The Red Vienna (Rotes Wien) housing programme of the 1920s and the 1930s is still appropriate in a social, socio-political, architectural and urban-planning sense.
The Vienna of the early 20th century is often idealized: as the luxurious capital of the declining Austro-Hungarian monarchy, as a multi-cultural mixture of the central and south-eastern European nations, as the city of Jugendstil and psychoanalysis. Industrialization, although relatively late in onset, transformed the simple layout of 1840s Vienna with 440,000 inhabitants into a metropolis of 2.2 million people and a lot of social problems in only three generations. However, the city authorities ensured the technical infrastructure appropriate for this development: the transport network, sewerage system, and water and gas supply. Still, housing for the army of poor workers at that time remained in the hands of private enterprisers.
In this sense, the living conditions for the majority of inhabitants were very poor and their housing situation got worse at the end of the First World War, when immigrants and refugees came from all parts of the monarchy. In 1919, only 5% of Vienna’s apartments had running water, only 7% an electrical supply and 14% a municipal gas supply. Most flats were over-populated, poorly lit and ventilated due to the high density of mass housing construction of Vienna’s ‘Founders’ Time’ in the late 19th century. Tuberculosis raged, symptomatically called the ‘Viennese Disease’ (Wiener Krankheit). Therefore, it was no surprise that the first democratic communal elections of 1919 in the city administration granted an absolute majority to the party promising a quick improvement of this miserable situation – the Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
This party declared housing construction its immediate political task and the most important instrument of social stability. In order to permanently protect housing from speculation and private profiteering, the community had to take over the role of investor and owner, as well as management functions. At first the city administration had neither sufficient financial means nor the necessary plots to construct large community buildings. Only when the city of Vienna was separated from the state of Lower Austria in 1922, was the city as an independent unit able to create the legal and fiscal conditions for the programme of social housing construction. The funds generated by the new luxury tax, VAT and primarily the housing tax, particularly targeted at the Viennese upper classes, enabled the city authorities to purchase construction plots, two or three hectares a year, then much more, so that it was increased to 412 hectares in 1927. This is the reason the city was able to realize 5,000 housing units a year from 1923.
Before 1919, construction regulations allowed an 85% urban construction level, and the Social Democratic city administration reduced this percentage first to 60%. Also, the urban structure of the classic blocks of flats was retained, while the inner side of the block was used only to the point it still allowed natural light into each flat. Later, the level was further reduced to 24% – the example for this is the George Washington-Hof (1927–30), one of the largest housing complexes for 10,000 residents. As housing complexes became larger, the architects of Red Vienna developed a unique, internationally recognized urban form – the so-called superblock: a closed, structured border construction as a link to a greater number of classic housing blocks with large, green inner yards. The most famous representative of this housing type is the monumental, 1.2-kilometre-long Karl Marx-Hof (1926–30) in the bourgeois 19th District.
Generally speaking, the representative Viennese communal housing construction of that time was not intended only to offer the tenants a feeling of living in real workers’ palaces, there was also the intention to manifest the power of social democracy in the city. The most representative buildings of Red Vienna were built along the outer ring of the city (Margaretengürtel and Gaudenzdorfergürtel), the ensemble – as the counterpart of the urban feather in the monarchy’s cap, the inner Ring – called the Proletariat’s Ringstrasse. The development of the social democratic housing construction of the period between the wars is visible there, because almost all phases of the construction are represented on one location – the Metzleinstaler Hof (from 1919) with the façade decor from the Founders’ Time, the Reumannhof (1924–26), resembling a palace, as the first superblock, and, finally the already rational Franz-Domes-Hof (1928–30), designed by Peter Behrens.
Ideally typical for Red Vienna is the Reumannhof – a sternly symmetrical complex resembling a Baroque castle, where the 40-metre-high central body dominates the construction and was originally devised as Vienna’s first skyscraper. As with the majority of communal constructions, the elements of feudal and bourgeois urban architecture, such as arcades, bay windows merge with characteristics of the New Construction – flat roofs and glassed corner windows. All this, along with richly structured, mortared façades resulted in a unique expressionistic style. Moreover, the housing blocks and green areas were fitted with construction sculpture, free-standing figures and fountains, in order to familiarize the working class with art. Despite large formal differences, hundreds of such complexes all over the city display their common features. The reason probably lies in the fact that the city’s urban planning institution with its qualified collaborators did not just assign projects to other architects, but they participated in the planning, even did some partial designs themselves. On the other hand, many of the 200 architects of Red Vienna were students of Otto Wagener, which also contributed to a certain similarity of construction.
