A loud Stillness - the Südbahnhotel - Vienna's Magic Mountain
A Loud Stillness - on the Magic Mountain of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna
When I saw the Südbahnhotel for the first time, it seemed magical, like a fairy-tale castle, and, for someone who doesn’t come from Vienna, very very Viennese. A little the worse for wear, but all the more elegant, crumbling and fading somewhat, closed but not forbidding. All I could see through the large windows was the magnificent stucco in the dining room, but that was enough to fascinate me.
It was built in 1882 by the Südbahngesellschaft (Southern Railway Society). Originally known as Hotel Semmering, it gradually grew to become one of the largest palace hotels in Central Europe. It seems strangely enchanted and larger than life, with its towers and turrets, steep roofs, balconies and terraces, myriad gables and traditional half-timbered façade, with the Schneeberg and Rax mountains as backcloth.
A magical stage for the protagonists and chroniclers of fin-de-siècle Vienna like Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Peter Altenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler, or Sigmund Freud. But also for everyone else for whom luxury and closeness to nature were not a contradiction but a social imperative.
2009 finally offered me the unique opportunity of photographing the Südbahnhotel. The initial shots grew into a five-year project about a building that is extraordinary in every way, including its historical context. I spent many days in the hotel, in the freezing cold, in the starkly contrasting autumn light, in the warm green of June, and in the stifling summer heat that could no longer flood the hotel. I wasn’t so interested in the architectural details or the dilapidation but rather in the traces of its former occupants – in the silence that now surrounds and pervades the building.
When the snow covers the large terraces, giving the visitor the feeling of hovering over the real world in a gigantic ship, the magic of the Südbahnhotel is almost tangible. When the autumn wind wafts through the building, gently moving the doors to the Waldhofsaal and causing the building to creak and groan so that you could almost imagine footsteps on the upper floors, the silence suddenly becomes very loud, sometimes too loud. The colorful chairs in the lobby are arranged as if the guests had just entered the dining room. In the once brightly lit and now gloomy corridors of the bel étage, the only footsteps to be heard are my own. The thickly upholstered doors between the rooms are wide open, the wardrobes empty. No longer does a young lady recline on the curved red chaise longue while waiting to go down to dinner. The broken windowpane on the Waldhof terrace has gradually slid down in the frame. The yellow, red, and white glass panels in the Alpine swimming pool lie broken on the floor, while the showers form a bizarre sculpture.
The Fräulein Elses, the mamas and papas, the boy, the barons and lieutenants, the artists and intellectuals, the Mizzis, Annis and Herr Leopolds, the hotel director and his three-legged dog, they are all gone from the stage of the Südbahnhotel – but they have all left something of their mystique behind, something I have tried to capture with my camera.
Now the Südbahnhotel has been slumbering for many years, and I like the idea that it is not simply fading away, but could one day slowly come to life again.
The photos have been in several museum solo-shows and have been published in an art book.