When Buildings Speak: Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and Its Aftermath, 1867-1933

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In When Buildings Speak, Anthony Alofsin explores the rich yet often overlooked architecture of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire and its successor states. He shows that several different styles emerged in this milieu during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, he contends that each of these styles communicates to us in a manner resembling language and its particular means of expression. 
Covering a wide range of buildings—from national theaters to crematoria, apartment buildings to warehouses, and sanatoria to postal savings banks—Alofsin proposes a new way of interpreting this language. He calls on viewers to read buildings in two ways: through their formal elements and through their political, social, and cultural contexts.  By looking through Alofsin’s eyes, readers can see how myriad nations sought to express their autonomy by tapping into the limitless possibilities of art and architectural styles. And such architecture can still speak very powerfully to us today about the contradictory issues affecting parts of the former Habsburg Empire.
 “The book itself as a production is spectacular.”—David Dunster, Architectural Review

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Editorial Reviews

Chronicle of Higher Education
Mr. Alofsin says that the cold war left much of the 'extraordinary, creative modern architecture' created in the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire relatively unknown to Western scholars. Thus his book wanders widely in those territories — from the northern fringe of Hapsburg hegemony (in today's Poland) far south into the empire's Balkan domains. Along the way, he scans official buildings, churches, and cemeteries for what he calls 'the interplay between personal and national identity.' In the process, he also links these often-ignored buildings to better-known structures such as the Rathaus and the Secession Building in Vienna.

— Richard Byrne

Architectural Review
The book itself as a production is spectacular.

— David Dunster

Chronicle of Higher Education - Richard Byrne
"Mr. Alofsin says that the cold war left much of the 'extraordinary, creative modern architecture' created in the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire relatively unknown to Western scholars. Thus his book wanders widely in those territories — from the northern fringe of Hapsburg hegemony (in today's Poland) far south into the empire's Balkan domains. Along the way, he scans official buildings, churches, and cemeteries for what he calls 'the interplay between personal and national identity.' In the process, he also links these often-ignored buildings to better-known structures such as the Rathaus and the Secession Building in Vienna."
Architectural Review - David Dunster
"The book itself as a production is spectacular."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226015064
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Anthony Alofsin is the Roland Gommel Roessner Centennial Professor of Architecture and professor of art and art history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Frank Lloyd Wright: The Lost Years, 1910–1922, and The Struggle for Modernism: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and City Planning at Harvard. He is also editor of Frank Lloyd Wright: Europe and Beyond.

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Table of Contents

Issues of Architecture, Language, and Identity  
1. The Language of History  
2. The Language of Organicism  
3. The Language of Rationalism  
4. The Language of Myth  
5. The Language of Hybridity  
Continuities, Discontinuities, and Transformations 
Appendix: Place-Names, Educational Institutions, Translation of Secession  
Selected Bibliography  
Illustration Credits  

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First Chapter

When Buildings Speak

Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and Its Aftermath, 1867–1933

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 Anthony Alofsin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-01506-4

Chapter One

FROM THE outset, Austria and much of what would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire confronted foreign architectural idioms that it either copied or transformed for its own purposes. The process began when the area became a part of the Roman Empire, and the classical tradition provided early, if rudimentary, models for buildings and city forms, including Vindobona, the settlement that would become Vienna. After the fifth century, Germanic tribes occupied the area, and it eventually became a frontier in the empire of Charlemagne, a duchy and, in 1282, the seat of the Habsburg dynasty. Gothic architecture, with origins in France and variations from German states, provided other models, particularly for churches. Later, classical architecture, filtered through the Renaissance but more important through baroque architecture, eventually became the official imperial style.

While architects and their patrons transformed the models of Italian baroque and French Gothic, cultural undercurrents from the East surrounded them. The residue of Celtic invasions, the exoticism of Asia, and the resonance of Islamic architecture spread over centuries of Turkish control of the southeast sector of the region, and pockets of folk and native traditions from the Carpathian Mountains to the Tyrol formed part of the heritage and culture. Furthermore, from the early nineteenth century, the emergence of industry and expanded commerce altered society. Official architecture still relied on a narrow selection of historical styles, but after 1850, architects and critics increasingly asked: was the language of history alive enough to express a variety of emerging meanings and identities? The answers are complex and paradoxical.

