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150 Years Vienna Ringstrasse
Celebrating an icon of the European urban landscape

Neither Wagner's nor Tolkien's Ring - but Vienna's...

Richard Stiles / CC BY
2015 is a year of many anniversaries. On 1st May 1865 Vienna’s ‘Ringstrasse’ was officially opened by Emperor Franz-Josef I and the 150th anniversary of this icon of the grand urban boulevard is currently being commemorated with exhibitions and special events all year long in the city.

As an archetype of the grand urban boulevard, the Vienna Ringstrasse is unique in two important respects: not only was it, together with the ‘representative’ public buildings and green spaces which it is lined, conceived and built as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) but unlike Haussmann’s Paris boulevards, which were created at much the same time, it takes the form of a closed circle (perhaps more accurately a horseshoe).

Its eclectic mix of public and private buildings in a range of architectural styles are a shop window for the historicism of the late 19th century and are complemented by a series of small parks and other urban spaces, while the boulevard itself and its accompanying pedestrian promenades is lined by multiple avenues of trees.

The origins of the Ringstrasse can be traced back to the capture of the then walled city of Vienna by French forces during the Napoleonic Wars, as a result of which Napoleon’s troops blew up part of city’s defensive walls on their departure in 1809. The development of military artillery had by then made the walls, which had twice protected the city from falling to sieges by the Ottoman Empire in previous centuries, effectively obsolete. It nevertheless took until 1857 before Emperor Franz-Josef I finally gave the order for the city walls to be completely demolished in preparation for the construction of the Ringstrasse.

Until then, Vienna’s defences had been made up, not just of the city walls themselves, but also the ‘Glacis’ – the 450 metre wide belt of land in front of the fortifications where building or any kind or shrubby vegetation was forbidden, in order to allow clear lines of vision for the defending forces. In the years following the Napoleonic occupation of the city the Glacis was increasingly used as a recreation area for promenading, refreshment pavilions were allowed and footpaths were planted with avenues of trees.

Although the new Ringstrasse incorporated a number of parks (notably Stadtpark, Rathauspark) and squares, overall there was a significant loss of accessible public open space compared to what had existed within the Glacis, following the construction of the Ringstrasse. This lost space has never been replaced.

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23. Jul 2015
Reported by Richard Stiles, Vienna


boulevard (en), urban design (en)

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