The Ringstrasse, the City's Defining Circuit

No 62

Even the most casual visitor to Vienna soon gets acquainted with its famous Ring Road. Technically a polyhedron, the Ringstrasse has long structured the Austrian capital in a way pretty much unique among the world's urban features.

The 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) thoroughfare separates the Inner Stadt—a genteel, cobblestone throwback to Mozart's Vienna—from the traditionally lower-income outer city. The Ringstrasse also functions as an outdoor gallery; experienced via tram, it is a merry-go-ground of monumental edifices.

These buildings date from a deeply formative thirty-year period in the city's history. Emperor Franz Joseph announced the start to the Ringstrasse's construction in 1857, putting squadrons o urban planners and builders to work. Eager for fashionable new digs, the city's ascendant burgher funded a boom in expensive housing.

Even the Vienna tourism board, in an official press release, describes these mansions as “pompous palaces." And the public buildings that went up on the Ringstrasse around the same time—the State Opera, Museum of Fine Arts, Burgtheater, City Hall, and others—aren't necessarily any humbler. The style is a somewhat homogenous Historicism, a 19th-century appropriation of Greek, Gothic, and Renaissance styles that registers as both impressive and a little clunky.

But the buildings are mere studs on the champion's belt. The designers of the Ringstrasse were after something more dynamic than the static interplay of large-scale architecture. An avenue in constant two-way motion, the Ringstrasse (which was, incidentally, built on ancient ramparts) had a moat-like effect on city life. Historian Carl E. Schorske, for one, has noted that the streets that run into the Ringstrasse from the outer and inner cities “debouche in the circular flow without crossing it.”*

As the 20th century neared, emerging Modernists started reimagining the city in less ornamented, defensive terms. Of course, the architectural-societal model Adolf Loos and others sought to overturn had itself constituted a massive reimagining of Vienna, and it has been said that the three-decade period known as the Ringstrassenära did for Austrian identity what the Victorian Age did for the English.

Goethe famously described architecture as “frozen music." Naturally, there's a statue of the German poet along the Ringstrasse, a street where the compositions of a past era continue to be heard, so to speak, at high volume.

*Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.)

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