While many buildings could represent the paradoxical use of the language of history, Friedrich von Schmidt's Rathaus (city hall) in Vienna, Josef Zítek's Czech National Theater in Prague, and Otto Wagner's Rumbach Street Synagogue in Budapest not only provide a range of civic, cultural, and religious buildings, but show depth and complexity. The Rathaus invokes a tension between religion and government, city and empire; the theater appropriates historical idioms of neo-Renaissance architecture to represent national identity; and the synagogue shows Otto Wagner, a pivotal figure, early in his career as he begins to transform history into a modern idiom while engaging the question of defining religious identity with forms borrowed from diverse cultures.

WHILE THE Gothic mode had provided models for earlier buildings, particularly religious ones in Austria, the neo-Gothic revival affecting architecture in western Europe throughout the nineteenth century had limited appeal, as preference for neoclassical styles and the Baroque remained dominant. So it was unexpected when, in 1869, the City of Vienna used Gothic architecture as a language of history for the design of its new city hall, the Rathaus (fig. 1.1). After the revolution of 1848, the middle class established itself as a powerful political and economic entity whose multiple needs for a comprehensive new bureaucratic government made the old city hall too small. To provide a home for the practical and ceremonial functions of the government of Vienna and all of its councils, departments, and agencies, a new building was needed.

The location of the new Rathaus would be somewhere on the Ringstrasse, the urban thoroughfare created in the 1850s and 1860s on the recently demolished old city walls. Its exact site, however, was determined only after much political and financial struggle, which yielded the decision to build on a roomy site at the former imperial parade ground. Part of the feasibility of this location lay in the fact that it was a public health risk that needed cleaning up anyway: often muddy, it was a hazard to cross and a breeding ground for infestations particular to swamps. Locating the primary object of civic pride on such a site was daunting, but it had potential because of its size and location near the city core, home of Vienna's royal and aristocratic legacies.

Announcement in 1868 of the design competition for the new city hall elicited an international response, with sixty-four entries from France, Germany, Italy, and Austria. In October the following year, the jury selected a scheme coded as Saxa Loquuntor, or "the rocks are speaking," and named its German designer, Friedrich von Schmidt (1825–91), the winner. Designed in 1868–69 and constructed between 1872 and 1883, the new Rathaus was finally completed with furnishings in 1888.

Schmidt wanted his rocks to say something specific: his goal was to have civic architecture "speak" on behalf of the citizenry with the propriety of the religion he espoused. Born a Protestant in Frickenhofen, Württemberg, Schmidt had attended trade school in Stuttgart. His apprenticeship as a stonemason included fourteen years of work on the renovation and expansion of Cologne Cathedral under its supervising architects and, more important, its ideological backer, August Reichensperger. He became a member of Reichensperger's Cologne Circle, a group in close allegiance with similar contemporary pro-Gothic associations in England.

In 1858, after converting to Catholicism, Schmidt moved to Milan and became a professor at the Milan Academy. But the next year, because of the outbreak of war between Austria and Sardinia-Piedmont, he moved to Vienna, arriving with the reputation of being one of Germany's most notable practitioners of the neo-Gothic. With the support of Emperor Franz Josef and Count Leo Thun-Hohenstein, the pro-Gothic education minister, he was appointed professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the most prestigious school of art and architecture in the empire and its only institution at that time to offer instruction in architectural design.

Schmidt brought to this prestigious post an ideological position supporting neo-Gothic architecture as espoused in Reichensperger's Cologne Circle. While Gothic architecture was traditionally seen as a sacred idiom, the Cologne Circle championed "profane" building in the neo-Gothic style. To its proponents, the neo-Gothic in Cologne was not a style that typified itself as "national," but was, rather, the bearer of a more general "Christian-Germanic" identity. Reichensperger campaigned not only that the neo-Gothic should be the language of German reunification, but also that it be an international phenomenon. Through his writings and his role as a politician, he promoted a pure vision of the neo-Gothic with the fervor of a religious convert.

