On May 1, 150 years ago, the Vienna World's Fair opened. It was the driving force behind Vienna’s evolution into a truly global capital. And the city continues to benefit from the achievements of that time. A journey into Vienna’s past and its future.
The grand opening of the Vienna World’s Fair on 1 May 1873 got off to a bit of a bumpy start: heavy rain flooded the exhibition grounds at Vienna’s Prater park. The influx of visitors on the opening day brought traffic to a standstill. If that wasn’t enough, the landmark Rotunda building, then the widest domed structure in the world at 108 meters across, and lots of the pavilions were not quite finished in time.
But that did not stop Emperor Franz Joseph from opening the World's Fair with the words "It is with lively satisfaction that I see the completion of an enterprise whose import and significance I fully appreciate". But “worse” was to come: rather than the 20 million expected, just 7.3 million visitors had passed the turnstiles by the time the exposition drew to a close on November 2, 1873. A cholera epidemic and a stock market crash shortly after the opening day kept many people from traveling to Vienna. The World's Fair tore a gigantic hole in the state's finances.
But in spite of its financial downsides, the World's Fair still paid off. For Vienna. The World's Fair (the first was held in London in 1851) was designed to be a showcase of technology and arts and crafts. Exhibitors from all over the world unveiled their latest achievements. People were looking at the world with fresh eyes. And for Vienna, the second half of the 19th century was already time of visionary thinking and new beginnings.
Back then, foundations were laid that are still proving decisive for the high quality of life the city offers to this day: the inauguration of the First Vienna Mountain Spring Pipeline that brought crystal-clear spring water to the capital being just one of many examples. This technical masterpiece supplied Vienna with fresh drinking water from the mountains of Lower Austria and Styria over 95 kilometers away.
The construction of no fewer than six new stations and railway lines suddenly made Vienna a Central European railroad hub. Public transportation and city tourism took off, while new hotels such as the Imperial and the Hansen Kempinski as well as restaurants and cafés such as Landtmann went up on the Ringstrasse boulevard. The first international trade and public congresses were held in Vienna. This Gründerzeit (literally “founders’ era”) period also saw the emergence of many museums and collections, which continue to be the envy of the world to this day.
Traditional handcraftsmanship was a huge hit at the World’s Fair: specialist manufacturers such as J. & L. Lobmeyr (crystal) and Jarosinski & Vaugoin won highly coveted medals for their work. And the famous Strauss dynasty brought classical music to the masses.
In short, Vienna transformed itself from the ground up. And, thanks to the World's Fair, it became a cosmopolitan city with a new identity and spirit driven by urban planning, as well as a burgeoning center of economic, cultural, political, social and technical modernism. In an interview with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit in July 2022 (issue 27/2022) Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said:
"Vienna found its form – now I'm tempted to say: since the fin de siècle around 1900 or, more precisely, since the World's Fair in 1873 in the Prater."
Hollein is right. Even now, 150 years down the line, the Austrian capital is still reaping the rewards of the profound changes initiated back then. Crisp, fresh spring water still flows into the city via the same Mountain Spring Pipeline – something which will be celebrated in 2023. The urban planning of the time continues to facilitate city development zones to this day. Technology, progress and research are booming. The original railroad network laid out back then is still expanding. Today, the city is the most important overnight train hub in the European Union – and the perfect starting point and destination for sustainable rail travel. Vienna is still one of the most successful congress cities in the world.
Despite the pandemic, the capital has managed to retain its leading role as a congress and meeting destination: the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranked Vienna first in its 2021 ICCA Ranking - Destination Performance Index (DPI) report, while the Union of International Associations (UIA) awarded the city fourth place in its 2021 congress ranking which came out in the summer of 2022. And the works of art created in the capital at the turn of the century are among the most valuable of all time (think Gustav Klimt).
But will what is being created in Vienna today still be around in 150 years? – Absolutely! Because Vienna is currently going through another phase of fundamental change and a new “founders’ era”. The city has been booming since the 2000s. It is growing all the time and the population is set to hit two million by 2028. New urban development zones such as Seestadt Aspern and Viertel Zwei, where up to 40,000 people will eventually live and work, are taking shape. In these new neighborhoods, the focus is on features such as decarbonization, sustainability, green spaces, jobs, culture, leisure and, naturally enough, contemporary living spaces. More than simply residential and working spaces, Vienna’s new urban districts are places that put living first.
To achieve this, all of these new areas have to be integrated into the public transportation network: with this in mind, an entire new subway line is currently being built in Vienna to provide sustainable and carbon-neutral transportation throughout the city all the way to the outskirts. Numerous new, modern hotels are also taking shape in the capital, ready to claim their rightful place alongside their counterparts from the era of the World's Fair, such as the Hotel Imperial or the Hansen Kempinski.