Architecture in Vienna, a Guide for Travelers

facade of the Imperial Palace in Vienna

Paul Beinssen / Getty Images

Vienna, Austria, by the Danube River, has a mixture of architecture representing many periods and styles, ranging from elaborate Baroque-era monuments to a 20th century rejection of high ornamentation. The history of Vienna, or Wien as it's called, is as rich and complicated as the architecture that portrays it. The city doors are open to celebrate architecture — and anytime is a great time to visit.

Being centrally located in Europe, the area was settled early on by both the Celts and then the Romans. It has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna has been invaded both by marauding armies and medieval plagues. During the Second World War, it ceased to exist completely as it was enveloped by Nazi Germany. Yet today we still think of Vienna as the home of the Strauss waltz and the Freudian dream. The influence of Wiener Moderne or Vienna Modern architecture on the rest of the world was as profound as any other movement in history.

Visiting Vienna

Perhaps the most iconic structure in all of Vienna is the Gothic St. Stephan's Cathedral. First begun as a Romanesque cathedral, its construction throughout the ages displays the influences of the day, from Gothic to Baroque all the way up to its patterned tile roof.

Wealthy aristocratic families like the Liechtensteins may have first brought the ornate Baroque style of architecture (1600-1830) to Vienna. Their private summer home, the Garden Palais Liechtenstein from 1709, combines Italian villa-like details on the outside with ornate Baroque interiors. It is open to the public as an art museum. The Belvedere is another Baroque palace complex from this time period, the early 1700s. Designed by Italian-born architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745), Belvedere Palace and Gardens is popular eye-candy for the Danube River cruise-taker.

Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor from 1711 to 1740, is perhaps responsible for bringing Baroque architecture to the ruling class of Vienna. At the height of the Black Plague pandemic, he vowed to build a church to St. Charles Borromeo if the plague would leave his city. It did, and the magnificent Karlskirche (1737) was first designed by Baroque master architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach. Baroque architecture reigned during the time of Charles' daughter, Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80), and her son Joseph II (1780-90). Architect Fischer von Erlach also designed and rebuilt a country hunting cottage into a summer royal getaway, the Baroque Schönbrunn Palace. Vienna's Imperial Winter Palace remained The Hofburg.

By the mid-1800s, the former city walls and military enforcements that protected the city center were demolished. In their place, Emperor Franz Joseph I launched a massive urban renewal, creating what has been called the most beautiful boulevard in the world, the Ringstrasse. Ring Boulevard is lined with over three miles of monumental, historically-inspired neo-Gothic and neo-Baroque buildings. The term Ringstrassenstil is sometimes used to describe this mix of styles. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Renaissance Revival Vienna Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) were constructed during this time. Burgtheater, Europe's second-oldest theater, was first housed in Hofburg Palace before this "new" theater was built in 1888.

Modern Vienna

The Viennese Secession movement at the turn of the 20th century launched a revolutionary spirit in architecture. Architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918) combined traditional styles and Art Nouveau influences. Later, architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) established the stark, minimalist style we see at The Goldman and Salatsch Building. Eyebrows raised when Loos built this modern structure across from the Imperial Palace in Vienna. The year was 1909, and the "Looshaus" marked an important transition in the world of architecture. Yet, the buildings of Otto Wagner may have influenced this modernist movement.

Some have called Otto Koloman Wagner the Father of Modern Architecture. For certain, this influential Austrian helped move Vienna from Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) into 20th-century architectural practicality. Wagner's influence on the architecture of Vienna is felt everywhere in that city, as noted by Adolf Loos himself, who in 1911 is said to have called Wagner the greatest architect in the world.

Born on July 13, 1841 in Penzig near Vienna, Otto Wagner was educated at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna and Königliche Bauakademie in Berlin, Germany. He then went back to Vienna in 1860 to study at the Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), graduating in 1863. He was trained in the Neoclassical fine art style that was ultimately rejected by the Secessionists.

Otto Wagner's architecture in Vienna is stunning. The distinctive tiled facade of the Majolika Haus makes this 1899 apartment building desired property even today. The Karlsplatz Stadtbahn rail station that once inked urban Vienna with its growing suburbs in 1900 is so revered an example of beautiful Art Nouveau architecture that it was moved piece by piece to a safer venue when the railroad upgraded. Wagner ushered in modernism with the Austrian Postal Savings Bank (1903-1912) — the Banking Hall of the Österreichische Postsparkasse also brought the modern banking function of paper transactions to Vienna. The architect returned to Art Nouveau with the 1907 Kirche am Steinhof or Church of St. Leopold at Steinhof Asylum, a beautiful church designed especially for the mentally ill. Wagner's own villas in Hütteldorf, Vienna best express his transformation from his neoclassical training to Jugendstil.

