Aesthetic and architectonic paradigms in Vienna church architecture at the turn of the 20th century

Inge Scheidl

Vienna, independent scholar


Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg monarchy and the seat of its rulers, in the 19th century became a metropolis, and the rocketing city population necessitated the building of many new churches. One of the most important practical and theoretical problems was the “appropriate” style to be used in those constructions. The result of the debates conducted at the time was accepting the validity of the mediaeval styles, especially Gothic, considered to be the “ideal” language of church architecture. Forms borrowed from more recent epochs in art and architecture were noticeably less popular (in the theory of church building they were practically unanimously rejected). Reception of early modernism was also limited. Despite the supremacy of Neo-Gothic and the Neo-Romanesque style, Vienna churches of the turn of the 20th century are characterized by great variety, which reflects the dilemmas of their creators.

Keywords: church architecture, historicism, early modernism, Vienna, 19th century


Vienna becomes a metropolis

Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg monarchy and the seat of its rulers, was a relatively small city, surrounded by a circle of mighty fortifications, until the middle of the 19th century. The 1850s first brought significant changes in the city’s appearance, and the emerging, new socio-political structures noticeably transformed the social landscape, too. Following the industrial revolution, masses from all corners of the old crown lands flew to the imperial capital in search of work. The newcomers found accommodation on the outskirts of the city and in the new suburbs. After pulling down the city walls in 1857, and as a result of the successive inclusion of the suburbs in the city limits, the area of the capital increased from around 55 to 178 km². At the same time, the population grew rapidly, from about 430,000 people in 1850 to more than four times this number in 1900, a mere 50 years later.

These changes brought about the necessity to find new solutions for urban planning. It became indispensable to construct not only a sufficient number of tenement houses but also buildings to house urban institutions like schools, district offices, courts of justice, etc., which regulated the life of the community in the new districts. It also became indispensable to replace usually small churches in the suburbs and on the outskirts with much larger structures, to ensure adequate pastoral care for the inhabitants. Therefore in the new districts many spacious parochial churches were built, together with numerous monastic churches, most of which formed an integral part of the monastery complex. Although in all the previous epochs numerous sacred buildings had been constructed, it was only in the 19th century that architects, including those from Vienna, faced a pivotal question: which architectonic style to choose when building new churches?[1]


The emerging working class was not the only drive behind the rapid socio-political changes in 19th-century Vienna. The changes also affected the city’s middle class. Industrialization triggered the country’s economic development; wealth was no longer the privilege of the ruling house, the aristocracy and the clergy; the middle class gradually gained economic independence and a significant influence, also on the local politics. The general atmosphere of a breakthrough and awakening in the 19th century – especially in the period of fin de siècle – resulted in an extraordinary flourishing of art and literature; also science gained an unprecedented status.[2]

Yet the unusual dynamics of this process, which also shook the fixed hierarchical order of the dynasty and within the clergy, was a source of existential doubts for many people. In architecture, it manifested itself in the subjectively sensed loss of innovatory abilities: while historical sciences showed that each of the past epochs produced its own original style, the 19th century man did not feel up to discovering a stylistics that would reflect the spirit of the times in an original way. “Give us values, and we shall create our own style!” – sounded the desperate outcry of the architects.

In a sense, the creative powers were truly paralyzed, precisely by the newly awaken scientific interest in the past. A spectacular increase in mobility, due to the opening of long-distance railway routes, made it possible to visit various constructions in the country and abroad, and to study their architecture at first hand. With enthusiasm and rapture, then, those historical monuments, declared to be the icons of historical building, started to be examined and measured, sketched and described many times over, and thus finally it was possible to grasp the diversity of styles of particular epochs.[3] The (literally) epoch-marking conclusion of that research was, briefly put, that the aesthetic and the construction ideas of the previous centuries still had unlimited validity for a modern architect, who, from that richness of already existing forms, could draw formal solutions even for completely new projects, e.g. railway stations. In other words, awareness of the advantages of the old styles actually blocked the application of new formal means. Besides, deepened knowledge of the history of architecture encouraged the search for connections between the rules and manners of building and the rules and manners of behaving in particular historical periods. Hence a conclusion was drawn that by using a style, one could not only build modern structures, but also successfully recall the spirit of the past cultural formations, including those that seemed to have vanished in the process of modernization. When a certain style was applied, the “ideological values” of the old epoch were transferred into the modern times, and updated to suit the needs of the modern society. As a result, resorting to historical styles became an understandable, if not obvious, way of acting: the period of Historicism began.

