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The neighbours by Stephen Adutt

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Vienna.

11:15am. - Almost at the Donau Canal, the tram stops at Cochplatz. Time to jump off and visit Otto. The tram rattles northwards. The Stubenring section of the Ringstrasse remains in shadow. I look east, upwards. There is the nine storey Ministry of War, dark stoned, heavy, regular, anonymous, secretive. For the full height of two storeys below the eaves line hangs the Biggest Eagle in Vienna, darker still, wings outstretched, beak open, talons bent. How proud of their eagle must the Austro Hungarian generals have been in 1912 not long before the incident at that Sarajevo hunting lodge would give excuse for slaughter.

Still the eagle hangs in 2014, poised, bloated, further blackening the pavement below. Come on, forget the bloody thing, let’s visit the Savings Bank.

11:20am Postparkasse again. From the Ring, walk west on the main axis. All is in order, regular, balanced, stable. There is a centre and there are side wings. There is a base, a middle and a top. There has to be a window or a door in the middle of each group of windows or doors; so wall openings are in odd numbers, one, five, thirteen, within the formal composition. Even the armies of façade bolts are disposed in patterns of geometric precision. Stay on the centre line. You have to. Proceed under the aluminum and glass canopy, material break with the past, up the marble staircase under the eyes of Franz Joseph, through the doors and into the Banking Hall. World of glass, aluminium, light and air. The old man was young here…and yet? Move to order. All is symmetry. Axis and cross axis. Left, right, left, right, leheft…turn, rihight…turn! Trapped between the lines: the ceiling lines run into the wall lines run into the counter lines run into the floor lines…order within order, ordered perfection. Safe but controlled. From a first floor corridor, outside his Boardroom, the Herr Direktor of the Postparkasse looks through a small internal window at us in the Banking Hall; while our feet stand on the glass blocks through which our light is ‘borrowed’ by the clerks who add and subtract their computerized figures in the basement beneath us. Dear Otto, even when you looked forward, you were rooted in the past.

1:00pm Out into the street. Can’t face the eagle. So turn right, head south, walk to the corner of Biberstrasse and Rosenbursen. Pause. Take a deep breath. Look up into the sky. Suddenly there IT is. There, perched on the parapet corner of five storeys of background Baroque, it shimmers silver against the blue. The sun burnishes curved silver vertebrae. What is it? How did it get there? Is it alien? Does it mean us well? There are things hanging out. Is it going to move? What is it doing to the building below it? It hovers, sheathed in glittering transparency. Cross the street, diagonally. Into the corner doorway. Run up five flights of stairs. Ring the bell. A cleaning woman opens the door. She shakes her head ‘Es tut mir leid, es ist niemand da’. I burst out: ‘Entschuldige mich, ich bin ein Architekt aus London; ich habe dieses Gebäude in einer architekturzeitschrift geshen und wollt es gern besichtigen: es ist ein dekonstruktivistisches Gebäude welches vom Büro Coop Himmelblau entworfen worden ist…’

Maybe it’s my face or my bad German. Maybe she has done this before. She shrugs and lets me in. After the darkness of the main stairway, we are now bathed in light. The light filters through the glass roof skin of this small workspace (it is a lawyers office) with its even smaller gallery. We are part of the sky and of the sunshine; it would be good to stand here under the stars. We are also part of the city over whose rooftops we gaze. We seem to be inside a living organism, the thing still settling around us while we move with and within it. We are not comforted by any order or any sense of direction. Indeed, the components of the organism, irregular stair treads, handrails, mullions and the like, each lead their own disparate lives. Nor are we clear which of these metallic ribs, tubes, struts, rods, wires, are meant to support or be supported, are meant to push or pull. We might, at other times or in other places, crave such clarity as a much needed part of the package of being sure, of being sheltered, ordered, directed, even constrained. But in this Architecture, in these wayward fragments of the present and of the future, we find a new freedom.

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