How the Ringstrasse Became One of the World’s Most Beautiful Boulevards
By Simon Spornberger and Julian Steiner
A Historic Overview
Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a masterpiece of urban planning and remains one of the most famous boulevards, not only in Europe, but around the globe. Its roots lie in the historical defense infrastructure of Vienna, built in the 13th century. After collecting ransom payments from the release of King Richard I. “Lionheart” of England, the Austrian Archduke built city walls around Vienna.
After the first Turkish siege in 1529, the walls had to be reinforced and protected Vienna from attacks until 1865. The first step of the construction of the Ringstrasse was the demolition of the Vienna city walls. By the mid-19th century, the city’s century-old defense fortifications had left an enormous untilled area between the city center and its fast-growing suburbs, which provided the space for the new grand boulevard. The city walls had been surrounded by a glacis over 1,600 feet wide, on which buildings and vegetation were prohibited. While this defense mechanism had long kept Vienna safe, it had become obsolete by the late 18th century.
As a consequence, Emperor Joseph II started constructing pathways and streets across the glacis, which then served as an open air workshop and marketplace for Vienna’s craftsmen and merchants. As space inside the city walls was limited, Vienna’s suburban villages outside the glacis were growing rapidly and in 1850, these villages were incorporated into the municipality. This meant that the city’s fortifications had not only lost their strategic relevance, but had also become an obstacle to urban traffic. In 1857, 27 year-old Emperor Franz Joseph I took action.
In a historic decree “Es ist mein Wille” (“It is my will”), he ordered the demolition of the city walls and the construction of a grand boulevard that would surround the city center and connect it with the suburbs. In his decree, he laid out the exact size of this circular street, as well as the geographical positions and functions of the new buildings. Franz Joseph envisioned a grand representative boulevard that would include a university, an opera house, a theater and the parliament.
The official inauguration was held by the Emperor in front of the Burgtor on May 1, 1865. At that time, only a part of the new boulevard had been completed. The planning of the 3.3 mile long, and 187 feet wide boulevard was conducted by some of the best architects of the time, above all Theophil von Hansen, Heinrich von Ferstel, Gottfried Semper and Carl von Hasenauer, who constructed the boulevard in Historicism style, i.e. the architects incorporated various historicstylistic influences: Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic experienced a return. It took more than 50 years to build the boulevard as we know it today.
Thus, a walk along the Ringstrasse in 2015 equals a tour through architectural history. Today, the Ringstrasse is still one of the most famous and most beautiful streets in the world, serving the Viennese people as an important traffic artery, a place to meet people, a shopping street, and a testament to the old times.