A perfect illustration of this phenomenon in Vienna is presented by the realizations from the times when the Vienna Ring Road was constructed, which is the period of mature Historicism.[4] Thus, the building of the parliament, constructed in 1871–1873 by Theophil Hansen, received classicizing forms to refer to the democratic rule in ancient Greece. The university building by Heinrich Ferstel, from the years 1873–1884, owing to its Renaissance apparel, brought to mind Italian Humanism in its prime, while the Burgtheater building, designed by Gottfried Semper and Carl Hasenauer (in 1874–1888) was supposed to recall the sensual joy of life and the flourishing of theatre in the Baroque period. The same mechanisms resulted in the fact that in sacred constructions, the styles of the Middle Ages were widely approved, as it was that historical period that was associated with piety and religiousness.

On the other hand, among the younger architects of the Historicism period a tendency appeared to apply the known forms and styles completely freely, the priority being the aesthetic effect, not the historical-stylistic connotations. Having acquired a vast knowledge of all the previous historical styles, representatives of late Historicism abandoned the doctrinal way of thinking of their teachers and gladly combined solutions borrowed from different epochs, modifying them in a creative manner, and thus producing new values.

It must be remembered, however, that in church building the creative imagination was constrained by rather severe norms, and therefore architects had to face extremely complex problems, which shall be examined below.[5]

Translated by Anna Ścibior-Gajewska

[1] H. Krings, In welchem Stile sollen wir unsere Kirchen bauen?, “Zeitschrift für christliche Kunst” (henceforth: ZchK) 3, 1890, cols. 377–388; A. Hofmann, In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?, “Allgemeine Bauzeitung” 55, 1890, pp. 83–84, 89–92; G. Humann, In welchem Stile sollen wir unsere Kirchen bauen?, ZchK 4, 1891, cols. 161–166; J. Prill, In welchem Stile sollen wir unsere Kirchen bauen?, ZchK 11, 1898, cols. 245–252, 267–272; ZchK 12, 1899, cols. 83–86, 247–256.

[2] C.E. Schorske, Fin de siècle Vienna. Politics and Culture, New York 1987.

[3] E.g. W. Lübke, Geschichte der Architektur. Von den ältesten Zeiten bis zur Gegenwart, Leipzig 1870.

[4] R. Wagner-Rieger, Die Wiener Ringstraße. Bild einer Epoche. Die Erweiterung der Inneren Stadt Wien unter Kaiser Franz Joseph, vol. I–XI, Wiesbaden 1972–1981.

[5] A detailed discussion of this problem and a rich bibliography can be found in: I. Scheidl, Schöner Schein und Experiment. Katholischer Kirchenbau im Wien der Jahrhundertwende, Wien 2003.

[6] H. Schnatz, Päpstliche Verlautbarungen zu Staat und Gesellschaft, Darmstadt 1973.

[7]G. Jakob, Die Kunst im Dienste der Kirche. Ein Handbuch für Freunde der kirchlichen Kunst, Landshut 1880.

[8] J. Prill, Wie sollen wir unsere Pfarrkirchen bauen?, ZchK 1, 1888, cols. 271–280.

[9] G. Humann, Zweckmäßigkeit und Schönheit, ZchK 24, 1911, cols. 21–28, 53–64, 89–94.

[10] G. Ebe, Die Grundrissbildung katholischer Pfarrkirchen, “Deutsche Bauzeitung” 22, 1888, pp. 573–574.

[11] A. Sturmhoefel, Centralbau oder Langhaus?, “Zeitschrift für Bauwesen” 47, 1897, cols. 329–346; M. Ferstel, Ueber zweischiffige Kirchenbauten, “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 49, 1897, pp. 273–277; J. Graus, Die einschiffige Kirchenanlage in ihrer Entwicklung und Bedeutung, in: idem, Vom Gebiet der kirchlichen Kunst, Graz 1904, pp. 173–220.

