The first world war only intensified housing problems in Vienna, a city that had been impoverished since the turn of the century – when it was normal that “six to eight persons lived in one room and a kitchen”, according to historian Renate Banik-Schweitzer. “Children had no bed of their own, but had to share one with their brothers or sisters.”
While the city’s population fell from 2.1 million to around 1.8m by the end of the war, horrendous inflation made new construction impossible, leading to extreme overpopulation of existing dwellings. In 1919, the cost of living almost tripled in two months. Legal measures that froze rents to try to temper the housing market only made the situation worse.
Vienna’s many Bettgeher (“bed lodgers”) who, unable to afford a flat for themselves, had been sub-renting a sleeping berth for some hours a day, now became homeless. By 1919 the housing shortage was no longer measured in terms of vacancies, but by the number of homeless.
The people moved to the outskirts of the city in their thousands – into the woods, to occupy and cultivate land and to build makeshift shelters. What had begun as subsistence gardening during the war, to ensure basic food supply for families, turned into colonies of urban settlers squatting public land by adapting allotment-sheds into living space.
By 1921, more than 30,000 families lived in these partly illegal “wild settlements” on the edge of Vienna. National Geographic described them as “curious little patches of gardens, each with a makeshift fence and a wooden building that looks like a child’s playhouse”.
This spontaneous self-help effort – which urban planning expert Peter Marcusecalls “the most widespread example of physical self-help in housing during the 20th century” – initiated what today is known as Red Vienna’s grand housing scheme. It was “a radical program of municipal reforms designed to reshape the social and economic infrastructures of the Austrian capital along socialist lines”, writes Eve Blau in The Architecture of Red Vienna.
While many European cities were engaged in public housing programmes at that time, no other municipality implemented such a vast and ambitious scheme – distributed across the whole of Vienna, creating a continuous network of new housing paired with community facilities that still populate the city today.
Around 190 architects were involved in designing the new settlements, in-fill sites, small courtyard housing and – most famously – the city’s pioneering “superblocks”. By the end of Red Vienna’s housing programme in 1934, more than 400 housing projects had been built, rehousing about a tenth of the city’s population.
“It must be stressed that there was no real masterplan for Red Vienna’s building programme, beyond the decision to produce housing on a large scale,” says housing expert Michael Klein from the Vienna University of Technology. “The built structure was actually the random result of pragmatic politics, guided by the question of where the municipality was able to acquire building lots.”
‘Learn to live’
After 1919, the settlements gradually evolved into more permanent communities. The majority of the settlers, most of them skilled workers, would engage in the labour movement, the Social Democratic party, and in the trade unions. Individualism yielded to collective methods of labour organisation, creating communities of cooperative self-government whose aim went beyond the mere production and management of dwellings. Their motto: “To work for the settlement is to work for Socialism.”
Construction became a collective endeavour leading to innovative and highly cost-efficient design solutions involving mechanisation of the building process, pre-fabrication, and substitution of traditional building materials. In the process, they created a housing economy that was partly decoupled from the free market.
Yet at first, the Social Democratic party had an ambivalent relationship with these settlers, conceiving their initiative of subsistence gardening to be bourgeois-conservative and not fitting into the grand picture of a socialist state. But the party’s attitude changed in part thanks to Otto Neurath, political economist and educator, who in 1921 founded the settler’s cooperative umbrella organisation, the Austrian Association for Settlements and Small Gardens.
Neurath’s idea was to eliminate the separation of production, administration and consumption and create an economic way of life orientated towards collective happiness. It became the ideological foundation of the settler movement’s organisation. “It is not the individual house that is the object of design; the individual house is a brick in a building,” Neurath wrote.
From then on, the former “wild” settlers’ movement was conceived as a cooperative social-democratic project. It was backed by Vienna’s mayor and a number of Social Democrat politicians, as well as by journalists, intellectuals and architects.
The influential architect Adolf Loos had been attracted by the settlement movement early on, and worked as an unsalaried advisor from 1920 onwards. A year later, he became chief architect of the municipal settlement office, and began drawing up an Allotment Garden and Settlement Zoning Plan as well as developing design and construction guidelines for the settlement housing. “To become settlers, we have to learn to live,” he wrote in 1921, putting the emphasis on the rational design of the allotment garden.
Loos’s concept for the House with One Wall is perhaps the most symbolic architectural application of this time. During the design process for theHeubergsiedlung, he developed a construction system that reduced the load-bearing walls to those dividing one house from its neighbour, to cut building costs and labour while still allowing for a “do-it-yourself” construction.
