Central Europe offers a stunning panorama of architecture through the ages, the different styles often jostling each other in town squares, main streets and castle and/or cathedral areas, and seeming to compete in richness of decoration. Many of the grandest buildings were either restored or built during the nineteenth century. Richard C. Frucht explains that the "period that begins in 1815 and extends until 1890 is known as the Biedermeier period in the Habsburg monarchy and is roughly equivalent to the Victorian age in the United Kingdom. It was a time that the middle class, growing in economic power and influence, steadily augmented their role in setting cultural trends" (255). As a result, the revivals that swept across England at this time left their mark in this part of the world too.
With the Gothic Revival, however, there was a complicating factor. Frucht continues, "For the individual ethnic groups of the monarchy, including the Czechs, the period was also a continuation of national awakening" (255) — and the Gothic style was seen to have Germanic associations. For example, the completion of Cologne Cathedral, "the greatest project of the continental Gothic Revival," was carried out under the banner of "Religion, Fatherland, and Art" (Hill 199, 290). So this kind of architecture, especially for secular buildings, was generally slow to win favour. For some years, for instance, "Hungary, still smarting from its defeat at the hands of (German-speaking) Austrians in the war of independence of 1848-1849, would not tolerate public buildings in that style" (Sisa 170).
But nothing could stop the exchange and spread of ideas, and practice duly followed. The most important link between the British and European architects of this region was provided by August Reichensperger (1808-95). Reichensperger, the leading light behind the restoration of Cologne Cathedral, was influenced by Pugin, and was also a good friend of George Gilbert Scott: "His importance as the main conduit between the German and English Gothic Revivals can hardly be overrated," writes Jozsef Sisa (171). Among those working with Reichensperger on the cathedral was a younger German who started out as a stonemason, but who was to become another major figure, and a truly inspirational teacher. This was Friedrich Schmidt (1825-91), who settled in Austria. Despite an initially cold reception there, Schmidt won the commission to build the Rathaus or City Hall in Vienna (1868-83), and although this prolific architect never entirely resolved "the dilemma of the German versus the Viennese" (Sisa 175), he earned great respect in his adopted country and was created a baron by Emperor Franz Josef in 1888.
Some of Schmidt's most able pupils went on to become his disciples, and helped to disseminate the revival throughout the region. These disciples included:
The Czech Joseph Mocker (1835-1899), "who painstakingly duplicated Gothic styles in his work to complete St Vitus Cathedral in the Hrad" in Prague (Frucht 255). The cathedral dates from the eleventh century, and took centuries to build: Mocker designed the west front in 1873. In his own day, he was compared to Viollet-le-Duc in France, and must be one of the architects honoured by having their likeness carved into the façade, just below and on either side of the great rose window. Mocker also restored the Powder Tower in Prague (1875-96), demonstrating that meticulous attention to historical detail could also be "tinged with national sentiment" (Sisa 180).
The Hungarian Frigyes Schulek (1841-1919), who restored Matthias Church in the Buda part of Budapest (1874-1896), adding (for example) the eye-catching tile patterning on its roof. He also built the adjacent towers and galleries of the Fisherman's Bastion (1895-1903) as a suitable setting for the church. This made an ideal setting too for Alajos Strobl's finely worked bronze of the founder of the Hungarian state, King Stephen; it took Strobl ten years to complete, and was installed in 1906. In the galleried niches of the Bastion are some particularly handsome stone sculptures of other stalwarts from the Hungarian past.
Another Hungarian, Imré Steindl (1839-1902), who built the impressive Parliament House on the Pest side of Budapest (1885-1904).
In the end, then, despite the mid-century misgivings of the Hungarians, the wariness with which Friedrich Schmidt was first recieved in Vienna, and its inevitable national variations, the Gothic Revival became a truly pan-European movement. While Pugin and other British architects were deeply impressed by the buildings they saw on their Continental tours, architects on the Continent were equally impressed by what was happening in Britain and in the other countries around them. The language of architecture, like that of the other arts, crosses all boundaries.
Frucht, Richard C. Eastern Europe: An Introduction to the Peoples, Lands, and Culture. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Hill, Rosemary. God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008.
Sisa, Jozsef. "Neo-Gothic Architecture and Restoration of Historic Buildings in Central Europe: Friedrich Schmidt and His School." The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 61, no. 2 (June 2002): 170-187.
Last modified 10 November 2008