150 Years Old But Still A Wonder

15 things you didn’t know about the Ringstraβe project

As envisioned by Emperor Franz Joseph, then a mere twenty-seven, Vienna’s Ringstraße encircles the city’s historical heart. It’s much more than a grand avenue, whose tree-lined allées set the stage for a parade of imposing architecture. It was the catalyst of a radical transformation of the city that started in 1858 and continued up until 1914 and The Great War.

Here are fifteen things that you probably didn’t know about this unprecedented experiment in urban planning.

1.     No man’s land around the heart of an empire

Picture yourself in the year 1700, standing on a wide, flat expanse of empty land devoid of buildings or vegetation, going on for miles around a fortified city; behind you are the villages and towns of the hinterlands. Rains would turn the soil of the Glacis into a swamp, summer droughts into a desert, with clouds of dust billowing into town.

Fast forward to 1900. Now this no man’s land houses a parliament building and a university, several world-class museums, operas and theatres, many hotels, jaw-dropping palaces and cosmopolitan cafes… all in all, some 800 buildings, all part and parcel of the Ringstraβe development project.

But back to the Glacis. Until the mid-19th century, this vast esplanade was an empty military zone that gave an unimpeded view of all approaches to fortress Vienna.  The building ban on the Glacis had begun in 1588 on a 95-metre wide stretch, increased to 200 paces (150 m) in 1632 and to 600 paces in 1683, following the second Turkish Siege. Each time, houses had been demolished, and vineyards cut down, all prey to military requirements. By 1858 the Glacis covered some 2 million square meters.

2.     Vienna Glacis lives on in the memories of urban planners

But if you think the Glacis history, think again. In 2014, a Glacis Masterplan was completed by the Austrian Institute for Spatial Planning (OIR) and submitted to the city development committee (Stadtentwicklungskommission). Its purpose: to ensure that future projects and neighborhood development within the vicinity of the Ring reach the high standards worthy of Vienna’s rich urban tapestry.

3.     The (mis)fortunes of Nineteenth-Century historicism

The 800 buildings of the Ringstraße project, including all of today’s tourist attractions, were erected in the half century between the 1860s and The Great War. It was an era of historicism –reviving all previous architectural styles and combining them creatively – that sought to bind the rapidly-changing industrialized world to the enduring values of the past.

The architects that built the Ring predominantly adopted a neo-Renaissance style, based on the classical forms of 14th to 17th century Italy and its French counterparts. Elements from other architectural traditions were borrowed for the sake of practicality.

For instance, Parliament (completed in 1884) was built in the Greek revival style because Greece is the birthplace of democracy. The university was modeled on the Italian Renaissance, when art and science flowered in Europe.

This created a cohesive yet eclectic urban landscape. As early as 1868, it was described as the Wiener Stil (Viennese style). Other good examples of this style are the MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) or the Börse (Vienna Stock Exchange).

Historicists were very fond of the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or a synthesis of the arts into one total experience. Each individual building, as well as the Ringstraße as a whole was conceived as a work of art.

Yet historicism fell out of fashion around the turn of the century. One milestone of change was the Wiener Secession building, which broke away from tradition entirely (1898). By 1906, the historicist Viennese style was rejected as a “ridiculous architectural comedy” in an article entitled ‘Dead architecture’, written by Joseph August Lux, a Catholic Modernist art historian. Widely influential architects such as Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos (author of Ornament and Crime) helped give historicism an enduring bad name.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, a number of war-damaged edifices on and around the Ringstraβe were torn down, a combination of a modern esthetic and lack of funds. One happy exception was the Vienna State Opera whose exterior at least was reconstructed from the original plans.

Yet a re-evaluation of the Ringstraβe’s style was inevitable: the Viennese art historian Renate Wagner-Rieger initiated the research project ‘Wiener Ringstraße’ in the 1960s. Full rehabilitation was achieved in 1981 with Carl E. Schorske’s seminal work: Fin-De-Siècle Vienna.

4.     City Hall: the beating heart of the Ringstraβe

What would Vienna be without the gothic towers of the Rathaus (City Hall)? The Rathausplatz with its generous square and park areal hosts a year-long parade of programming, with ice-skating in winter, an opera and music film festival in summer, and much more in between.

