Architecture

   As a region on the borderland of many cultures, the Austrian people have made several major architectural styles their own from the early Middle Ages to the present, often with distinction. Least well represented is arguably the Romanesque, a preeminent style in western and central Europe from 950 to 1150. Although monasteries such as Melk and Heiligenkreuz were originally built in the Romanesque style, they have been drastically remodeled over the centuries. The best example of Austrian Christian Romanesque is the cathedral of Gurk in northern Carinthia, built sometime around 1140–1200. Its crypt, supported by 100 columns, is a splendid example of a Romanesque interior.
   Medieval architecture in the Gothic style came to the Austrian provinces in the 13th century from both Italy, where Gothic churches were built with three-tower facades and made more use of ornamental color on their exteriors, and France, where the designs, especially at the outset, were more austere. Austria’s most notable Gothic structure is St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Its builders, who began the work in 1304 on top of an earlier foundation, were in close contact with colleagues in Regensburg and Strasbourg to the west. The interior of St. Stephen’s, like most Gothic churches in Austria, is distinguished by a long central church hall, with several naves all of the same height. As in other regions of Europe, Gothic architecture made its way into secular buildings in Austria as well, an excellent example being the 15th-century Golden Roof of Innsbruck. Austrian scholars have long debated the nature of the Renaissance in Austria. During the 16th century, a number of buildings were constructed that took their inspiration from classicizing Italian styles. Especially successful examples are the graceful Porcia palace in Spittal an der Drau in Carinthia and the lovely terra cotta courtyard of Schallaburg castle in Lower Austria. This was an age, however, when Austrian financial resources were directed elsewhere, combating both Ottoman invaders from the east and what Catholics saw as Protestant heresy at home. Renaissance architecture, therefore, left comparatively few traces on Austrian soil.
   The Austrian lands more than compensated for this deficit during the age of the Baroque, which, running through the 17th century, peaked in its latter decades. Austria’s Baroque architects, such as Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, and Jakob Prandtauer, gave Austrian architecture buildings and monuments of world stature, expressions of the twin triumphs pof the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the final defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which took place during that period. The Baroque gave way, after 1750, to the more delicate rococo and neoclassical styles from southern Germany and France. The next truly striking Austrian architectural style, albeit largely confined to interiors, was the Biedermeier, which dominated the decorative imagination in the Habsburg lands, especially the German-speaking ones, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of the Revolutions of 1848.
   Growing prosperity that came to the Habsburg Empire during the second half of the 19th century, especially in its western reaches, brought significant changes in its built environment, especially in large cities. The decision to create an urban circumferential boulevard, the Ringstrasse in Vienna, opened the way for massive official and residential structures, largely in the historicizing neo-Renaissance style that was the architectural canon of the day. Instrumental in the Ring’s planning after 1836 was Ludwig Förster (1797–1863), who after 1842 taught at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. His strong respect for traditional styles influenced such important students as Theophile Hansen and Otto Wagner, though in very different ways.
   Wagner, along with Josef Hoffmann, broke sharply with this school at the end of the 19th century as members of the Secession. Seeking to combine purpose with beauty, they drastically simplified even the most elegant (and expensive) of structures. Adolf Loos (1870–1933) carried the principle even further, proscribing ornament of any kind unless it played an unequivocally functional role in a building. Such ideas, however, led to the undistinguished structures built from visibly cheaper materials that abound in Austrian cities today. Tight material circumstances created by the economic downturn that followed World War I lowered ceilings and scaled back room space for the once-comfortable middle classes. The population shifts and destruction of housing stock that took place during and immediately after World War II left architects with few options besides stripped-down functionalism, at least in municipal apartment design. Although perhaps necessary, given the needs of the population and the resources available to satisfy them, these structures have little aesthetic merit.
   Contemporary Austrian architecture, however, is quite a different story. In the final decades of the 20th century, the protean Austrian artist and architect Friedrich Hundertwasser introduced more fanciful elements into housing design. Currently Austrian architecture, including highly experimental designs by such firms as Coop Himmelb(l)au, is in demand throughout the world.
   See also Art.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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