When you think of buildings in Vienna, one named after the author of The Communist Manifesto probably doesn’t top your list. Yet the Karl-Marx-Hof claims as much historical significance as any city palace or museum.
- Huge public housing project completed in 1930
- Notable for its distinctive architecture
- Powerful representative of post-WWI recovery and urban renewal
- Key site in the brief Austrian “civil war” of 1934
- See also:
Icon of Urban Planning
(Famously russet and beige)
Vienna seems full of paradoxes. A city, for example, that displays its imperial heritage with pride, but where left-wing parties have dominated its politics for decades.
And this home to Baroque palaces, medieval churches, and prestigious opera houses also serves as a role model for modern public housing.
If you dropped into Vienna around 1919, you’d find a city ravaged by the demands of WWI and still finding its feet after the loss of both the war and a centuries-old political system. Many people lived in desperate poverty.
In a moment of enlightenment, the socialist authorities began a public housing programme that experts still regard as a milestone in urban planning. Up went huge buildings that offered decent living conditions for a fair rent within a self-contained complex full of communal facilities and amenities.
One such complex was the Karl-Marx-Hof. Opened in 1930, this would go on to play an important role in Vienna’s history and achieve worldwide fame.
So what makes it so iconic?
(Built with green spaces in mind)
Designed by architect Karl Ehn (1884-1959), the complex has some resemblance to a medieval fortress, particularly at its centre with the open courtyard.
Huge archways pierce a façade broken up by tower-like structures. Even the small windows on the upper level carry echoes of a castle’s arrowslits.
This was not the explicit intention of the architect. However, it seems likely that the idea of offering a representational counterpoint to the imposing facades of expensive town houses seeped into the design process.
The complex houses over 1,250 apartments, is over a kilometer long, and covers some 156,000 m² (about 22 football pitches); the trees and grass in the inner courtyards account for most of that area. Its construction used over 24 million bricks.
Even today, the Karl-Marx-Hof still counts as one of the world’s longest residential buildings. And it came in well under budget!
Role in History
(The wall inscription states it was built by the city authorities and gives the dates of construction)
According to a report of its opening in the Wiener Zeitung newspaper, the complex offered its residents:
…two central laundries, two bath houses, two Kindergartens, a dental clinic, a maternity and infant welfare service, a library, a youth centre, a post office, an outpatient clinic, a pharmacy, and 25 stores.
As such, the Karl-Marx-Hof serves as a poster child for post-WWI recovery, public housing initiatives, and urban development.
One of those two laundries now also houses a permanent exhibition on the history of socialist (“Red”) Vienna in the context of the first Austrian republic (1919 – 1934), with a focus on those public housing projects. All displays were in German when I visited in early 2024, though.
The size, design, and red colour of Karl-Marx-Hof also combined to project the new self-confidence of the working class. Unfortunately, this perception did not sit well with those on the other end of the political spectrum.
That ideological conflict reflected a wider disparity as Austria slipped into fascism from 1933. Resistance to totalitarian developments resulted in a brief and small civil war in February 1934.
During this conflict, a group of armed social democrats took refuge in the Karl-Marx-Hof, leading to three days of fierce fighting and cementing the location’s status as a symbol of (left-wing) democracy.
How to get to Karl-Marx-Hof
(The complex is also popular with photographers)
Although located in an outer district, Vienna’s public transport system gets you to the area quickly and easily.
Subway: the complex actually looks out over the Heiligenstadt railway station on the U4 subway line. Simply exit east.
Tram: the other side of the complex runs along Heiligenstädter Straße and covers four stops on the D tram line that leaves from the city centre:
- Heiligenstadt, 12.-Februar-Pl.
- Grinzinger Straße
Carry on for another two stops on the D and you find yourself at the point where the Donaukanal channel splits off from the Danube river, as you can see on the map below.
Address: Heiligenstädter Straße 82-92, 1190 Vienna