The golden cage

It was late afternoon on an unseasonably warm winter day – and I’d made a terrible miscalculation.

Thus: instead of alighting from efficient Viennese public transport, I arrived by foot at the Raimanngasse bus stop after a marathon uphill hike from the wrong stop on an altogether inappropriate line, one or two bus routes removed from one I’d been instructed to take by my host, Frau L—.

I should have listened closer to what she’d been telling me that morning.

She’d provided all the necessary and proper directions, but I’d been distracted.

I wasn’t lost though at present. I could still find my way to the day’s destination. It was just that I’d made my journey all the more arduous. And sunlight was fading now.

The purpose of my excursion to 14th district Vienna was to visit Kirche am Steinhof, or St. Leopold’s – Otto Wagner’s Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) church on the hilltop there.

And as a proud and dutiful tourist, I wouldn’t be denied my visit – no matter how tired I was, no matter how long the day got.


St. Leopold’s is at the edge of the Steinhofgründe. Its doors face ignobly southward – toward Hungary. I was still many steps below the church, whose golden dome was now obscured.

I’d been told what to look for.

I’d been provided clear directions and informed instructions.

(What were they?)

I noticed some strange things.

First, the houses nearest the bus stop. Odd little suburban neighborhood along the Raimannstrasse. Queer little boxes with high fences and small lanes that ran behind them and barbed wire and signs in German (of course) that warned that nighttime access was verboten.

Further along, the dull gates at the last elevation before the final stretch to the church above. Unsure where I should enter the complex — is this area restricted, or nicht? — I almost turned back. But I’d already hiked so far — leaving my travel companion behind — I thought I should continue.

No one stopped me.

No one tried.

But after I walked through the entrance and reached a walkway to the summit, an old man in a shabby suit came tottering wildly at me. He spoke in a discordant way.

I told this obvious nonemployee that I don’t speak German (in German).

Or perhaps I said: You don’t speak German.

I’m unsure which or what, but I quickly climbed the steps in front of us, toward Kirche am Steinhof, then moved along the stone walkway. The man ducked away, disappearing behind one of the pavilions.

As I continued along a creepy feeling persisted. The stark buildings around me: the design aesthetic: part of Wagner’s overall plan? The whole place had the feel of a mental institution — because it was. Or it had been, according to my printed guide; that is, a full-fledged lunatic asylum, as they were once upon a cruder time called.

I was at the infamous Steinhof, although only some of the sixty pavilions designed by Carlo von Boog were still a psychiatric hospital (Psychiatrisches Krankenhaus) of the now-renamed Baumgartner Höhe Social Medicine Center – Otto Wagner Hospital and Care Center.

The man who’d accosted me might have been definitively mad, I realized, as I trod on the church-ward path, or maybe he was perfectly sane.

(Who is to know for sure?)

What elevated my uneasiness and uncertainty was the German language itself, whose words often seem a deranged construction to me, particularly when shouted.

I’m mostly illiterate of the language.

I was still adjusting to the country.

Meanwhile the grounds were otherwise empty. I needed to move on and get to the summit pronto, because the vista there, whatever that might prove to be, would soon be ruined by the disappearing sun.

Then what?

I wouldn’t be able to take my photographs. And this of course is the most important thing these days: to acquire documentary proof of one’s own middle-class adventures. If you don’t snap your photos and, more importantly, immediately share those images with as many people as possible, you cannot have possibly experienced what you think you have.

That shabbily-dressed old man who’d accosted me. His ghostly presence was not photographed by me, so he is therefore a mystery and remains unknown.

He reminds me now — in my memory — not then — not the year I visited Vienna — of Paul Wittgenstein, the title character in Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, which I read after.

In that book of friend-love the Wittgenstein character resided temporarily in Steinhof’s Ludwig Pavilion and the character Thomas Bernhard, our narrator, in the Hermann Pavilion. They are separated by a short distance on the grounds below St. Leopold’s. However, the gap is greater in their respective treatable pathologies — the character Bernhard’s illness being pulmonary, the character Wittgenstein’s mental.

