the Magic Mountain of Vienna's Fin de Siècle


Elisabeth von Samsonow on Yvonne Oswald’s photos of the abandoned Suedbahnhotel on Semmering

A house is a body, witness of its time – it is built, inhabited, lived in, worn out, abandoned, destroyed. It is thrown up from the geological material in the region, built of stone, bricks, wood, a miniature version of the cosmos of which they are part. Large buildings frequented by many different people are particularly interesting. It is the many lives left behind in them that makes such buildings fascinating as unwritten chronicles. Certain types of highly frequented buildings are overtaken by history but are nevertheless preserved and venerated – because of their artistic or chronological value. Antique temples are one example, but there are also more recent structures, such as the architectural remnants of the industrial revolution – factories, mines, and dedicated production facilities. An unusual example of this more recent category is the Südbahnhotel in Semmering, which has a particularly remarkable history. For over fifty years it slumbered in a dysfunctional twilight existence, while the structures, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, etc., resigned themselves to their destiny as organic substances, which was to gradually fade, wear thin, and disintegrate. However glorious the hotel’s past, the future of this stately building dominating the side of a hill in Semmering is uncertain. It is remarkably spacious. The unending suites, corridors, service rooms, halls, and basements bear witness to the bustling activity of the former guests, waited on by a multitude of menials. The name of the hotel is prosaic but also apt: visitors took the short journey on the Südbahn railway from Vienna to the pre-Alpine Semmering region, where the great and the good had their villas and hunting lodges. They received their summer guests there and took time off from the noise of the city. The railway was a quantum leap in transportation and occasioned a marked increase in the demand for accommodation, as demonstrated by other large hotels in Semmering like the Panhans. The growth in social entertainments as a result of the arrival of countless Viennese and international guests must have been huge. Interestingly, these grand hotels were furnished as if they were larger-scale versions of private houses. All of the elements of the bourgeois home were to be found there: the divan, the mirrors, the decorations, the chandeliers, and the huge ballroom in the Südbahnhotel. The hotel’s decline must have started in the 1950s – at least the most recent decorations, fabrics, and carpets date from that time. They blend strangely with the historical pomp of the public areas and the classicist references on the wall paneling and bedroom doors.

Existence in a limbo between Past and Future

Yvonne Oswald paid many visits to this silent building, observing, questioning, and sensing its existence in a limbo between past and future, vitality and decline. There is a striking number of pictures of interiors. The outside of the building is shown from various angles but never as a whole, reflecting the intimacy developing between the hotel and its observer. Oswald’s photos are not architectural documents or interiors, but portraits of a body from another time, attached loosely to this material colossus of a hotel in Semmering. Her photos give the objects a type of subjectivity, as if they had not only been gradually shaped by the people using them but were also designed from the outset as purely practical means of communication, as humanoids through which people ordered their lives. The camera sweeps and caresses these objects, whose real use is temporarily obliterated, increasing their status as objects with an autonomous materiality, form, and line. The photographer shows incidentally how well these things are made: the grand elegance of the elements, the brass hardware, the door panels, the typography of the words describing functions and directions. Individual “creatures” appear in various forms – couches with different fabrics, or armchairs whose curved backs echo the vital curvature of the building. The emptiness of the rooms contrasts delightfully with the seriality of the stacked furniture. Someone must have tried to bring some order into these abandoned remnants. In other places, however, it looks as if the people had simply departed thirty or forty years ago. Most of the doors are open, giving the rooms a strangely transitory appearance and leaving a gentle needle-prick in the hearts of those who cannot take their leave. In spite of the visible decline, the house has lost nothing of its countenance. On the contrary, the wallpaper coming away from the moldings, the threadbare fabrics, the chipped paintwork, give the hotel the dignity of a grand old lady, part of an even older history, whose age may never be used against her. There are remnants of the former pomp that have weathered the years – the Corinthian columns, old pink wall coverings, or Jugendstil fanlights, as if the history of these ready-made products refused to follow the laws of universal decay. The photos of the ballroom are breathtaking and the closest thing to architectural photography: the huge room, where crowds of people once dined, socialized, and amused themselves, has an imperial flair, dominated by the large metal chandelier hanging like a giant insect watching over the proceedings. One picture after the other leads into the interior, the organs in the structural body, each with its own function – and the suggestion that it would not take much for these functions to be filled again with the life that was intended for them. This idea takes on even more concrete form as the photos are studied, so much so that one feels an urge to do something to prevent the irretrievable demise.

Crumbling Decay and Loss of Function in a multilayered Nostalgia

Yvonne Oswald’s creative documentation of the Südbahnhotel balances on a knife’s edge: just as she delicately records the decline, loss of function, and crumbling decay of the hotel like an anatomist dissecting a cadavre exquis, the observer becomes increasingly outraged at this terminality, growing intimately familiar and even identifying with the hotel. Through her pictures the photographer manages to create a longing for these spaces and an urge to leave on the spot and book a room – as if the decline and even more the planned new utilization and conversion were a huge misunderstanding that needed to be rectified without delay. The quality of the workmanship makes it even more unthinkable that it will be changed or even destroyed. The photographer’s delicate composition and coloring, the close-range shots, do nothing to detract from the extreme physicality of Oswald’s work. Each picture communicates organically with the observer, not just in its painful beauty but also in the pain of loss. The feeling of nostalgia is all the greater as it is also a product of the fin-de-siècle nostalgia that inspired the original project.

Liquified Disappearance

A few of the photos uses reflections. The interiors, in whole or in part, are seen as if through a hand-blown mirror whose unevenness produces distortions and bizarre effects. They become blurred, softened, dematerialized in an aqueous solution – as if anticipating their dissolution and showing what a vague memory of a defunct world might look like. But apart from their pictorial quality, the blurred reflections also make it seem as if the furniture, wall decorations, and fluting, whose material existence transverses the passage of time, were being misshapen and liquefied on their way to disappearance, like all of the people who once inhabited these rooms.