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Vienna Diary 5: The Flak Towers

(Added 21 July 2008) “There are few visible remains of the Second World War in Vienna today. With generous funding from the Marshall Plan, the badly damaged city was quickly re-built, virtually brick-by-brick. In many cases, the city’s wrecked theatres, churches and grand palaces were so well restored that not even close scrutiny by today’s visitor can distinguish between what is original and what has been recreated. Also, there are few official war memorials.[…]

Yet there stands in Vienna a stark, immutable reminder of the years of the Third Reich: six huge surviving reinforced- concrete anti-aircraft towers whose blank facades and imposing mass contrast sharply with the city’s finely-restored historical architecture. In 1942 Hitler had decreed that Vienna, like the capital Berlin and the busy port of Hamburg, should be protected by a series of anti-aircraft towers known as Flaktürme (the word Flak is an acronym for Fliegerabwehrkanone, meaning anti-aircraft gun). In Vienna three pairs of towers were constructed by German troops during 1943 and 1944 forming a defensive triangle centred on the city’s great cathedral, the Stephansdom. Each pair consisted of a large, heavily gunned attack tower (Gefechtsturm) and a smaller communications tower (Leitturm). […]

After the war, the towers were quickly stripped of their guns and other valuable materials. While some Flak towers in Germany were successfully demolished, those in Vienna resisted destruction. Soviet sappers attempted to blow up the attack tower in the Augarten but managed only to produce a crack around the top and to dislodge part of the balcony. The other towers were deemed too close to surrounding buildings to allow demolition with explosives. So Vienna was simply rebuilt around the towers, which have now for more than sixty years born silent witness to their creator’s madness. They stand as particularly powerful reminders of the darkest chapter in Vienna’s history. […]

However, there is little on site to inform visitors about the history of the distinctive structure they now enjoy. Only a modest sign indicates who constructed the tower and for what purpose. Also unexplained is the graffiti artwork “Smashed into pieces (in the middle of the night),” which is daubed in large letters around the top of the tower. Attributed to American artist Lawrence Weiner, it is an apparent reference to the Night of Broken Glass (Reichskristallnacht) in November 1938 when Vienna’s Jewish synagogues were systematically and deliberately destroyed.”

Excerpt from Duncan J.D. Smith’s “Vienna’s Flak Towers: Historical Memory and Adaptive Reuse,” Designer/Builder – Journal of the Human Environment, Jan-Feb 2005.

Image: Lawrence Weiner, “Smashed to pieces (in the still of the night),” Flak tower, Vienna. Photo S. Wesley 2008.

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