Probably the only place in the world that is connecting Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Albert Einstein and Yuri Gagarin is Vienna’s Urania. At the first gaze, these four have nothing in common, except being some of the most prominent people in history. However, they all held the lectures in the institution located in the city centre of Vienna, on the confluence of Danube Canal and Wien River. The Urania is an educational institution, that got its name after the Muse Urania, which was in Greek mythology considered the patron goddess of astronomy. Let’s start from the beginning.
The main goal of establishing this institution was to make the scientific findings accessible to a wider audience. Science lectures with slide shows using Laterna Magica, a projection device, enjoyed great popularity among the audience. One of them, which showed the poverty in some parts of Vienna, was particularly popular. Due to an ever increasing number of visitors (in 1906, the Urania counted almost 130 thousands of them), a new building had to be built. An architect Max Fabiani was commissioned for a job. Although he was known for his jugendstil architecture, Fabiani chose a historicism style for Urania, but with an unconventional shape. He drew his inspiration from the baroque. Very soon after the construction was finished in 1910, the Urania established itself as one of Vienna's landmarks.
Urania was loved by Viennese, and in addition to the usual program, numerous poetry readings were held in the Urania, during which some young writers read their works, including Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. The most known physicist Albert Einstein spoke about his theory of relativity in 1921 here and provoked a particular sensation. The golden era of Urania was before the Great Depression when almost half a million visitors yearly attended different lectures. After the gloomy time of an economic crisis and the World War II, the functioning of the Urania was again normalised. In 1962, Yuri Gagarin came here to talk about his space flight. However, the interest in the lectures was noticeably decreased in comparison to the pre-war time. Similarly, hardly any significant writer and actor appeared, as they moved to the new medium of television, that paid far higher fees. The Urania has never again seen the number of visitors as in its golden times, but it is still popular among the Viennese.
The observatory located in the 36-meter-high astronomical tower that dominates the appearance of Urania is the oldest public observatory in Austria. It was opened three weeks before the official opening of Urania in order to observe the flyby of Halley's comet, that reached its greatest brightness at that time. Since its opening, it was an instant hit. In addition to more than five tons heavy main telescope, five more telescopes were installed in order to satisfy the visitors' demand. They were responsible for a successful popularisation of astronomy in Austria.
Since its beginnings, the films were shown for the educational and cultural purposes in the Urania. In 1921, the first full-length documentary was shown here, in contrast to the exclusively entertaining films. In 1928, the first sound film in Austria was shown here as well. The Urania still has a reputation of a cinema that shows the cultural an educational films, as well as the high-quality featured films, as an alternative to the "trash and kitsch" of the mainstream commercial films.
From 1950, the Urania hosts the Puppet Theatre as well. Since its opening, this theatre is experiencing big popularity among the Viennese, and it is constantly sold out. In season 1993/1994, it was even the most-attended theatre in Austria. The theatre is known in the German-speaking countries as the home of Kasperl & Pezi, the characters from the world's oldest television show for children, regularly broadcasted by ORF since 1957.
Besides the observatory, cinema and puppet theatre, the Urania houses an adult education centre that offers about 450 courses. Still today, one century later, Vienna’s old lady - the Urania invites everyone to use its cultural and educational offerings. So, when in Vienna, make sure you visit the venue that hosted the big minds such as Mann, Hesse, Einstein and Gagarin.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.