Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

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]


In search of the “right” style of church building


The key factor determining the design of churches in late Historicism was – obviously – the official line of the artistic policy of the Catholic Church. Besides, the regulations issued by the Church authorities should be treated as a direct consequence of the Church’s general strategy. Rationalism, the ever stronger position of the liberal middle class, and the growing influence of the state on matters so far regulated by the Church – all this brought about a reorientation of the Church policy, which at first consisted in complete detachment from the contemporary trends. It was no accident that all papal encyclicals and other Church decrees from that period proclaimed an unambiguously formulated, complete rejection of modernity per se.[6]

In the area of art, the above was a sufficient reason to demand, even at the end of the 19th century, that new churches be designed in the mediaeval styles, and to disregard the necessity of any changes in the spatial structure of the buildings.[7] With no exception, the conservative architects presented the opinion that new formal solutions would be justified solely as an answer to reforms inside the Church or changes in the liturgy, yet those were only vaguely visible at the end of the 19th century.[8] Thus, the supposed new challenges referred, at the most, to single situations, usually motivated by purely practical factors, which were, however, more and more often quoted towards the end of the century.[9] Preventing draft, installing central heating or better lighting did not, after all, require fundamental constructional changes, or style renovation.

In the end, it was the conservative theoreticians of architecture, torn between their attachment to tradition and their eagerness to meet the expectations of modernity, who initiated the actual debate on the “appropriate” church design. The debate went on, among others, on the pages of the contemporarily abundant professional journals. Vivid discussions soon brought a conclusion that the semantically obvious choice of the mediaeval style did not guarantee obtaining an objectively appropriate sacred structure. Therefore it was necessary to search for other criteria defining the appropriateness of means of architectonic expression. One of the consequences was a raised awareness of the significance of the plan of the church.[10] For instance, one question that was carefully examined was that of a vital choice between a central plan and a rectangular one; and, if the latter was favoured, the appropriate number of naves was discussed in detail.[11] The debate was at first conducted only on the grounds of theory of architecture, but with time it became more interdisciplinary: arguments that would enable the formulation of church-construction normative criteria that would reflect the spirit of the epoch were searched for in the Scripture,[12] in mediaeval texts,[13] or even in contemporary philosophical-psychological works.[14] Eventually, the participants in the debate had to be satisfied with the conclusion that there was no irrefutable method to create the topos of a “perfect church building”. Thus the search for the “right” architectonic type diminished in value, and the previously dominant themes gave place to the re-consideration of the “right” style – in debates that frequently took on the form of violent altercations.

Gothic as the German national style

Virtually unanimously, Gothic was indicated as the ideal style for church architecture. Its “discovery” in German-speaking countries had taken place several decades previously, before the actual style debate started. Yet, the credit for the introduction of new formal solutions in church building does not go to any of the architects, but to the great poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The moment that initiated the aesthetic revaluation of Gothic was the poet’s visit to the Cathedral of Strasbourg in 1772.[15] Before that moment – like his contemporaries – Goethe resented the “tangled arbitrariness of Gothic ornament”. But the view of the cathedral opened his eyes to the beauty of the “circumstances” of the construction, in which, emotionally moved, he recognized the emancipation of the typical “German character”, noting: “this is German architecture – our architecture”. With this particular remark, mentioning the “national character”, Goethe significantly influenced the reception of Gothic in German-speaking countries of the 19th century. From that moment on, Gothic was more and more strongly associated with the “national style”, even when it had been long obvious that it originated from France.

The other important impulse for the change of attitude towards Gothic was the comparison Goethe used, saying the cathedral was like “a lofty, far-spreading tree of God” with a thousand branches. This metaphor allowed the poet to transfer the feeling of the sublime, evoked by experiencing nature, to a work of Gothic architecture, which so far had been perceived as confused and unorderly.

 It was this association with the sublime – the prevailing notion in German aesthetics since Immanuel Kant – that from then on became the primary criterion of evaluation and the source of admiration for the Gothic cathedrals.

