Several exhibitions will be devoted to the Ringstrasse in 2015 in honour of its 150th anniversary. The Experiment Metropolis – 1873: Vienna and the World Exhibition show from May 5-Sep 28, 2014 at the Wien Museum Karlsplatz will look at the expo and the construction of the Ringstrasse in the context of other large-scale urban development projects (www.wienmuseum.at).
The history of the Ringstrasse began on 20 December 1857, when Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the fortifications surrounding Vienna’s city centre to be demolished, and for a boulevard complete with showpiece buildings to be constructed on the grounds in front of the old walls and towers which had previously been used by the military. The biggest public construction project in Vienna’s history, the Ringstrasse formed a link between the city centre – dominated by the imperial residence and the palaces of the aristocracy – with the surrounding districts inhabited by the middle and lower classes. At the same time, this huge development met the demands created by a rapidly growing population. The population of Vienna grew by nearly 30 percent between 1857 and 1868, passing the one million mark by 1890. Finally, the construction of the Ringstrasse marked the transformation of the capital from the historic residence of the Habsburg monarchy to a European metropolis.
In an international competition, 85 architects submitted proposals. However, none of the projects were implemented directly. Instead, a commission used the best proposals to draw up the ground plan for a 57 metre wide, five kilometre long, almost circular boulevard lined with double rows of trees and monumental public edifices, grand city residences, private apartment buildings, squares and parks. Land made available by demolishing the old city defences (2.4 million square metres of space, equivalent to 300 soccer pitches) that was not earmarked for public buildings, thoroughfares or parks was auctioned off at high prices to private individuals, which provided finance for construction of the public buildings. The investors were offered a 30-year tax holiday if they completed their buildings within five years.
Work began in earnest in 1858 and the imperial capital became a massive construction site. Just seven years after the start of building works, the Ringstrasse was officially opened in the presence of the Emperor and Empress on 1 May 1865. However, at that time only part of the whole project was complete, and the rapid construction of the Ringstrasse was starting to take its toll on those who worked on the development. Bricklayers and other workers received low wages and were forced to work long hours. Most of the bricks used were produced at brickworks in the south of the capital, which employed large numbers of immigrant workers from Bohemia.
An undertaking of exceptional proportions, the construction of the Ringstrasse attracted financiers, developers and architects from all over Europe. Architect Gottfried Semper who designed the Burgtheater and the court museums on the Ringstrasse came from Hamburg, architect Ludwig von Förster from Franconia and Theophil Hansen from Denmark. Grand private residences built on the Ringstrasse included those of Ukrainian banking family the Ephrussis, the Epstein family from Prague’s wealthy Jewish middle class and the Todescos, a trading dynasty from Romania.