The Vienna University of Economics and Business was originally founded in 1898 as the “Exportakademie” of the Royal and Imperial Museum of Trade in Vienna. In 1919, it received university status as “Hochschule für Welthandel” shortly after moving into its own building in Vienna’s Döbling district, designed by Alfred Keller in his distinctive Heimastil. The institution’s library was installed in the basement, an initially temporary situation that ended up lasting over forty years until an extension was added. In 1982, what had by then become the “Wirtschafsuniversität Wien” (WU) moved into a new campus shared with the University of Vienna closer to the city centre, in the Alsergrund district. There, the library finally got its own four-story building. Disaster struck in December of 2005, when an arsonist set fire to the nearby biology library, which also damaged the economics collections. Unrelated to the event, it was announced the same week that the university of economics would move out to its own campus. As it would turn out, fire was to remain linked with the fate of the institution.
The location chosen for the new “Campus WU” were exhibition grounds near Vienna’s famous Prater amusement park and gardens. This was the site of the 1873 Universal Exhibition in Vienna. At the centre of the exhibition grounds was the “Palace of Industry”.
Designed by John Scott Russell and constructed under the guidance of the Exhibition architect Karl von Hasenauer, it sported a 84m high, 108m wide cupola, then the largest in the world. The main hall, known as the “Rotunde“, was so large that it could easily accommodate entire buildings and mature trees. On the roof, an observation platform offered visitors unparalleled views over the Prater, Vienna and the Danube. Once the Exhibition was over, most of the structures were demolished but not the Rotunde, which continued to serve as an exhibition and performance venue. In 1900, it hosted the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In 1936, architect Clemens Holzmeister was commissioned with a plan to convert the building to house the state archives. This project would however remain the stuff of dreams for future library architecture lovers like myself, as only a year later, the Rotunde was sadly irreparably damaged by fire. The grounds were repurposed as a racetrack and as the southern entrance to the Wiener Messe exhibition grounds, until 2009 when work on the new WU campus started.
Another half century later, another monumental building would be erected where the Rotunde once stood. Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the striking Library and Learning Centre is at the centre of the new campus, flanked on either side by a series of pavilions that bring to mind the exhibition halls that once stood there. While the Rotunde’s impressive cupola seemed to be defying gravity in its impossible elevation, so does the angled and cantilevered shapes of Hadid’s design.
Reminiscent of a cruise ship, the angled walls and openings bring an uncanny sense of constant movement to the library building.
The interior is organized around a large atrium and a series of “canyons” which separate the different functional areas. The atrium serves as an open auditorium thanks to a retractable screen and podium. A series of walkways, bridges and covered corridors surrounding the atrium further contribute to the cruise ship analogy, or maybe it is a sleek generation ship ferrying humanity through space. Unfortunately, most of the spaces surrounding the atrium are off-limits to the public, including the library which is restricted to university students and personnel only. I am grateful to the WU Library staff who allowed me to visit in the fall of 2021!
Working spaces are spread across the library, many facing windows either to distant views to the surrounding city and the Prater amusement rides in the distance, or to interior spaces.
The separation between functional areas can also be seen from the outside, where two different colour schemes clearly distinguish the library space (including the dramatic cantilevered reading room) from service and administration areas.
Fate still had a trick up its sleeve: in 2012, a fire damaged two floors of one of the campus pavilions while still under construction.
- ArchDaily (2014). Library and Learning Centre University of Economics Vienna / Zaha Hadid Architects, 07 Jul 2014. ISSN 0719-8884
- Zaha Hadid Architects. Library and Learning Centre University of Economics Vienna.
- Lehmann, S. (2022). Zaha Hadid Architects : Thoughts on the Library of the Future. In Reimagining the Library of the Future: Public Buildings and Civic Space for Tomorrow’s Knowledge Society (pp. 172–175). ORO Editions.
- Messel, A. (1893). Austellungsbauten. In J. Durm, H. Ende, E. Schmitt, & H. Wagner (Eds.), Gebäude für Sammlungen und Ausstellungen: Handbuch der Architektur 6. Halbband, Heft 4 (pp. 504-506). Verlag von Arnold Bergsträsser.
- Wikipedia. Rotunde (Wien). Updated February 15, 2022.
- Wikipedia. Universitätsbibliothek der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Updated May 15, 2020
- Wien Geschichte Wiki (2021). Rotunde. Updated April 25, 2021.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!