In practice, however, it soon became obvious that the newly built churches could in no way evoke the feeling of the sublime comparable to that elicited by the monumental mediaeval cathedrals, with their richness of forms and soaring spires. Consequently, it is not surprising that at the end of the century the notion of sublime started to lose its position in theoretical considerations and was replaced by the notion of monumentality, which with time received all the attributes that were previously associated with sublimity.[16] Once it had been acknowledged as the true expression of modern architectonic art, monumentality was searched for in almost every building of public function; this soon led to a devaluation of the term. Therefore, another important criterion appeared in late historicism church building: picturesqueness.[17] Originally, it was a category of the aesthetic experience of nature, yet in the 19th century it gradually came to be used as a term of perception of architecture, too. “Picturesqueness” functioned as a metaphor of broadly understood “homeliness” and the opposite of the aura of alienation, associated with modernity. “Picturesque monumentality” replaced the outdated notion of sublimity and became both a criterion of evaluation of Gothic cathedrals and the elementary directive in the contemporary church building.

Among the Vienna church builders of the 19th century, the most prominent figure was undoubtedly Friedrich Schmidt (1825–1891).[18] He belonged to the generation of architects who were involved in constructing the Ring Road, but relatively early he started to search for creative solutions to the new challenges in architecture. The Vienna churches that he built in 1860s became acted as a form of prototypes which visibly influenced the late-historicism church building. However, architects of the younger generation still managed – which shall be proven with several examples – to adapt those models and develop them with noteworthy creativity.

Two elementary ideas allowed Schmidt to realize the postulate of “picturesque monumentality”: firstly, he followed the principle of “truth to materials”, indispensable in monumental building, as he raised his constructions of unplastered brick; secondly, he obtained picturesqueness through thoughtful modification of the Gothic forms canon, and the diversity of plans applied in the chancel.

With the great demand for new parish churches and limited funding, the decision was always against the expensive working of stone blocks; plastering the building was rejected as contradicting the principle of truth to the materials, especially in the case of Neo-Gothic churches.[19] Thus, practically the only solution was to use unplastered brick. Although in Vienna this material was mainly used in new, inexpensive factory buildings and was unseen in church building, Schmidt managed to use brick – supplemented with Neo-Gothic stone ornaments, if the budget allowed – to create refined constructions which met with general appreciation.[20] One example is St Othmar’s parochial church (Weißgärber Pfarrkirche) in the 3rd District[21] [fig. 1]. It is a three-nave construction of unplastered brick, with the façade crowned by a hexagonal tower with sharply marked angles, ornamented with Neo-Gothic stone elements – which could be considered the quintessence of picturesqueness and monumentality at once. The whole building is characterized by the richness of architectonic plans, culminating in the wreath of chapels around the presbytery. It is unlikely to find an equally sophisticated realization among the late historicism churches; yet the concept of a one-tower façade became the most important paradigm in the Vienna church building style of that period.

Another construction which served as a model for the late historicism architects was the parochial church in the 20th District – Brigittenau[22] [fig. 2]. Here, Schmidt proposed a two-tower façade and an ambulatory around the chancel, thus violating a commonly obeyed (though unofficial) rule: the 19th century theoreticians believed those two elements to be attributes of cathedrals. Using these prominent architectonic elements, Schmidt significantly contributed to the rise in the prestige of the late historicism church building. Ordinary churches were, in a way, promoted to the rank of “suburban cathedrals”, thus creating landmarks that the congregations could easily identify with. It was a move of notable importance, as most church-goers hailed from outside the city, and were trying to find their place in the new environment. As a result, a two-tower façade became the favourite architectonic element, employed also in the newly-built monastic churches.

To justify the presence of an ambulatory also in an ordinary church, Schmidt diametrically changed its function: in the Middle Ages, the ambulatory played a significant liturgical role as the procession path, and was separated from the chancel by columns only, so that the congregation could observe the ceremonial passage of the clergy. Aware of the fact that in a parochial church this solution would be redundant and irrelevant, the architect separated the ambulatory from the chancel with a wall; as a result, the passage could serve merely as storing space, or, at the most, as a hallway to the sacristy. In this way, Schmidt replaced the liturgical function with an aesthetic one. The ambulatory, useless inside the building, became an important element of the church silhouette, crucial for the picturesqueness of the extended presbytery part. Soon it became nearly a fashion to design “fake” ambulatories. Among the realizations of the late historicism period, it is hard to find a church in which the architect would have settled for a simple plan of the presbytery area. Even monastic churches were supplied with such ambulatories, planned solely for the sake of the external shape of the building.

