Friday, June 25, 2010

The Greater The Decay, The Grander The Facade

The Austrian Parliament, on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, was designed by architect Theophil Hansen and was constructed between 1874 and 1884.

Hansen also designed Vienna's Musikverein as well as Vienna's Museum Of Military History, which we visited last summer and about which Joshua wrote in September.

I have always believed that the Austrian Parliament building is one of the great disasters of 19th-Century Greek Revival architecture. (Hansen's Museum Of Military History, admittedly in a vastly-different architectural style, is also, in my view, a very, very bad building.)

The building is fundamentally unimaginative, the sternest of all criticisms for a major architectural project. It is far too large for its setting, ignobly proportioned, overdressed and over-adorned, and lacking grace. The gargantuan and ostentatious carriageway itself ruins the structure. The Parliament is the biggest eyesore on the Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament is almost impressive the first five seconds the viewer encounters the building, but the viewer quickly comes to realize that the building single-handedly ruins an entire large swath of the Ringstrasse.

When Josh’s family first saw the building last August 5, the looks on their faces were priceless: smiles quickly turned to grimaces, and Josh’s mother said, “This must be Disney’s idea of a Parliament building.”

Half of the Parliament building was totally destroyed during World War II, a great public service on the part of American bomber squadrons.

Alas, the post-war Austrian government decided to reconstruct the building, and the Parliament building was rebuilt and restored between 1945 and 1956. Interior artworks are still being restored to this very day.

Below is an old postcard of the Austrian Parliament from 1900.

In the late stages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a rule of thumb arose: the more the Empire decayed, the grander must be the facades of the buildings.


  1. Although I symphatize with you, I don't think the judgment is entirely fair. This building was erected to re-assert the identity of the monarchy after it went through a succession of changes, much like the Reichstag in Berlin was designed to help cement German identity. And it does the job very well. Whether it is an architectural gem is a different question altogether - but you need to assess these two questions separately.

    Personally, I feel much the same about Amsterdam's central station: you can debate the aesthetics of the building (pretty on the outside, a nightmare inside), but most of all it totally ruins Amsterdam's quayside (or rather it eliminates it). I hoped that work on the subway would destroy it but alas, no such luck.

  2. I concur on most counts. The Austrian Parliament is strange and ill-proportioned. Due to its close proximity to the Ringstrasse it is impossible to get a good angle on the building. So, despite its great size - it is quite large and comparable in that regard to the impressive Hungarian Parliament - it is dominated by its surroundings and looks incredibly unimpressive for a building with such an important function. The carriageway is unfitting for a building that is supposed to represent the entire nation. A broad welcoming stairway would have been more fitting, but maybe that was the point: it was a symbolic parliament and commoners had few rights and little influence in the national government. It would have been better to place a more attractively designed building in its own grand space on Schottenring. On the other hand, the Parliament does contain some striking interiors! I also agree with you on the Museum of Military History, though that is one incredibly fascinating museum. Hansen was a hack, though I do somewhat like the Musikverein. Somewhat.

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