Austria is a country that I know quite well and like a lot, having worked in cities and towns such as Innsbruck, Linz and Salzburg during my time in the music industry. I had visited Vienna once, but for less than 24 hours, so I wasn’t able to see much on that occasion.
However, after being captivated with an episode of Rick Stein’s Long Weekends I decided to revisit Vienna. Much of my visit involved sampling classic Austria dishes such as Weiner Schnitzel, apple strudel, Tafelspitz, sacatort and drinking Viennese Gemischter Satz (one of the best white wines I have ever tried). However I also managed to visit a couple of libraries in this beautiful city, the first being The Austrian National Library which has recently been added to Google’s Arts and Culture digital resource.
Located only a short distance from St Stephens Cathedral in the heart of Vienna, my visit to the biggest Baroque library in Europe was an incredible experience. Often found on lists of ‘the most beautiful libraries in the world’, the Prunksaal (State Hall) is breath-taking. The hall holds more than 200,000 volumes including Prince Eugene of Savoy’s library and one of the largest collections of Martin Luther from the Reformation Era.
Towards the end of my time in Vienna, I took the purple tube line to Messe-Prater and to an area known mainly for being the location of the Prater amusement park. The amusement park is famed for its Giant Ferris WheelGiant Ferris Wheel, which film buffs may recognise from the Oscar winning film-noir thriller “The Third Man”. But also located here is WU (short for Wirtschaftsuniversität – the Vienna University of Economics and Business). The University’s new campus opened in October 2013 and was a combined effort of architects from countries including Austria, Japan, Spain, England and Iraq. Costing approximately 250 million euros, the campus boasts the highest standards of contemporary facilities, modern research areas and corresponding teaching spaces. It is staggering to think how transformational the building of this campus has been – pumping a new lease of life into an area that was once known as “Vienna’s biggest red light district”. The surrounding developments are hard to ignore – new apartments, cafes and walk ways that serve both the campus and surrounding community. I would love to experience life as a student there!
Walking to the start of the campus via the west entrance, I was greeted with a huge information board. The map was interactive and although I am normally dubious of these devices (I get lost every time when I use their system the Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre maps), this one worked! The campus was beautiful – clean, architectural, playful. The sharp edges of the D4 block were a stark contrast to the non-regimented flow of the external cladding and colour scheme of the D3/AD block.
However, even though each building had their own unique character the entire campus was glued together by a wealth of walkways and planting – the huge amounts of lavender had thousands of bees happily going about their business (if you carefully on the photo I took, you’ll see about 4 different species). Even the lower sections of the open-top walkways leading into the car park had gardens. This was a very special campus. And then I saw what I had come to see; the knife-like edge of the Library and Learning Centre slicing through the air and providing a real statement of intent at the heart of the campus.
Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects of Hamburg, the building was simply stunning, but without any hint that it’s function would be inhibited by its form. The clean lines that swept across the lower section of the building’s front framed the immense row of entry doors – and not a single revolving door in sight (to my relief!). The Library and Learning Centre was actually closed, however after speaking with the security guards they allowed me to take a look inside the building. On entering the central atrium, it was obvious how the flowing edges, angled walkways and slit-like windows turned every aspect of the space into a thing of interest. I don’t want to make the simple comparison between this building and a futuristic spaceship… but I have to. And I have to in a very good way. I am currently collecting information for a blog piece on ‘the future library’ and I truly believed I was in a futuristic library when I stepped into this building. I felt like I was on the deck of the Enterprise, boldly going where no Library Space Project Manager had ever been before. I was completely taken aback.
And on to the detail of this space. The wayfinding and signage was almost none existent, apart from where you needed it. The mixture of engraved design, considerate colours and modern images provided a welcome break from the clean white surfaces. The most useful sign was one painted directly onto the wall before a walkway, subtly pointing you in the direction of the WCs.
However, it was clear to see that tapered walls have a huge drawback – they WILL be used for footrests (presumably while people chat, socialise and exchange ideas whilst they meander through the space). This wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t that the walls were (or at least used to be) pristine white. One interesting observation was that none of the study seats had soft bases or backs. They were all solid wood (albeit very comfortable). In walking on a number of the different floors, the main corridors were separated from the other functional areas (study spaces, international office and student support service) by very large doors. My first impression was that they were going to be very heavy and difficult to open, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were smooth and assisted, making entry into the areas easy and somewhat enjoyable.
As I prepared to leave the building, I noticed small, illuminated arrows on the floor. They were pointing towards the entrance and I can only think that they are there for one of three reasons;
- For Wayfinding and signage purposes
- For escape route purposes
- Or for phone addiction purposes, supporting users who’s normal direction of view is towards the ground as they walk along with phone in hand
(or all of the above!)
I had to get a souvenir and so I purchased two jars of honey produced by the bees on the Library and Learning Centre roof – no wonder there were so many bees enjoying the lavender in the landscaped areas.
On leaving this incredible building, a plaque on the wall summed up how much importance Austria places on its University facilities, and how such a futuristic facility is upheld by the foundations laid in the past:
“Thank You. The Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) wishes to express its gratitude to the publie, whose contributions have enabled the building of this campus. Without public funding, it would be impossible to realize one of the fundamental principles enshrined in the Austrian Constitution: the freedom of university research and teaching.”
Mike Kelly (Library Space Manager, The University of Manchester Library)