Although Vienna holds no remains of early medieval buildings, a number of Gothic buildings rest on older foundations. During the 1300s, ecclesiastical architecture was based on the Hallenkirche (hall church), a model that originated in Germany. These buildings featured interiors that resembled enormous hallways, with nave and aisles of the same height. The earliest example of this style was the choir added in 1295 to an older Romanesque building, the abbey church of Heiligenkreuz, 24km (15 miles) west of Vienna.

The most famous building in the Hallenkirche style was the first incarnation of St. Stephan's Cathedral. Later modifications greatly altered the details of its original construction, and today only the foundations, the main portal, and the modestly proportioned western towers remain. Much more dramatic is the cathedral's needle-shaped central spire, completed in 1433, which still soars high above Vienna's skyline. St. Stephan's triple naves, each the same height, are a distinctive feature of Austrian Gothic. Other examples of this construction can be seen in the Minorite Church and the Church of St. Augustine.

During the late 1400s, Gothic architecture retreated from the soaring proportions of the Hallenkirche style, and focus turned to more modest buildings with richly decorated interiors. Stone masons added tracery (geometric patterns) and full-rounded or low-relief sculpture to ceilings and walls. Gothic churches continued to be built in Austria until the mid-1500s.

From Gothic to Baroque

One of the unusual aspects of Vienna is its lack of Renaissance buildings. The Turks besieged Vienna periodically from 1529 until the 1680s, forcing planners to use most of their resources to strengthen the city's fortifications.

Although Vienna itself has no Renaissance examples, Italian influences were evident for more than a century before baroque gained a true foothold. Late in the 16th century, many Italian builders settled in the regions of Tyrol, Carinthia, and Styria. In these less-threatened regions of Austria, Italian influence produced a number of country churches and civic buildings in the Renaissance style, with open porticoes, balconies, and loggias.

The Flowering of the Baroque

The 47-year rule of Leopold I (1658-1705) witnessed the beginning of the golden age of Austrian baroque architecture. Italian-born Dominico Martinelli (1650-1718) designed the Liechtenstein Palace, built between 1694 and 1706 and inspired by the Renaissance-era Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

Austria soon began to produce its own architects. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) trained with both Bernini and Borromini in Rome. His style was restrained but monumental, drawing richly from the great buildings of antiquity. Fischer von Erlach knew how to transform the Italianate baroque of the south into a style that suited the Viennese. His most notable work is the Karlskirche, built in 1713. He also created the original design for Maria Theresa's Schönbrunn Palace. He had planned a sort of super-Versailles, but the project turned out to be too costly. Only the entrance facade remains of Fischer von Erlach's design. The Hofbibliothek (National Library) on Josephsplatz and the Hofstalungen are other notable buildings he designed.

Fischer von Erlach was succeeded by another great name in the history of architecture: Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745). Von Hildebrandt's design for Prince Eugene's Belvedere Palace -- a series of interlocking cubes with sloping mansard-style roofs -- is the culmination of the architectural theories initiated by Fischer von Erlach. Other von Hildebrandt designs in Vienna include the Schwarzenberg Palace (now a hotel) and St. Peter's Church.

The rococo style developed as a more ornate, somewhat fussier progression of the baroque. Gilt stucco, brightly colored frescoes, and interiors that drip with embellishments are its hallmarks. Excellent examples include the Abbey of Dürnstein (1731-35) and Melk Abbey, both in Lower Austria. One of the most powerful proponents of rococo was Maria Theresa, who used its motifs so extensively within Schönbrunn Palace during its 1744 renovation that the school of Austrian rococo is sometimes referred to as "late-baroque Theresian style."

In response to the excesses of rococo, architects eventually turned to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration. The result was a restrained neoclassicism that transformed the skyline of Vienna and lasted well into the 19th century. The dignified austerity of Vienna's Technical University is a good example.

Eclecticism & Vienna's Ring

As Austria's wealthy bourgeoisie began to impose their tastes on public architecture, 19th-century building grew more solid and monumental. The neoclassical style remained the preferred choice for government buildings, as evidenced by Vienna's Mint and the Palace of the Provincial Government.

The 19th century's most impressive Viennese architectural achievement was the construction of the Ringstrasse (1857-91). The medieval walls were demolished, and the Ring was lined with showcase buildings. This was Emperor Franz Joseph's personal project and his greatest achievement. Architects from all over Europe answered the emperor's call, eager to seize the unprecedented opportunity to design a whole city district. Between 1850 and the official opening ceremony in 1879, the Ring's architecture became increasingly eclectic: French neo-Gothic (the Votivkirche), Flemish neo-Gothic (the Rathaus), Greek Revival (Parliament), French Renaissance (Staatsoper), and Tuscan Renaissance (Museum of Applied Arts). While the volume of traffic circling Old Vienna diminishes some of the Ring's charm, a circumnavigation of the Ring provides a panorama of eclectic yet harmonious building styles.

Secessionist & Political Architecture

By the late 19th century, younger architects were in rebellion against the pomp and formality of older architectural styles. In 1896, young Otto Wagner (1841-1918) published a tract called Moderne Architektur, which argued for a return to more natural and functional architectural forms. The result was the establishment of Art Nouveau (Jugendstil, or, as it applies specifically to Vienna, Sezessionstil). The Vienna Secession architects reaped the benefits of the technological advances and the new building materials that became available after the Industrial Revolution. Wagner, designer of Vienna's Kirche am Steinhof and the city's Postsparkasse (Post Office Savings Bank), became a founding member of the movement.

Joseph Hoffman (1870-1955) and Adolf Loos (1870-1933) promoted the use of glass, newly developed steel alloys, and aluminum. In the process, they discarded nearly all ornamentation, a rejection that contemporary Vienna found profoundly distasteful and almost shocking. Loos was particularly critical of the buildings adorning the Ringstrasse. His most controversial design is the Michaelerplatz Building. Sometimes referred to as "the Loos House," it was erected on Michaelerplatz in 1908. The streamlined structure was bitterly criticized for its total lack of ornamentation and its similarities to the "gridwork of a sewer." According to gossip, the emperor found it so offensive that he ordered his drivers to avoid the Hofburg entrance on Michaelerplatz altogether.

Architectural philosophies were also affected during the "Red Vienna" period by the socialist reformers' desire to alleviate public housing shortages, a grinding social problem of the years between world wars. The Social Democratic Party began erecting "palaces for the people." The most obvious example is the Karl-Marx-Hof (Heiligenstadterstrasse 82-92, A-1190), which includes 1,600 apartments and stretches for more than a kilometer (half a mile).

To the Present Day

After World War II, much of Vienna's resources went toward restoring older historic buildings to their prewar grandeur. New buildings were streamlined and functional; much of Vienna today features the same kind of neutral modernism you're likely to find in postwar Berlin or Frankfurt.

Postmodern masters, however, have broken the mold of the 1950s and 1960s. They include the iconoclastic mogul Hans Hollein, designer of the silvery, curved-sided Haas Haus (1990) adjacent to St. Stephan's Cathedral. The self-consciously avant-garde Friedensreich Hundertwasser is a multicolored, ecologically inspired apartment building at the corner of Löwengasse and Kegelgasse that appears to be randomly stacked.

Lately, Hermann Czech has been stirring architectural excitement, not so much by building new structures as developing daring interiors for boutiques and bistros; examples are the Kleines Café (Franziskanerplatz 3) and Restaurant Salzamt (Ruprechtsplatz 1).

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