Sunlight through the Snowstorm: Vienna’s Kirche am Steinhof

I have often sung the praise of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concert (Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmoniker, a little gratuitous German never hurt anyone), which might seem odd for someone who is otherwise rather unattuned to classical music. Waltzes are however an exception, melodic and lightweight enough for the silly, familiar from Tom and Jerry episodes, the kind of niche Austrian pleasure I can still indulge in, as opposed to the Schlager und Schnee – Die Klubbb3-Hüttenparty that greeted me on ORF2 upon my arrival in Vienna. I was actually holding an Almdudler and had also indulged in a spot of televised ski jumping, and for a second felt thoroughly Austrian and then for the rest of the nine seconds I managed to keep watching very, very, VERY scared.

Besides a lot of action by various Strausses, the concert’s organizers also prepare some videos of Vienna and its environs organized around a varying theme each year, and in 2018 it was Otto Wagner’s architecture. Otto’s work, which I already touched upon in a previous Viennese entry and will expectedly do so in the future as well, never ceases to delight me, so I was humbled to discover that I had been in the dark about the existence of the Kirche an Steinhof.

This omission can be explained by the fact that the church is situated off the usual beaten tracks of the city centre, hidden in the hilly section of Penzing (the birthplace of both Wagner and Gustav Klimt), and is easiest to approach via Ottakring, a place which sends cold shivers down my spine on account of the absolutely vile beer it unleashed upon the universe. I however faced my fears and set out for the last stop of U3, conveniently the Ottakring station, and then headed out to take bus 48A on a varyingly sunny and snowy day, a weather schizophrenia which, as we shall soon see, proved to be oddly fitting the place I was about to visit.

It also happened to be, fortuitously, a Sunday morning, which is particularly important as the visiting times of the Church, officially a part of the Otto Wagner Hospital’s Psychiatry section, are rather limited: on Saturdays from 4 to 5 PM, with a guided tour at 3, and Sundays from 12 to 4 PM, with a guided tour at 4. The entrance fee during ‘normal’ hours is five euros, while the tour costs eight euros per person.

The bus stop was almost deserted (the Viennese do love taking it easy on Sunday mornings), save for the loud football related argument of two Serbs, who were watched with suspicion by the few tourists headed for the Church, but with enormous calm by the two locals, as they turned out to be not the minor henchmen of a local mafia, but the drivers of bus 46. The Ottakringer Straße is actually nicknamed ‘Balkanstraße’ and sports a large variety of mostly Serbian bars and restaurants, with turbofolk often seeping through the doors of the establishment which in turn leads to the Hamletian question of to Schlager, to turbofolk or to die.  The whole of Ottakring is by now inhabited almost exclusively by Balkan immigrants, the largest part coming from the space of the former Yugoslavia, and another sizable group from Turkey, yet, as a reminder of its industrial past, it still houses the already mentioned infamous Ottakringer brewery, and the well known Julius Meinl roastery.

While crossing the decidedly sleepy and at that point sunny Ottakring, I also discovered with some surprise, that I’d once stayed in a hotel in this area, which filled me with retrospective horror (and that’s not about the locals, I love the manifold facets of the Balkans, it’s the proximity of THAT beer.) I was then deposited in front of the Otto Wagner Spital, not before having passed several other hospitals, which arrangement gives the whole area a slight mountain sanatorium feeling. The Otto Wagner Spital is a part of the Steinhof hospital, which was set up in the early 20th Century, and rather in tune with the day and age was primarily focused on psychiatric care and lung disease- a haven for consumption prone and nervously exhausted artists whose cough had gotten too nagging even for the city’s  eccentric tolerant coffeehouses.

In a darker turn of events, the hospital’s premises were also used for medical experiments during the Nazi reign, which adds to a general feeling of unease. The Church, a Secessionist fever dream designed by Wagner, with mosaics by Koloman Moser and sculptures by Othmar Schimkovitz, is just too beautiful and gilded, an incongruent UFO on the hillside, with its shiny angels looking out over the distant city, as if aware that its majestic marble elegance hides something just a touch sinister. The Catholic Church never shied away from a bit of glitz, of course, but this is not Baroque opulence we are faced with: the geometric, elongated faces of the saints look decidedly closer to the shady underworld of turn of the century Vienna than to anything biblical. With hints of Klimt and even Schiele in traces, a strange suggestion pervades the air: the line between decadence and asceticism is finer than we think, and beauty can easily turn into darkness. The two saints on its towers are Saint Leopold (the church’s patron) and Saint Severin, incidentally the given names of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and his most famous creation, Severin von Kusiemski of Venus in Furs fame. If you feel that’s reading too much into it, trust me, it’s in the fresh Viennese forest air.

The oddities of the church abound in its architectural details as well: positioned unusually on a North-South axis, it was, in the good tradition of modernism, built for its purpose as an asylum church: there are very few sharp edges, crosses are not exposed, the priest’s area can be easily separated from that of the patients and there are several emergency exits which could be used for the removal of unruly patients. All of this sounded somewhat abstract while very well-behaved visitors were loitering around the Church, then descending the steps towards the bus stop in the serenely falling snow, inspecting some unseasonal (a little deranged?) flowers. However, as we waited for the bus, a patient in a flimsy hospital gown and white socks darted over the road and tried to hail a cab in a surreal scene befitting a movie. That’s Vienna for you- a box of giant pink puff pastries, but you never know what the filling is made of.

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