When is an old building not so old? When historicism influenced the architect, as was the case for some of Vienna’s more famous sites.
- Many prominent buildings on the boulevard encircling the old town date back to after 1850, despite how they look
- Counter reaction to historicism helped lead to more modernist approaches around 1900
- Those buildings still look great, though!
- …and Vienna has plenty of genuinely old buildings, too
- See also: The Ring | Vienna modernism
What is historicism?
(The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, built in the 1850s but drawing on Byzantine, Moorish, and Gothic architectural styles)
In its wider sense, historicism refers to an approach to art, design and architecture that draws inspiration from the styles of the past or, taken to its extreme, seeks to reproduce them.
You might be familiar with historicism approaches in architecture. For example, the British Museum in London follows a neoclassical approach. Although built in the early 19th century, it draws heavily on a style you’d associate with ancient Greece or Rome. The same might be said about the White House in Washington DC, built in the late 18th century.
Why is it important?
(The Renaissance-style Kunsthistorisches Museum, completed in 1891)
Vienna has its fair share of truly old buildings. For example, parts of the Hofburg palace in the centre date back to the 16th century and parts of Stephansdom cathedral to the 1200s.
Some of the city’s apparently old buildings, though, aren’t as old as they might seem to the casual observer.
In Vienna, the peak of historicism’s popularity coincided with the period of massive reconstruction that took place in the second half of the 19th century. The city demolished its outer fortifications and opened the land and its environs up for development either side of a huge new boulevard (the Ring).
As such, many of the city’s famous buildings alongside this Ring, as well as many residential properties built by aristocrats and industrialists, mimic much older architectural approaches.
Perhaps more importantly, though, historicism eventually provoked an inevitable counter movement among more progressive architects, artists, and others of that ilk.
This reaction contributed to the remarkable period of artistic, cultural, and intellectual creativity we know as Vienna modernism.
Architects like Otto Wagner, for example, abandoned historicism toward the end of the 19th century in favour of more unique or utilitarian approaches, thereby ushering in the era of modern architecture, art nouveau, and similar.
Where to learn more
Historicism is best experienced on site. Just about every prominent building you find along the Ring, for example, went up after 1850 but looks considerably older. Some of the more famous examples are:
Visitors often assume the Votivkirche is a well-preserved medieval cathedral, thanks to the characteristic Gothic looks you associate with places such as Canterbury cathedral or Notre Dame. They completed it in 1879.
The city hall building looms over the square that hosts such wonders as the city’s biggest Christmas market. The impression is of a Gothic giant, all stone towers, pointed arches and geometric patterns above the windows. It went up in 1883.
The official parliament building draws a clear line to the origins of democracy in its architecture. This 1880s building has an obvious Hellenic style with its simple columns and abundance of Greek statues.
And beyond architecture?
Additionally, you can witness the gradual fall of historicism and rise of modernist approaches in painting, for example, when you view collections of art by the likes of Gustav Klimt. Try, for example, the permanent collections at Upper Belvedere or in the Leopold Museum.