Marina Prokopovych on The Habsburgs, Architecture and Social Reform

How can imperial patronage influence architectural development and social change more generally? The history of the Habsburgs’ involvement in architecture and urban planning across the vast regions of the empire provides an interesting illustration. One of the aspects of my work on the history of Lemberg (also known as Lwow, Lvov and Lviv due to its multinational composition), an important provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire is the revision of the Habsburg role in the modernisation of the region.

Panorama of Lemberg by Lestat (Jan Mehlich) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of the long nineteenth century, Lemberg changed from a decaying Baroque town to a booming modern metropolis. Imperial control, funding and patronage played an important role in this transformation. The first decades after the annexation of Lemberg in the First Partition of Poland in 1772 in particular coincided with Neo-Absolutist reforms that had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of government, society and everyday life. Emperor Joseph II’s keen interest in the new province and its capital city provided for the economic and urban development that would outlive the years of reaction following his death in 1790. All public construction in the first half of the nineteenth century was not only pending upon the approval from the Royal Chancellery in Vienna, but also contingent on central funding and personal resources. Due to the circulation of cadre involved in construction across the empire, architectural designs and constructed buildings became much more alike. As Lemberg’s historic centre became surrounded by broad boulevards that had replaced the derelict city walls, here, too, the new Town Hall, the Governor’s Palace, the theatre and the Polish Library displayed that distinctive touch of austere Viennese Neoclassicism.

Through such reforms, the functionaries of the new imperial state aimed, as they put it, at turning local ‘Sarmatian beasts into men’. Irrespective of the arrogance that such attitudes entailed, the transformation of Lemberg’s public spaces in just over a few decades had indeed been spectacular. It is reported in government correspondence, memoirs and other personal accounts of administrative functionaries, theatre directors and travellers and is also apparent in visual material such as the paintings of city views that became particularly popular in the mid-nineteenth century. There is all evidence to suggest that both the newcomers and the locals had learned the new ways of living their city. This, however, did not mean they all necessarily accepted the aesthetic system of coordinates of an average imperial clerk or building engineer. Polish city guides that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century would be merciless about the dull, ‘barrack-like’ architecture that Vienna brought to Lemberg. However, as they walked the new streets lined with simple Neoclassical facades that replaced the former palaces of Renaissance and Baroque glory, some denizens of the city probably also wondered about the efficiency of other imperial reforms.

Of course, the way the empire shaped urban spaces and their use through architectural innovation did not stop in the middle of the nineteenth century but continued until the collapse of the empire in 1918, and in many respects even beyond that date. Some of the changes that Vienna initiated in Lemberg and other provincial capitals at the turn of the nineteenth century foreshadowed those implemented later in the imperial capital. Looking at how architecture was regulated and used in those cities can tell us not only how their users felt about it but what they and others thought about the imperial state.

Dr Markian Prokopovych is a Leverhulme Research Fellow in the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham working on Central and Eastern European cultural history in the long nineteenth century. His book Habsburg Lemberg: Architecture, Public Space and Politics in the Galician Capital, 1772-1914 (Purdue University Press, 2009) deals with several issues pertient to our project’s agenda, such as user experience (through research on diaries, letter correspondence, travelbooks and memoirs), government and private funding and patronage, and the political uses of style (especially Neoclassicism) in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Habsburg Empire.

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