Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ringstraße Buildings

Cambridge, July 27, 2013

One way or another, all of the Ringstraße buildings are a little weird.  You don't have to read Adolf Loos to notice that there is something strange about all those styles from different places and historic periods--the Renaissance University, the Classical Parliament, the Gothic City Hall, the Baroque Theater, etc.--all coming together around the all-purpose urbanism of the Ring.

But there is one particular building whose urbanism I particularly like: the Burgtheater.  Most of the buildings along the Ringstraße are simply oriented parallel or perpendicular to the avenue, with their main entrances gesturing towards the Ring.  That would be also the case with the convex façade of the Burgtheater, if it weren't for its two lateral wings that establish a much more deliberate and energetic frontality, articulate a foreground of nuanced scale (both larger and smaller) for the old city behind, and create an elaborate set of open spaces at the back.

And then you have to do decide what to do with these appendages that have little to do with the typical theater plan, something that the architects--Gottfired Semper and Karl von Hasenauer--exploited brilliantly with rather unprecedented monumental stairs extending in a long straight shot, one for the old imperial court to the south and another for the new bourgeoisie to the north.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Conspiracy (Urban) Theory at the Ringstraße?

Cambridge, July 25, 2013

I'm not sure about this, but there may have been two competing visions at work when Vienna's epochal Ringstraße was developed in the second half of the 19th century.

The first one is well known: a polygonal tree-lined wide avenue with monumental public buildings--parliament, city hall, university, theaters and museums--strung along as if in a necklace.  This is the non-hierarchical, democratic (if you're so inclined to make such direct connections between politics and urban form) view of the Ringstraße that came to be.

But there could have been another vision, definitely hierarchical if not downright imperial.  Think of it as a conspiracy urban theory if you have to.  Try this: look at a map of central Vienna and mentally add a building mirroring the Neue Burg (the one with the concave façade) across Heldenplatz (so you don't think  I'm making it up, this would complete Semper's 1869 Kaiserforum project.)  A gargantuan figure suddenly appears, with an enormous (more than half a kilometer long!) rectangular open space extending from the Hofburg Palace all the way to the old Imperial Stables.  The museums become subservient of this new composition.  Even the Burgtheater and the Staatsoper would leave their place at the necklace to mark the ends of a cross axis in this figure, a giant with outstretched arms lying across the Ring.

Do you think that the Ringstraße would have survived such a broad, dominant, transversal gesture?

(And in any case, it's not so difficult to imagine how much fun Albert Speer would have had rebuilding the Hofburg's west front facing such a grand open space.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wiener Linien

Cambridge, July 2013

At a time when satellites and computers have accustomed us to the most detailed and accurate maps, transportation networks, particularly subways, seem to be one of the last refuges for an almost medieval mapmaking sensibility.  Yes, not all subway maps have a little drawing of a gothic cathedral smack in the middle like the diagram of the Vienna U-Bahn, but many subway networks, from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, relish in the reductive geometries that remind you more of the "mappa mundi" of the 1300s than of the excruciatingly precise maps of the 21st century.

And like the medieval maps drawn within the capricious limits of animal-skin parchments, the Vienna U-Bahn Linienplan has to fit within the extremely elongated rectangles above the subway-car doors.  How do you do that?  You have to really understand the city to pull it off.

With the Stephansdom at the center, the U2 (violet) loop from Karlsplatz to Schottenring establishes the path of the Ringstrasse with surprising ease.  The central portion of the U4 (green) line completes the Ring, before paralleling the Donaukanal from Landestrasse all the way north to Heilingenstadt.  The right portion of the U3 (orange) line parallels the Danube to the southeast.  Further west (to the left in the map) the larger loop of the U6 (brown) line describes the Gürtel--the second concentric ring, or belt-road of Vienna--before continuing south (to the left) and north (to the right) across the Danube.  Yes, once the core of the city is established, the lines extend left and right to fit the constrains of the long rectangle.

(By the way, why isn't there a U5 line?)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where is Vienna?

Cambridge, July 23, 2013

Yes, of course, Vienna is in Europe, or in Austria, or along the Danube.

But the question I have in mind is a little more precise: Where is, exactly, a city?  The answers are likely to come from some combination of our two good old friends from school, geography and history.

A first approximation would put the historic core of Vienna along the southwest banks of the Danube, framed by the Wienerwald hills to the north and the small Vienna River to the south.  Not a bad defensive position, as the unsuccessful Ottoman attempts to capture the city (in 1529 and 1683) demonstrated.

At the beginning of the Christian Era, the Danube was the northern boundary of the Roman Empire.  It had a number of defensive camps along its course, such as Aquincum, Brigetio, Carnuntum and Vindovona, this last one on the site of present-day Vienna.  The characteristic square footprint of Vindovona's military encampment ("Castrum") was established at edge of what would become the Donaukanal (that is, away from the main course of the river to the north) shoehorned between the two branches of the Ottakringer Creek.  The civilian settlement ("Canabae") around the Castrum extended pretty much to what is now the Ringstraße.

In the larger map, Vienna sits at a key point between Western Europe and the Black Sea.  The Ottomans knew that very well.

Monday, July 1, 2013

If Richelieu won't come to the city...

Le Grand Chaunay, July 1st, 2013

Even after almost four hundred years, Richelieu's urban rectangle seems like an apparition amidst the vineyards and wheat fields of the Loire Valley.  Imagine what it would have looked like in the 17th century when it was first built.

In 1631 Armand du Plessis--Louis XIII's legendary chief minister better known as Cardinal Richelieu--established a city adjacent to his family's château in the Loire Valley region.  The designer was Jacques Lemercier, the architect of the additions to the Louvre during the reign of Louis XIII and the "Palais-Cardinal", Richelieu's Paris residence (later known as the Palais-Royal.)  Lemercier's project was organized along a central avenue running north-south aligned with a transversal axis of the chateau to the south.  The overall plan is a perfect rectangle, about 400 by 600 meters, bound by a wall and a moat.  I may be wrong, but my guess is that there was little need for defense at the time, and the main purpose of wall and moat was to establish a precise perimeter, to objectify the city.

Richelieu has not one but two major open spaces, identical squares at each end of the main avenue.  Rather unusual, don't you think?  Particularly for an "ideal city."  Place Royale to the north and Place Cardinal to the south (as if Richelieu felt that far enough from Paris he could set his record straight.)  Together, these two squares and the main avenue articulate a remarkably distinctive urban plan.