breakdancers and tree tenants

vienna, austria

In the Stephansplatz the bucksters are working the crowds, but badly. One guy wearing a silver-and-black harlequin costume argues with his girlfriend in German. I wander through the square several times during the day, and they’re always arguing. Maybe they’re discussing Nieche, or maybe they’re deciding whether to have a baby. Or maybe this is the performance, a conceptual art piece requiring no spectators and no applause.

A magician with a bad haircut pulls small birds out of crumpled up euro notes, and then suspends his assistant in mid-air. A curious little chinese kid wanders over, stands directly under the floating assistant, and looks up curiously. At 2, magic is just another new thing to absorb. The magician conjures in silence, and I wonder (as I always do), ‘what if this is real?’

Then a rap beat blasts across the cathedral square, and a heavily accented voice yells “We gonna be starting soon, people, so get over here now!” The crowd drifts across the square, leaving the magician to pull a few more flowers out of the air.

In a cloud of rhythm a quintet of eastern european twenty-somethings are working the crowd. “This is the ticket to our show, people!” they yell in unison, holding up a 5-euro note. “You want to see our moves, we want to see your tickets!”

And then they begin to dance. They spin in place on their heads, and then flip and spin on one hand. They twirl and kick out their heels, like demented Cossacks. A black guy in the crowd yells “You go, brothers!”

These ex-communists are showing that they have mastered marketing. They yell out in English, “We want to hear you say ‘yeah’, people!”, and the crowd obliges, drawing in even more folks to see what the ruckus is all about. They have everyone clap in unison, and even more people drift over to see what is making people so happy. The magician, defeated, packs up his parakeets and goes home.

After dancing for 10 minutes , the 5 dancers take a 5 minute break and then work the crowd again. They do this all day. Sometimes their shirts come off, and their chests and stomachs would put the most ideal greek statues to shame.

One of the advantages of travel is that you realize that there are so many amazing people that aren’t known outside of a small area. My dad, for example, knew a guy at the Millville Men’s Club who would eat his beer glass. It’s an amazing talent, but I never saw it. (As a boy, I only went into the Millville Men’s Club once, for a wake. All I can remember is the egg salad.) His great talent went unsung, except for the regulars at a small bar in Bellingham, Massachusetts.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser was a Wiener (pronounced ‘veener’) and world-renowned artist, but I’d never heard of him. His resumé covers an entire wall at the KunstHausWien (Vienna Art House), which he helped design. While Mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein proclaimed a ‘Hundertwasser week’. Yet today he’s barely known outside of Vienna.

He redesigned the national flags of Australia and New Zealand. He designed postage stamps for the United Nations. He fought against the adoption of european-style license plates in Austria.

He produced hundreds of beautiful prints in bold shades of color and metalic silvers and golds. (I think his work is better than that of Klimpt, which it resembles.) Yet his most amazing work is his architecture.

Hundertwasser’s architecture is reminiscint of Barcelona’s Gaudi in it’s organic curvy lines. The floors of rooms are uneven, flowing into little hills and valleys. He claimed that these floors ‘become a symphony, a melody for the feet’.

His buildings also resemble his paintings in their use of brightly colored tiles, round ceramic columns, and metalic surfaces. But the most striking thing about his buildings are the non-human inhabitants.

Hundertwasser stated that buildings should have ‘tree tenants’, and all of his structures have large trees growing from windows, vines flowing down the facade, and roofs of grass and trees. Man, he said, had driven the trees from the ground and up into the windows of his buildings. The effect is beautiful, a sort of vertical forest overhanging a street. (In the attached photo, all of the trees are growing from the house. None are located at street level.)

This is an amazing, but simple idea. The trees need a square yard of soil and in return clean the air around the building. They soften the facade, provide shade, and re-connect city dwellers with the natural world. Why don’t all cities require ‘tree tenants’ in new buildings?

If you’re a city dweller, plant a tree on your patio. Japanese maples do well in pots. If you’re an architect, investigate Hundertwasser’s ideas. See if you can help bridge the gap between man and nature. And whomever you are, go for a walk across a meadow or down a forest trail. Feel the rise and fall of the ground. Feel the symphony.


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