Across the sprawling Habsburg monarchy, castles and courtyards, opera houses and onion domes projected their power and today the heritage of a shared culture

All great empires leave an architectural footprint. It’s a portrait of a kind that tells us important things about who they were: The Romans built roads, the Turks built mosques, the British railroad systems and the Austrian Habsburgs churches and opera houses. If empires were initially carved out with sword and cannon for power and profit, at its peak, imperial architecture was consciously representational – and ironically, often at its finest just before the fall. When the conquerors left, they bequeathed their subjects a degree of grandeur often way above what they could have achieved by themselves. It took the English 2,000 years to catch up with the technology of Roman baths and it is unlikely that the modest economies of Croatia and the western Ukraine could have built such magnificent theaters without the Habsburgs’ grandiose cultural paternalism. Today, Zagreb and Lember/Lviv are justly proud of their world-class opera houses.

© Jacek Dylag

Princely Palaces and Movie Houses

The cityscape of Vienna itself is perhaps the epitome of Habsburg imperial architecture. The glittering, if somewhat tasteless, city residence of the Albertina, the real power center in the Hofburg behind its dark courtyards, the grand summer palace of Schönbrunn (a modest mimicry of Versailles),

The Schönbrunner Palace
© Daniel Plan

and the various palaces of the noble grandees and aspiring industrialists that line the Ring. And for the pleasure and recreation of the Emperor’s grateful subjects, magnificent museums, elegant parks, opera houses, even the Urania, probably the world’s only imperial movie theater.

The Opera Wiener Staatsoper by night © Markus Leupold-Löwenthal

Also not to forget the Arsenal and the Rossauer barracks, battle-ready troops within the city limits, a less than subtle reminder that the popular uprising of 1848 will not be repeated.

In the far-flung imperial territories, remnants of Habsburg architecture are everywhere, often grand, some trivial but instructive. The post office in the charming Polish provincial market town of Przemysl is easy to find, a modestly handsome neoclassical stone facade, with POSTAMT still carved out in helpful bold letters. Just beyond is the rail station, a little grandiose for a small town, but so typical of Austria you can almost smell the traveler’s traditional Wurstsemmel rising up to meet you. In cities and towns across the former crown colonies, Austrian architectural and engineering skills built the infrastructure, much of it left untouched through the economic and political turbulence of most of the 20th century.

Half a day’s drive east from Przemysl and you are in Austrian Lemberg, now Ukrainian Lviv. Head for the Viennese Coffee House at Svobody prosp. 12, and order a Melange and Sachertorte and you could be back in the 1st district. It’s still a veneer: While the main boulevards are largely restored, the side streets are in sad shape, the fine molded facades fading and chipped, missing cobblestones a trap for the unwary. Still, it’s a gift for moviemakers in search of atmospheric period locations.

Across the sometime Soviet bloc, even small towns have a museum, chock-full of fascinating objects and documentation curated with ferociously partisan local patriotism – history written not by the victors, but by the survivors. Predictably, the eras of Nazi and Soviet occupation are the bleakest. In retrospect, the time of the light-touch Austrian administration with its (relatively) benign tolerance of local languages and governance is seen as a golden age.

Prague is different and had always considered itself the equal-or-better of Vienna, even if not the hub of Habsburg imperial power. Culturally, it was Vienna’s equal and as the industrialization of the 19th century gathered momentum, Böhmen (the Czech part of today’s Czechia) was also the Empire’s manufacturing base.

© Anthony Delanoix

This is all reflected in the city’s spectacular architecture: The fairytale gothic of the churches and town hall on the Staroměstské náměstí, the miniature tower-lets surrounding bigger towers that crown even bigger ones. Later came the extravagances of the newer Nové Město, as the prosperous merchant classes outbid each other in architectural one-upmanship. This building boom was a little later than Vienna’s and the architecture reflects this: It’s less formalistic neoclassical, more often luxuriant Jugendstil, languorous female figures often supplementing severe Roman symmetry.

A portrait of Ferdinand Fellner © Wikimedia Commons

The two great temples of culture, the Národni divadlo (the State Theater, actually an opera house) and the Rudolfinum were built by decidedly Czech architects, even if the Habsburgs paid for them. Unsurprisingly, the Neues Deutsches Theater, the city’s main German-language theater, was built by one of the imperial family’s favorites, Ferdinand Fellner, who also designed the opera house in Zagreb.

