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Author: Andreas Nierhaus, Curator of Architecture/Wien Museum
Last updated January 2014
Architecture in Vienna
Vienna’s 2,000-year history is present in a unique density in the cityscape. The layout of the center dates back to the Roman city and medieval road network. Romanesque and Gothic churches characterize the streets and squares as well as palaces and mansions of the baroque city of residence. The ring road is an expression of the modern city of the 19th century, in the 20th century extensive housing developments set accents in the outer districts. Currently, large-scale urban development measures are implemented; distinctive buildings of international star architects complement the silhouette of the city.
Due to its function as residence of the emperor and European power center, Vienna for centuries stood in the focus of international attention, but it was well aware of that too. As a result, developed an outstanding building culture, and still today on a worldwide scale only a few cities can come up with a comparable density of high-quality architecture. For several years now, Vienna has increased its efforts to connect with its historical highlights and is drawing attention to itself with some spectacular new buildings. The fastest growing city in the German-speaking world today most of all in residential construction is setting standards. Constants of the Viennese architecture are respect for existing structures, the palpability of historical layers and the dialogue between old and new.
Culmination of medieval architecture: the Stephansdom
The oldest architectural landmark of the city is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, defining the face of the city from the late 13th century until 1918 in a decisive way, the cathedral was upgraded into the sacral monument of the political ambitions of the ruling house. The 1433 completed, 137 meters high southern tower, by the Viennese people affectionately named "Steffl", is a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture in Europe. For decades he was the tallest stone structure in Europe, until today he is the undisputed center of the city.
The baroque residence
Vienna’s ascension into the ranks of the great European capitals began in Baroque. Among the most important architects are Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Outside the city walls arose a chain of summer palaces, including the garden Palais Schwarzenberg (1697-1704) as well as the Upper and Lower Belvedere of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1714-22). Among the most important city palaces are the Winter Palace of Prince Eugene (1695-1724, now a branch of the Belvedere) and the Palais Daun-Kinsky (auction house in Kinsky 1713-19). The emperor himself the Hofburg had complemented by buildings such as the Imperial Library (1722-26) and the Winter Riding School (1729-34). More important, however, for the Habsburgs was the foundation of churches and monasteries. Thus arose before the city walls Fischer von Erlach’s Karlskirche (1714-39), which with its formal and thematic complex show façade belongs to the major works of European Baroque. In colored interior rooms like that of St. Peter’s Church (1701-22), the contemporary efforts for the synthesis of architecture, painting and sculpture becomes visible.
Upgrading into metropolis: the ring road time (Ringstraßenzeit)
Since the Baroque, reflections on extension of the hopelessly overcrowed city were made, but only Emperor Franz Joseph ordered in 1857 the demolition of the fortifications and the connection of the inner city with the suburbs. 1865, the Ring Road was opened. It is as the most important boulevard of Europe an architectural and in terms of urban development achievement of the highest rank. The original building structure is almost completely preserved and thus conveys the authentic image of a metropolis of the 19th century. The public representational buildings speak, reflecting accurately the historicism, by their style: The Greek Antique forms of Theophil Hansen’s Parliament (1871-83) stood for democracy, the Renaissance of the by Heinrich Ferstel built University (1873-84) for the flourishing of humanism, the Gothic of the Town Hall (1872-83) by Friedrich Schmidt for the medieval civic pride.
Dominating remained the buildings of the imperial family: Eduard van der Nüll’s and August Sicardsburg’s Opera House (1863-69), Gottfried Semper’s and Carl Hasenauer’s Burgtheater (1874-88), their Museum of Art History and Museum of Natural History (1871-91) and the Neue (New) Hofburg (1881-1918 ). At the same time the ring road was the preferred residential area of mostly Jewish haute bourgeoisie. With luxurious palaces the families Ephrussi, Epstein or Todesco made it clear that they had taken over the cultural leadership role in Viennese society. In the framework of the World Exhibition of 1873, the new Vienna presented itself an international audience. At the ring road many hotels were opened, among them the Hotel Imperial and today’s Palais Hansen Kempinski.
