In the wake of the global financial crisis, banking scandals and government bailouts have made countless news headlines around the world. With such large sums of taxpayer money being funneled to the troubled financial sector, ordinary individuals are left to wonder how it will affect their own lives. But how can an entire country rise up and make their voices heard when it is nearly impossible to understand the magnitude of such an injustice? In Austria, a group of innovative students from the Technical University of Vienna set out to answer this question and have taken to a new form of protest in order to make the consequences of one Europe’s largest financial scandals in recent history a tangible reality.
To demonstrate the €19 billion price tag of Austria’s recent bailout of Hypo-Alpe-Adria, students designed and built a scale model of a fictional city called “Hypotopia,” a portmanteau of the bank's name and "utopia." According to Lukas Zeilbauer, “while utopia stands for an ideal fictitious world, ‘hypo’ is a Greek word meaning under, beneath or bellow - so a change coming from the bottom, from the folk.” Embodying an idealistic society with plentiful renewable resources and public education for people of all ages, the model city would theoretically contain 102,574 inhabitants, making it the sixth largest city in Austria.
Read on after the break to find out how an architecture model has drawn international attention and propelled an entire country to take action.
The inspiration for the project came from the shock that Zeilbauer and Diana Contiu felt upon realizing that despite the enormous cost of the bailout, there were few public demonstrations, and the online petition calling for further investigation of the case drew only 150,000 signatures - less than 2% of Austria's citizens. In attempting to explain the public’s passivity, Zeilbauer told ArchDaily “somehow this great sum of money surpasses the human power of imagination, and nobody can imagine what a great loss this is for Austria.”
As a civil engineering student, it was second nature for Zeilbauer to relate the cost of €19 billion to buildings. After some calculations, he came to the astonishing conclusion that an entire city could be built for the cost of the bailout. So, Zeilbauer gathered an interdisciplinary team of colleagues including five civil engineers, thirteen architects, nine spatial/urban planners and a computer scientist to make up the core team of “Milliardenstadt,“ (“Billioncity”) to design and model the city that could have been.
Two months later, the team had managed to design an entire fictional city complete with theoretical concepts for sustainability and visionary urban planning. Each building was calculated and planned right down to the number of occupants on each floor to accurately make up the cost of €19 billion. Professionals and experts from a variety of fields provided advice to the students along the way, but they received no financial support and were not affiliated with any political party. Picking up experiences in planning cities and organizing public events along the way, they eventually had the opportunity to bring their project to the public dimension in the form of an exhibition.
After drawing the attention of the media, architecture student Diana Contiu realized that her own experience in model-making could have a much broader application in actually allowing the public to see the significance of their work. The highlight of the project was the realization of their design in a 1:100 scale concrete model built with the help of 50 volunteers and on display from the 15th to the 30th of October in front of St. Charles Cathedral on Vienna's Karlsplatz.
Assembled from approximately 3,300 individual parts, the model contained an estimated 70 tons of concrete and wood, which was later incorporated into a protest march on the final day of the exhibition. Over 1,200 people dismantled the model and moved the pieces to the parliament of Austria with the slogan “we bear the burden of our future.” In this act, they symbolically buried “the city that was never going to exist due to political incompetence.”
Beginning from just the simple vision of an architecture student and a civil engineer student, the Hypotopia project drew over 40,000 visitors to the exhibition, and even a visit by Austria’s President Dr. Heinz Fischer - although according to Zeilbauer, aside from a few members of Austria's opposition parties, most politicians declined to visit or even made a statement about the project.
Although this demonstration cannot present definite solutions, Zeilbauer, Contiu and the other members of Milliardenstadt hope that when citizens witness the potential that was wasted thanks to this financial scandal, they will be less likely to accept similar failures in the future. Perhaps most strikingly, all of this was made possible through the individual efforts of students motivated to make a difference, with their only weapon being an architectural model.