Central Europe has been shaped by a long history of competing and contradictory aspirations of a centralized political system versus regional administration. At the turn of the last century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs, included not only the capitals of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, but also relatively isolated cities such as Cracow, Lviv, Zagreb, and Ljubljana. Until the empire disintegrated at the end of World War I, imperial uniformity and regional diversity were often in conflict with each other, in part because of the many ethnic groups within its borders: Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Italians. After 1918, each of these groups either became its own country or joined another country to which it was related.
SHAPING THE GREAT CITY examines the new architectural ideas that emerged during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first adventurous years of the new republics of Central Europe after World War I. The exhibition focuses on the cities of this region where tensions between imperial and local identity, or cosmopolitanism and nationality, were played out.
Central European cities grew rapidly from 1890 to World War II due to industrialization and the simultaneous influx of workers. The changing urban infrastructures required adjustment and demanded new types of buildings, including train stations, metropolitan railways, bridges, and waterworks. The cities, however, were filled with history, accumulated knowledge, memory, and traditions of multinational societies. To design and build in this context was to engage in debate with the cultural and political forces that had fashioned the cities. The role of modern architecture was, therefore, not only to shape the spaces of the emerging modern city, but also to construct meaning in relation to diverse cultural traditions and conflicting identities.