Abolition of Fortifications

We will see that the abolition of fortifications is a turning point in the urban development of many Central European cities. While this may be considered as a general aspect of their development since fortifications were a common feature of nearly all major European cities, designed to protect them from external threats such as invading armies. As the nature of warfare changed in the 18th century, with the development of long-range artillery and other weapons, the defensive value of fortifications became increasingly limited and from the late 18th century they were gradually abandoned.

In some cites however the abolition of fortifications marks a significant turning point at which begins a very special development for this city. We have seen this already in Munich where the tearing town of walls is accompanied by other strong forces like the establishment of a huge park and the elevation of the Bavarian electors to kings.

Again in Vienna the decision to give up the city’s fortress status opens up the possibility for a project that will have a lasting impact on her urban development: the Ring Road.

Ring Road

The speciality of the Ring Road project stems from the peculiar situation before Viennas fortifications have been abolished:

Vienna 1833

Vienna had not only a double layered fortification system but an extended field of fire (glacis) around the city core. The significance of this system stems from the successful defeat of two attacs and sieges by the Ottoman Empire in 1529 and 1683. While fortifications were of little use in other cities (e.g. Munich could never defend itself successfully neither against the Swedish King Gustaf Adolf II in 1632 nor against the House of Habsburg in 1705) they were very important in defending Vienna.

For this reason Vienna was one of the latest cities to give up her fortress status. Only in 1857 Emperor Franz-Joseph ordered the start for the Ring Road Project:

„It is my wish that the expansion of the inner city of Vienna consideration for a corresponding connection of the same with the suburbs as soon as possible tackled and here also on the regulation and beautification of my residence and Reich capital will be considered. To this end I grant the Abandonment of the ramparts and fortifications of the inner city, as well as the ditches around it same. […]“ On Christmas Day of the same year this order was  announced to the public. The order also outlined the guidelines for the development of the open space between the inner city and the suburbs and the procedure, how that urban expansion plan can be found.

Unlike the autocratic commissioning of Leo von Klenze and Friedrich von Gärtner in Munich or by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris the first public urban planning competition was held in Vienna.

From the 1860s to 1890s, many large public buildings were erected along the Ringstrasse in an eclectic historicist style, sometimes called Ringstraßenstil („Ring Road style“), using elements of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.

Because of its architectural beauty and history, the Vienna Ringstrasse has been called the „Lord of the Ring Roads“ and is designated by UNESCO as part of Vienna’s World Heritage Site.

Franz Joseph decided to host a planning competition. While the demolition of the city wall near the Stubenbastei started 85 projects for designing the open space were submitted.
The jury also included world-class architects such as Heinrich Ferstel and Theophil Hansen. The submissions have been anonymized so that the jurors could judge impartially.
On December 11, 1858, the jury published its decision: the three suggestions
Ludwig Förster, Friedrich August von Stache and the partners August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll were asked to merge their drafts into a joint work of art.

The approved plan for the construction of the Ring Road, 1860

By 1910, the 2.4 million square meters were built, on 1.5 million square meters there were
streets, squares and parks, on half a million square meters private buildings and on
380,000 square meters public buildings.

The following maps show – projectet on the present layout – the transformation of the urban form of Vienna from the medieval core city to the suburban expansions outside the gacis in the 18th centuary to the construction of the Ring Road in the second half of the 19th century.

Vienna 1770 – The City within Inner Fortification on present layout *


Vienna 1833 on present layout – click on map for animation 1835/83


Vienna 1883 on present layout – click on map for animation 1835/83

Magnificent palaces, tenements and public buildings

The sale of building plots from May 19, 1860 was promoted by the state with cheap loans and 30 years of tax exemptions if the building was completed within five years. The bourgeoisie was supposed to be the sponsor of the project, which is why the “ability of the Israelites to own property” was announced on February 18, 1860.

Ringroad with view on external gate in 1865

Among the few high aristocrats who built on the Ringstrasse were the Archdukes Wilhelm (Parkring 8) and Ludwig (Ring/corner of Schwarzenbergplatz), the k.k. Chamberlain and Captain Ernst Reichsgraf Hoyos-Sprinzenstein (Kärntner Ring 5) and Wickenburg (Kai). One of the most monumental plans was the “Albrechtsgruppe” (Opern Ring) as compensation for the loss of the extensive outbuildings of the Erzherzog Albrechts Palace, today’s Albertina. Ludwig Förster planned stables and a winter riding school for the entire area between the Hofoper and Burggarten. However, in 1861, Archduke Albrecht decided to sell seven building plots in prime locations to members of the Second Society.

Schottenring 1975

The most important construction task – besides the public buildings – was the family palace and the tenement house. In Vienna, architects and builders mainly oriented themselves towards the Italian Renaissance. It is possible that this was also due to competition with the numerous baroque palaces in the city center. Tenement houses were a new construction task and were more like family palaces thanks to their richly designed facades. Particularly noteworthy is the Heinrichhof for the brick entrepreneur Heinrich Drasche by Theophil Hansen. It was considered “the most beautiful apartment building in the world” and the “greatest private building in New Vienna”. Since the Heinrichhof was one of the first buildings to be completed, it had a clear role model effect.
Source: Artinwords

Construction of Opera House in 1865

Today Vienna’s Ring is a uniformly shaped urban element separating the medieval inner city from the suburbs of the 17th and 18th century.

Aerial view of Ringstrasse in 2023, processed Image of Google Maps
The Ringstrasse style as a special form of historicism was a style-former for the architecture of the 1860s to 1890s, of which Schubertring is a good example. Foto: Gugerell, public domain


*) In 1770 many of Vienna’s suburbs had already developed which are not visible on this map. I have however chosen this map because it shows best and geographically correct the medevial inner city with wall and fortification