Hofburg Palace / VIENNA, AUSTRIA / JUNE 2016
On the journey from imperial, baroque Vienna to modern, new Vienna.
“I have devastating news for the aesthetes: old Vienna was once new.”
In every chocolate box, there is always one piece which is more embellished, more decorated, more “look-at-me” than the rest; one piece which puts the plain unadorned chocolates to shame. Now imagine an entire chocolate box of only these pieces, and you will have some idea of what it is like to walk through the streets of Vienna. Each building a perfect confection, like some masterpiece from “Ace of Cakes”: all pastel colors and carved lintels and scalloped edges. Vienna wears its history proudly, but moreover, showily.
This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that the Habsburgs, using Vienna as their seat for nearly six centuries, were one of a few royal families that ruled almost all of Europe until WWI. The Baroque style – ostentatiously ornate, boastfully luxurious – was favored by such regimes as a means of soft power. It is designed to be so magnificent that it strikes you mute: a way for monarchs to convince others of their status and therefore their necessity as rulers. This was particularly important for the Habsburgs, who proclaimed themselves Holy Roman Emperors, “divine” monarchs who derived their power from God and therefore needed themselves and their city to look the part.
Thus developed a Vienna obsessed with grand facades, neoclassical edifices and opulent palaces. (One might derisively call this style “stuffy splendor”.) In the late 1800s, many of the remnants of Vienna’s medieval past were torn down to make room for the Ringstrasse, a circular boulevard on which major public buildings such as parliament, museums and churches were built. Each was constructed with strict adherence to an old historic style: Gothic (the Rathaus – city hall); classical (Parliament) or Renaissance (the University), for example. By the dawn of the 1900s, as you might imagine, many artists, architects and thinkers began to find this devotion to conservative, backward-looking styles stifling. This, in short, is how Vienna came to embrace modernity at the turn of the twentieth century.
We often associate European modernism with Paris, but in the early 1900s Vienna was just as filled with revolutionary thinkers and luminaries of their times. On every street corner you pass a plaque with a name you recognize: here is where Sigmund Freud lived; here is where Gustav Mahler composed one of his pieces; here is where Otto Wagner built one of his Art Nouveau buildings; here is where Gustav Klimt started the Secession.
This dualism – imperial history and unrepentant modernism – is what makes Vienna so interesting. You can visit a palace where a powerful symbol of the past once lived, but you can equally visit a museum where a new way of thinking and looking at the world was born. Or, as I would highly recommend, you can simply sit in one of Vienna’s many traditional coffee-houses, full of history and pastries, and watch as life in new Vienna continues against the ever-present backdrop of the old.