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Vienna’s Most Distinguished Resident

‘Beethoven Frieze’ in the Secession Building
Mercado Navidad
Ringstrasse frente al Teatro Imperial

An ambitious project that changed the Austrian capital forever: The Ringstrasse. The city’s most emblematic avenue brings Imperial times into the present day.
It was in 1857 when Emperor Franz Josef I began to tear down the walls of Vienna, many of them dating back to the 13th century. The walls, with the city’s relentless growth, had become more a liability than protection. The emperor’s intention, however, was not just to bring the walls down: in his decree “Es ist Mein Wille,” meaning “It is my will,” he announced his project to create a great boulevard where the old city boundary once stood and invited architects to compete for its design. Conceived as a luxury boulevard, the Ringstrasse included a parallel avenue on which industrial vehicles would circulate. It was officially opened on 1 May, 1865, despite the fact it was still unfinished. Some of the main buildings and monuments, such as the Roßau barracks (the current headquarters of the Austrian Ministry of Defence) and the Opera House, were finished before 1870. However, the works were to continue for almost five decades.

The Ringstrasse was built under the orders of the finest architects of the time, among them Theophil von Hansen, Heinrich von Ferstel, Gottfried Semper and Carl von Hasenauer. These men followed the historicist canons of beauty, which imitated architectural and artistic styles from other eras, and established their own after the construction of the boulevard. It was a milestone in Viennese history, both for the standards it set and its socio-economic importance. Its creation allowed the bourgeoisie to reach the centre of Vienna, which until then had been the prerogative of royalty and the aristocracy. It also became the symbol of the Austrian Empire, which was already in decline. Even so, a great sum of money was invested in bestowing on the Ringstrasse the beauty it preserves today.

In such an ambitious project as this, nothing was left to chance. It included the construction of key buildings in Viennese life: the Town Hall and the Austrian Parliament, which marked the political life of the city and the country; the Opera House and the Art History and Natural History Museums, which represented leisure and culture; the Vienna Stock Exchange, a temple to the economy, the University, which would ensure the education of future generations. Even religious life was taken into account, with the construction of the Votive Church in 1879. Several palaces were also built, though where the bourgoisie and nobility once lived are today high-end hotels, such as the Württemberg Palace, now the luxurious Hotel Imperial.

It wasn't just Imperial art that was accommodated; between 1897 and 1898 the Secession Building was constructed as the headquarters to members of this modernist art movement. Gustav Klimt, painter of ‘The Kiss’, was one of the movement’s most active members. In the basement of the building is the ‘Beethoven Frieze,’ though to enjoy more of this artist’s work you’ll have to leave the Ringstrasse and head over to the Belvedere Palace.
Imperial life and modern life coexist on both sides of the Ringstrasse. More than 150 years after it was opened, the emperor achieved his objectives: today, it is one of the city’s main thoroughfares, an excellent place to walk and lined with shopping establishments and restaurants. “His will” was done.

The Ringstrasse, site of numerous events

Every year, this centennial avenue hosts two great events: the Vienna marathon, where more than 40,000 athletes run the Ringstrasse distracted only by its monumental buildings, and the Gay Pride festival. For this celebration, the Vienna council organises a colourful parade that closes the boulevard to traffic to make way for floats and extravagant costumes. The Ringstrasse is also the preferred place for any demonstration held in the city of Vienna.

Hitler and the Ringstrasse

When the Nazi army annexed Austria, Vienna was one of the places that drew Hitler’s attention. His idea was to model Vienna Nazi-style, converting it into the second most important city of the ‘Reich,’ serving as a passage to the east of Europe. The Ringstrasse was what most attracted the dictator, who admired the monumental aspect of the boulevard and planned to carry out something similar with the rest of the city.

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