December 20: “Es ist Mein Wille”

2012/12/20 § 2 Comments

Vienna 1860

On this day in 1857 Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria issued his famous “It is My will” decree.

When you’re the emperor your will can direct the movements of mighty forces, be it the destructive ones of war or the creative ones of building (or of nurturing impressive facial hair).  Through his long reign (the third longest in European history) Franz Josef did both to a remarkable degree.  His great decree of 1857 prompted a huge demolition project ultimately aimed at the redesign of his capital.  Vienna’s old medieval core had been long stifled within its fortification walls that had become obsolete with advances in military technology.  With general peace at the capital they were dingy reminders of Vienna’s past, but not its recent achievements and certainly not indicative of the splendor proper for a major European capital.

With the destruction of the walls the city could expand outward.  A new ring road, the Ringstraße, took the place of the walls, and plans were made to fill up the broad plain (glacis) kept clear of construction beyond the wall.  The emperor’s planners and architects set about the creation of massive cultural projects: a new town hall, university, opera, and major museums in which the imperial collections in natural and art history were put on display for the public.

Vienna’s Ringstraße is wrongly seen as a second-best attempt at the planning begun just a bit earlier in Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann for Napoleon III.  While that project certainly set the nineteenth-century standard for broad stunning boulevards linking cultural monuments and verdant gardens, the two are formally very different and distinct.  In Paris the new boulevards connected big buildings–which consistently tend toward shades of French Classicism–and squares with axial parade routes, framing views that leave no doubt as to what is the important thing to look at for miles ahead.  Vienna’s faceted Ringstraße runs along side architectural monument of varying epoch and style (including great later additions like Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse) in a twisting path of continually changing picturesque views.  Although both city plans were instituted by emperors with similar political aims, the greater freedom and variety of Vienna has adapted much more adroitly from seat of empire to its new status as the capital of a democratic republic.

Image: map of Vienna in 1860 showing planning for Ringstraße and associated architectural projects (from this site)

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