Bernard’s book was a work of autobiographical fiction: Bernhard (the now-dead writer) had also developed a respiratory disease and Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s cousin’s son, really) had suffered from mental illness; they’d both been to the hospitals at Steinhof. But Bernhard the character/narrator also says: “Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine.”

(What are we to believe?)


I reached the summit and St. Leopold’s soon enough.

Wagner believed his Catholic church might have a calming effect on the mentally ill residents at Steinhof. This made greater sense to me as I wildly snapped my pictures that late afternoon and wandered about the grounds there. What I mean is: to this sane twentieth-first-century man, St. Leopold’s appeared to be nothing if not utter madness.

But first, note the amazing consideration for its resident churchgoers. Kirche am Steinhof forgoes the typical east-west orientation of Western churches. Wagner did this so that patient-parishioners might benefit fully from the healthy influences of southern sunlight (the pavilions also face that direction). Pews, designed by Wiener Werkstätte, had no sharp edges, so that patients might not injure themselves. Bathrooms were installed near the altar for obvious emergencies. Pew bases were made utilitarian in design and aisle floors sloped for easy cleaning when patients were unable to make it altar-side. Medical rooms off the sacristy for those needing mid-mass attention. Large doors at either end allowed for quick exits. Holy water dispensed in dripping taps instead of fonts.

Elsewhere: stained-glassed windows by Koloman Moser. Sculptures by Othmar Schimkowitz. Early on these features mattered little to the local churchgoers. Steinhof and the surrounding neighborhood had been one parish then, it is said, intertwined, villagers living among the patients, all part of the same ordinary community. And not long after its debut in 1907, the church folded itself into the backdrop of history. It survived Austria’s dark days during World War II, when Steinhof patients were experimented upon and murdered by Nazis. Today there is a memorial on the property. These and other atrocities were well documented; the more tyrannical a regime after all, the richer its archive.

St. Leopold’s reemerged, as it were, into a general cultural awareness, in the latter half of the century. Renovated by the state several years ago and ably promoted by the Austrian tourist board, it now receives many visitors. Pilgrims are guaranteed to see at least four angels standing outside. Angels made in the form of modern young women of Wagner’s time. Bob haircuts and golden gowns and giant absurd wings. The architect’s trademark golden wreaths are ubiquitous, as are his black studs, on typical white marble exterior. Bright gold crucifixes abound. Robed saints sit in patina judgment atop columns, their faces lit by the setting sun. From ground level their dress and soles shine brightly; the view of Vienna obscured by trees. The church itself: of another world.


I took many photos of this place. Afterward I examined them on screen and was disappointed that they failed to capture Steinhof as I remember it. (A trick of the late-winter light? Or was it the photographer?) What could have been more accurately recorded in words and pictures? The mystery man of Steinhof. The ill-advised bus journey. Those angel sculptures outside the church. Maybe it all could have been better rendered in ink and watercolor.

A tourist’s memory is notoriously unreliable. Tourists are disoriented. The quotidian gestures of townsfolk are meaningless. Twisted around, the otherwise recognizable might appear bizarre to those unschooled in the routines of a place. It seems obvious — of course! — that St. Leopold’s would have been for a time just another parish church, although this might not be immediately apparent to the tourist. To him simple strangeness appears as mystery. And in mystery he might even see the spiritual, a god not above that European capital but one in the walls of its famous churches.

And what to make of all this confusion and all this gold?

Purposeful architectural design mitigated dissonance at Kirche am Steinhof, as intended, though not for everyone, I imagine — mostly for the fortunate patients.

Wagner’s was a mad church for mad people after all, or so it was said when St. Leopold’s first opened for worship.

Its geography also quickly begot a Viennese euphemism for “going crazy,” and so it might be said, unkindly, about Bernhard’s novel/memoir that in 1967 the person/character Paul Wittgenstein “went up lemon hill.”

And every day so do all the tourists.

As I did, they go determinedly up that lemon hill.

Steinhof was also called the Golden Cage, because St. Leopold’s dome blazes above Vienna in a rigid formation of auric squares. And though I couldn’t quite express adequately for myself, using crude digital tools, what I’d seen there in flesh, I can tell you for certain: my visit to that place did occur.

I have my documentation.

And I have now shared the proof of my experience.