Still, Schmidt responded not only to the current aesthetic conditions, but also to practical needs. To grant the wish of the faithful, who wanted a better view of the altar, he widened the nave and reduced the aisles de facto to play the role of hallways. Also this architectonic pattern became a characteristic feature of Vienna churches in the period of late historicism.

The Neo-Gothic churches of the Danube metropolis, built in the years 1880–1914, show many similarities: all of them (except for the church in district Weinhaus, designed by Schmidt himself) were authored by his pupils. All of them were built of brick, and most of them followed the model of the one-tower façade. The steeple, richly decorated, stood out against the nave, which usually used very simple forms. Thus the tower was the elementary marker of the style, and a persuasive carrier of picturesqueness.

Although in Neo-Gothic church building the symmetrical composition was preferred, single towers over the nave were accepted, as they provided a more picturesque character to whole urban space schemes, by enriching the skyline of the street or square with an eye-catching accent[23] [fig. 3].

The Holy Family’s parochial church (Neuottakringer Pfarrkirche), designed by Alexander Wielemans for the 16th district, is the only one among the Neo-Gothic churches of the capital to have received a two-tower façade. Moreover, it was proof that Gothic stone ornaments could have been successfully – though on a smaller scale – replaced with bricks of different shapes.[24] In the case of this church, most of the budget was clearly allocated to building a two-tower façade, blatantly modelled on Schmidt’s design for the Brigittenau church, from which, incidentally, Wielemans also borrowed the solution for the presbytery with an ambulatory, and the idea to widen the nave [fig. 4].

Romanesque style – architecture built “off-hand”

The Romanesque style was never treated with such emotionality and emphasis as the Gothic. As we know, already in the beginning of the 19th century the circular arch and solutions from the Renaissance canon were combined to create Rundbogenstil, one of the first examples of historicism in architecture.[25] In that period, virtually no churches were built in Vienna. And since at that time the “circular arch” stylistics was not seen as connected with the religious mood typically associated with the Middle Ages, the debate on the usefulness of the Romanesque style in modern church architecture flared up only at the end of the century.

As previously the Gothic cathedrals, the greatest Romanesque temples became the object of intensified scientific investigation. Obviously, some theoreticians noticed certain features of the style that would allow for the application of the Romanesque formal repertoire in 19th century church building. One of them was K.E.O. Fritsch, an architect and the founder of the journal “Deutsche Bauzeitung”; in his Stil-Betrachtungen, he discussed in detail the advantages of the Romanesque style.[26] Those attempts encountered strong opposition in the “Gothicist” circles, whose leaders were a politician and theoretician, August Reichensperger, and a priest and architect, Josef Prill.[27] They defined the Romanesque style as an immature stylistic formation which foreshadowed Gothic, and was characterized by the lack of regularity and certain coarseness, as architecture built “off-hand” – bereft of artistic dimension. Still, not only aesthetic arguments were brought up, but also those of a practical nature. It was reasoned that such massive constructions are not economically justified, while small windows do not fulfil modern expectations. The zeal of the Gothic-defenders did not allow them to notice that the principles of the pointed-arch style also had to be considerably modified to answer the needs and possibilities of the steam-engine era.

It must be stated that the apologists of the Romanesque style never questioned the superiority of the Gothic architecture, yet they did notice two elementary advantages of the Romanesque style, which could enrich the inventory of modern construction forms. Romanesque irregularity was supposed to sanction asymmetrical structures in church building, rich shapes of the outside form, diversified roof parts – in sum, the strongly segmented form of the building, which would provide the much-sought-after picturesqueness. Moreover, to obtain the desired stylistic effect, the Romanesque-inspired construction could manage without the costly sculpted ornaments, or even – due to the peculiar “inferiority” of the Romanesque art in the contemporary repertoire of architectonic forms – it would allow plastering of the building, which further reduced the necessary expenses.

