Vienna seeks use for towers

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

VIENNA, Austria -- The six concrete flak towers loom up from parks, standing guard like brooding castles. But the Nazi fortifications failed to fulfill their purpose -- defending Austria's capital against Allied bombers during World War II.

Sixty years later, city leaders are looking for new uses for the massive structures.

Emboldened by the successful transformation of brick, bell-shaped gas depots into airy apartments and a modern shopping complex, the city invited residents to suggest ideas for transforming the fortifications that once bristled with anti-aircraft guns.

Responses came by the hundreds, some more creative than others: Fill one with water and make an aquarium for big fish. Build a pyramid of apartments atop another. Transform one into an urban ski-jumping hill.

But unlike the gas storage buildings, which featured large spaces and many windows, the gun towers don't have a lot of potential.

"These buildings were not built to fulfill anything beyond their military purpose," said Klaus Steiner, an engineer at the municipal planning department in charge of studying alternative uses.

Built for a single purpose

"Their rooms have very low ceilings and very thick walls. They have quite steep stairs and very small doors. And there are no windows. To find another purpose for such a building demands an enormous expense. There are really no uses that would justify that, with a few exceptions."

Some of the towers already are being used. One houses a more conventional aquarium and also features an outside wall fitted out for climbers. Others serve as a garden shed, house military radar equipment and store museum exhibitions.

Realistically, there are few uses for the towers, Steiner said. One could be used as an archive for historical documents from the Nazi era and later years. The Museum for Applied Arts, which already uses a tower as a storage depot, could build studios atop one. And there should be access to the roofs so they could be used as scenic outlooks, he said.

Steiner politely but determinedly classifies ideas like the ski-jumping hill as impossible, not only because of the cost but because of the towers' past.

"You cannot use a Nazi building that was partly built with prisoners from the concentration camps for just anything," he said. "You cannot build a disco at Auschwitz. It is out of the question."

Finding another use

Steiner also finds the current climbing wall in bad taste. But climbers scaling the 115-foot-high wall disagree.

"For me, it's just a building, only concrete," said Mario Zankl, 32, who uses the wall a couple of times a week.

Christian Schuller, 22, who climbs it twice a week, said he's never pondered its dark history.

"You can't tear them down, you can't blow them up, so why not use them? They are here, so what should we do?" he said.

In the German cities of Berlin and Hamburg, attempts to blow up similar Nazi flak towers failed while damaging nearby buildings. In Vienna, authorities have never tried to raze the towers.

Though modern technology might offer better ways to remove the towers, they should remain, Steiner argued.

"A city must have a face. And the face also has wrinkles and pimples. Because of that, it is quite important that we keep reminders of the Nazi era visible and don't clean them away and cover them up to remove them from sight," he said. "They are part of the ensemble."

Some of Vienna's most famous landmarks were almost destroyed during World War II. None of the anti-aircraft towers have historical markers like other historic buildings in the city.

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