András Pálffy's Vienna
The wall separating the Belvedere from the convent of the Salesian nuns has lost nothing of its fascination since my childhood.
While at first this fascination was due to the impression of monumentality imparted by an apparently endless partition which seemed
to be on a totally different scale from the well-proportioned Baroque garden of the palace, over the years this idea changed into
enthusiasm for an abstract area.
Like an urban silhouette, the outline of the area seems to enclose the plastic surface of the wall, which comes across as the story o
f an architectural intervention between the two adjacent buildings.
Even though the figure is composed of parts of two very different neighbourhoods, it still comes across in its appearance as an
architectural structure in its own right within its immediate surroundings.
The wall has been the subject of numerous alterations, and thus not least of a process that has a tradition in the old part of Vienna a
nd consequently leaves its mark on my tour of the city.
In Canaletto's depictions of the Belvedere, this wall not only occupies a prominent place in the picture, but is given a coat of white
paint by the artist, and hence receives even more emphasis. Ironically, precisely this perspective, with its manifest break in the
field of view, establishes the very horizon that later buildings, with their greater height, not been allowed to obscure. From this
standpoint, the gaze falls on the `Glacis', a military restricted zone extending 378 m in front of the city walls. Although this
area was to be kept free of any building, the land increasingly became a projection surface for planning ideas relating to the
expansion of Vienna. One result of a competition held in 1859 was consent for a land-use plan that was implemented between 1860 and 1914.
The planning area comprised 300 hectares, of which 21% was designated as building land, 50.5% were earmarked for transport and
communication, 18.7% as green spaces, and 9.6% as bodies of water. In the course of the city's expansion on the site of the former
Glacis, 90 streets and squares were laid out, on which 500 new buildings were arranged, their spatial allocation being clearly defined.
In this new urban ensemble, the Ringstrasse was to become the central, distinctive city-planning element. The new street space takes
on the function of a link between the old town and the suburbs, taking account of existing as well as integrating, as though
self-evidently, new arrangements of symmetries, partial symmetries, and main and subsidiary axes into the cityscape and thus turning
it into a unitary urban element in a larger context.
It was essential in this process that city districts were not destroyed, but rather linked together on the basis of existing
topographical spatial weightings. The Ringstrasse can however also be seen as a framework in which the special positions for
the necessary new public buildings could be arranged. During the transition to Modernism, totally new building types were established
in the 'shroud' of revivalist architecture. Not only stations, grand hotels, museums and exchanges were involved in this development,
but also the parliament.
From the Ring, our route takes us into the historic heart of the city and thus to Josefsplatz, with its clearly structured facades
dating from 1721-1767, which convey a uniformity that one is tempted to imagine might also exist in the rooms behind. But here too,
a small passageway between the facades points to a totally different world behind this surface, the Gothic St Augustine's church.
After negotiating the narrow entrance, you see before you a church interior 43 m long, which during the time of Joseph II was
disencumbered of much Baroque clutter and hence reinstated to its pristine spatial condition. A later addition can be found in one
of the aisles in the form of the Antonio Canova's tomb of Archduchess Marie Christine. Hidden behind the facade of Josefsplatz is
one of Vienna's most splendid Baroque spaces, the State Hall of Fischer von Erlach's National Library. From this urban space,
our route takes us further into the palace complex, directly to the Schweizerhof, which forms its historic centre, and, throughout
all its phases of development has been enclosed by a uniform facade that suggests regular enfilades of rooms within the building.
If, coming from the courtyard, you open the door to the columned staircase, you find yourself in the imposing stairwell, which was
added in Maria Theresia's time with the aim of adding an element of contrast into the building's structure. In the neighbourhood of
this complex, there are other show staircases, which are certainly worth exploring, especially as these wings of the building are
open to the public.
