Building European Citizenship through Architecture: The Case of the “Hellenische Renaissance” in Theophil Hansen

  • Abstract:

    In 2013, Athens and Vienna celebrated the 200th birthday of the renowned Danish architect Theophil (von) Hansen. Hansen is best known for having transformed both cities into modern European metropolises with a distinct cosmopolitan appeal in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, each of the two honored him for different reasons. First, Vienna saw in him the creator of a splendid array of neo-Renaissance edifices, which served its ascending bourgeoisie, i.e., the very “steam-engine” of its economy. Second, Athens embraced him as her own “Man” who, after having studied the Greek antiquities in situ, managed to create a brand of (neo)classicism so perceived as authentically ‘Greek’. Hansen himself affirmed: “Given the present state of European educational formation, i.e., the common base of all nations…the creation of a national style is rather impossible”. Characteristically, he is thought to have coined the term “Hellenische Renaissance” to his architecture in order to denote a style which, having originated from his most familiar Greek example, was neither nation nor class specific, but rather universal. Ironically, on occasion it was mistaken as either one or the other, and therefore, was soon denigrated. This paper probes this phenomenon of contradictory receptions of Hansen’s work and relates the respective causes of it to its arresting representational aspect as opposed to its deeper philosophical ties to the multivalent concept of hellenism. Having been himself naturalized in neither of the two countries – i.e., Greece or Austria – Hansen granted through his architecture a sense of belonging to citizens of both. This was owing to the particular resilience of Hellenic architecture of adapting itself to diverse contexts and still remaining astonishingly new; also to its cosmopolitan basis in the multicultural hellenistic world of the Mediterranean (“the eternally true classicism”) which Hansen adapted to the given nineteenth-century context both in Athens and Vienna.