Neo-Romanesque forms were mainly applied in newly built monastic churches. Use of this stylistic garb for parish churches is also well documented – especially when Neo-Gothic projects were too expensive.[28] In such cases, architects usually managed to take advantage of the supposed irregularity of the Romanesque style, and to organize particular constituents of the church form in an interesting way; this especially concerned the towers. The common strategy was to plan two-tower façades, as they gave the buildings monumental appearance, otherwise endangered by the cost reduction. Frequently, also the “fake” ambulatory was used, to ensure the picturesqueness of the choir area.

Victor Luntz, Friedrich Schmidt’s pupil, was one of those who perfectly mastered the language of the Neo-Romanesque style. One of his more significant achievements was winning the prestigious contest for the design of the emperor’s jubilee church (Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Jubiläumskirche), to be raised in the 2nd district in Vienna to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Franz Josef’s reign in 1898.[29] Bearing in mind the extraordinary, monarchical-representative character of the enterprise, Luntz proposed a stone structure. Through the material, it would relate directly to the mediaeval architecture, and, through association, to the thousand-year-long tradition of the Habsburg dynasty. At the same time, as a memorial-cathedral, it would emphasize the significance of the emperor and the dynasty. Since a Neo-Gothic church would certainly exceed the allocated budget, the choice of the Neo-Romanesque garb was almost obvious. Additionally, that style allowed for the designing of a “rich, segmented form”, which was a requirement in the tender specification. Luntz designed a three-nave temple with a two-tower facade, many smaller spires, and a monumental tower over the crossing. Also the extensive, terraced choir area was impressive, not to mention numerous annexes. Those elements, and the very choice of the material made the construction an exemplary model of “picturesque monumentality”, even though Luntz’s project was modified after his death (1903) by his successor – August Kirstein[30] [fig. 5].

Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Jubiläumskirche was the only late-historicism church in Vienna that was built of stone – rather expensive material. Yet the Romanesque “irregularity” released the power of innovation, which allowed for the “disguise” of solutions dictated by financial limitations, applied e.g. in the Jesuit church of St Peter Canisius, built in the 9th district by Gustav Neumann. Even though the church was built of brick, its walls were left unplastered both on the outside and inside. Instead, they were covered with artificial stone panels, which were relatively cheap and deceptively similar to natural material, which made the church look like a stone building[31] [fig. 6].

Perhaps all aspects of Romanesque picturesqueness were addressed by one of Luntz’s pupils, Hubert Gangl, in his design of the parish church in Hetzendorf in the 12th district.[32] Asymmetry is provided by a single tower beside the main body of the building. The tower over the crossing, the steeples of the facade and the presbytery, the ambulatory and several smaller annexes give diversity to the silhouette and contribute to its picturesqueness. Segmentation of the form was further emphasized by joining the church with the diversified structure of the parsonage by means of an arcade. The effect of slightly fantastic picturesqueness is even more intensified by large rose windows, different types of plaster, details from rough stone, arcade frieze, and variegated, “spotted” roof colouring [fig. 7].

The “non-ecclesiastical” styles – Renaissance and Baroque

Research on the art of the Middle Ages created a vision of the epoch from the 10th to the 14th century as a per se religious period; however fervently the Gothic and Romanesque-style supporters argued, the Christian character of those two styles was never questioned.

Quite the opposite was the case with the Renaissance, which gradually entered the debate on church architecture. The age of Humanism was not discovered through studies and admiration for the masterpieces of church architecture, but through research into the ideas and culture, significantly influenced by the works of Jacob Burckhardt.[33] This situation placed the discussion on the usefulness of Renaissance forms in church building on the plain of moral evaluation, which eventually resulted in regarding this style as “heathen”. First of all, the Renaissance seemed to be an era that shaped the modern man, who questioned the authority of the church hierarchy, who could boast excellent education, sophisticated manners, and broad mental horizons. These were the exact values that were adopted as ideals of the bourgeois class, ever growing in importance: ideals which were diametrically opposed to the image of mediaeval piety, as defined by the official church. The Renaissance could become a fully-fledged form of expression in lay architecture, but its application in church building seemed out of question. Yet there were supporters of that style – first of all Johann Graus, a Catholic priest – who made it their goal to adapt it to the needs of contemporary church architecture.[34] Obviously, they did not in any way question the meaning of the Gothic and Romanesque style, but rather opposed limiting the freedom of choice of the architectural garb, and propagated Renaissance as one of possible variants. The main argument quoted in the dispute was the presence of historical studies claiming that, liturgically, Italian Renaissance churches were a continuation of the old-Christian tradition. This, in turn, allowed Renaissance to be seen as a chance to breathe new air to church building. Nevertheless, neither the new spatial solutions nor the intricate considerations of the Christian spirituality supposedly present already in the antique architecture (which was to develop gradually in the times of Gothic and Renaissance) could clear the Renaissance architecture of the odium of being “unchurchly”.