[12] R. Gsaller, Der Kirchenbau auf Grund des Kirchenbaues in der Schöpfung, Wien 1895.

[13] J. Sauer, Symbolik des Kirchengebäudes und seine Ausstattung in der Auffassung des Mittelalters, Freiburg im Breisgau 1902.

[14] E. Meumann, Einführung in die Ästhetik der Gegenwart, Leipzig 1908; O. Leixner, Kirchenbau und Stimmungskunst, “Architektonische Rundschau” 20, 1904, pp. 35–45; R. Streiter, Ausgewählte Schriften zur Ästhetik und Kunst-Geschichte, München 1913; W. Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung. Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie, München 1911.

[15] J.W. Goethe, Von deutscher Baukunst. D. M. Ervini Steinbach. 1773, in: idem, Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens. Münchner Ausgabe, vol. 1.2, München 1987, pp. 415–423.

[16] F.R. Vogel, Ueber monumentale Baukunst, “Deutsche Bauhütte” 4, 1900, pp. 176, 189–190.

[17] A. Schmarsow, Zur Frage nach dem Malerischen. Sein Grundbegriff und seine Entwicklung, Leipzig 1896.

[18] M. Keplinger, Zum Kirchenbau Friedrich Schmidts, in: Friedrich von Schmidt (1825–1891). Ein gotischer Rationalist, exhibition catalogue, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, 12 Sept. – 27 Oct. 1991, Wien 1991, pp. 20–33; on Friedrich Schmidt and other architects mentioned here cf.:

[19] F.R. Vogel, Die moderne Architektur und der Putzbau, “Deutsche Bauhütte” 6, 1902, pp. 125–126.

[20] One of the very few opinions against brick building is presented in: K.PF, F.X., Das Modernisieren der Gothik, “Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung” 5, 1887/88, pp. 399–401.

[21] V. Luntz, Die Pfarrkirche in St. Othmar unter den Weissgärbern in Wien. Entworfen und ausgeführt von k.k. Oberbaurath Fr. Schmidt, “Allgemeine Bauzeitung” 46, 1881, pp. 83–84.

[22] F. Schmidt, Katholische Pfarrkirche in der Vorstadt “Brigittenau” bei Wien, “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 21, 1869, p. 1, tab. 1, 6.

[23] For instance: the Redemptorist church by Richard Jordan (1886–1889) in the 17th district, cf. K..PF, F.X., Die Redemptoristen-Kirche in Hernals bei Wien, “Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung” 1888/89, pp. 347–348, tab. 67; the parochial church in Rudolfsheim (the 15th district) by Karl Schaden (1893–1899), cf. K. Schaden, Der Kirchenbau im XIV. Bezirke (Rudolfsheim) am Cardinal-Rauscher-Platz, “Allgemeine Bauzeitung” 66, 1901, pp. 1–4.

[24] Pfarrkirche zur Heiligen Familie in Wien XVI. Ottakring, “Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung” 18, 1900/1901, pp. 39–40, tab. 11–15; Bau der Pfarrkirche am Stephanieplatz in Ottakring, “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 51, 1899, pp. 353–354.

[25] H. Hübsch, In welchem Style sollen wir bauen?, Karlsruhe 1828.

[26] K.E.O. Fritsch, Stil-Betrachtungen, “Deutsche Bauzeitung” 24, 1890, pp. 417–431, 434–440.

[27] A. Reichensperger, Den Ursprung der Gothik und deren Verhältniß zum romanischen Stil betr., ZchK 4, 1891, cols. 259–262; J. Prill, Gothisch oder Romanisch?, ZchK 4, 1891, cols. 213–222, 281–286, 335–342; 1892, cols. 11–16, 89–92, 143–148; G.G. Kallenbach, Beitrag zur kirchlichen Stylfrage. Besonders mit Rücksicht auf die Behauptung, dass der romanische Styl billigkeitshalber sich vorzugsweise empfiehlt, “Organ für christliche Kunst” 8, 1858, pp. 133–137.

