The Volkgarten and the Hapsburgs

No one doubts that architecture plays its imperial role: here the great power resides; here the emperor hunts; here the empress meets supplicants; here the imperial double eagle is emblazoned in the very tile of the cathedral’s roof, here the empire displays the art it has collected over the centuries.

Inner Court at the Spanish Riding School

But when the empire of 650 years collapses, and decades pass before the new republic toddles out in those immense imperial shoes, the remains of power, still present, are all the more gaudy because they are so clearly out of place. All those striding marble horses along the eaves, the golden spears, the names carved in Latin of Emperors I, II, and III, the world of celebrating cherubs, nymphs, and putti. It’s all ridiculous in a republican world of brokered elections, news cycles, and campaign slogans.

What can be done with an imperial past? It’s like being the talented son of a genius father. No matter what you accomplish, his monuments loom over you. Your ambition, however monstrous, is never the one that lasts a thousand years. Once upon a time, when the imperial-minded Napoleon conquered Austria, he made camp at Schonbrunn Palace. He understood royalty and the power allegorized by royal architecture. He was the genius father. When Hitler occupied Vienna, he established headquarters in the Hotel Imperial. Did anyone notice that his fantasies of empire were already doomed, that he was ordering room service while Napoleon feasted, that his fearsome destruction was the frantic reaction to a failure of imagination?

Never mind: this is an essay on the People and the Empire. The Hofburg district in central Vienna is the architectural center of the empire. Palace after palace lines the broad ring road. These are the buildings now given over to the Sissi Museum, the Ephesus Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of Ancient Instruments, the Treasury, the Spanish Riding School, the Albertina, and on and on into the deep night of history. In the midst of all these immense buildings lies the Volkgarten, the People’s Garden, the retreat where folk can

stroll, air their babies, walk their dogs (muzzles and leashes required), sit on the supplied benches while their aged employers sit silently by in their wheelchairs. There are two outdoor cafes and, for who knows what reason, a facsimile of a Greek temple. The roses are handsome; the fountains shower and delight the children.

Standing in the Volkgarten, however, late last night left me unsettled and unsure of the relationship of the Volk and the powers that are no longer powerful. In the gathering dusk, the garden shed its details. The surrounding fence lost its individual spear-tips, the variegated roses assumed one color, the pathways melted into the grass on either side. But there, just above the tree line at every compass point, the empire’s buildings hovered, their pediments and eaves and steeples bathed in the dramatic spotlights that announced, “Here is where power sat.”

I thought it only a trick of the light, but I returned this morning. The pathways and rose colors had returned, and the trees were once again green. The spotlights were gone and the empire had nothing but the sun for illumination. It was enough. Power surrounded the people’s garden, loomed above it day and night, permitted the garden and its sense of sanctuary knowing it still had the strength to take it away.

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Have a look at the gallery of photographs of the Volkgarten and the surrounding imperial buildings. Do I argue too far? Miss the point? What do you see?

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