Architects of the late historicism period, however, approached the theoretical debates and the reservations of the Church with distance, and did not allow their creative liberty to be limited. We can be convinced of it by the structure of the church in Breitenfeld, in the 8th district of Vienna. Also in this case, the first projects were more in the vein of Neo-Gothic forms, and were rejected for financial reasons. Then, Alexander Wielemans elaborated a cheaper version, in Neo-Renaissance forms. The choice did not meet with any opposition, neither from the theoreticians nor the church hierarchy. Potential criticism was probably prevented by applying the two-façade model, principles of which were formulated by Friedrich Schmidt, Wielemans’ teacher. The church in Breitenfeld is also a brick structure. It only differs from the temples built by Schmidt due to the shape of windows, and decorative motifs taken not from the Gothic repertoire, but modelled after the early Renaissance forms. Despite their low cost, they give the building the much appreciated “picturesque expression”[35] [fig. 8].

The possibility of applying the Baroque garb in church building had never been at the centre of the theoretical dispute and was commented on only marginally. This style was regarded as degeneration and deformation of the Renaissance,[36] and its “sensuality” and exaltation eliminated it as a basis in modernizing church architecture, even despite the national prestige it gained at the end of the 19th century, owing to Albert Ilg’s research. Although the art historian from Vienna recognized the Austrian spirit in Baroque, the new, positive opinion on the style was limited solely to non-ecclesiastical architecture.[37]

Regardless of the opinion held on that style, Vienna architecture at the turn of the 20th century did gain a Neo-Baroque church, Kaasgrabenkirche, funded by a wealthy middle-class manufacturer. The church and a small cloister building were handed over to the Oblates of St Francis de Sales. It is almost ironic that the appropriate style assumed for that building was Baroque, associated with the pleasures of worldly life. The architects – Franz Kupka and Gustav Orglmeister – derived inspiration from small village churches of the 17th century, common in surrounding villages, and in no way associated with sensual extravagance. The small Kaasgrabenkirche was at first located on the outskirts of the city. Its architecture was in an undoubtedly picturesque unison with the surrounding nature. And, since “picturesqueness” was also an expression of homeliness, the building held certain emotional potential for the congregation – especially in the context of their losing the sense of regional belonging – as it reminded them of the idyllic village churches. The extended horseshoe plinth, on which the church is set, intensifies the impression of monumentality[38] [fig. 9].

The described church went nearly unnoticed by the professional circles and did not, by any means, lead to a revision of the opinions on Baroque, still rejected in church building. Yet the example of Neo-Baroque highlights a certain aspect of that architectural debate, which often departed from the building practice. This was the case e.g. with the Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Gedächtniskirche tender, when many architects proposed impressive Neo-Renaissance edifices with large Baroque domes (some of the projects were even awarded). On the other hand, in theoretical disputes the very same architects appeared as ardent opponents of the two styles.[39]

Variations of modernity

The debate on style in Vienna architecture was put on a new track with the appearance of Otto Wagner. The architect flatly rejected the use of historical styles, and proposed to replace them with a completely new language of more purposeful and economical forms that would satisfy the needs of the modern man.[40]

Professional circles under the historicism flag reacted with confusion to the “new architecture” promoted by Wagner. However, during long debates organized by Österreichische Ingenieur- und Architektenverein, not only was the question of style discussed but, primarily, the implications behind the term “modern”, and the solutions characteristic of modern design.[41] Eventually, historicizing architects arrived at a relieving conclusion that their own projects were, to all intents and purposes, modern: they took into account the needs of the client and the economic conditions, and, owing to the moderate application of traditional styles, received a modern dimension. In this context, Wagner’s postulates were no longer so spectacular.