The formal richness of communal housing construction was also criticized, especially because until 1927 modest, small apartments of 38 to 48 m2 were built behind opulent façades. In the late 1920s the housing areas were enlarged to 40 to 57 m2, and the monumentality and pathos was significantly reduced especially in projects by architects such as Josef Frank, largely oriented to the principles of international modernism. Some dared to challenge the social democratic dogma of multi-storey housing construction to build family houses with a garden – as for example, Adolf Loos as the short-term head of the urban settlement department or the architects (31 of them) of the experimental settlement Werkbundsiedlung, created under Josef Frank from 1929 to 1932 as a programmatic model.
The high quality of that communal construction was, however, indisputable. Each apartment had an entrance hall, a toilet, water and gas supply lines (although no bathroom) and most had a balcony, a loggia or a bay window, which was a quantum leap in comparison with workers’ flats of the previous period. Common facilities in those complexes were bath houses, laundries, kindergartens and playgrounds, as well as other infrastructure – health and social services, libraries, post offices, shops and bars. The rent was also acceptable to all. The average communal flat costed only four to eight per cent of a worker’s monthly pay.
Besides the improvement in housing conditions for the masses, the social democratic reformers also considered large-scale health and education systems, as well as a social care system. The housing programme was finalized by numerous additional buildings, schools and worker’s colleges, cultural and sports buildings. There were also many indoor and outdoor swimming pools, documenting the importance of hygiene for the society of that time. The Amalienbad (1923–26) is doubtlessly an icon of bath houses in Red Vienna, with its capacity for 1,300 people also Europe’s largest indoor pool. The glass roof of the swimming hall can open in the summer, and beside the large pool, there is a sauna, bath tubs, various medical appliances and roof terraces for sunbathing.
An icon of housing construction of that time, the Karl Marx-Hof, is important both for the history of architecture and the history of that period. In the light of the ever greater political tensions between Red Vienna and the even more reactionary remainder of Austria, the complex witnessed the transformation of a luxurious palace into a defensive fortress. Its appearance provokes associations of a battle ship, the mighty towers with flag poles and large gates inspired political opponents to speak about the ‘red fortress’. The right-wing political camp believed the Karl Marx-Hof to be a constructed provocation, the massive balustrades looked like loop-holes for rifles, the balconies like defence systems, and the overhangs gun emplacements. It was all symbolic, but unfortunately a sad reality only a few years later.
During the short civil war in 1934, the leaders of the socialist Schutzbund paramilitaries took their stand in the Karl Marx-Hof, defending themselves against the Austrian Fascist paramilitary Heimwehr formations, the police and the army, when the army used artillery to shoot at the housing complex. Afterwards Austrian Fascism and National Socialism ended the short era of Red Vienna, and the city lost its numerous engaged politicians and extraordinary architects. Of 26 Austrian architects building the model Werkbundsiedlung in the 23rd District, among them architects such as Josef Frank, Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, Clemens Holzmeister, Ernst A. Plischke, Oswald Haerdtl, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Oskar Strnad, half opposed the Nazi terror by emigrating or suicide. Others continued their careers in the Austrian Fascist state and the Third Reich to the new republic – for example, Karl Ehn, the architect of the Karl Marx-Hof.
After the Second World War Vienna was again in the firm grip of social democracy. Communal housing construction was continued until the 1990s, so the city today has 220,000 communal apartments and is the largest building and flat owner in the world. However, the quality has never been anything like at the time of Red Vienna. ‘In the 20s and 30s they built flats for the new man – the self-confident, healthy worker who wanted education,’ says 87-year-old architect Harry Glück, author of numerous social housing buildings criticizing the change of political goals. ‘Today, apartments are constructed for the worker-consumer, who visits the shopping mall by car on weekends, or spends time in his weekend house in the country.’