Tuesday, 1 September 2009

What to see: The Parliament Building, Vienna

It was in 1857 that Emperor Franz Joseph I decided that Vienna’s so-called Glacis would be the home of new monumental buildings for parliament, university and city hall. The plan was that there would be separate buildings for the House of Deputies and the House of Lords, which at the time made up the Council of the Realm, but in the end the Danish-born architect Theophilius Hansen (1813-1891, later ennobled as Baron Theophil von Hansen) won the commission with a plan for a building incorporating both chambers in one building, which was more to the frugal Emperor’s taste.
Work began in 1874 and the building was completed in 1883. Unusually for such a late date the Austrian Parliament is in Greek neoclassical style. Hansen had spent a long time in Athens, where he and his brother, Christian Hansen, were responsible for several important buildings after the independence of Greece. The neoclassical style was often chosen for 19th century parliaments because of democracy’s Greek “roots”, but this style was quite outdated in the second half of the 19th century – when Theophil von Hansen in 1884 was asked to design a new palace in Copenhagen after the second Christiansborg had burnt down, his plans for a grand neoclassical structure were immediately put away. The grandiose, unfashionable parliament building in Vienna could perhaps be read as a metaphor of the once so great Austro-Hungarian Empire’s beginning decline.
Hansen viewed the building as a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, which meant that he was himself in charge of all decoration, furniture and fittings. He also planned the huge statue of Pallas Athene in front of the main entrance (first and second photos), but it was only executed by the sculptor Carl Kundmann eleven years after Hansen’s death. Above the entrance’s columned portico is a tympanum with a relief showing Emperor Franz Joseph granting his subjects the right to participate in the legislative process.
A rear view of a model of the building (photo 4) shows how the grand Columned Hall is placed in the middle of the building. The idea was that the members of House of Deputies and the House of Lords could meet in this hall, but in reality this rarely happened – for the simple reason that the members of the two chambers did not really want to meet. Hansen’s idea that the Emperor would perform the State Opening of Parliament by reading a Speech from the Throne in this hall also fell to the ground because Franz Joseph I declared that he “had not been educated for a constitutional monarchy” and therefore could not be expected to feel any enthusiasm for it.
The semi-circular room to the right on the model is the former House of Lords, a room which is now used by the 192 members of the National Council, the elected representatives of the Austrian people (fifth picture). The hall was hit by two bombs during WWII and rebuilt in 1956 by architects Max Fellerer and Eugen Wörle, making it one of the ugliest parliamentary chambers in Europe.
Across the corridor is the rather small room which was originally an anteroom for the House of Lords, but is now used by the Federal Council (sixth photo), which is made up of representatives of the nine provincial assemblies and has certain delaying powers over legislation.
The large chamber seen to the left on the model and in the seventh and eighth photo was formerly used by the House of Deputies and retains Hansen’s original décor. It is now used for the quite rare joint sessions of the two chambers, which are then called the Federal Assembly, and for ceremonial events such as the inauguration of a new president – were the President to be impeached, the trial would also take place in this hall.
Towards the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the current plenary hall was a rather noisy place. The imperial Austrian Parliament had 516 members speaking a total of eleven languages with no translations provided, German being the official language supposed to be used. While one MP spoke, for as long as he pleased, the other MPs would slam the drawers of their desks, shout, heckle him, sing, throw inkwells and play the musical instruments they had brought along. Today Austria is governed in a more polite way.

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