The scene at the building site of Salzburg Cathedral in 1620 must have resembled a kind of Tower of Babel: there were local laborers, soldiers from all over Europe who had been separated from their units, and at the very center an Italian master builder who directed the entire project with great élan. Santino Solari was evidently a very busy man at that time. He not only oversaw the rebuilding of the cathedral in Salzburg, but was also charged with renovating the entire fortifications of the city.
In the ensuing decades, many other Italian architects followed Solari’s lead and came here to lend Austria the Baroque splendor for which it is still famous today. In Vienna, Filiberto Lucchese worked on the church at Am Hof and on the Leopold Wing of the Hofburg, Carlo Antonio Carlone rebuilt Upper Austria’s St. Florian Monastery as a Baroque masterpiece, and Domenico Martinelli infused the Liechtenstein Garden Palace with splendor and dignity.
In the Baroque period, princes and bishops bought architects in the same way as football clubs buy foreign players today, and building à la italianità was all the fashion. One builder who left a particularly enduring mark on Austria was the Genoa-born Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt came to the imperial capital in 1696 and went down in architectural history as the builder of Belvedere Palace, the Church of St. Peter, Schwarzenberg Palace, Laxenburg Palace, Hof Palace in Lower Austria, and Mirabell Palace in Salzburg.
This unparalleled cultural exchange can be attributed to the artistically-minded Emperors Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles IV, but they were motivated by concrete political interests as well. They were determined not to be outdone by the magnificent buildings of their French archrival Louis XIV, the Sun King, and thus had their own splendid Baroque prestige buildings, such as Schönbrunn Palace, erected.
The Baroque unquestionably filled the veins of architecture in Austria with fresh blood. For too long, the country’s builders had worked in isolation, without permitting any Mediterranean influences to “flavor” their work. The Baroque era marked the beginning of a cultural exchange that also included new trends emanating from Austria.
With the advent of Viennese Classicism and the magnificent buildings commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa, Austrian architecture spread to the crown lands. Austria’s influence became even more significant in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the entire empire, now Austria-Hungary, the cities had begun to expand. Bit by bit, the city walls were razed, boulevards, plazas and squares were built and new districts were made accessible to meet the housing needs of a growing urban population. And the model for this development was Vienna, where the splendor of the imperial capital was manifested in the Ringstrasse and its grand buildings. The most renowned architects in all of Europe were brought here by the Habsburg court, among them Gottfried Semper, who had previously worked in Dresden and Zurich, and Theophil Hansen, a Dane who had fell under the influence of Classical architecture while studying and working in Athens and came to incorporate Greek and Romans elements into his work. In this period, the cities of Prague, Brno, Cracow, Lviv, Trieste, Zagreb, Bratislava and Budapest were given a “makeover” as well – and everywhere the so-called “Francis Joseph Style” became established, with its enormous administrative buildings, museums, opera houses and concert halls.
An artistic style that originated in Vienna and came to have a considerable influence on Europe and even America was Jugendstil (1890–1910). Today, the floral style of Viennese Jugendstil can still be seen on some of the residential buildings lining the city’s Naschmarkt and on the Secession building with its characteristic gold dome.
Austria has experienced a remarkable architectural awakening in the past twenty years, and visitors can experience this as well when they visit futuristic buildings such as the Kunsthaus Graz, the Lentos Museum and Ars Electronica Center in Linz, and the hypermodern government district in St. Pölten. Austria's westernmost province has become a center for innovation as well as the source of a new style of wood architecture in Vorarlberg that has spread all over Europe, one that aims for a symbiosis with the surrounding landscape, with the history of the region, and with the identity of the region’s inhabitants. After all: “People do not exist to serve architecture – architecture exists to serve people”.