However, Wagner succeeded in what historicizing specialists failed at. To prove that his concepts could be applied in all architectonic types, in 1899 he submitted a design of a “perfect church” (Ideal-Kirche).[42] It was a construction on a circular plan, with a dome and a tower located asymmetrically at the rear elevation. In the attached commentary, the architect emphasized the importance of purposefulness and functionality, although perhaps he himself was not entirely convinced of the absolute correctness of the proposed solutions. For, when five years later he designed a church in Steinhof (Kirche am Steinhof), his ideal was no longer the circular plan, as in 1899, but the cross plan. Still, also in this case (the Steinhof church is the centre of a psychiatric hospital complex in the 14th district) Wagner most of all emphasized functionality. However, it was not consistently obeyed in the external facades, as both the form of the “perfect church” and the Steinhof church were decorated with (practically functionless) ornaments marked by the modern stylistics of the Vienna Secession[43] [fig. 10].

All in all, Wagner did not succeed in the field of church building, because limiting himself to unconditional utilitarianism prevented him from seeing the elementary factor in church architecture, namely the religious atmosphere. Thus, the Steinhof church, so fervently criticized by its contemporary reviewers, and today named the “jewel” of Vienna architecture, remains the only Secession church in the Danubian capital.

The rapid increase in Vienna population entailed the necessity of erecting not only many new churches, but also communal institutional buildings. Among them was the complex of the Central Cemetary (Zentralfriedhof), located on the outskirts, in the 11th district – a vast necropolis with a temple in the middle, designed by Max Hegele, a pupil of Victor Luntz.[44] It is a central construction with a dome, on a nearly-circular plan, combining elements of historicism and modernism. Hegele also designed the interior, in which he applied the stylistics of Secession, and thus proved to be a designer well-versed in the newest art movements of the fledgling 20th century. The spatial arrangement of the building combines the features of the central and the three-nave plan. In this way, the architect used, so to say, double-traditional language, which had been specifically modified, but guaranteed a religious atmosphere. Unlike the Steinhof church, this building was received favourably by the professionals and the faithful [fig. 11].

A completely different variant of modernity is represented by the church of Holy Spirit (Hl. Geist-Kirche) [fig. 12], erected in one of the most densely populated working-class district (16th).[45] Its builder, Josef Plečnik, once a pupil of Wagner, criticized the dogmatic purposefulness as the superior category in architectural thinking, yet in his project he achieved functionality far beyond the concepts of his master. Plečnik was a devout Catholic, and in his project, by relation to the spirit of early Christianity, he wanted to erase the hierarchical divide between the priest and the faithful.[46] Therefore he designed a nearly square-shaped interior closed by the altar wall, without the presbytery, which brought the congregation “closer” to the altar. It is worth noting that he, too, applied modifications to a traditional spatial arrangement, and at the same time skilfully used the newest technological solutions in industrial construction. Owing to large, reinforced concrete girders, he managed to connect the space of the “nave” and the “aisles” below the galleries, avoiding the pillars that would spoil the acoustics and obliterate the view of the altar. As a result, an unusual but atmospheric interior was created. Since the inhabitants of the district were not wealthy, the construction material that the architect used was relatively cheap concrete and elements used in industrial building – familiar to the congregation, which consisted mostly of workers. He gave up the concept of “picturesque effect”. Instead, he stressed the significance of the building by using a columned portico, one of the most obvious markers of grandeur in architecture, and simultaneously an unquestionable adornment to the building, whose form was deprived of virtually any decorative elements.

Plečnik’s project was the first reinforced concrete church in Vienna, yet it was an exception among the thirty monastic and parish churches erected in the city at the turn of the 20th century. Most of them were historicizing designs, usually in neo-mediaeval garb, with Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque forms almost equally present. A wide spectrum of solutions was applied. It suggested extraordinary diversity in Vienna church building at that time. The architects of that period were able to liberate themselves from the constraints of theoretical norms, and, frequently opening entirely new perspectives, with their designs they foreshadowed even Postmodernism.


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.: http://www.architektenlexikon.at.

[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.

Skip to content