Ring Around the City: How a Circular Boulevard Changed Vienna

This year is the 150th anniversary of our city’s main thoroughfare. After replacing the 13th-century walls, its palatial majesty transformed Vienna from a cramped fortress into a sophisticated capital of European power.

“Vienna must become a metropolis,” decreed the young Emperor Franz Josef in 1857, inspired by the modernization of Paris. These words were to leave their mark on Vienna’s cityscape forever.

For over 270 years, the center of Vienna was surrounded by the Glacis, a wide, flat defensive belt that was subject to a building ban for military reasons. By the mid-19th century, this 450-meter-wide gap encircling the imperial capital stretched from the city wall to the outer suburbs.

It slowly acquired a more recreational character, with lantern-lit walkways lined by trees, stalls and open-air workshops. During the 1848 Revolution however, it became a convenient meeting place for political agitators, resulting in a state of emergency until 1853. Although the military wished to retain the medieval wall and Glacis, the Ministry of the Interior favored a narrower boulevard that would be easier to police.

The Ring evolved into an adaptable stage for shifting cultural, social and political forces

 

Fifty years of transformation

In December 1857, the Emperor decreed that the fortifications were to be demolished and a development fund established, and he invited international architects to compete for the new face of the city. The centerpiece of the plan: a wide, circular boulevard where the wall once stood.

This “Christmas present” was received with much enthusiasm among the population and in the press. Most excited, however, were the architects – by the end of the competition stage, some 85 projects had been proposed. From the initial Ringstraße plan of 1858, it took five decades for the defunct Glacis to become
the opulent tapestry we know today.

A new property-owning class

The Jewish upper class played a key role in the genesis of New Vienna: “Israelites” were granted the right to purchase property in February 1860. Starting in May, they bought many plots of prime real estate along this burgeoning route.

Taxes and municipal levies were waived for Ringstraße investors for 25 to 30 years, later reduced to 10 years following lobbying by City Hall.

Today the Ringstraße is the country’s most prominent staging ground for public events, from protests to Rasen am Ring, seen here. (Photo: Peter Provaznik)
Today the Ringstraße is the country’s most prominent staging ground for public events, from protests to Rasen am Ring, seen here. // Photo: Peter Provaznik

Shifting center of gravity

New Vienna may have been initiated by a neo-absolutist state, yet its architecture expressed the tastes of the rising, well-off bourgeoisie. During the monarchy, Vienna’s locus of power was the Burgtor (the triumphal arch leading to Heldenplatz), making it the perfect setting for the Ringstraße grand opening in 1865 by the imperial couple Franz Josef and Elisabeth. Yet with the advent of the First Republic in 1919, the Parliament building (completed in 1884) dominated and Red Vienna (1918-1934) took up residence in the monumental Rathaus.

Public space and staging place

The Ringstraße has seen it all: demonstrations for the assimilation of Western Hungary into Deutschösterreich (Republic of German-Austria) in 1919; Austrian Nazi rallies in the late 1920s and early ’30s; students rioting at the University of Vienna in 1968; Rasen am Ring, which covered the asphalt with real grass during Car Free City 2010. The Ring may have started as an imperial show of power, but it evolved into an adaptable stage for shifting cultural, social and political forces, remaining so to this day.

 

 

 

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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