Schmidt absorbed from Reichensperger the idea not only that Gothic architecture could be re-created, but that the processes of medieval production used in earlier buildings should be re-created in contemporary practice. Ideally, private donations, a mass mobilization of the populace, and a building lodge, or Bauhütte, consisting of artisans instead of a businesslike firm of architects should be responsible for the financing, design, and construction of projects. This group of artisans would travel together, sketch, draw details, and work collectively as a small confraternity. Implicit in the Bauhütte tradition of Gothic construction is the idea of the "organic" building, which grows from the smallest detail to a totality in a coherent and natural fashion. The neo-Gothic was a style founded upon this idea of the organic, where in Reichensperger's terms "all aspects develop from one another, everything carries with it a deeply symbolic meaning, and nothing is merely decorative and meaningless." In addition, Schmidt followed Reichensperger's principle that discipline, not invention, should guide the construction of contemporary neo-Gothic buildings. German Gothic architecture circa 1300 was their primary source of emulation.

As an emissary of the German neo-Gothic movement, Schmidt experienced mixed success in Vienna before he had won the Rathaus competition. His greatest early achievement there was replacing the iron spire on St. Stephen's Cathedral (the Stephansdom) with a stone version, which rendered the design less "modern" and more neo-Gothic. But his efforts to introduce the neo-Gothic as a model of contemporary architecture in Vienna were largely unappreciated. To members of the Habsburg court and the bourgeoisie, the neo-Gothic was acceptable for religious buildings, but the classical language was thought to enunciate imperial identity and the new economic liberalism of the time. The rare exception was the Votivkirche (votive church 1856–79), designed by Heinrich von Ferstel, the only other major Gothic revival building on the Ringstrasse. Ferstel used French Gothic sources for the church, but the tastes of the Austrian capital were patently neo-Renaissance. To the public, medievalism of the neo-Gothic style seemed antimodern. The editorial page of the Neue Freie Presse declared in 1869 that, having expelled the spirit of the Middle Ages in the revolution of March 1848, the Viennese should not "allow it to sneak in through the back door" in the guise of Schmidt's Rathaus. In general, the neo-Gothic lacked support from the community of artists, clergy, and civic leaders, and had little of the political significance that had made it a unifying force in Germany. It faced opposition in Vienna, where the variety of buildings on the Ringstrasse built later in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated that the Austrians were more interested in the political, social, and cultural associations of style than in doctrine or dogma.

The new design of the Rathaus confronted not only a stylistic prejudice, but issues of its own identity. It was the representation of the city government, but the city of Vienna itself was the ultimate imperial representation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Could the city's identity emerge independently from that of the monarchy? Was there a difference between urban and imperial identity, and how was this difference conveyed architecturally? These questions were complicated by the use of the Gothic revival in the service of political agendas. The Viennese viewed it as the "national style" of the newly unified Germany and also as a political statement of Bohemian aristocrats who opposed the Renaissance style as a reflection of the imperialism of Metternich and saw the Gothic as a reflection of their own taste and fashion. Furthermore, the Gothic could be seen to represent the medieval era as a time when cities enjoyed a high degree of autonomy: the message would then be one of distancing from the imperial court, and reflect the fact that there were indeed significant differences between the politics of the Viennese citizenry and the emperor, dating back to 1848. Catholic reform efforts had a strong ally in the Austrian minister of education, Count Leo Thun-Hohenstein, and he supported Schmidt.

Schmidt's allegiance to the neo-Gothic both won and lost him allies in his new situation. Aside form Thun-Hohenstein, he had only one other major supporter, Cardinal Joseph Othmar Rauscher, the prince-archbishop of Vienna. In 1868, Schmidt wrote to his mentor Reichensperger: "I ask you to consider that, apart from His Eminence [Rauscher], I have no powerful patron here and that among the clergy—precisely because of my rigid views about religious art—I have mighty opponents. Furthermore, I do not have a single literary ally to stand by me."

