Augarten Flaktowers

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Augarten Flaktowers ViennaHuge tower-like bunkers, originally built for anti-aircraft gun batteries and as public air-raid shelters. Now these big grey monsters are Vienna's (and Austria's) largest WWII relics … brooding, colossal giants oozing dark atmosphere (but not accessible inside).  
More background info: "Flak" is short for "Flugabwehrkanonen" in German – i.e. 'anti-aircraft guns'; and "Türme" is 'towers'. And indeed they are kind-of tower-like gigantic bunkers, between 7 and 13 stories high, primarily built towards the end of WWII as bases for heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries on the roof. The lower floors also served as additional air-raid shelter space for the city's population.
These towers always came in pairs – one for the actual gun batteries, called the "Gefechtsturm", the other, the "Leitturm", was for radar and other tracking devices, which needed to be separate from the guns in order to work properly.
Three cities in the Third Reich (on the territory of today's Germany and Austria) were thus supposed to be better protected from the increasing Allied bombing campaigns during the second half of WWII: Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. The latter two had three pairs each, Hamburg only two, so there are eight in total. Only in Vienna, however, do all towers still exist. 
The guns didn't do much to prevent the large-scale destruction from the air. In fact, the number of planes shot down by these Flaks was negligibly low. But they did serve their second role well – that of providing air-raid shelter space for the densely populated cities. In addition they housed emergency hospitals and broadcasting stations. Moreover, they served a propaganda function, of course: that of creating the illusion of safety and thus bolstering the people's will to endure more war … despite the fact that this war already was as good as lost at the time these towers were erected.
After WWII, the Flaktowers in Berlin were largely destroyed and covered under huge mounds of rubble (but one still partly pokes out and can be accessed on adventurous bunker exploration tours – see Berlin 'underworlds').
The ones in Hamburg have partly found new commercial uses (sound studios, etc.) – although I can remember well the second tower on Hamburg's Heiligengeistfeld (the "Leitturm") being laboriously demolished in the 1970s – the process took forever. It basically had to be chiselled down inch by inch and demonstrated just how solid these brutes were/are – almost indestructible. The city's two Gefechtstürme, one of which is unused, are therefore here to stay, as they are a lot more massive than the "Leittürme".
In Vienna, the three towers have also found different fates, but they are all still there – in that sense Vienna is unique in retaining the entire set. This ensemble formed a triangle around the inner city. The pairs of towers in the south-west and south-east have found various new uses. Although one is still close to its original function: it's part of the Stiftskaserne army barracks, where it is used to store the military's computer centre/data and it also provided space for Austria's top-level government in times of crisis. Its Leitturm now houses an inner city mini-zoo/aquarium, while parts of its underground structures house Vienna's torture museum.
The pair of towers in Arenbergpark are partly used for storage and occasionally art exhibitions.
The pair in Augarten, however, stands out the most – literally even: they are the highest of the whole bunch at almost 180 feet (55m) and rise from the open plain of the Augarten (the city's oldest park), visible from far away. This makes them far more impressive sights than any of the other Flaktürme. The larger Gefechtsturm is also of a unique design: it's 16-sided, i.e. almost round. The tower within the army barracks is of the same design, but you can't see it from anywhere, at least not from street level in public areas. The round structure was apparently meant to be more efficient and economical – it was the latest of the three designs of these uniquely (Nazi-)German bunker structures. The Augarten pair was only finished in early 1945.
The colossal Gefechtsturm is partly damaged – an explosion in 1946 blew up its roof, which then crash-landed back on its base, only slightly cracked. Indeed the outside wall of the main bunker's hulk is also partly cracked and bulges a little on one side. The explosion, by the way, was allegedly caused by playing kids, who somehow managed to enter the bunker and started a fire inside, which, after the kids had left, ignited left-over anti-aircraft gun shells in the ammunition storage inside the bunker. An alternative theory suggests that it was the Soviet occupying forces trying to destroy the bunker. Maybe even both stories are correct? In any case, this cracked appearance only adds to the dark attraction of this ominous concrete giant.
The inside, severely damaged by the explosion, has only been occupied by pigeons since 1946 – thousands of them. A report by the "Berliner Unterwelten" association, who were allowed to explore the bunker's interior in 2005, reads like a stomach-churning horror story: the layer of guano from pigeon droppings was eight feet high in places – and there were thousands of pigeons fluttering about in panic. Yet more pigeons lay around dead (or nearly dead) and in various stages of decomposition. New pigeon nests were even built right on the carcasses/skeletons of deceased pigeons of previous (now pervious) generations. Needless to say, the bunker explorers had to wear protective face masks. The stench inside this aviary from hell must be as nauseating as it is dangerous. To make things even more hazardous, the stairs going up the inside of the curved walls no longer have railings – so to avoid falling up to 150 feet into the stinking abyss, the explorers had to tread extra carefully in between the dead pigeons, nests and guano while trying to dodge the panicked live pigeons flying around them. The bunker enthusiasts claimed it was worth it for the views from the top and the discovery of gun fragments on the roof …
UPDATE: a group of Vienna-based "urban explorers" recently gained access to the inside of the tower too and reported that much clearing up has meanwhile taken place, but that many of the makeshift railings along the spiral stairway are already beginning to crumble again, so that it is still hazardous to climb to the top. But they too enjoyed the views when they got there - and: they took some stunning photos (see here - external link, opens in a new window).  
