From advertising specialist to "steeplejack"

School grades and interest were a barriers to the initially planned degree in electrical engineering, so Ulrich Sukup chose Media Psychology and started his career as an advertiser for a large agency. Why he was missing a "purpose in life" and how he ended up in the airy heights of the Vierungsturm of the Votivkirche church in Vienna in order to carry out cleaning work – an exciting tale.

Brushing not smoking

Actually the impetus had been set a long time before Ulrich Sukup started is dream job. "Tower plumbing", his father called it early on, "that's what you need to do." At a time, mind you, when industrial climbers were still in short trousers and this work was only done by a small group of eastern Tyrol "Church Steeplejacks" as they are still known in the local dialect. And so, after studying media psychology, Sukup first worked in advertising at a large agency, for tobacco products.

"It was strange being a non-smoker and developing ideas for cigarette adverts." Things went well for a while, but Ulrich Sukup was never really comfortable in this world. As he approached 30, he was standing by the coffee machine at work one day with this feeling of searching in his stomach, and in front of the window he discovered a road sweeper. "He's doing sensible work, I thought to myself, and decided to change things."


With head and hand

Chance helped the further development, because the father of his girlfriend at the time – now his father-in-law – owned a plumbers. Within a year Sukup completed his plumbing apprenticeship there and then one year later became a master plumber. "Generally, manual work these days cannot be compared to previous crafts trades, but my claim is to combine mental and manual work." This is the only way we use all our potential."

With his training sorted, Sukup climbed up the family business and concentrated on the most difficult customers and projects. The empathy needed for this and the far-sightedness made the work so exciting for him. "At some time, my father's saying about church tower plumbing came into my head again – with extra emphasis because climbing is my great private passion." According to Sukup, for example, the Dachl-Nordwand tour needs one thing above all else: high morale. "It is similar on a church tower. For every single step you have to remember that nothing is standard – you must not lose your confidence."

Deep breaths and airy heights

The path to the large-scale orders in the preservation of historical monuments was not easy, however, because working within scaffolding was not established in Austria at this time. Stamina and confidence are two characteristics which helped Ulrich Sukup on his way up. After many conversations with the Building Authority of the Archdiocese Vienna, one of the engineers who worked there finally had mercy. "It started with small projects, restoring the painting on a vicarage and that sort of thing," Sukup recalls.

But one day there was a call which pointed to the future. "Storm damage to a church had to be be repaired, and the costs for renting a crane and for traffic measures would have been EUR 100,000. When I was asked whether I could solve another way, I said: Yes I can." Respect for the task is as important as a rather high time pressure, and of course the separate demand that a mistake must not be made at this moment. "We successfully completed the project."

The breakthrough came in 2014 when a church tower had to be clad. A renowned plumber from eastern Tyrol refused because he thought the job was too exposed. "I said, we can do that – and then I thought: What did I just say?", grinned Sukup. But the courage was worth it because ever since then, challenging cleaning and restoration work at airy heights are precisely what the former advertiser and tower climber does.


Protecting history with dry ice

For this reason, Sukup was charged with the work on the Vienna Votivkirche church. In 2016 he climbed the tower for the first time in order to inspect the damage and to document it precisely. Based on this he was able to work out what extensive repairs to the damage had to look like. "On the Vierungsturm we had to work with lots of lead, which is really difficult to climb," reports Sukup. "On the other hand, it was important to us to retain the appearance: The tower above the intersection between the transept and nave has different patina layers, white-grey or black depending on the wind direction. Replacing individual elements would have made the roof into a patchwork rug."


On his search for a suitable cleaning technique it was fortunate for Sukup that he regularly went running with an employee from Kärcher Austria. First of all the two considered a high-pressure cleaning, but they were not happy with this idea. "The good man worked really hard on our concerns and won Kärcher over as support for the project, so that finally we were able to carry out tests with dry ice – this convinced the archdiocese."

To transport the equipment needed up the tower, Sukup built a cable pulley and started the cleaning. Thanks to their high speed and temperature (-79 °C), dry ice pellets carefully remove the black patina on the slope of the Vierungsturm without damaging the grey base patina and thus the protective layer of the lead.

Secrets of the Vierungsturm

During the work on the Vierungsturm the sacred building was revealed, along with one or two other secrets that had been well hidden until now – this even included historical facts. "Previously it was though that the vault of the nave had been erected in 1872. But inscriptions were revealed beneath the patina layers indicating that the first panels of the roof had already been laid by this time. The entire roof and skeleton of the tower therefore must also have been finished." In addition, Sukup found the names of workers, for example, who over time had carried out restoration and cleaning work and then eternalised themselves.

"Historical buildings tell innumerable stories," Sukup describes the fascination of his work. "You can even tell that air pollution in a city like Vienna was considerably worse than today because of the large amount of soot – the gilding was cleaned just thirteen years after it was completed, which is barely necessary today." It is not difficult to work out what Sukup loves about his work and why he devotes almost every fibre of his being to it. "When I am working on these buildings, I feel the passion and the blood that other craftsmen had spent over the decades – it is a unique feeling."

The Vienna Votivkirche Church

The Vienna Votivkirche is one of the most important neo-Gothic holy buildings in the world. The church was put out to tender in an architectural competition in 1854 Of 75 proposals submitted from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, England and France, the project was awarded to the architect Heinrich Ferstel. The church was dedicated after 23 years' construction (1856-1879). During the restoration work in 2016-2018, Bauspenglerei Sukup-Grötzer carried out the metal cladding work in cooperation with Kärcher. The overall restoration of the church started in 2001 and is expected to last until 2023. Then the interior renovation work will start. The Votivkirche church is one of approx. 450-500 building projects in the archdiocese Vienna which are managed every year by the archdiocese building authority.