Laboratory of modernity: Vienna around 1900
Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank (1903-06) was one of the last buildings in the Ring road area Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank (1903-06), which with it façade, liberated of ornament, and only decorated with "functional" aluminum buttons and the glass banking hall now is one of the icons of modern architecture. Like no other stood Otto Wagner for the dawn into the 20th century: His Metropolitan Railway buildings made the public transport of the city a topic of architecture, the church of the Psychiatric hospital at Steinhofgründe (1904-07) is considered the first modern church.
With his consistent focus on the function of a building ("Something impractical can not be beautiful"), Wagner marked a whole generation of architects and made Vienna the laboratory of modernity: in addition to Joseph Maria Olbrich, the builder of the Secession (1897-98) and Josef Hoffmann, the architect of the at the western outskirts located Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1904) and founder of the Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstätte, 1903) is mainly to mention Adolf Loos, with the Loos House at the square Michaelerplatz (1909-11) making architectural history. The extravagant marble cladding of the business zone stands in maximal contrast, derived from the building function, to the unadorned facade above, whereby its "nudity" became even more obvious – a provocation, as well as his culture-critical texts ("Ornament and Crime"), with which he had greatest impact on the architecture of the 20th century. Public contracts Loos remained denied. His major works therefore include villas, apartment facilities and premises as the still in original state preserved Tailor salon Knize at Graben (1910-13) and the restored Loos Bar (1908-09) near the Kärntner Straße (passageway Kärntner Durchgang).
Between the Wars: International Modern Age and social housing
After the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, Vienna became capital of the newly formed small country of Austria. In the heart of the city, the architects Theiss & Jaksch built 1931-32 the first skyscraper in Vienna as an exclusive residential address (Herrengasse – alley 6-8). To combat the housing shortage for the general population, the social democratic city government in a globally unique building program within a few years 60,000 apartments in hundreds of apartment buildings throughout the city area had built, including the famous Karl Marx-Hof by Karl Ehn (1925-30). An alternative to the multi-storey buildings with the 1932 opened International Werkbundsiedlung was presented, which was attended by 31 architects from Austria, Germany, France, Holland and the USA and showed models for affordable housing in greenfield areas. With buildings of Adolf Loos, André Lurçat, Richard Neutra, Gerrit Rietveld, the Werkbundsiedlung, which currently is being restored at great expense, is one of the most important documents of modern architecture in Austria.
Modernism was also expressed in significant Villa buildings: The House Beer (1929-31) by Josef Frank exemplifies the refined Wiener living culture of the interwar period, while the house Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1926-28, today Bulgarian Cultural Institute), built by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein together with the architect Paul Engelmann for his sister Margarete, by its aesthetic radicalism and mathematical rigor represents a special case within contemporary architecture.
Expulsion, war and reconstruction
After the "Anschluss (Annexation)" to the German Reich in 1938, numerous Jewish builders, architects (female and male ones), who had been largely responsible for the high level of Viennese architecture, have been expelled from Austria. During the Nazi era, Vienna remained largely unaffected by structural transformations, apart from the six flak towers built for air defense of Friedrich Tamms (1942-45), made of solid reinforced concrete which today are present as memorials in the cityscape.
The years after the end of World War II were characterized by the reconstruction of the by bombs heavily damaged city. The architecture of those times was marked by aesthetic pragmatism, but also by the attempt to connect with the period before 1938 and pick up on current international trends. Among the most important buildings of the 1950s are Roland Rainer’s City Hall (1952-58), the by Oswald Haerdtl erected Wien Museum at Karlsplatz (1954-59) and the 21er Haus of Karl Schwanzer (1958-62).
The youngsters come
Since the 1960s, a young generation was looking for alternatives to the moderate modernism of the reconstruction years. With visionary designs, conceptual, experimental and above all temporary architectures, interventions and installations, Raimund Abraham, Günther Domenig, Eilfried Huth, Hans Hollein, Walter Pichler and the groups Coop Himmelb(l)au, Haus-Rucker-Co and Missing Link rapidly got international attention. Although for the time being it was more designed than built, was the influence on the postmodern and deconstructivist trends of the 1970s and 1980s also outside Austria great. Hollein’s futuristic "Retti" candle shop at Charcoal Market/Kohlmarkt (1964-65) and Domenig’s biomorphic building of the Central Savings Bank in Favoriten (10th district of Vienna – 1975-79) are among the earliest examples, later Hollein’s Haas-Haus (1985-90), the loft conversion Falkestraße (1987/88) by Coop Himmelb(l)au or Domenig’s T Center (2002-04) were added. Especially Domenig, Hollein, Coop Himmelb(l)au and the architects Ortner & Ortner (ancient members of Haus-Rucker-Co) by orders from abroad the new Austrian and Viennese architecture made a fixed international concept.
