What Secrets Can You Find in Donau City?

Glass-covered walkway between the convention Center and train station.

Glass-covered walkway between the convention Centre and train station.

Surrealistic sculpture of industrial machines and a row of small babies.

Several sculptures by this artist are tucked between buildings throughout Donau City.

Sculpture in foreground, multi-layer courtyard, stairs, and buildings in background.

Donau City is dotted with courtyards with stairs leading to lower courtyards and balconies looking down into yet deeper layers with cars hidden below.

Plain concrete wall alongside a pedestrian walkway, with a rounded tower, then another raised rectangular building stretching over the walkway as a bridge.

Architecture within Donau City ranges from concrete blocks to rounded glass-dotted towers.

A rotating restaurant on the top of a needle-like tower visible above bushy trees.

Danube Tower is the tallest building in Austria.

Tall skyscraper encased in black glass, with three smooth sides and one wavy side.

The black monolith of DC-1, a controversial office building and hotel on the outskirts of Donau City.

Stepping outside the conference venue sets attendees loose within an urban maze of pathways weaving through high rise towers. But unlike most urban cityscapes, Donau City is surreally quiet with cars banished to the lowest level with only occasional skylight windows through the pedestrian walkways above. The city feels like an M.C. Escher drawing brought to life, with pathways criss-crossing in an infinite variety of levels connected through ramps, bridges and stairs — or occasionally dead-ending with no clear route across a sudden gaping courtyard. Among rows of bland concrete towers are architecturally startling constructions, including a towering black glass monolith that sits in stark contrast to the historic church on the far horizon.

Donau City is in the Kaisermühlen territory of Vienna’s Donaustadt district, an artificial island nestled between Neue and Alte Donau (that’s New and Old Danube, neither of which are the main Danube River).

The first attempt to tame the Donau River was in the 1800s, when the waterway was straightened for faster shipping and reduce flooding. This utterly failed to contain Europe’s second-largest river, and floods continued to inundate the land repeatedly until an extensive engineering programme rolled out from 1972 through 1988 finally contained it with a new flood relief channel, Neue Donau. While the main channel is still devoted to shipping, the quieter Neue Donau quickly attracted recreational users (and even tempted one enthusiast to declare it “the autobahn for swimmers”), although it lacks the popularity of the warmer meander of Alte Donau.

The neighbourhood is young: its iconic Donaupark (created on the site of a landfill) only opened in 1964 for the Vienna International Garden Show; the island was stabilised from regular flooding as recently as the 1970s and 80s; and the first of its characteristic skyscrapers was built in the 1990s.

Construction on the island started out utilitarian, with an United Nations facility that is now home to

the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). At the same times as the first UNISPACE conference was held in the Vienna in 1968, architects from around the world were submitting designs for the new complex. Austrian architect Johann Staber’s design won, launching construction of the Vienna International Centre. After the facility was inaugurated in 1979, the Government leased the facility to the United Nations for a symbolic rent of one Austrian shilling (equivalent to €0.07) per year for 99 years. It became home to UNOOSA in 1993.

The UN facility was quickly followed by the Austria Center Vienna (where this IAU General Assembly is taking place), which opened in 1987.

The island’s development has since broadened, with apartments, office buildings and recreational

facilities. Determined to create a pedestrian-friendly district, the first major infrastructure change involved roofing over the main motorway, creating a raised artificial pedestrian-only island.

Even wandering between high-rise after high-rise, the spire of Donauturm stands out. As Austria’s

tallest building (and one of the 75 tallest buildings in the world), the needle stabs out of Donaupark to support a bulbous observation deck and two rotating restaurants. Donaupark is also home to a narrow gauge railway, a bird sanctuary and a 40-metre tall steel cross that was installed for Pope John Paul II to celebrate Holy Mass in the park in 1983.

So go on, step outside and explore. Meander down the glass-covered walkway towards the U-Bahn station, weave your way between shops and offices to find the gardens, or slip down an arching bridge to spy on swans in the canal. Be daring in your explorations, because all paths connect sooner or later and you can’t get truly lost in Donau City.

MIKA McKINNON is a Canadian-American field geophysicist, disaster researcher, scientist for fiction, and irrepressibly curious science communicator. She lives on the internet can be found discussing science in all the usual places, including: Twitter, Facebook, and (less often) Instagram.