As early as 1906, a guidebook claimed that the Rathaus was as much a defining monument in the Vienna cityscape as St. Stephen’s cathedral. Yet it took about ten years to find the right spot. Some 23 locations were proposed, in fact, including one directly across from St. Stephen’s Cathedral and another on Salzgries, where it would have soared above the Danube canal. In 1863, the city council and the Emperor agreed on a large plot on Parkring facing the future Kursalon (which was to open in 1867).

The following year, an international architectural competition was launched; of the 63 projects competing, Saxa loquuntur (‘stones speak’) won. The design was by Friedrich Schmidt (who had previously restored St. Stephen’s), a leading exponent of the Gothic revival.

But many were unhappy about the somewhat cramped location chosen nearby the newly laid Stadtpark. The city council lobbied forcefully instead for military parade grounds opposite the imperial Hofburgtheater – finally swaying the Emperor in 1870.

Winning such a prominent location was a major coup for the liberal bourgeoisie. The New City Hall would occupy center stage, flanked by the (surprisingly) somewhat smaller Parliament on one side and the University on the other. In retrospect, with the granting of independent provincial status in 1920, and its stature as a world city, the grandeur of Vienna’s City Hall seems only right.

Right from the beginning, the Rathaus challenged the feudal nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So why was it built in a predominantly neo-Gothic style (with a few Renaissance and functionalist elements)? Civic autonomy had originated in medieval Flanders; hence a ‘Flemish’ style was adopted.

5.     Let’s party at City Hall!

The Vienna Rathaus has many functions: administrative, cultural and of course political. Its monumentality and splendor are meant to impress.

Nowhere is this truer than in the Festsaal (Festival Hall). Some 71 meters long, it was the largest ballroom in Europe during the first decades of its existence.

The first City of Vienna Ball was conducted by none other than Johann Strauss (with the lesser known composer Carl Michael Ziehrer).

Nowadays you are more likely to hear techno, house or disco in the ballroom, courtesy of Radio FM4 parties or the Life Ball, which has become an annual fixture in the international charity calendar.

6.     Ringstraße barons: a family saga

The Ringstraße even had its own soap opera: Ringstraßenpalais: Eine Wiener Familiengeschichte (Palace on the Ring: The Story of a Viennese Family), set in Palais Schey. It follows the fortunes of the Baumann family from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Eduard Baumann, a humble linen weaver, makes a fortune in textiles; eventually he will become a baron. His brother is equally adept at moving up the social ladder in booming Vienna. The nouveau-rich family builds a palace on the Ring and seems quite unstoppable until the Vienna stock market crash of 1873…

The series, produced by the ORF (national Austrian broadcaster) in the early 1980s, is available on 8 DVDs.

7.     A long-lived development fund: 1859-2015

As decreed by Emperor Franz Joseph, a Stadtweiterungsfonds (urban development fund) was set up in 1859 to distribute the building plots along the future Ring and fund state buildings with the proceeds. Supervised by the Interior Ministry, it never ran out of funds thanks to cautious investments and sales policy.

From its inception to 1914, it raked in 112.5 million gulden: over half of that was sales revenue, over one-third interest earned on securities, stocks and bonds, and about one-fifth interest earned on mortgages.

On the debit side, some 102.3 million gulden were spent, including 28 million for the demolition of the medieval fortifications and related expenses, as well as 70 million spent on public buildings.

On the dawn of WW1, the fund still owned tracts of land worth an estimated 760,000 gulden.

In 1961, the Austrian Court of Audit recommended the fund’s dismantlement, its mission having long been accomplished – to no avail. In fact, the fund sold the last three plots of land in its charge only in 2005-08.

At long last, it was decided to dissolve the fund in 2013. While that is also dragging on, the last relic of the Ringstraße project will eventually disappear for good.


8.     How much did the Ringstraße project cost the City of Vienna?

Over the period 1858-1914, the City of Vienna spent over 27 million gulden on developing the Glacis. And construction of the New City Hall consumed almost half of that. Another three million went to road works and pavement; bridges cost some 2.5 million; new schools 1.7 million; parks, trees, fountains and monuments accounted for 1.4 million, and sewage works cost over 1 million. Last but not least, the city authorities bought land worth 1.3 million from the urban development fund (see no. 7).