MuseumQuarter and Gasometer
Since the 1980s, the focus of building in Vienna lies on the compaction of the historic urban fabric that now as urban habitat of high quality no longer is put in question. Among the internationally best known projects is the by Ortner & Ortner planned MuseumsQuartier in the former imperial stables (competition 1987, 1998-2001), which with institutions such as the MUMOK – Museum of Modern Art Foundation Ludwig, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthalle Wien, the Architecture Center Vienna and the Zoom Children’s Museum on a wordwide scale is under the largest cultural complexes. After controversies in the planning phase, here an architectural compromise between old and new has been achieved at the end, whose success as an urban stage with four million visitors (2012) is overwhelming.
The dialogue between old and new, which has to stand on the agenda of building culture of a city that is so strongly influenced by history, also features the reconstruction of the Gasometer in Simmering by Coop Himmelb(l)au, Wilhelm Holzbauer, Jean Nouvel and Manfred Wehdorn (1999-2001). Here was not only created new housing, but also a historical industrial monument reinterpreted into a signal in the urban development area.
In recent years, the major railway stations and their surroundings moved into the focus of planning. Here not only necessary infrastructural measures were taken, but at the same time opened up spacious inner-city residential areas and business districts. Among the prestigious projects are included the construction of the new Vienna Central Station, started in 2010 with the surrounding office towers of the Quartier Belvedere and the residential and school buildings of the Midsummer quarter (Sonnwendviertel). Europe’s largest wooden tower invites here for a spectacular view to the construction site and the entire city. On the site of the former North Station are currently being built 10,000 homes and 20,000 jobs, on that of the Aspangbahn station is being built at Europe’s greatest Passive House settlement "Euro Gate", the area of the North Western Railway Station is expected to be developed from 2020 for living and working. The largest currently under construction residential project but can be found in the north-eastern outskirts, where in Seaside Town Aspern till 2028 living and working space for 40,000 people will be created.
In one of the "green lungs" of Vienna, the Prater, 2013, the WU campus was opened for the largest University of Economics of Europe. Around the central square spectacular buildings of an international architect team from Great Britain, Japan, Spain and Austria are gathered that seem to lead a sometimes very loud conversation about the status quo of contemporary architecture (Hitoshi Abe, BUSarchitektur, Peter Cook, Zaha Hadid, NO MAD Arquitectos, Carme Pinós).
International is also the number of architects who have inscribed themselves in the last few years with high-rise buildings in the skyline of Vienna and make St. Stephen’s a not always unproblematic competition. Visible from afar is Massimiliano Fuksas’ 138 and 127 meters high elegant Twin Tower at Wienerberg (1999-2001). The monolithic, 75-meter-high tower of the Hotel Sofitel at the Danube Canal by Jean Nouvel (2007-10), on the other hand, reacts to the particular urban situation and stages in its top floor new perspectives to the historical center on the other side.
Also at the water stands Dominique Perrault’s DC Tower (2010-13) in the Danube City – those high-rise city, in which since the start of construction in 1996, the expansion of the city north of the Danube is condensed symbolically. Even in this environment, the slim and at the same time striking vertically folded tower of Perrault is beyond all known dimensions; from its Sky Bar, from spring 2014 on you are able to enjoy the highest view of Vienna. With 250 meters, the tower is the tallest building of Austria and almost twice as high as the St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Vienna, thus, has acquired a new architectural landmark which cannot be overlooked – whether it also has the potential to become a landmark of the new Vienna, only time will tell. The architectural history of Vienna, where European history is presence and new buildings enter into an exciting and not always conflict-free dialogue with a great and outstanding architectural heritage, in any case has yet to offer exciting chapters.
Info: The folder "Architecture: From Art Nouveau to the Presence" is available at the Vienna Tourist Board and can be downloaded on www.wien.info/media/files/guide-architecture-in-wien.pdf.