Why is Otto Wagner Important?

  • Art Nouveau in Vienna, a "new art" known as Jugendstil.
  • Vienna Secession, founded in 1897 by a union of Austrian artists, Wagner was not a founder but is associated with the movement. The Secession was based on the belief that art and architecture should be of its own time and not a revival or imitation of historic forms such as Classical, Gothic, or Renaissance. On the Secession exhibition hall in Vienna are these German words: der zeit ihre kunst (to every age its art) and der kunst ihre freiheit (to art its freedom).
  • Vienna Moderne, a transitional time in European architecture. The Industrial Revolution was offering new construction materials and processes, and, like architects of the Chicago School, a group of artists and architects in Vienna were finding their way to what we consider Modernity. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable has described it as a time "full of genius and contradiction," characterized by a kind of bipolar architecture of simple, geometric designs adorned with fanciful Jugendstil ornamentation.
  • Moderne Architektur, Wagner's 1896 book on modern architecture continues to be studied.
  • Urban Planning and Iconic Architecture in Vienna:  The Steinhof Church and the Majolikahaus are even pictured on coffee mugs available to purchase as souvenirs.

Otto Wagner, Creating Iconic Architecture for Vienna

The same year Louis Sullivan was suggesting a form follows function in American skyscraper design, Otto Wagner was describing aspects of modern architecture in Vienna in his translated declaration that something impractical cannot be beautiful. His most important writing is perhaps the 1896 Moderne Architektur, in which he asserts the case for Modern Architecture:

"A certain practical element with which man is imbued today simply cannot be ignored, and ultimately every artist will have to agree with the following proposition: Something impractical cannot be beautiful." — Composition, p. 82
""All modern creations must correspond to the new materials and demands of the present if they are to suit modern man." — Style, p. 78
"Things that have their source in modern views correspond perfectly to our appearance....things copied and imitated from old models never do....A man in a modern traveling suit, for example, fits in very well with the waiting room of a train station, with sleeping cars, with all our vehicles; yet would we not stare if we were to see someone dressed in clothing from the Louis XV period using such things?" — Style, p. 77
"The room that we inhabit should be as simple as our clothing....Sufficient light, a pleasant temperature, and clean air in rooms are very just demands of man....If architecture is not rooted in life, in the needs of contemporary will just cease to be an art." — The Practice of Art, pp. 118, 119, 122
"Composition also entails artistic economy. By this I mean a moderation in the use and treatment of forms handed down to us or newly created that corresponds to modern ideas and extends to everything possible. This is especially true for those forms that are considered high expressions of artistic feeling and monumental exaltation, such as domes, towers, quadrigae, columns, etc. Such forms, in any case, should be used only with absolute justification and sparingly, since their overuse always produces the opposite effect. If the work being created is to be a true reflection of our time, the simple, the practical, the — one might almost say — military approach must be fully and completely expressed, and for this reason alone everything extravagant must be avoided." — Composition, p. 84

Today's Vienna

Today's Vienna is a showplace of architectural innovation. Twentieth-century buildings include Hundertwasser-Haus, a brilliantly colored, unusually shaped building by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and a controversial glass and steel structure, the 1990 Haas Haus by Pritzker Laureate Hans Hollein. Another Pritzker architect took the lead converting the century-old and historically protected industrial buildings of Vienna into what today is known as Jean Nouvel Buildings Gasometers Vienna — a massive urban complex with offices and shops that became adaptive reuse on a grand scale.

In addition to the Gasometer project, Pritzker Laureate Jean Nouvel has designed housing units in Vienna, as have the Pritzker winners Herzog and de Meuron on Pilotengasse. And that apartment house on the Spittelauer Lände? Another Pritzker Laureate, Zaha Hadid.

Vienna continues to make architecture in a big way, and they want you to know that Vienna’s architecture scene is thriving.


  • The Dictionary of Art Vol. 32, Grove, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 760-763
  • "Vienna Moderne (November 26, 1978), Architecture, Anyone? by Ada Louise Huxtable, University of California Press, 1986, p. 100
  • Modern Architecture by Otto Wagner, A Guidebook for His Students to This Field of Art, edited and translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave, The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1988 (translated from the 1902 third edition)
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Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in Vienna, a Guide for Travelers." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). Architecture in Vienna, a Guide for Travelers. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in Vienna, a Guide for Travelers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).