This compares favorably with the money spent by private citizens on land plots and construction in the same period – an estimated 219 million gulden, excluding interiors.

9.     Not just buildings

The Ring is rightly praised for its many gracious parks and gardens. Most notable are the Stadtpark (commenced in 1862), the Burggarten, formerly a private garden for the imperial family, and the Volksgarten with its magnificent rose garden. The boulevard itself was designed according to landscaping principles, with two to three rows of trees either side of it.

This was not always so. The lack of vegetation in the newly built-up Glacis was much derided in the early years. To make matters worse, despite some 2,668 trees planted in the 1860s, many became diseased and had been removed by 1876. Over the years, plane trees seem to have fared better than the exquisitely-called Götterbäume (in English: Trees of Heaven or Ailanthus), which have had to be replaced several times.

Today limes, maples and the sturdy plane tree provide much-needed shade in the summer. But the Ringstraße is a tough habitat: sealed road surfaces, salt spread during winter and sinking ground water make it hard for nature to thrive.


10.  What’s in a name? Kaffee Deutschland

Opened in 1861 by a Raimund and Johanna Hochleitner, Café Schwarzenberg – so beloved today by tourists and Viennese alike – was the very first coffee house on the Ringstraße. It attracted prominent politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs, financiers, actors and theatre managers. Many a business deal was concluded there.

Shortly after the Anschluss in 1938, it was renamed Kaffee Deutschland, a name it would retain until 1945. In Allied-occupied Vienna, the Soviet Red Army (mis)used it as an officers’ mess for its functions and shots were occasionally fired across the room – presumably to settle accounts.

In spite of a thorough renovation in 1980-81, the interior has remained largely unchanged since the café first opened in the 19th century. According to the Denkmalamt (Monuments’ Office), the ladies’ bathroom and the Damensalon with its fabulous mirrors and marble paneling were designed by Adolf Loos.  Regardless of origin, they are among the last surviving interiors of this type.


11.  Like a Phoenix: Hotel Imperial

Built for Duke Philipp von Württemberg in the Italian Renaissance style not far from the Opera, this monumental building was soon converted into a hotel for the World Exhibition of 1873. It became the favored lodging of kings and other heads of state, top financiers, politicians and famous artists.

The German Emperor Wilhelm I., Otto von Bismarck, Richard Wagner, Sarah Bernhardt, Rudolf Steiner, Luigi Pirandello and many more illustrious guests stayed at the Kaiserliches-Königliches Hofhotel (imperial-royal court hotel).

During the Allied Occupation of Vienna (1945-1955), the Imperial was the HQ of the Soviet military authority, which had also taken possession of Café Schwarzenberg across the street (see no. 10).

After renovations were completed in 1958, the hotel regained its original purpose as a second home for visiting dignitaries and artists. From 1988 to 1994, it was thoroughly renovated once more, refurbished according to the historicist ideal of 1866. The international talks on the Syrian conflict, at the end of October, were held at Hotel Imperial.


12.  Hotel Metropole: a horrific destiny

Shortly after the Hotel Imperial opened for business, another magnificent luxury hotel was erected – this time near the Danube Canal. Occupying the west side of today’s Morzinplatz on Franz-Josefs-Kai, it boasted 400 luxury rooms. Like the Imperial, it was designed to deal with the expected influx of visitors during the 1873 World Fair.

Built in the ‘Ringstraße style’, it was richly decorated with Corinthian columns and caryatid statuary holding up lintels and pediments. A glass canopy covered the dining room in the inner courtyard. Perhaps its most famous guest was the American writer Mark Twain, who spent part of his 20 months in Vienna there in 1897.

In March 1938, the Anschluss by Nazi Germany unleashed an agonizing reversal of fortune. The families Klein and Friediger, main shareholders of the Metropole company, were registered Jewish under the Nüremberg Laws, and their property could be expropriated without recourse.

