Ghosts in The Garden – Horticultural Exhibitions and Past Futures

As both a historian and inhabitant of Vienna—a city haunted by and obsessed with its past, or rather a constructed memory of said time—I feel that I’m more qualified to talk about futures of the past then futures of the present. Futures, nonetheless.

A specific past and/or “lost” future that was manifested in the design of the WIG 64, the Wiener Internationale Gartenschau (Vienna International horticultural show) in the year 1964 and its remnants that shaped my childhood in the 1990s.

But where to start? That is indeed a question which is haunting historians for all our academic lives and at some point, we must decide. It is always a hard decision to make. I will make it right here and start with my haunting, my childhood memories that inspired me to write this essay in the first place.

I fondly remember the “Danube Park” in Vienna’s 22nd district from my childhood days. The big and colourful playgrounds with interesting attractions, the vast green of the lawns, the small lake which was inhabited by swans and ducks and also the sheer endless Summer that was lying ahead of me, back when time seemed to be fleeing at a slower pace. A fantasy of course, since the playgrounds were created by funds from banks that seized to exist a long time ago and the small lake almost vanished in the 90’s due to reasons we shall discuss later.

I also especially remember two things that made the park stand out for me back in the day. For one there were electronic animals, children could ride around a concrete small plaza. Tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants, everything a child could wish for was available to choose from. What fascinated me the most back then was that one could freely control the animals, no tracks or cables binding them, confining them to a set route. It is a true sense of freedom for a 7-year-old to steer a gigantic tiger around as he wishes. I thought to myself “this is the future, no, just a bit of a taste of the future, in the future every kid will have an animal to ride on”. For me that was the equivalent to one of those futuristic ideas of the future’s ubiquity of zeppelins people had in the 1900’s or flying cars people dreamt about in the 1980’s. A future that never came of course. But more than two decades later, the animals are still there, still making small children happy. Making children feel in control of something. And I don’t want to sound sarcastic here, I’m most sincere here, or at least I try to be.

The second important object of my memories that I connect to the Danube Park had an even bigger impression on me, as I found out just this year. It was a “Wasserspiel” or water feature, a construction built on a small hillside which consists of square, white and grey square water basins which feed into each other, guiding the water down the hill into one last big basin, which splits up into canals over which a couple of bridges were constructed to allow visitors of the park to reach flowerbeds originally filled with roses.

This landmark and its architecture reminded me not only of my childhood and filled me with nostalgia but at the same time, it also seemed alien and timeless, retro futuristic and strange. It left an impression strong enough that it got me researching the park’s history.

And in this way, the past arrives/arrived from the future. However, before we can go back to the year 1964, when the horticultural exhibition took place and the area now known as Danube Park was created and shaped into what it is today, we have to go a little bit further into the past’s past to understand the literal and figurative base for the further development of the area.

Before the area now known as “Donaupark” was turned into an impressive ensemble of garden architecture, one part of said area had a more practical, jet less prestigious use to the city of Vienna. A large part of the area was a municipal landfill, which should “haunt” the park later, when in the 90’s the artificial lake, the “Irissee”, west of the aforementioned water feature, almost dried out because it leaked into the leftovers of the landfill underneath it.

The other part of the area was a shooting range for the army, where between 1940 and 1945 the Wehrmacht used the site for executing deserters as well as resistance fighters (among them five Viennese firefighters) for whom a memorial was erected in 1984.

As one can see at even a shallow inspection, the Parks history almost seems like an allegory for all human history. Cruelty and ugliness buried under rosebushes, an intricate demonstration of our “control” over nature by ordering it and a promise of a better future, a future that never came to be of course, that never could be. Not only because of it’s past, but also because of its prediction for the future, the spectre of a promise, would be-will be, that was haunting it in a Derridean sense.

In 1964 these past(s) should vanish to create a political prestigious object for the Viennese City government, the WIG 64 “Wiener Internationale Gartenschau” or “Viennese International horticultural show”. (of course, we can’t overlook the first paradox in calling something “international” and at the same time after one specific place, maybe some form of deterritorialization is at work here) The idea behind the spectacle was to show the world that almost two decades after the end of World War 2 and the implementation of the famous Marshall plan, Austria and it’s capital Vienna was ready to welcome an independent future, to be compared to international standards of Living, Technology, Design and all the other commodified status symbols which constituted as desirable to have as a society. In German we call it “Aufbruchsstimmung”, the “spirit of departure” but also an “atmosphere of optimism”. To achieve this goal not only a variety of renown horticultural architects, who were assigned after a competition, were invited to work there, but also futuristic instalments should give the visitor a feeling of seeing phenomena of tomorrow in the present.

As it was a costume in the 60’s, an electrical ropeway was also installed, akin to Austria’s world famous ski lifts of the alps, which was able to transport visitors across the park and give them a new perspective of it, only rivalled by a view from the Danube Tower, which too was constructed for the event from 1962 on and still resides in the park as a modern landmark of Vienna. The ropeway was demolished in the 1980s after some years of neglect and damages, nowadays only some small artefacts, in the form of concrete bases, are to be found. Interestingly, to this day, it still represents the only successfully built cable car project in Vienna, which of course can be interpreted in a lot of ways by itself.

Most of the still exiting promotional photos that show the fields of tulips and the now long-gone halls, built for the more delicate flowers, show that specific 60’s film-grain that dates them and gives them an aura of “old”. Like Mark Fisher once noted, it’s the, sometimes artificial, static which is part of some songs, that not only makes them “retro”, but also reminds us that they are a recording, a time out of joint. A past resurrected and dragged to the present. The same can be said for the photos of the WIG 64, with all their oversaturated colours and somewhat naïve composition, which tried to convince that beholder that these are pictures from the future, or at least a possible version of it, but now makes them seem even more dated.

A planned heterotopia ala Michel Foucault, that never was and the harder they tried the more painfully obvious this fact becomes to the observer in the present.

In fact, most of the buildings from the WIG 64 were either renamed, repurposed or vanished completely. Which brings us into the past’s future, the present. Today there are several points of interest inside the park, however, it’s not my intention to write at great lengths about the monuments dedicated to Che Guevarra, Jose Marit, Juan Pablo Duarte Y Diez or Salvador Allende, but their existence is nonetheless noteworthy. What I really want to write about is a group of rusty iron sculptures by Karl Anton Wolf called “The Golden Calf – The Technology as Apocalypse”. I want to end my short essay examining these works of art, because they represent a perfect contra point to an area that was described as a glimpse of the future. To Which an exhibition was dedicated later called “Green post war modernity” and articles about the exhibition iterated slogans like “with the chairlift to the future” or “the start into modernity”.

Wolf’s trio of sculptures are not just heaps of decaying metal, but have easily recognizable shapes. Towers, oil pumps, skyscrapers, metal titans that ravage the earth while walking it. Quiet fitting for a Park built on trash and death that monsters grow ther, nurtured by the ideological waste, only poorly swept under the carpet of time.

It shows that promises of the future are often quite treacherous. Ghosts of past futures can take many forms. Projections, in both senses of the word, are quite literally deceiving. We still have no sky links all over Vienna, transporting us everywhere, as the people of 64 believed we would by now. And my own ideas of the future? Children still only dream of electric tigers.

Born in 1990 and always interested in culture and the changes it goes through, Christopher Gajsek studied visual contemporary and culture history in Vienna from 2010 to 2020. He finished his studies with his master’s thesis on the depiction of fictionalized nazi sciences in sci-fi movies of the 60s and 70s and currently works as a cashier at the Austrian Filmmuseum and writes columns about movies, music and local, as well as international culture for the ETC Magazin in Vienna.