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Building the Habsburg City

Under the Austro-Hungarians Bosnia had its own postage stamps

"In the twenty-one years of Kállay's rule," writes Donia, "the Sarajevo cityscape was reshaped to correspond to his ideals." Indeed the short period of Habsburg rule in Sarajevo was to change it in ways, which endure to this day.

By 1900 an east-west axis was defined by two new secular administrative buildings at either end of the city: the Regional Government Building in the west, and the Sarajevo City Hall in the east… The newly configured Sarajevo embodied Kállay's belief that enlightened secular administration mandated that all confessional communities be treated equally. In fostering the growth of clusters of religious and educational structures, Kállay hoped to bolster the prestige of the authorities from all religious communities and enhance their influence to oppose the rise of secular Croat and Serb nationalism.

The principal inspiration for Sarajevo's physical transformation was Vienna's Ringstrasse, the vast undertaking that replaced medieval walled fortifications with dozens of monumental structures built from 1859 to 1900. Sarajevo, crowded into an east-west valley, had few medieval fortifications in 1878 and therefore could never be encircled by a Ringstrasse, but Vienna's trends were copied in Sarajevo on a more modest scale in hundreds of buildings erected during imperial rule.


The single most important architect in Habsburg Sarajevo was Josip Vancaš (1859-1932). He designed, among other buildings, the city's Catholic cathedral and the Regional Government Building, the headquarters of the Austro-Hungarian administration, which is now the Presidency and which was positioned to be as far as possible from the old Ottoman government buildings. It also incorporated features, "from the Italian renaissance, known for its secular values and urban political centers..."

Location, mass and architecture combined in the Regional Government Building to proclaim the importance of new authorities, who were eager to replicate European models and distance themselves from the Ottoman past.


However the renaissance and the Ringstrasse were not the only sources of inspiration for the men who were designing the new buildings of Sarajevo. Many "incorporated decorative motifs that are often called pseudo-Moorish but might be better classified as neo-Oriental, a variant of romantic historicism deriving its inspiration from Islamic architectural motifs rather than European historical eras."

Neo-Orientalism won favour with Kállay and his subordinates, who believed it fostered a sense of local identity by evoking the elusive, exotic spirit of the Muslim population. Sarajevo's most distinctive neo-Orientalist monument, the Vijećnica (City Hall) [now the war-gutted city library] was designed by another Viennese architect, Karl Wittek, under close supervision of officials acting on Kállay's directives. Located on the north bank of the Miljacka River near the first Islamic religious structures built in the fifteenth century, the Vijećnica is a marvel of both design and engineering. Stained glass windows, a large dome admitting generous exterior light, and a stately six-sided central interior vestibule combine to recall the Alhambra built by the Moorish rulers of Granada in the fifteenth century.


Sarajevo: A Biography. 2005. Robert Donia [C. Hurst & Co]

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