hills and extensive forests that he could shape to resemble the natural landscape of Austria. The museum is organized so that the visitor wanders from east to west, following the map of Austria to visit each region with its distinctive style of farm buildings. Each building was endangered in its original location and was disassembled and moved by him to the museum. The buildings are supplemented with outbuildings, tools and furniture but there is no interpretive material on site in an effort to provide the most authentic setting as possible. Dr. Stübbing, now in his mid-70s, is still regarded as a pioneer in the preservation of the rural history and culture of Austria due to his diligence, determination and perseverance.

For my second week of research, I visited Vienna and met with members of the National Conservation Office and an Austrian preservation architect who is active in several European countries. Dr. Andreas Lehne and Dr. Ernst Bacher, both officials of the National Conservation Office in Vienna and members of ICOMOS, provided historical reference to the preservation movement in Austria and explained some of the concerns they are currently facing.

Preservation policy originally started during the 19th century, however, in more recent times, like the 1960s and 70s, there was a boom period for public advocacy and precedence. Since then preservation has lost some of its fire in the public eye of Austrians due in part to an unfavorable reaction to this progressive period. While recognition of a rich and diverse cultural tradition worth preserving is shared by most Austrians, the tremendous focus and government funding of preservation has begun to be questioned. Are Austrian cities loosing a modern identity at the expense of preserving the old? Are historic buildings really being preserved as cultural artifacts or simply as tourist meccas? How many monuments can realistically be preserved since there is no age limit for designated protection? These are some of the difficult questions facing the National Conservation Office in meeting the challenges of the future. Another concern facing Austrian preservation today is the integration of historic buildings with modern ones. Vienna as a city encourages and financially supports modern art projects which many architects are taking advantage of by combining art expression with building construction. A good example of this is the Hundertwasserhaus, designed by the painter Friedrich Hundertwasser, who combined a socially innovative housing design with the expression of modern art. With world-wide fame, the housing complex has become a major tourist destination.

To understand what options exist for city officials desperately trying to provide more available living space in Vienna while preserving the historic fabric of the city, I met with the preservation architect Hans Wanek. As he pointed out, many architects in Vienna are currently redesigning attic spaces of historic buildings to create apartments and or office spaces. To minimize the intrusion of the modern addition to the old structures, many different designs have been tested, some with more success than others. Mr. Wanek's firm specializes in quality renovation work, which is illustrated in his latest project of a mixed-use building on the Oppolzergasse. In an effort to add a two story addition for apartments, he managed to camouflage the addition as a quasi French Second Empire roof line with dormer windows, hidden behind the historic roof balustrade. By placing the main fenestration towards the interior courtyard, minimal damage to the exterior facade occurred. Consequently, tenants can enjoy quiet balconies with floor to ceiling windows facing the courtyard. Many interior changes that were necessary to accommodate an elevator and stairs was also done professionally and respectful of the historic fabric of the building.

After two eventful and fact filled weeks, I returned to UVM with a new understanding and appreciation of the extensive preservation structure in Austria. Although Austria and many other European countries are well ahead of American preservation efforts and financial backing, I believe that the basic philosophy and language that preservationists speak is shared universally.

Posted 10/22/95