In no time, the Gestapo took over the hotel as their headquarters – and would employ some 900 staff. From 1938 until the end of the war, thousands were ‘interrogated’ there on their way to death camps.  Badly damaged by aerial bombing in January 1945, the building was demolished in 1948.

In 1985, an official monument to the victims of Nazism was unveiled: a bronze figure next to a granite boulder from Mauthausen concentration camp. In 2011, a memorial and small exhibition space were opened where the infamous back entrance of the Gestapo HQ used to be, near Morzinplatz.


13.  Fish and fruit near Schwedenplatz?

Going further back in time, the area we know today as Morzinplatz and Schwedenplatz was an important market for fish and fruit brought in by boat on this side channel of the Danube.

In 1648, a new fortified gate called the Schanzeltor (near today’s Salztorbrücke on the Danube Canal) was built and a small harbor established. The Schanzel, a redoubt on the river bank, became a landing place for barges bringing fresh produce grown near the city. The most important fruit market of the city sprawled just outside the Rotenturmtor (Red Tower Gate).

The Schanzeltor was demolished in 1859 along with other fortifications to make way for the Ringstraße. The fruit market then moved further up the canal, only to disappear entirely at the turn of the century.

Nearby, where the medieval wall had surrounded the old Fisherman’s Gate (Fischertor, aka Salztor) the future Morzinplatz was laid out in 1886. The old fish market stalls were moved down toward the quay ramp, where they remained until 1899, when construction of the Wiener Stadtbahn (urban railway, now part of the U4) forced them to pack up again.

Eventually, the city council decided to establish a central fish market in 1903. With that, the fish stalls, like the fruit market, became a thing of the past.


14.  The last Ringstraße edifice: a harbinger of war

Ironically, the last major building site on the Ringstraße was the Kriegsministerium (Ministry of War). An imposing, not to say megalomaniacal, neo-baroque edifice some 200 metres wide, it was completed in 1913 – only one year before the Austro-Hungarian Empire slid towards disintegration.

On the opposite side, a very different building was completed at about the same time: Otto Wagner’s Postsparkassengebäude (Postal Savings Society Building). This more modest, art nouveau pearl strikingly demonstrates that a new Austria was germinating even as the old one was in terminal decline.

15.  Fittingly, the Hofburg Forum was never completed

The Kaiserforum – modeled on the imposing forums of Roman antiquity – was to be the crowning jewel of the Ringstraβe. By referring to Roman tradition, Emperor Franz Joseph wished to emphasize the supranational character of his empire, where the whole was deemed more than the sum of its (national and ethnic) parts.

The original layout was approved in 1870. Two majestic museums (the Kunsthistorische Museum and Naturhistorische Museum) soon rose into view.

On the other side of the Ring, two awe-inspiring hemicycles mirroring the museums would frame a large esplanade (Heldenplatz). These two new wings of the imperial palace (Hofburg) would face each other, with a throne room in the center. Two arches above the Ring would join the museums and Hofburg.

However, this grandiose plan was never finished. One hemicycle, the Neue Burg (new palace), was completed in 1913. But the planned northwest wing, which would have stretched all the way to Volksgarten, was scrapped that year on the eve of war, along with the throne room.

And as such, the completed wing served no purpose. Entire floors lay empty and unfinished until 1938. Eventually the Austrian National Library settled there in 1966.

Today it houses among other things: the Ephesus Museum, a collection of antique musical instruments; the Weltmuseum (museum of ethnography); and the greater part of the National Library.  It is also expected to become the home of a new Museum of the Republic.

The Kaiserforum had been meant to symbolize the unity of the State and political stability of the waning – but still great – Austro-Hungarian Empire. Indeed in retrospect, this long-lasting empire had unified a vast area of Central Europe – ultimately, a kind of spiritual grandfather to the EU.

Instead, it can now be read as the forlorn last gasp of a world soon to end.

Roxanne Powell
Roxanne Powell
Roxanne Powell is a Franco-British hybrid who moved to Vienna in 2006. She studied history, modern languages, linguistics and literature, before a Ph.D. in political science at the LSE. She was a regular contributor at The Vienna Review. Her interests include journalism, poetry, fiction, music, dance, the Alpine outdoors, science, slow food, the arts, architecture and fashion.

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