Hannes Richter

Ringstrasse: Monumental Buildings & Palaces

Hannes Richter
Ringstrasse: Monumental Buildings & Palaces

By Markus Kristan

The sale of Ringstrasse lots began on May 19, 1860. The first stage saw the construction of residential buildings on Opernring, Kärntner Ring, and Kolowratring (today Schubertring), and on Franz-Josefs-Kai, Rudolfsplatz, and Karlsplatz. One of the first structures was the residential and office building designed by Carl Roesner for the wholesale merchant Karl Schmidt at Friedrichstrasse 6, where the iconic Café Museum, designed by Adolf Loos, was installed in 1899. The only monumental buildings constructed during the 1860s were the Court Opera and the Gartenbaugesellschaft building.

The liberal grande bourgeoisie, some of whose members were of Jewish origins, built the first major palaces at this time. Among the principals in this initial period were Moriz von Königswarter, Friedrich Schey von Koromla, and Eduard von Todesco. Members of the imperial household and high aristocracy (Duke Philipp von Württemberg and Archdukes Ludwig Victor and Wilhelm) followed suit. The parade ground near Josefstadt and, of course, the recently completed barracks, both of which belonged to the military, were not developed at this time. Parts of the Ringstrasse were gradually opened beginning in 1861, and the entire Ringstrasse was opened on May 1, 1865.

First “palais” It was not until the late 1860s to late 1870s, however, that building activity along the Ringstrasse reached its highpoint, including significant artistic contributions. The stock exchange district, Schottenring and Parkring, and Schillerplatz were the next to be developed. The erection of magnificent palaces at this time was primarily confined to the ennobled bourgeoisie (names like Ephrussi, Epstein, Henckel-Donnersmarck, Klein, LarischMoennich, Leitenberger, Lützow, Sturany).

They were followed soon afterwards by the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry and, after the parade ground on the Josefstadt glacis had been made available by the military, the parliament building, city hall, the university, and the Burgtheater. As a counterweight to the buildings belonging to the grande bourgeoisie, Gottfried Semper designed the Kaiserforum, including the new wing of the Hofburg and the two imperial museums, which were ultimately completed on a reduced scale by him and his partner Carl Hasenauer.

The vaulting over of the Wien river was the precursor to the development of the outer Schwarzenbergplatz and Karlsplatz. After the demolition of FranzJoseph-Kaserne, the Stubenring area was developed on the basis of a layout plan by Otto Wagner with the star-shaped Aspernplatz. The Post Office Savings Bank, Chamber of Commerce, and Ministry of War buildings were all erected here.

The Ringstrasse era ended in 1914 before the outbreak of World War I. During this time a few early Historicist buildings from the first development phase had given way to late Historicist and Secessionist buildings. The most prominent examples are the Creditanstalt (today Bank Austria) building and Hotel Bristol.

Ringstrasse style The façades of the palaces and apartment buildings in particular were designed to reflect the prestige, wealth, and social status of their owners and inhabitants. The social order was fixed in the various floors of these residences. The lower floors were usually occupied by wealthy burghers, while the bel étage with its magnificent façade was the fitting residence of the building’s owner. The higher up the building, the lower the social status of its occupants. The upper stories were usually inhabited by servants.

The predominant style of the Ringstrasse was Neo-Viennese Renaissance, notable for its clear horizontal separation of façade levels and the Roman high Renaissance ornamentation. This could be seen in particular in the magnificent private palaces, but also in the apartment houses ennobled by way of palace-like façades and often combined into apartment blocks. From the mid-1870s the NeoBaroque style, which dominated the late Historicist buildings, began gradually to gain ground. The style of the monumental buildings was meant to reflect their function, and they thus differed markedly from the residential buildings.

The Grecian style of the Parliament, for example, reflected the ideal of Greek political science, while the Renaissance form of the Court Opera, the Academy of Fine Arts, Musikverein, the university, and the Burgtheater referenced the humanistic and cultural tradition. The Neo-Gothic city hall, by contrast, recalled the late medieval town halls and the heyday of burghers. Although the residential Ringstrasse buildings are different in style, they shared common features in terms of layout and vertical elevation, structure, materials, and building techniques.

Opening On May 1, 1865, the Ringstrasse was opened by Emperor Franz Joseph in the presence of Empress Elisabeth, several archdukes, ministers, and representatives of the city of Vienna with mayor Andreas Zelinka at the head. The official event took place in front of the festively decorated Outer Burgtor. 

After the mayor had given a short speech, Emperor Franz Joseph opened the Ringstrasse with the following words: “I regard the completion of the Ringstrasse as a particularly important phase in the enlargement of the city. I have always given my closest attention to this matter and would like to thank you, Mr. Mayor, and the city council for the care you have taken in enhancing my residence. I shall continue to monitor the progress in the development and take account as far as possible of the wishes of the community regarding the acquisition of sites at a reasonable price for schools, market halls, and parks.” The Emperor then announced the impending commencement of another major project, the Wiener Hochquellwasserleitung [Vienna Mountain Spring Pipeline].

Afterwards, the guests traveled in several hundred coaches along the decorated but mostly undeveloped Ringstrasse to the Prater for a garden party in the Kaisergarten. After eating, the Emperor and Empress returned to the Hofburg via the Prater Hauptallee, Praterstern, and Ringstrasse. 

This relatively modest ceremony, given the size of the project, marked the opening of one of the most important Gesamtkunstwerke, or total works of art, in the world. The Emperor was to be involved in the building along the Ringstrasse for the remaining fifty-one years of his reign.

This is an abbreviated version of a text published in the catalog of the exhibition “RINGSTRASSE. A Jewish Boulevard”. 

Markus Kristan has been curator of the architecture collection at the Albertina Vienna since 1993. As a trained art historian, historian and archeologist, he has published several articles and books on Austrian architecture in the 19th and 20th century.