Vienna’s 19th Century-Coal Gasometers

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By the Writers at Inhabitat

Imagine living in a miniature city-within-a-city built into what was formerly a giant gas tank from the turn of the 19th century. Situated just a stone’s throw away from the historic fountains and monuments of central Vienna are four massive, oddly-shaped brick buildings that thousands of Viennese call home. While the structures’ streamlined apartments, high-end shops and indoor gardens may be the first few things that appeal to your senses, if you look a little harder, you’ll find that these inimitable constructions hold an equally unique history much more deserving of your attention. Built in 1896 in the Simmering district of Vienna, these gigantic cylindric “Gasometers” once served as containers for coal gas but were shuttered after a century of use. Although left largely deserted for much of the 1980s and ’90s, they did find some bizarre uses — including a stint as a Hollywood movie set for a certain spy — before finally being transformed into one of Vienna’s most animated and thriving mixed-use housing developments by a team of high-profile architects.

During the late half of the 19th century, Vienna underwent a renaissance that saw the expansion of its borders and a transformation into a center of high culture and modernism. To better provide for its rapidly growing population, Viennese authorities began investing in local infrastructure by building roads, rail and large-scale gas and electric utilities. In 1896, the city started construction on what would become Europe’s largest gas plant.

The four Gasometers were originally developed as brick-wrapped, cylindrical telescopic gas containers, each approximately 230 feet tall, 197 feet in diameter, and with a storage capacity comparable to 34 Olympic-size swimming pools. Inside, gas was dry-distilled from coal and stored before being distributed into the city’s gas network. The gas was originally used only to light street lamps, but by 1910, its use for cooking and heating in private homes became the norm. After nearly a century-long run, the plant was decommissioned in 1984 for newer natural gas technology, leaving in its wake four spectacular brick clad tanks. These symbols of a prosperous time—and remarkable structures in their own right—saw their interiors gutted, but the facades encasing the four tanks were preserved and the Gasometers were named national monuments.

Given that the shell andparts of the roof were left standing, the interior space was kept in good repair. ]They even found a variety of occupants and odd uses over the years, including life as a rave venue.

More than a decade after closing, Vienna would eventually kick off the remodeling and revitalization of the Gasometers in 1995, with an international competition calling for new ideas on how to reuse the relics. The winning designs were submitted by the architects and their renovations were completed in just three years, between 1999 and 2001, and more amenities such as entertainment and shopping venues were added between 2004 and 2009. The total cost of the revitalization project was approximately 175 million euros.

Today, the Gasometers house nearly 800 apartments, a student dormitory with 70 units, offices, a day care center, a multiplex, numerous shops, restaurants, bars and cafes, an events hall (with capacity for 2,000 to 3,000 people), the Vienna National Archive, and connecting skybridges. There are about 1,600 regular tenants and 250 students living within the structures, and the development has become a cultural magnet for the Viennese.

While the final program of each Gasometer is similar, each architect added their own unique touch. For Gasometer A, the architect created a large indoor plaza with a translucent roof playing with reflections, refractions and transparencies of the old and the new. The designer for Gasometer B added three new volumes to the existing facade: a cylinder inside the Gasometer, a glass “shield” of apartments and offices on the outside and the multifunctional concert hall situated in the base of the main structure. For Gasometer C, the designer took a more green approach, adding terraces throughout the structure and developing an indoor garden at the lowest level. And finally, for Gasometer D, the architect filled the center of the existing building with a lift and stairs and designated three compact interior sections divided with indoor gardens.

The building was officially opened by the mayor on October 30, 2001, but many of the residents started moving in as early as May 2001.

The inspiring renovation of the Gasometers has become the subject of numerous theses and dissertations in psychology, urban planning, architecture and journalism. And as icons of an architectural movement and a historic city, the Gasometers will surely continue to stand the test of time — though if history repeats itself, who knows what they’ll be reinvented as in another 100 years!





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