There is one thing that no local nor tourist wants to hear when arriving in Vienna:
This city can be strange. And odd. And weird, wrong, different and even…ugly.
Sometimes, this city offers places which can be all at once: dull and interesting, “ugly” and beautiful; places like the one we will show you today.
Intrigued by the idea of discovering places in Vienna which go farther than the mainstream conceptions of aesthetics, the TEDxVienna team decided to go on an aesthetic adventure on itself. Guided by Eugene Quinn, founding member of Space and Place, urbanist and advocate of rebellious optimism, and accompanied by the hotel’s representatives, we had the chance to dive into a world so futuristic, yet so deeply anchored in the past: The world of the InterContinental Hotel.
Check out our tour in the following gallery!
360° image in the elevator of InterContinental
Click and drag in the image above, it’s a VR view!
When Vienna went InterContinental
First opening its doors in 1964, the InterContinental embodies everything the 60ies and 70ies would later stand for in history books. After two devastating wars and the following struggle to rebuild a West left in ruins, the days of abundance, decadence and wealth eventually had arrived. The culture of night-clubs and expensive, glamorous bars, mesmerising heavy chandeliers, fast, shiny cars, extraordinary parties, frenzied music rhythms, the very culture of the jet set lifestyle…an insatiable hunger for the future and its vast possibilities was born.
It was the time when, after Rome, Paris and London, the Western World’s capitals for film, fashion and music accordingly, Vienna stepped up to the podium to host the grande personalities who Europe suddenly attracted.
But people thirsted for more: more innovation, more risk, more statements. It was a generation of people following the rapidly pulsating heart of a newborn epoch.
A simple and dull, typical Viennese hotel would have never been enough for this society’s demands. No, what the city needed was a symbol of power, of internationalism, of mobility. A symbol of the future. Thusly, a hotel owned by an international chain was built –for the first time- in Vienna: In 1964, in the middle of globalisation’s peak, the history book of the InterContinental Hotel Vienna wrote its first page.
The TEDxVienna Ugly Tour
“There are so many places in this city which are both beautiful and ugly at once. Kinda like Katy Perry and Mick Jagger.”, Eugene tells us right at the start of our tour.
“There is no thing as an ugly building, only people’s opinions.”
It is no wonder the InterContinental Hotel at Johannesgasse 28, 1030 Vienna, is considered as architecturally peculiar. Follow us and let us introduce you to its “ugly” sides; However, keep in mind that nothing is ever what it looks like. And just like we walked through the complete tour, you should keep on reading in order to see how the hotel’s beauty lies underneath its surface.
Starting our tour with a rigorous examination of the hotel’s exterior, Eugene did not miss the chance to comment the “neglected, slightly depressing” facade. “There is something unfriendly about the exterior, it doesn’t invite you in. This building seems so deeply grey! So many missed opportunities for colour… People here talk about “rotes Wien” but in fact, this city is so grey.”
However, what at first sight seems to be dirt, accumulated over decades and carved into the facade by time, is nothing else but a brilliant idea the constructors of the Hotel dared to realise. The stone always had this colour, because it is a mixture of pressed sandstone and tessera; a mixture which in the 1960ies was a significant innovation.
Moreover, the skeletal fire-escapes and air-conditioning units are indicators of the Hotel’s opulent facilities at that time: unique security standards and living conditions for each and every guest of the numerous hotel rooms.
Which hotel could claim such luxury in 1960ies- and 1970ies-Vienna?
“What I like about this building is that kind of optimistic, futuristic, space-age sixties idea of “look what we can do”, the future is exciting!”
The hotel’s odd T-shape, when viewed from above, reminded Eugene of a “mushroom”.
Nevertheless, this mushroom-like shape indicates an interesting compromise the architects had to make; initially, they intended to build the hotel 50 meters in total, but unfortunately did not get permission. Hence, in order to reach the number of 500 rooms , they added a part to the building, making a T out of an I.
The side wall
Taking a look at the back side of the Hotel, one can observe how its front’s grey and dull colour quickly turns into black stains.
What happened here? “A fire it looks like”, Eugene joked.
Still, there is much more history under the blackened side wall of the InterContinental: The Hotel hosted Vienna’s largest laundry room behind this wall. Other hotels, and even Austrian Airlines, used it for their purposes. One can only imagine all of the stories that have been stored and washed off behind those blackened walls in order for new ones to be added, on jet setters’ tuxedos, ball dresses, uniforms, on masterpieces of fashion which had traveled the world in order to be cleaned here, at the heart of the InterContinental Hotel in Vienna.
The “ugly” (or beauty?) within
Having discovered that“ugly” is a label put oftentimes on things that were beautiful and special in the past, we found ourselves inside of the Hotel itself. First stop: its ground level, hosting both its lobby and bar.
What our team considered as elegant and classy at the first sight was…a little bit too much for Eugene’s taste.
