Oxford alumni gathered at the crossroads between western and eastern Europe to discuss the Ukraine crisis, sustainable energy, and an extraordinary cultural heritage.
By Guy Collender
I felt a comforting sense of déjà vu on many occasions when visiting Vienna for the University’s Alumni Weekend in Europe. The Austrian capital evokes many memories of Oxford. The imposing Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) is decorated with gargoyles that would not appear out of place looking onto the High, and the dome of the baroque Karlskirche (pictured above) is certainly Radcliffe Camera-esque.
I found the similarities between Oxford and Vienna profound as well as uncanny. Not only do architectural delights dominate the two skylines, both cities are famous for being intellectual and cultural centres. Both are home to universities and thousands of students, and have helped shape influential figures and ways of thinking. Vienna’s intelligentsia has bequeathed, among others, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, and Gustav Klimt and the Secessionist artistic movement. Oxford’s modern alumni include Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor behind the internet, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. When it comes to music, Oxford must certainly play second fiddle to the Austrian capital – the home of Mozart, Strauss and the waltz.
Given its heritage and location in the heart of Europe, Vienna was the perfect city for the Alumni Weekend in Europe, 24-26 April. The occasion, part of the series of alumni events called Meeting Minds, attracted 447 alumni and their guests from 34 countries. A range of intellectual and social activities took place throughout the three days — from panel discussions and walking tours to a gala dinner, and, one of my favourites, a waltzing lesson.
One of the most popular was the wide-ranging academic programme in the Orangery (part of the imperial Schönbrunn Palace), in which alumni and University academics were able to share their thoughts with the panellists. In a city known for debate at the crossroads between western and eastern Europe, serious and substantial topics included Ukraine, Viennese culture, and the prospects for meeting future energy needs sustainably.
Lord Patten, Chancellor of the University, chaired an insightful session about Ukraine’s past, its current predicament, and its future. Under Chatham House rules, panellists discussed the complexity behind the conflict, Ukraine’s regional diversity, its many economic and linguistic ties with Russia, and the history of negotiations with the EU. Ceasefire breaches, death and destruction, and the loss of trust between Europe (including the Austrian public) and Russia were also emphasised. Solutions mooted included decentralisation in Ukraine and scholarships to support young Ukrainians as they set about re-building their country.
Bethany Bell (Keble, 1987) then chaired a fascinating session about Vienna in the early 20th century — a period, she said, of ‘extraordinary cultural riches’ in the arts, music and thought. Inspired by the discussion, I visited Klimt’s The Kiss in the Oberes Belvedere (Upper Belvedere). It was even more impressive than I had imagined. The gold leaf on the canvas sparkles, and seeing the painting in its entirety is overwhelming — especially as it is so often cropped in reproductions. Moreover, the other paintings by Klimt in the collection reveal his versatility. As well as his modernist style, he was known for his earlier representational portraits and a later work inspired by Van Gogh.
I greatly enjoyed meeting alumni during the weekend. It was stimulating to discuss Vienna’s culture and issues of the day, as well as sharing memories of days spent at Oxford.
Now that I’m back in the UK, the tables have turned and I’m reminded by Oxford’s dreaming spires of Viennese architecture. But there are enough differences between the two great cities to merit visits to both. Whereas Vienna boasts the white stallions of the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School) and their famous stylised performances, Oxford’s attractions include the beauty of Port Meadow and its wild horses. Whereas the coffee house is the place for relaxation and discussion in Vienna, the pub serves the same purpose in Oxford.
Guy Collender (Keble, 1998) is head of alumni communications and marketing at Oxford, where he read modern history.
Photographs are by Stephan Polzer unless otherwise indicated and show, from top:
- Karlskirche by VnGrijl via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.
- Reception at the Rathaus
- Lord Patten addresses the reception
- Waltz experience at the Elmayer Dance School
- Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research, University of Oxford
- Gala dinner at Palais Ferstel
Images of the Alumni Weekend © Stephan Polzer Photography, reproduced with kind permission.