Bratislava’s three names proudly reflect a unique intersection of three nationalistic cultures – Pozsony (Hungarian), Pressburg (Austrian) and Bratislava – now decidedly Slovak. Dominated by the Hrad, the magnificent ancient fortress on a natural outcropping towering over the river, the old city is a cheerful profusion of baroque, neoclassical and art deco. Church towers still shape the skyline, and it’s tempting to ascribe the tall, pointy steeples to the stern northern Protestants and the voluptuous onion domes to the more epicurean southern Catholics, with whatever that tells us about their respective takes on God and mankind. Sadly, it’s a theory that does not stand up to investigation. But the Catholic Church was certainly the world’s first great global concern and perhaps least subject to nationalistic taste – even if the great princes were footing the bill. At this fusion of Magyar, Germanic and Slavic identities, the question of what makes Habsburg architecture particular becomes hard to pin down.

Kafka is Watching

Down the Danube, the particularity of the three great Habsburg sister cities of Vienna, Prague and Budapest becomes clear. Budapest’s architecture grandly reflects its role as the city of governance for more than half the sprawling Doppelmonarchie.

The culturally rich city of Budapest / © Anastasia Zhenin

Buda, Óbuda and Pest were combined in 1873 and the building boom that followed is largely what defines the city today – a magnificent kalei-doscope of neo-renaissance, gothic revival and Jugendstil. High points include the opera house, an equally splendid cousin of Vienna’s Staatsoper; the Parliament’s Magyar exuberance surely out-gunning Vienna’s Greek revival; and Café Gerbeaud, as splendidly fin de siècle as anything Vienna or Prague can offer. As in Prague, the Habsburgs’ monumental Royal Palace across the river still looming over the modern city completes the Kafkaesque notion of bustling life in the shadow of distant power.

The Habsburg stamp lives on in the splendid opera house, opened personally by Franz Josef.

Little Slovenia and its industrious people, the most northern and least “Balkan” of the quarrelsome cluster of individualistic state-lets to emerge from the Yugoslav meltdown of the early 1990s, was never a major focus for the Habsburgs. Ljubljana itself with its canals and pedestrian bridges, its huge fresh produce market and solid architectural modesty, still feels like the provincial hub it always was. Only the ancient Burg, a forbidding medieval fortress on a steep and wooded natural outcrop rising from the city center, is a clear reminder of Habsburg power, of the rulers and the ruled.

Neighboring Croatia bears a stronger imprint. A strangely bipolar country, its sub-alpine wooded hill country is coupled with a magnificently long, rocky Adriatic coastline of over 600km. Zagreb itself was ravaged during the socialist era, but the Habsburg stamp lives on in the splendid opera house, opened personally by Franz Josef and built by the family’s favorite architects Fellner and Helmer (also responsible for the Ronacher and the Volkstheater in Vienna). The great cathedral of the Virgin Mary and St. Stephan was conscientiously maintained over nearly 400 years of Habsburg rule and typically for the monarchy’s tactical respect for local culture, many inscriptions are in Glagolitic, the ancient Croatian rune alphabet, and are as clear as the day they were chiseled.

The Austrian Riviera

Moving from the sacred to the secular is Opatija (or Abbazia in Italian), across from the busy port of Rijeka on the Istrian peninsular. Its faded elegance reflects its onetime status as the Côte d’Azur of its day. The narrow strip of land skirting the sea is crowded with grand hotels and villas in Schönbrunner yellow, a favorite summer destination for Vienna’s elite escaping the city heat. Faded postcards in the bars document its low-key charm, again a typically Habsburg cultural mélange of Italian lifestyle spiced with Croatian national pride and Austrian grace.

The easternmost point of northern Italy is Trieste, Habsburg Austria’s major seaport for over 500 years until the disaster of 1918. Much of the architecture could be any Adriatic Italian town. But this proud city was the monarchy’s marine gateway to the rest of the world, and the harbor front is an undisguised demonstration of imperial power. The grand waterfront plaza now named to celebrate the abrupt end of Austrian rule, the Piazza Unità d’Italia, is still flanked by the monumentally grand Palazzo del Governo and Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino – Austrian military might to the left and commercial power to the right.

Uncharacteristically, the opera house is a modest affair, restrained neoclassic with a slightly fascist-modernist portico that looks like a very un-Habsburg afterthought – but with a grand opera interior. And if you look across to the small park, almost out of sight among the trees, you’ll see a charming monument to Elisabetta, Franz Josef’s Sissi, the people’s empress, a low crescent of white marble flanking the statue. With a nice touch of irony, she still reigns over the Piazza Libertà. Italians can be forgiven their hard-won nation-al pride; to this day, the flowers are always fresh. And in the Slovenian-speaking villages that ring the city, the old men will still mutter to each other when something untoward happens: “It wasn’t like that in the Emperor’s day.” And neither, sadly, is the architecture.