The route through the Hofburg opens up, beneath the gateway known as the Michaelertor, a view of the Loos building, a Modernist
structure that can certainly be associated with a new self-awareness on the part of the bourgeoisie, which also left its mark in
particular on the Ringstrasse. Opposite the Hofburg, in the form of Loos's building, there arose in 1909, commissioned by Leopold
Goldmann, an important contribution to Modernism in Vienna; it was accompanied by years of polemics that took a severe toll of
the architect. The contrast between the two architectures of the Hofburg and the Loos building can certainly be seen as reflecting
social change in the empire. A visit to the respective interiors can certainly be recommended, as it provides an outstanding insight
not only into the Adolf Loos's mastery of space, but also the confident way he dealt with material, light and reflections. As a
footnote in this context, I would mention Leopold Goldmann's office, which, slightly to one side of the mirrored surfaces, allowed
him an overview of who was coming and going, without himself being directly visible. It gave him both control and privacy, which
latter he could abandon at once if he saw an important client arrive. If you leave the building and re-enter the public urban space,
you, like many others, may find it surprising that the splendour you have seen is almost entirely a reconstruction, as the original
interior has since been destroyed. A few paces further on towards the Kohlmarkt is the headquarters of the Artaria publishing house,
built in 1900-1902 to designs by the Slovene architect Max Fabiani. What is remarkable about this building is its chronology.
It predates the Loos building by ten years, and in fact the latter was to adopt major compositional elements of Fabiani's architecture
in a modified form. Fabiani helped Loos get his first commission, the Cafe Museum, and the two continued to be friends, which the analogy
between the two buildings would readily suggest we could take for granted. What is crucial for Fabiani's building is a small but very
Fabiani transferred his knowledge of Semper's 'theory of dressing' (also known as 'theory of clothing') directly to his own architecture
by, albeit only partially, revealing the fact of 'dressing' by means of the visible use of bronze bolts to fasten the stone plates to
the load-bearing structure, and thus made no attempt to conceal the distinction between structure and cladding. Four years later,
Otto Wagner was consistently to adopt this method of fastening when building the post office savings bank (Postsparkasse).
The Artaria building gathers together numerous considerations that describe a break-out into Modernism. But if we turn our back on it,
we find ourselves looking directly at the Retti candle shop designed by Hans Hollein, a small but exquisite piece of architecture,
which in grey post-war Vienna made a claim to a great architectural message which can certainly be read as a major element of a
break-out into Postmodernism.
If we cross the courtyard towards Judenplatz, it is worth looking back towards the city centre in order to discover the Herrengasse
high-rise looming over the roofscape. It was built by Theiss and Jaksch in 1932. Bordering on the Loos building, an echelon development
of the storeys ensures that the highest point cannot be seen from the immediate neighbourhood. The final storey offers, in the middle
of the old town, a magnificent view from the glazed staircase across the panorama of the historic heart of the city. On Judenplatz
itself we encounter the best contemporary sculpture the Viennese public space has to offer, the Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread.
Using the technique of cast library shelves turned inside out, it addresses the theme of a library from one of the apartments on
Judenplatz, which, removed from its private context, poses the question in the public space of what happened to the former owners.
Near Judenplatz is the Zacherlhaus, which was built in 1903-1905 to plans by the Slovene architect Josef Plee nik, and must be seen as
one of the most important examples of early Viennese Modernism.
In total contrast to the sophisticated structuring of this façade, which can arouse the impression of lightness in spite of its use
of natural stone, is the almost monochrome façade of the nearby Kornhausel Tower a few streets further, on Fleischmarkt. Kornhausel
was responsible for numerous elegant buildings in Vienna during the Biedermeier period, among them the synagogue in the immediate
vicinity of the Kornhausel Tower.
While the façades of his buildings were characterized by a restrained Neo-classicism, the Tower,
with its almost relief-less plain façade comes across like an unexpected programme of contrast. Nine storeys high, it was built
in 1825-1827, and used by Kornhausel as a residence and a studio. Today it comes across in its urban surroundings as a stark contrast,
in character resembling the already mentioned break in the ensemble of the Belvedere garden. A short way away from the Kornhausel Tower
is the neighbourhood centring on Schonlaterngasse, Blutgasse, and Backerstrasse, in which the medieval building structure with the
numerous facets of its architectural shaping and reshaping is probably more visible than anywhere else in Vienna. Within this quarter,
two buildings are worthy of particular mention, namely Heiligenkreuzer Hof and the Jesuit church. They fit into this urban texture
while maintaining very much their own character. The church especially is worth seeing, insofar as it provides a convincing example
of the management of incident daylight along the reflecting surfaces.
Finally, I will mention two rooms which since my young days have been of particular importance for my architectural socialization.
The Kleines Café by Hermann Czech is worth a visit at any time of day, while the American Bar by Adolf Loos is particularly charming
at dusk. The downside in both cases is that time can pass very quickly.