The Fernwӓrmewerk – or district heating plant – stands at the junction of Dӧbling, the leafy-green nineteenth district, and Alsergrund, the austere and classical ninth district. Throughout its illustrious history, this coveted section of northern Vienna has been home to the myriad of musicians, writers and intellectuals that have made Vienna the city that it is today. From Mozart to Beethoven, Sigmund Freud to Theodor Herzl, the great men of the Austro-Hungarian capital found themselves curiously drawn to these grand, Habsburg-era apartments overlooking the sprawling Vienna Woods to the north.
As a result, the architectural style of the Fernwӓrme – which is, after all, a rubbish incinerator plant – stands out from its 19th century surroundings. Tall and dazzling, with hundreds of bright reflective plates and an enormous golden ball on top of the 126m (413 feet) chimney, the building is incomparable in the architectural world. And it isn’t just the shiny façade; the walls and roof of the Fernwӓrme, with their huge collection of trees and shrubbery, as well as its conspicuous lack of straight lines and uneven flooring, are a testament to the genius of the environmentalist and "eco-architect" who designed it – Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
For Viennese locals, some of the elements of the Fernwӓrme are also evident in Hundertwasser’s other buildings. The avoidance of straight lines in his design were borne largely out of his aversion to rigid, enforced order. The son of a Jewish mother in Nazi-occupied Austria, Hundertwasser associated grid-like architecture with the uniformed, marching squares of Fascist soldiers. Likewise, the uneven windows and colourful façades were tied to his deep-seated support for individual expression and lack of conformity, facets of his personality which inevitably found their way into his buildings.
But the real charm of the Fernwӓrme lies in its history. Originally constructed in the late 1960s, the waste incinerator plant was a major source of pollution for the city, belching out a steady stream of smog into the picturesque woods surrounding it. After a fire ravaged the building in 1989, the Mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk, approached Hundertwasser with a request to design the new power plant.
An active environmentalist and keen nature-lover, Hundertwasser was quick to refuse – until the Mayor promised to upgrade the Fernwӓrme with the most modern purification filters and advance the district heating system. Faced with the promise of a super-green facility and supplying heat to 60,000 homes in the city of fewer than 2 million people, the esteemed architect relented, and in 1992 the Fernwӓrme was completed.
The role of the plant is simple: burn waste to heat water, and pump it across the city to schools, hospitals and homes. But the advanced, environmentally-friendly technology, combined with the inimitable architectural style, has placed the Fernwӓrme firmly in the hearts of Vienna’s citizens – despite facing complete ridicule from the established architectural community. For the locals, however, it’s seen as a source of pride and joy – even resulting in Vienna being declared the "World City Closest to Sustainable Waste Management" in 2010.
Have you visited Vienna’s Fernwӓrme? Have district heating systems taken off in your cities? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Ajit Niranjan. Data linked to sources.