Hannes Richter

A University’s Home

Hannes Richter
A University’s Home

The Main Building of the University of Vienna on the Ringstrasse

By Julia Rüdiger

The Renaissance meets the 19th century 1884–2015

A university’s “house” is always much more than just a building. Of course it offers the roof under which research is done and students are taught. But most of all, it is the location of the encounter between teachers and students, the space in which the community, the universitas, comes into existence.

Thus, the architecture itself becomes a place of identification with the institution. At the same time, the demands placed on the architects by different members of the contracting commission are far from uniform or constant. An analytical look at the university’s Main Building on the Ring (opened in 1884) shows the (self-) conception reflected here and the ideals the community should identify with.

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A return of potentially insurgent students after the Revolution of 1848 to the historically significant New Aula was out of the question. In the public eye this was the site where the rebellious groups, including the Academic Legion, planned the conspiracy and murder of War Minister Theodor von Latour, who was lynched in Vienna by an angry mob after having decided to send further troops to suppress the Hungarian revolution. Emperor Franz Joseph thus decided in May of 1854 to construct a new university building.

Until the opening 30 years later, in October 1884, however, the Alma Mater Rudolphina remained without a center. Since the Faculty of Medicine in particular profited from the proximity of its temporary accomodations to the General Hospital, the minister of education in 1854 instructed two academy professors, Eduard van der Nüll and August von Sicardsburg, to draw plans for a university at an empty site near the Schwarzspanier church, just outside the city’s fortification. At this representative building site the main façade of the new university would have directly overlooked the glacis; at this point nobody thought about giving up the fortifications and the glacis surrounding the city.

The following year, another architect, Heinrich von Ferstel, wanted to take advantage of the sloping terrain of the glacis for his monumental building. Only 26 years old and a student of Sicardsburg and Van der Nüll, he had won the contest for the Votiv Church and wanted to construct the important building directly on this terrain for best visibility. In accordance with the university’s “Catholic character” aimed for by ThunHohenstein, the three architects agreed on an architectural combination of university and church, in which the main building would have encompassed the sacral building’s chancel. But this civitas universitatis also was not realized and the whole construction project stagnated until 1868, when, finally, Heinrich von Ferstel himself was commissioned to do preliminary work for the new building

Ferstel and the Palace of Sciences

However, Ferstel at first also failed to accomplish an aesthetically successful combination on the irregular building AI 16 site. Only when faced with the prospect of the representative spot directly on the Ringstrasse in 1869, Ferstel enthusiastically threw himself into the plans and tried to give the university an appropriate building in the context of that grand avenue. While the style of the first sketches was oriented towards the neighboring parliament and City Hall, the second draft was geared towards a massive, monumental building, referencing paragons from the Renaissance.

university of vienna, main building original design 1872 (Universtät Wien)

The few preserved documents regarding the style debate show that from the blueprints to style and décor, the building represents the self-conception of a deterministic view of science, promising a “victory of light against darkness.” Ferstel attempted to express this idea of light in the architecture, as well as in the decorations and also set this theme for the ceremonial hall. When the artists Franz Matsch and Gustav Klimt were entrusted with this task in 1894, however, it resulted in one of the greatest art scandals of the 20th century.

While the university had expected appealing art works like Matsch’s and Klimt’s sketches for the Kunsthistorisches Museum or the Burgtheater, at least Klimt had already moved away from the agreeable Ringstrassen style and – even worse – the 19th century notion of science. His drafts did not try to flatter the academic personnel, but fundamentally questioned the possibility of absolute insights. From the planning stage to the construction, the long history of the main building highlights how the functional and representative demands on the “house” of the Alma Mater Rudolphina were in constant flux and how Ferstel tried to meet them.


This text was originally published on the website of the uni:view-magazine as a guest contribution to the lecture series “Die Wiener Universität 1365-2015”. It is used with consent of the author.

Since March 2014 Julia Rüdiger has been working as a post-doc researcher in the OeNB-funded project “Ge(l)ehrte Köpfe. Iconography and significance of the University of Vienna’s scholars’ monuments.” From February 2007 until February 2014 she was employed as research and teaching assistant at the Department of Art History, University of Vienna. Julia Rüdiger studied Art History in Vienna and Paris. She completed her PhD-project on the University of Vienna main building at the Vienna Ringstrasse in November 2013 with distinction. Her diploma thesis on Amédée Ozenfant’s Art Theory (2005) was granted the Dr.-Maria-Schaumayer-Award.