The Ringstraße in Vienna was built after a decree by Emperor Franz Josef in 1857. The road transformed the city, creating a modern boulevard where the city’s military fortifications had previously stood. The road became a focus for much of Viennese public life. The Ringstraße employed various styles of architecture in the public buildings erected and acted as a testing for the competing architectural philosophies of the likes of Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner.
The Altstadt (old town ) of Vienna had originally been surrounded by walls and a defensive glacis 500m wide. By the mid eighteenth century these fortifications had become redundant and some streets had been built within the glacis. This development was somewhat haphazard and could have further encroached on the glacis but for the revolution of 1848. The army, led by Generaladjutant Karl Grünne, troubled by the events of 1848 demanded the glacis be cleared of obstructions. The cavalry required room in which to attack any more potential revolutionaries. However, their demands were opposed by those who wanted the city to expand. In 1850 the Vorstädte (area just outside the city centre) was incorporated into the city which resulted in problems with the city walls blocking the traffic between the Altstadt and the Vorstädte. The tension between town planners and the military continued until 1857 when the emperor decreed that the walls and glacis be removed and a new road be built. Having seen the transformation of Napoleonic Paris the emperor decided on a scheme of greater scale to demonstrate the grandeur and longevity of the Habsburg Empire.
A city Expansion Committee was established to oversee the work. The military, although fanatically loyal to the emperor, retained their opposition to the scheme. Their opposition finally found some favour with the emperor and a new arsenal and two barracks were constructed near railway stations to allow the army to quickly move reinforcements into the city if necessary. Large tracts of land adjacent to the Hofburg were reserved for military purposes and the road itself was to be a broad boulevard allowing the army to move quickly in time of national emergency.
By the 1860s the liberals were in the ascendancy in the Austrian parliament and the mood was for a series of public buildings to be built along the Ringstraße promoting law and peace. The street enclosed the old city divided it from the suburbs. The design of the street was for the buildings to magnify the horizontal space of the Ringstraße. Unlike cities such as Paris the buildings were not oriented towards each other but towards the continuous movement of the street; alone or in small groups they always complemented the Ringstraße. Political, educational and cultural ideals were expressed in an eclectic, historicist style called Ringstraßenstil (Ring Road Style) between the 1860s and 1890s. For example, the Rathaus was built in Gothic, designed by Friedrich Schmidt, the University was built in the style of the Renaissance, designed by Heinrich Fertel and the Burgtheatre built in the Baroque, designed by Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer.
One of the most imposing buildings was the Reichsrat (parliament). Designed by Theophil Hansen, the parliament building was a monument to classical Hellenic architecture. A large central hall gave way to two large equal wings housing the House of Lords and the House of Representatives. This reflected the equal parts played by both houses in the crisis years of the Austro-Prussian wars of 1866. The front of the building boasted tall Greek columns with the entrance on the second storey giving the illusion of great height. A wide ramp with classical statuary was then created in front of the Reichsrat.
However, these impressive public buildings were only part of the Ringstraße, the larger part of which was devoted to residential housing. The most common residential building was the apartment house. These buildings of four to six stories generally housed about sixteen separate apartments and were modelled on the Baroque Adelspalast; the large city houses of the aristocracy. For the Ringstraße the Adelspalast became a Mietpalast (Rent Palace) or a Wohnpalast (Apartment Palace). The Mietpalast mimicked the Adelspalast in external form at least. Large front facing windows and intricate facades proclaimed to all that these were not houses for the working class. The Mietpalast frequently had large vestibules with ornate stairways leading to the upper floor. Some larger and more elaborate buildings even housed inner courtyards with small formal gardens. However, all was not as it seemed. The elaborate stairways often led only to the first two floors, that is those that could be seen from the vestibule. Upper floors were reached by more modest stairways. The large front facing windows on upper floors frequently belied the interior room sizes. The Mietpalast could be owned in its entirety by a member of the aristocracy or wealthy banker class and then rented out to produce an income. Alternatively apartments were sold off individually to members of the middle class, usually widowed women, to again rent out and supplement their income. Both owners and tenants revelled in the buildings and demand for an apartment on the Ringstraße outstripped supply.
For all its success the Ringstraße had its critics not least among those architects that worked on many of its buildings, Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner, to name but two. Camillo Sitte was firmly in the classicist school of architecture promoting the historical-aesthetic aspirations of the Ringstraße. Sitte despaired of the loss of that aspiration in the needs of the modern city. For Sitte the free flowing forms of the ancient city allowed architecture to flourish in its most artistic form. The modern city, in contrast, promoted the rectilinear form constraining architecture. The Ringstraße was the prime example of this constraint. Far from allowing the historical-aesthetic architecture of the public buildings to dominate as they should, the Ringstraße subjugated the historical-aesthetic elements to the dominant linear features of the street.
In contrast to Sitte, Otto Wagner criticised the Ringstraße from the opposite side. In 1893 Wagner submitted plans to the Commission for a series of roads and associated works to run in parallel to the Ringstraße. Wagner’s vision was to sweep away the historicism of the previous thirty years of development and to move forward with rational urban development. Architecture, in Wagner’s view, should have as its prime motive modern life. When commissioned to design a Mietpalast Wagner produced a building with a stripped facade, a small vestibule and a functional stairway. Wagner stressed the primacy of utility; architecture should adapt form to purpose. He railed against the public buildings and their classical statuary of the Ringstraße.
The construction on the Ringstraße ended only in 1913 with the completion of the Kriegsministerium ( warministry) and by that time Ringstraßenstil was thought by many to be somewhat outdated. By the end of the twentieth century however the understanding of Ringstraßenstil had grown with a greater appreciation of the Ringstraße and its many and varied elements.