The battle to establish the neo-Gothic as a clear presence in Austria was an uphill one, but Schmidt's winning the new city hall competition was a reversal of his fortunes in that endeavor. Reichensperger and Schmidt communicated during the design process, ensuring that their shared ideology was reflected in the design of the Rathaus. Schmidt's scheme grew outward from an axially symmetrical plan to spaces developed in sectional drawings to elaborate façades, in contrast with other contemporary examples of neo-Gothic profane buildings, which were typically conceived as "exterior architecture." He proposed a multistoried rectangular building containing a series of five interior courtyards symmetrically arranged around an arcade court (Arkadenhof) that would recall a cloister (fig. 1.2). The courtyards would provide air and light and an orderly separation of functional and representational aspects of the program. Towers at the corners and a great central bell tower at the main entry marked the front façade along the Ringstrasse.

Schmidt's models for the single-tower belfry of his new Rathaus had sources in the late Gothic Belgian town halls of Antwerp, Bruges, and Brussels. These towers were seen as icons of a free citizenry operating in what Schmidt identified as "the spirit of the new age." High atop the pinnacle of the front tower was the special figure, the Rathausmann. Visible from afar, the iron sculpture embodied the citizen whom Schmidt apostrophized: "You, man of bronze and iron, keep an open eye as the true guardian of this city, which you also crown as a landmark. You are armored, and thus serve like citizens who should be armored against any assaults from whatever side they might come." Schmidt also had contemporary city halls to draw upon as models, notably George Gilbert Scott's project for the Hamburg Rathaus (1854). An arcaded block with central clock tower and assembly hall, Reichensperger had cited the building as an example of how medieval architecture could serve modern times.

Schmidt may have won the competition in 1869 in part because of his beautiful and detailed presentation drawings, which convey an idealized vision of the future building (fig. 1.3). The drawings include rendered and polychromed perspectives to describe the desired ambience and to communicate a cohesive and unified Viennese social structure that was strictly bourgeois, with no inflection of the ethnic and economic diversity existing in the city. Published in 1883 in the Neue Illustrierte Zeitung, vignettes of the Volkshalle (citizens hall) and the arcade court showed citizens strolling in an open vaulted space. Civic life was idealized in these images of discourse among small groups of well-dressed burghers and even their children, leisurely strolling through the great court and engaged in the conversations of city life: politics, culture, and gossip.

Aware of the opposition to a purely German (or even Belgian-inspired) neo-Gothic design, Schmidt incorporated Italianate elements, including idealized Lombardesque paired windows with tympanum and arches in the façades and Lombardesque arcades. This treatment of the exterior appeased the public, who could recognize the distinctions, but he reserved an early Gothic treatment for the interior.

The programmatic needs fulfilled by Schmidt's scheme were diverse. The scheme conveniently kept all major spaces on the same level, with the festival hall, formal staircases, and meeting halls of the city council and representatives taking on primary importance. His appropriate and clever partitioning of space and his plan, which gracefully accommodated all aspects of the program, won over the judges, who were allies and critics alike. His design contained highly ceremonial spaces with great representational value, as well as many smaller offices (including an unemployment office), waiting rooms, and circulation spaces required by the new bureaucracy of the civic authority. Of primary relevance in Schmidt's proposition was the separation of social strata and the distinction between ceremony and necessity. The public had access through four exterior arcaded entries on each side of the building. At ground level on the Ringstrasse side, pedestrians would pass under the bell tower and into the double-height Volkshalle. Directly in front lay the central court, with an arcade and chapel on the floor above. To the left and right of the main entry, Schmidt envisioned two ceremonial stair halls ascending four stories to a ceiling of ribbed vaults. They further led to a sequence of ceremonial rooms, including the Magistrates Room, the grand Festsaal (festival hall), the city council chamber, and several smaller rooms. Centered between the two wings of city offices was the chapel, the most obvious connection between religion and good city government. But for citizens needing to conduct business, entry was from the rear on Rathausstrasse, which led to the offices of the bureaucracy. The arrangement resembled an office building. Not only were the wood-paneled offices of the mayor and councilmen and the buffet rooms located there, but also the simple offices of surveyors and cartographers, and even the apartment of the building concierge.


Excerpted from When Buildings Speak by ANTHONY ALOFSIN Copyright © 2006 by Anthony Alofsin. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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