Over the years there had been various ideas floated as to what to do with these towering WWII relics from the Nazi years. Demolition is one option that has been discussed (and is still being demanded by some). But now the Flaktürme have been given the status of listed buildings, so they should be more or less safe. Except that the cracked Gefechtsturm isn't, of course. In fact, it appears that in 2006 one of the internal floors collapsed and that one of the ring of concrete balconies that jut out on the sides from the main tower near the top threatened to come crashing down (these are called "swallow's nests" – they were for additional light anti-aircraft guns). For a while the whole area around the tower was fenced off while work proceeded at the tower. The unstable "swallow's nest" was knocked down and some of the cracks stabilized.
It is, however, surprisingly difficult to get hold of any definite information about these towers (which are owned by the city authorities). One vague source claimed that the pigeon guano was also (at least partly) cleared away in the process of the stabilizing efforts. The inside of the bunker is not accessible to the general public in any case, though, so this cannot be confirmed.
Allegedly the space within this bunker is rented out to some data storage company – but whether they are actually using it, or what their plans for future use of the building may be, remains unclear.
What there is to see: basically just the gigantic concrete massiveness of the Flaktowers as they are. There is zero commodification, no information panels, no nothing. If you don't know what they are/were, you'd be at a loss guessing what they might (have been) used for – the guns were of course removed immediately after WWII.
Still, for the dark tourist, they're simply something to behold from the outside for their sheer size and enigmatic aura. The interior, though, is not accessible to the general public.
The smaller of the pair, the former "Leitturm" for radar tracking equipment, is less spectacular, but still quite something. Of the two towers it is the more intact one – although you can see two holes near the roof where the bunker must have been hit by grenades.
The larger, nearly round "Gefechtsturm", i.e. the one where the heavy anti-aircraft gun batteries used to be – on the roof, is the real monster. The damage it sustained in the explosion in 1946 also gives it an additional aura. On the one hand the cracks in the side make it appear unfittingly "fragile" – as if the whole thing could come tumbling down at any moment ... although since the repairs and stabilizing work of recent years, this effect is now somewhat less dramatic. On the other hand the cracks even underscore the impression of a virtually indestructible fortress.
The fact that the walls have no windows (only a few air vents) makes the monstrous structure appear almost extraterrestrial – like a giant crash-landed alien spaceship, sealed, impenetrable, ominous …
Many "normal" people claim they find these grey monster towers so ugly they'd rather they were demolished. That way another relic that could remind people of Austria's Nazi past would also be conveniently removed, of course, which is definitely another motivation for locals wishing the towers away.
On the other hand, I have personally witnessed on numerous occasions the fascination that often grips even the most "average" mainstream tourist when first encountering these enigmatic giants … So for the dark tourist in Vienna it's almost a must-do: take the little detour to go and see these unique, and starkly monstrous relics!  
Location: in Augarten park at the northern corner of Vienna's 2nd district (Leopoldstadt) between Obere Augartenstarße and Rauscherstraße/Lampigasse and bordering the 20th district (Brigittenau) at Wasnergasse, which is also the street with the park entrances closest to the Flaktowers. As you approach you'll already see the towers from a distance – it's impossible not to.
Google maps locators:
48.2257,16.3736] – 'Gefechtsturm'
[48.2278,16.3783] – 'Leitturm'
Access and costs: slightly outside the city centre, but easy to get to; free.
Details: From Vienna's inner city (1st district), the Augarten park is not outside walking distance, less than a mile and a half from Stephansplatz by the cathedral; e.g. walk across the Danube canal at Schwedenbrücke, at the bottom of Rotenturmstraße, then along Taborstraße and then left along Obere Augartentraße.
But there are also two tram lines going directly past Augarten: the No. 5 line goes along the north-eastern rim (it runs from Westbahnhof and the 7th, 8th, and 9th districts, as well as from Praterstern, in the other direction), and No. 31 along the south-western wall of the park (going from Schottenring – outside the U2/U4 metro station). Bus 5A coming from Nestroyplatz (U1) even goes along Wasnergasse, closest to the towers.