The design perfectly mirrors the idea of the settler to be at once a resident, a producer and a consumer – as well as a member of the cooperative and an administrator. It is not the house that is important in Loos’s concept, but the garden as the foundation for self-sufficiency.
Cities within the city
The Vienna settlers’ movement had demonstrated the potential for an unprecedented self-organisation of urban society. Yet in themselves, these new settlements on the city’s outskirts had little effect on the terrible scarcity of housing. It was only in 1922, when Vienna became fiscally independent after a rigorous tax reform was implemented (introducing luxury and real-estate taxes), that the financial foundation was created for the massive housing programme orchestrated by the Social Democrats.
The 60,000 housing units built over the following dozen years – Red Vienna’sGemeindebau (“municipality building”) – showed a pragmatic approach to housing provision. Inner-city lots had the advantage over the periphery of being developed amid the city’s existing infrastructure; the high-line and underground transport network, and the sewage and water systems. This was the argument behind the Social Democrats’ preference for urban, multi-storey developments over settlements. (Such projects were also more in line with a social-democratic idea of how the labour class should live and become “orderly worker families”.)
Most prominent are the superblock projects such as Rabenhof, Sandleitenhof andKarl-Marx Hof. With each boasting more than 1,000 housing units, these vast structures introduced a certain kind of luxury into the city. The superblocks were much less dense than the existing urban fabric; each of the buildings was organised around green, spacious courtyards and community facilities such as theatres, cinemas, libraries, kindergarten, schools, bathing and laundry facilities.
The concept was a huge shift from the representative street façades that had been so important to the imperial city. The superblocks as “cities within the city” were oriented to both sides of the building – the street and the courtyard – while still referring to Vienna’s grand past through their vast scale.
They acted as symbols of the new era of socialist workers in Vienna – but not exactly as the emancipatory thinkers and architects had hoped. The architect Josef Frank would ironically speak of the tenement block Volkswohnpalast as a residential palace for the common people, that only appropriated bourgeois forms of living and representation.
Far from being an avant-garde project, and far from the settlement movement and its self-organisation, Vienna’s housing programme served to educate the city’s workers to become orderly. Karl-Marx Hof – built at the edge of one of Vienna’s wealthiest bourgeois neighbourhoods – marked the weekly procession of (proletarian) soccer fans passing through it, like a gateway, on their way to what was then Europe’s biggest football stadium.
Restructuring the building blocks
Austria’s civil war of 1933/34, and the subsequent authoritarian Austrofascistic regime, brought Red Vienna’s housing program to a sudden halt. Only after the second world war was the Gemeindebau taken up again, becoming an important instrument for the welfare state.
In the 1990s, while other European cities were selling most of their public housing stock, Vienna re-organised its programme, introducing theBauträgerwettbewerb (“developer competition”), a limited competition for each new project which kept quality standards high.
“This produced a dynamic momentum in the city, resulting in highly ambitious and architecturally outstanding housing projects,” says Lina Streeruwitz, architect and partner at Studio Vlay, which is currently engaged in planning one of the biggest inner-city urban developments at Nordbahnhof.
Today the municipality still owns around 22% of Vienna’s entire housing stock, while a further quarter of its stock is publicly funded and owned by non-profit cooperatives that let the flats on a fair basis. Sixty percent of the city’s population either lives in Gemeindebau or publicly funded housing projects.
But how the city copes with a predicted population growth of 20% by 2030, not counting the arrival of refugees, remains to be seen. The City’s planning director Thomas Madreiter is aware of this: “We have to tackle the challenges for social housing with a bundle of measurements – building more densely yet providing sufficient green space; implementing new tools for an active land policy.”
“Today, Europe’s municipalities at large need a joint effort to overcome the tight fiscal policy and austerity measures in order to succeed in a sustainable local policy,” argues the Viennese urbanist and critic, Reinhard Seiss.
“There has to be a self-confident political strategy of redistributing common wealth – including the wealth of space and city-access – to all of society, not in a paternalistic way,” says Gabu Heindl, architect and chairwoman of the Austrian Society of Architecture.
Almost a century on, a realisation of the settlers’ movement – with its cooperative structure, but on a grander scale – could offer the chance to establish a future model of housing provision for everybody. And not only in Vienna, its pioneer between the wars.
Andreas Rumpfhuber is the co-editor of Modelling Vienna – Real Fictions in Social Housing (Turia Kant). Does your city have a little-known story that made a major impact on its development? Please share it in the comments below or on Twitter using #storyofcities