Vienna’s coffeehouses were once synonymous with intellectual thought, where great minds met and sipped. Luke Waterson looks at how they became such legendary breeding grounds for innovative thought—and why they could become so once again.
When you’ve spent as much time in as many of Vienna’s coffeehouses as I have, the first common denominator you’ll notice is that serving decent coffee is not their primary objective. The coffee, truth be told, is awful.
This might seem odd, where the ever-burgeoning java industry is increasingly about coffee quality, at least in the western world where it’s all about a personal link with the coffee estate or which type of roasting results in the best flavor.
But in Vienna, where fashionable coffee drinking was first popularized in Europe, the brew was only ever the pretext for the get-together of the clientele. The quality of the coffeehouse—the physical social space, and what happened within it—always came first.
WW1 may have marked the end of the coffeehouse heyday, but a century on, there is a scheme afoot to return Vienna’s coffeehouses to a status befitting of their illustrious past—and smartphones and social media followings are not part of the plan. Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations involves, well, just meeting up and talking. On life’s weightiest topics. And with complete strangers.
Vienna’s first coffeehouse was opened by an Armenian and as a result was based on the Persian coffeehouse premise; namely a sumptuous establishment where clientele could freely engage in discourse.
In turn-of-the-century golden-age Europe, Vienna was the perfect meeting point: Central, surprisingly un-policed, and fertile turf for those with big, bold ideas. By the early 1900s, Vienna’s coffeehouses had become so eminent—palatial enough for Emperors to stop by, and with a reputation for animated debate that saw new schools of thought founded at their tables—that their model had been adopted in Prague, Paris and London.
They were cultural powerhouses, pioneering ideas that would resound across the continent. Café Korb was a weekly rendezvous of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and early Secessionists like Gustav Klimt would break away from the Association of Austrian Artists to form their own more radical movement which met at Café Sperl. And within one month in 1913, it’s said that Freud, Trotsky, Stalin and Hitler visited Café Central—and they almost certainly weren’t making light chitchat when they did.
“Social media obsession has perverted conversation,” says Eugene Quinn, founder of Space and Place, the non-profit group running the monthly gatherings in coffeehouses citywide.
“But there must be a reason why people chose talking as a means of communication for centuries. That seems straightforward but it’s not anymore.”
“It’s conversation adventure. It can be the adventure of your life to take the risk, talk to someone you’ve never met. We shake the city up, bring people who might never talk over a table to talk, create new stories.”
Eugene Quinn, Space and Place
He’s aware of the clichéd café where everyone is on their laptops or smartphones working and not talking—or at least, not talking to the others in the café. “But this makes the atmosphere quite un-inclusive,” says Eugene. “It would seem such people came to a café because they liked the social buzz—yet the outcome is antisocial. Our meet-ups are about changing that, trying to revive the spirit of debate that existed in Vienna’s coffeehouses in the past.”
I’ve come to Café Ministerium to try Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations myself. It is an archetypal Viennese coffeehouse—heavy double doors to blot out the outside world, cozy Jugendstil globe pendant lights, booth seating, an abundance of dark wood paneling and a venerable history.
And yet, despite the pleasant evening and prime location on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, it’s deserted. I’ve often sat in such coffeehouses, imagining what it would have been like in the glory days when artisans and thinkers, who one day would be world-renowned, thrashed out the very ideas that would make them so.
But surely that was a thing of the past? Heated debate does not bounce off café walls any more and movements are now founded online—at least, that’s what my rational side would reason. And reservations about how and if the evening can proceed, with only me, Eugene and a middle-aged lady with a dog in attendance, just minutes before the planned start time, do cross my mind.
And then they all file in: Canadians to Koreans, tourists and ex-pats and also, interestingly, a lot of Viennese too. All here to be induced into the intense sort of conversation Freud and Co might favor.
Eugene pairs us with whoever he instinctively feels is our ‘opposite’; old with young, local with foreigner. The next step is to talk for two hours together, one-on-one.
And talk feeds talk. If other tables have animated tête-à-têtes, you don’t want yours to be the dull one. The two hours race by.
Each pair receives a menu of pithy questions, such as “What are you rebeling against now?”. It’s part of the objective that the talk should not be banter, but meaningful discourse. There are lots of nervous smiles around: No-one wants to give an unfriendly stare at the person they might soon be in deep discussion with.
“It’s conversation adventure,” Eugene tells me. “It can be the adventure of your life to take the risk, talk to someone you’ve never met. We shake the city up, bring people who might never talk over a table to talk, create new stories. I didn’t intend this, but we’ve even had three marriages as a result of the meet-ups!”
I’m paired with the middle-aged lady with the dog. She’s an art teacher, who has not only traveled the world but lived all over. We’re soon talking about Britain’s issues (Brexit crops up) and Austria’s (people often shy away from being friendly), her current artistic project (charting the relationships between celebrities and their pets) and mine (a contemporary thriller).
Did we go as deep as the debating depths plumbed in such cafés back in the day? Perhaps we weren’t all that many fathoms short. And glancing up, I see Café Ministerium has been transformed: From a dead ring road coffeehouse to a packed-to-the-rafters joint buzzing with discussion.
And talk feeds talk. If other tables have animated tête-à-têtes, you don’t want yours to be the dull one. The two hours race by. With a stranger, there are no consequences as there might be with friends or family.
My companion—we knew each other’s life stories by the end, but barely each other’s names—tells me she’s attended several Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations. “The people I sat with never became my friends,” she reflects. “But afterwards you think of them that way because of what you shared.”
Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations have proved so popular that Space and Place are now taking conferences in the city by storm with the same concept. Similar conversations with strangers have now happened as far afield as Oslo.
I learned of other schemes in the city trying similar things. In 4th District’s Café Vollpension, one of the omas (grannies) baking the cakes patrols the tables, confiscating customers’ smartphones so that they talk instead. Phil, a famous 6th District café-bookstore, bans wi-fi at weekends for the same reason.
But Eugene’s achievement is that at least once a month in one city coffeehouse, people will not just be talking, but talking big, just as they did a century ago. Granted, they might need some preliminary coaxing.
But for all we know, maybe even at those legendary café meet-ups during Vienna’s golden age, it also took one brave person to break the awkward silence before the debate started raging.
Luke is a Wales-based writer and author whose latest novel, Song Castle, is set in 12th-century Wales. He writes primarily on wildernesses, specializing in Britain and the Andes/Amazon. As well as bylines for the BBC, Independent, Telegraph and others, he has contributed to 50+ travel/reference books.