The new metro station Taborstraße (U2) provides the fastest access – but is at the opposite end of the park from the towers. Quite convenient could also be tram line No. 2, which goes along part of the inner city ring anticlockwise between Rathaus and Schwedenplatz (formerly it was one of the ring loop lines) also goes up Taborstraße.
Access to Augarten park is of course free. The Flaktowers themselves can only be viewed from the outside.
The park closes at night (exact times vary with the season), so you have to go during daylight hours – and nothing else would make sense in any case … Especially for photography, you should also pick a clear dry day, if at all possible.
Time required: it really depends on how quickly you can drag yourself away from the awesome sight of these towers. In theory, it only takes a couple of minutes looking at each towers for a moment or two. But I for one can't get enough of looking at them. I must have passed them hundreds if not thousands of times, since Augarten is my local park. But still to this day I continue to get enchanted by their aura. I recommend that you take the sight of them in from at least a few different angles, walk around them. Do at least two loops at each of the towers … and just let the brooding atmosphere they exude sink in.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Vienna – the only other dark sight in the area is the crime museum on Große Sperlgasse, which is just a few hundred yards south of Augarten.  
Of course you could also go and see Vienna's other Flaktowers. The pair in Arenbergpark are probably the second best (after Augarten) for atmosphere. The partly preserved interior of the larger "Gefechtsturm" has even been publicly accessible on occasions, namely when modern art exhibitions were shown. But last time I went there (in September 2013) I found it closed for refurbishment "until further notice". Before that it used to be open on a regular basis only on Sundays (between March and November) from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (guided tours were offered at 3 p.m.) – whether the same restricted times will apply when it re-opens to the public remains to be seen. Watch this space.
The "Gefechtsturm" on the premises of the Stiftskaserne army barracks in the 7th district  is nearly invisible – you may just about make out the roof level above the army barracks buildings that surround it. But its "Leitturm" is the most accessible tower of the lot: climbers even use one side of it for practice! The rest of the exterior has also been significantly altered. Housed inside is an aquarium (see under non-dark combinations) – and, weather permitting, access to the roof is sometimes possible as well.
The underground parts of the area around the tower also house Vienna's torture museum.
UPDATE: the Leitturm in Esterhazy Park that is home to the "Haus des Meeres" aquarium, now also has a small museum about the history of the bunkers. Access is restricted to guided tours in small groups at fixed times and I haven't got round to participating in one, but will try to go as soon as possible and report back then. As far as I can tell you have to pay the aquarium admission fee (which is hefty) in order to get access to the museum, which puts me off a bit. I'll have to find a good moment for a combination visit, maybe when I have friends staying in Vienna who'd be interested in both the museum and the aquarium.   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Vienna – the Augarten is one of Vienna's most attractive parks, and walking up to and between the two Flaktowers naturally takes the form of a stroll in the park anyway – so why not extend it to the other sections of this prettily old-fashioned (baroque) recreational pasture – you may even see cute little red squirrels scampering about.
If you go out to see Vienna's other Flaktowers, the one at Esterhazyplatz, in the 7th district near Vienna's main shopping street Mariahilfer Straße, houses a very popular general tourist attraction of the animal-y, family outing type (although it can't beat Schönbrunn zoo on that front!), namely the "Haus des Meeres", mainly an aquarium but also mini-zoo/troparium. It's open daily, year round, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., open late to 9 p.m. on Thursdays; admission 17.60 EUR (various concessions apply, esp. for children).
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 01 - LeitturmAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 01 - Leitturm
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 02 - LeitturmAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 02 - Leitturm
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 03 - big holeAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 03 - big hole
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 04 - Leitturm topAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 04 - Leitturm top
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 05 - Gefechtsturm in 2006Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 05 - Gefechtsturm in 2006
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 06 - Gefechtsturm in 2006Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 06 - Gefechtsturm in 2006
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 07 - Gefechtsturm in 2009Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 07 - Gefechtsturm in 2009
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 08 - fence around baseAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 08 - fence around base
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 09 - secured cracksAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 09 - secured cracks
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 10 - towering towerAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 10 - towering tower
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 11 - pigeon towerAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 11 - pigeon tower
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 12 - resident pigeonsAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 12 - resident pigeons
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 13 - Gefechtsturm roofAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 13 - Gefechtsturm roof
  • Augarten Flaktowers Vienna 14 - Gefechtsturm dominating the parkAugarten Flaktowers Vienna 14 - Gefechtsturm dominating the park
  • Augarten Flaktowers ViennaAugarten Flaktowers Vienna
  • B - Arenbergpark GefechtsturmB - Arenbergpark Gefechtsturm
  • B - I do not understand it eitherB - I do not understand it either
  • C - museum in the Esterhazypark LeitturmC - museum in the Esterhazypark Leitturm
  • C - remembering insideC - remembering inside

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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