One of the lasting legacies of history in Vienna comes, unexpectedly, from a programme of social housing construction in the 1920s and early 1930s. Far ahead of their time (even today), the various complexes remain a key part of the urban landscape and the city’s post-imperial soul.
- Remarkable projects that brought high-quality affordable accommodation to the masses
- Distinctive architecture: the most famous example is the Karl-Marx-Hof
- Social housing still dominates the rental market today
- See also: What is Austria?
The rise of red Vienna
(Entrance to the Reumannhof housing complex)
You might describe the situation in Vienna immediately after World War I as grim (to say the least).
This huge city, built up over centuries as the administrative centre of a superpower ruled by a monarch, found itself the bloated capital of a relatively small and extremely fragile democracy. The old guard had been swept away almost overnight as Austria-Hungary disintegrated.
That in itself would have proved a significant challenge, but Vienna faced more problems than mere adjustment to a new political era.
The ravages of war had devastated the local economy. The population faced food shortages, widespread poverty, rampant inflation, and high unemployment. The social order was in chaos and revolution a real threat. Oh, and let’s not forget Spanish ‘flu.
Such conditions seem hard to imagine when you consider today’s city, which typically sits at the top of global liveability rankings. Many factors played a role in that long-term recovery, but one is the social housing programme of the 1920s.
(The Julius-Ofner-Hof social housing)
The goal was to improve living conditions for the poor.
So the new left-wing city government set about building state-owned housing on a grand scale using a forward-thinking approach that remains a role model for today’s urban planners.
A typical municipal housing complex (German: Gemeindebau) contained all a tenant might need, almost like a city within a city: improved accommodation, decent sanitation, access to the open air (through a balcony) and green space (through a central courtyard), as well as communal amenities like a laundry room, nursery, medical facilities, library, and a grocery store.
Each Gemeindebau had its own aesthetic with some of the leading architects of the time involved in the design.
Tenants got all this for an affordable rent with a landlord (the city) whose priorities did not include making a profit.
The programme came to a stop with the rise of the fascist Austrian state in the early 1930s and, therefore, the end of the interwar period known as Red Vienna.
Why is it important?
(A newer Gemeindebau)
The social housing programme remains relevant today for three reasons.
First, it left parts of Vienna with a unique architectural legacy: monumental housing complexes of distinctive character.
While some of the buildings might not seem particularly aesthetically pleasing, many are now protected buildings that add to the tapestry of the city landscape.
Second, the increased availability of affordable housing helped avoid a rise in privately-owned exploitative poor-quality housing for rent. By locating the municipal housing complexes throughout the city, the authorities also helped ensure a higher degree of social parity across different districts.
Third, the social housing concept continues today.
Many of the buildings constructed in the 1920s and early 1930s retain their original purpose and the city still constructs state-owned housing using similar principles to that early socialist government. They also subsidise other communal housing initiatives.
As a result, the majority of people in Vienna live in social or subsidised housing, which carries little to no stigma. (I live in a house built by a cooperative housing association).
As the city department responsible for municipal housing notes on their website:
…housing is viewed as a public task and part of the services of general interest … the high share of subsidized dwellings exerts a price-dampening effect on the private housing market and safeguards a good social mix throughout the city.
Where to see examples
The city owns some 1800 housing complexes, so you’re likely to spot one or two wherever you may find yourself in Vienna.
The official city hiking trail (Wanderweg) number 11 is the urban Gemeindebau trail. This takes you past several important social housing complexes, including the very first one to be built in the post-WWI era: the Metzleinstalerhof.
The most famous Gemeindebau is undoubtedly Karl-Marx-Hof with its 1250+ apartments. Built between 1927 and 1930, this still ranks as one of the largest residential constructions in the world.
The complex has an almost fortress-like feel to its façade and might be considered the most iconic example of all that Red Vienna represented (and represents).
Find it at Heiligenstädter Strasse 82-92 in Vienna’s 19th district, right next to Heiligenstadt station (on the U4 subway line). An on-site exhibition (Red Vienna) even includes a review of the history of social housing in Vienna during that period.
And, yes, the project is named after the Karl Marx. Indeed, most municipal housing carries the name of some political or historical personality. We have a Gemeindebau named Haydnhof, for example, after the composer.