Its role is changing but Vienna's Funkhaus remains an icon for broadcasting culture and tradition.
For a place that was built for the performance and broadcasting of music, Vienna’s Funkhaus is strangely quiet. Walk down its white, sparse, low-ceilinged corridors and you’ll feel like you’ve set foot on a transatlantic ship or in an underground bunker. Occasionally, from behind a heavy metal door, you’ll hear the noise of an orchestra tuning its instruments. But the noise fades quickly and a hushed silence soon settles again.
orf, Austria’s revered public-service broadcaster, might also operate out of nine regional offices and transmit its TV channels from a glass box in the outskirts of Vienna but this remains its radio’s historical home. A few steps away from central Karlsplatz, it proudly sports the broadcaster’s name on its façade in stark capital letters. The Viennese have always known that orf plays a central role in the city’s – and Austria’s – identity. So much so that when planning its subway network, the municipality decided not to allow the U-bahn to run underneath the Funkhaus so as to avoid disturbing the radio’s activities.
Few countries in Europe love their public radio more than Austria. In 2018, orf Radio held a staggering 72 per cent of radio market share in the country. Also impressively, 95 per cent of Austrians tune in to at least one of orf’s channels (be it TV, radio, or online) every week. No other media company in the country can compete. This dominance probably has to do with the fact that Austria was one of the last nations on the continent to allow private networks on its airwaves: it wasn’t until 1990 that any competition for orf arrived. And even when it did, the broadcaster held on dearly to its high-quality, uncompromising public-service mandate. About 700,000 people tune in every day to Ö1, the radio channel that’s strong on culture, classical music and high-brow discussions – and is completely ad-free. That’s 7 per cent of the audience share and a figure almost unparalleled abroad for a network of this kind. “It’s a question of tradition,” says Christoph Becher, the manager of orf’s own symphony orchestra, from his unassuming office on the second floor. “Often you can’t have small talk with taxi drivers in Vienna because one in three will have the culture channel on.”
Despite the broadcaster’s fortunes, though, there’s a certain melancholia to the Funkhaus. If this building feels nostalgic it’s because much of it has stayed unchanged since it was completed in 1938. That’s when architect Clemens Holzmeister, whose work included churches and festival halls around the country, saw his designs come to life. He was tasked with constructing a structure that would house the nation’s fledgling public radio service. ravag, as it was called, had started broadcasting in 1923, first from the Ministry of Defence and later from an apartment on the Johannesgasse. But this new outpost would give it 18 studios, including a majestic hall, where the public could enjoy classical music performances.
But the project was also not to appear wasteful: public funds were closely guarded as much then as they are now. Holzmeister’s building had to be functional and cheap but equipped with the latest technology. The philosophy married well with the architectural diktat of the time: Austrofascism preferred rational buildings where decoration was sparse. In the lobby a pair of grooved metal columns, stucco ceiling and lustrous, pink and beige marble floor would provide extravagant touches. The recording halls, though, looked all the better for their wooden panels’ ability to ensure perfect acoustics: comely chandeliers, an organ and comfortable leather seats were also installed in the grand hall, to the delight of attendees. To ravag’s disappointment, though, this building would not be theirs to inaugurate. By the time construction was finished, the Nazi annexation of Austria prevented them from cutting the ribbon. The building flew a swastika-adorned flag throughout the Second World War, while a bust of Hitler towered at the entrance. Despite their initial jealousy – no other Funkhaus could match Vienna’s in technical prowess, not even Berlin’s – the Nazis used the building to broadcast their own marching music and propaganda. Allied bombardments towards the end of the conflict did eventually destroy the wing housing the radio-play studios (that part of the Funkhaus was later rebuilt by one of Holzmeister’s pupils) but the building made it through the war largely unscathed.
The Russians came next – replacing Hitler’s bust with Stalin’s. The propaganda programme “Russian Hour” would be recorded here for almost a decade. Finally, in 1953, all censorship was lifted and public broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk – or Orf for short – could finally claim this space for itself. All its radio transmissions were to come from this building – and they did for decades. Cultural radio Ö1, as well as easy listening Ö2, also known as local news radio Radio Wien, mainsteam pop radio Ö3 and youth-oriented fm4 all had their dedicated floor in this austere four-storey building.
This utopia, however, couldn’t last. In 1997 pop music station Ö3 grew too big for its space and had to be moved to its own, much less fascinating, building far away in the 19th district. Then, three years ago, came the most significant blow: the building was sold to a private company, so the activities of Ö1 and fm4 will also have to be relocated.
The Funkhaus is in transition. Up on the fourth floor, a few packed cardboard boxes in the hallway are left over from fm4’s move to orf’s main media centre, in Vienna’s south-western 13th district. Ö1 will be next. Nobody is certain of what use their offices, control rooms and radio studios will be put to. What employees do know is that Radio Wien (and its small TV studio) will remain unchanged. The activities of RadioKulturhaus – the part of the building that houses the beautiful performance and recording studios, used for concerts and talks – will also carry on as usual. “A lot of the building is listed as cultural heritage so we can’t change it,” says Thomas Wohinz, RadioKulturhaus’s director. “And we don’t want to change it.”
Take a look at the recording studios and you’ll see why these spaces deserve protection. Handsomely wood-panelled Studio 2 is also covered in Klimt-like, faded textiles. Studio 3 is adorned with art by Austrian painter Hilda Jesser-Schmid – art deco images of the bourgeoisie picnicking or making merry, naked, in a park. Not only that: every room hides smart but imperceptible measures to ensure that audio quality here is always impeccable. All have multi-layered walls and double ceilings, and are separated from other rooms by “cushioning” empty corridors – and a double set of doors. Each studio is shaped like a trapeze to aid the even distribution of sound. What look like aesthetic decorations – slits in the wood panelling, cylindrical shapes protruding from the walls – are all tricks to improve the quality of recordings. The noise-protection system works so well that each recording studio is fitted with a visual emergency alarm: should sirens go off outside, nobody would notice.
It’s important for these public-facing venues to remain active in the centre of the city, accessible to the ordinary Viennese, who might want to pop in for an event like a discussion on the concept of holiness with German social philosopher Hans Joas. The Austrian public don’t seem to shy away from complicated topics. “It’s high-quality programming,” says programmer Martina Laab. “The average age for Ö1 listeners is 56 years old. But the events audience is younger. We know we have to find a new audience, so we try to move more into pop, bring more styles together.” RadioKulturhaus puts on about 300 events a year that cater for all manner of interests – including book presentations, rock gigs, choir shows, plays, political discussions and classical music concerts.
No matter how strong the ambition to rejuvenate the programming, it is clear that classical music remains an important pillar of what goes on at the Funkhaus every day. “Classical music is part of the identity of Austria: we grew up with it,” says Laab when asked why Austrians remain largely undeterred in their passion for composers like Mozart, Strauss and Schubert. “People care; they are very engaged.” The Symphony Orchestra’s manager Becher agrees with this sentiment. “Austrian people have a proudness about the history of their country.”
Whatever might happen in the future, one thing is clear: the sound of music will continue to emanate from behind the iconic Funkhaus’s well-insulated doors for many years to come.