[28] That was the case in the church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Alt-Ottakringer-Pfarrkirche) in Ottakringerstraße, in the 16th district, designed by Rudolf Wiszkocsil (1909–12), cf. H. Wilfling, Unsere Pfarre Alt-Ottakring einst und jetzt, Wien [1985].

[29] I. Scheidl, Der Wettbewerb für die Kaiser Franz Joseph Jubiläumskirche bei der Reichsbrücke, in: Das ungebaute Wien 1800 bis 2000. Projekte für die Metropole, exhibition catalogue, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, 10 Dec. 1999 – 20 Feb. 2000, Wien 1999, pp. 142ff.; Der Wettbewerb um die Kaiser Jubiläumskirche in Wien, “Sueddeutsche Bauzeitung” 9, 1899, pp. 115–117.

[30] A. Kirstein, Pfarrkirche zum heiligen Franz von Assisi im II. Bezirk, Donaustadt. Kaiser Franz Josef-Jubiläumskirche, “Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung” 1919, pp. 57–61, tabs. 31–34.

[31] Die Canisius-Kirche in Wien, IX. Bez. Lustkandlgasse. Von Architekt Gustav Ritter v. Neumann, “Der Bautechniker” 23, 1903, pp. 1145–1146; 1904, pp. 1ff.

[32] Pfarrkirche in Wien XII. Hetzendorf. Architekten: Hubert Gangl und Eugen R. v. Felgel, “Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung” 27, 1909/1910, p. 104, tabs. 28–30.

[33] J. Burckhardt, Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien, Stuttgart 1867.

[34] J. Graus, Die katholische Kirche und die Renaissance, Graz 1888; H. A. Geymüller, Architektur und Religion. Gedanken über die religiöse Wirkung der Architektur, Basel 1911.

[35] A. Wielemans, Ueber den Bau der Pfarrkirche am Breitenfeld in Wien, “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 48, 1896, pp. 241–243.

[36] H. Wölfflin, Renaissance und Barock, München 1888.

[37] A. Ilg (Bernini der Jüngere), Die Zukunft des Barockstiles, Wien 1880.

[38] Kirche in Wien-Grinzing, Kaasgraben. Architekten: Kupka & Orglmeister, “Der Bautechniker” 30, 1910, pp. 953ff.

[39] Detailed analysis of the contesting projects can be found in: Scheidl 2003 (fn. 5).

[40] O. Wagner, Moderne Architektur, in: O.A. Graf, Otto Wagner, vol. 1, Das Werk des Architekten. 1860–1902, Wien 1994, pp. 263ff.

[41] “Die Moderne in der Architektur und im Kunstgewerbe” (Protokoll der Diskussion), “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 51, 1899, pp. 145ff.; 1900, pp. 190ff.

[42] O. Wagner, Die Moderne im Kirchenbau, in: O.A. Graf, Otto Wagner, vol. 1: Das Werk des Architekten. 1860–1902, Wien 1994, pp. 326ff.; I. Scheidl, Otto Wagner: “Die Moderne im Kirchenbau” – Pfarrkirche in Währing, in: Das ungebaute Wien 1800 bis 2000. Projekte für die Metropole, exhibition catalogue, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, 10 Dec. 1999 – 20 Feb. 2000, Wien 2000, pp. 152ff.

[43] O. Wagner, Erläuterungsbericht zur Bauvollendung der Kirche der Niederösterr. Landesheil- und Pflegeanstalten, Wien 1907; E. Koller-Glück, Otto Wagners Kirche am Steinhof, Wien 1992.

[44] M. Hegele, Die bauliche Ausgestaltung des Wiener Zentralfriedhofes, “Zeitschrift des Österreichischen Ingenieur- und Architekten-Vereins” 59, 1907, s. 1–7, tab. 1.

[45] M. Emer, Die Hl. Geist-Kirche Wien XVI. Herbststraße. Die erste Kirche Österreichs, für deren Aufbau fast ausschließlich Eisenbeton- und Betontragwerke zur Anwendung kamen, n.p. [1911].

[46] D. Prelovšek, Josef Plečnik. Wiener Arbeiten von 1896 bis 1914, Wien 1979.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" . Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.