“To me it’s a little bit too much chandeliers in here. Sometimes, less is more. Particularly if you compare it to how provocatively minimalist the exterior is, and now all this bling bling, that’s more Kanye West or Kim Kardashian”.
“But I love this bar, this old-school glam”, Eugene admits, and so did numerous personas before him.
The Who, Queen, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones but also the Dalai Lama and many, many more representatives of art, politics and economy have crossed the InterContinental’s threshold and spent time under the heavy chandelier. The fact that nowadays each and everyone can have a drink at this very hotel bar, at this very spot where life-changing decisions were made, unforgettable events took place and so many memories were created: this makes this rather “bling bling” chandelier a priceless witness of history.
Following Eugene and the hotel’s experts, we were led throughout the whole building with our final destination being its rooftop. Endless, identically looking corridors were awaiting us next, as well as endless, identically looking rooms.
So many rooms looking exactly the same: what can be perceived as monotonous, is the reason why this particular hotel is liked so much by meeting organisers. For instance, in case of big events like conferences, offering numerous identically looking rooms can be an important advantage for avoiding misunderstandings.
The rooms seem also rather small, realising the epoch’s credo of form follows function: what do people need in a hotel room?
Each and every room is equipped with its own bathroom and toilet, which, compared to nowadays, was a unique luxury. The same applies to the provided TVs, as well as the hotel’s own radio station for its English- speaking guests. Also, the blank and straight corridors are ideal for security purposes.
All those details make the room’s strange minimalism look less “ugly” and much more interesting. Especially if one takes a look out of the window:
In order to get an even better view, our group eventually reached the InterContinental’s rooftop.
“I would probably come to the InterContinental if there was a roof terrace, with a bar or a pool”, Eugene adds at the sight of the rather plain, rather boring sight of the roof. “You know, if the roof was a place that looks…great.”
Well…it does not. But it doesn’t have to: Instead of turning it into another one of Vienna’s hip-pop-up-rooftop-bar locations, the InterContinental decided to use it as a place for beekeeping, thusly producing its own honey.
360° image of the bee hive on the rooftop
Click and drag in the image above, it’s a VR view!
360° image of the tour participants
Click and drag in the image above, it’s a VR view!
And even if “Vienna’s not designed to be viewed from above”, as Eugene pointed out, one could only be astonished standing on the Hotel’s roof, under which so many stories were born and are yet to be told, its only loyal listeners being the ignorant bees silently producing their honey.
Still, the question remains why we decided to stop and stare at exactly those specific points during our tour. What made us think they were “ugly”, and how come we considered them as beautiful after having heard the stories behind them?
The aesthetics of “ugly”
In contrast to common belief, perceiving “ugliness” is a complex procedure since it requires much more energy, time and emotion than beauty.
Linguistics serve an interesting explanation: In German, the term for beauty (Schönheit) includes the idea of watching from neutral distance (schauen), indicating that beauty requires space, both physically and emotionally, to be appreciated. On the other side, the word for ugliness (Hässlichkeit) already contains strong emotional loading, namely hatred (Hass).
While classic beauty can be pleasantly observed and passed by, the weird, the disturbing, and yes, even the “ugly”, requires emotional involvement and interest: it raises curiosity and debate. Hence, the probabilities that the human brain will remember “ugly” buildings, scenes and moments are higher than when experiencing something typically beautiful. For instance, buildings like the InterContinental Hotel in Vienna are more likely to stick to your mind -in contrast to other standard Viennese architectural masterpieces; simply because it is different.
Interesting is the new beautiful
One may consider the InterContinental Hotel in Vienna as beautiful, one may call it ugly. The perception of what is aesthetically pleasant is fluid and changes over time, since the terms “beauty” and “ugliness” are exclusive products of a specific time and place. “People need time to accept change in the landscape around them. They even hated the Eiffel Tower at first”, Eugene explained.
“Ugly often happens when you try too much, and…you fail.”
In fact, this is what Eugene Quinn does: He guides both tourists and curious locals through the classically beautiful city of Vienna, in order to point his finger on those “failed” buildings, spots and architectural peculiarities which do not follow the “boring Sisi&Schnitzel mainstream”.
He chose to show the public the noticeable, the weird and the ugly sides of Vienna; those sides which might were evaluated as beautiful in the past, or even those which will be considered as such in twenty years from now.
Undoubtedly, the InterContinental is a statement, called out by a generation whose hunger and excitement for the future led to bold, provocative architectural risks.
For a society like ours, with a future corroded by environmental issues and inequalities, globalisation feels like something to be afraid of; For such a society, the InterContinental might be called ugly at first sight. “Vienna is looking back the whole time, to lost, golden days”, Eugene points out. Nevertheless, let’s hope for the next generations to come to be as enthusiastic and adventurous about the future as the ones the InterContinental was build for.
For now, the TEDxVienna team concluded that regardless of the InterContinental being labelled as modern in the 60ies and 70ies and as “ugly” in modern days, it is interesting.
And what is interesting, will always keep people fascinated.