Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Red Vienna

Poster for the exhibition Red Vienna (Museum Postsparkasse Vienna), 2010

Between 1923 and 1934, Vienna's socialist administration launched an extraordinary campaign to provide housing for working-class residents. The government constructed 400 apartment complexes - 64.000 new apartments in all - that together housed one-tenth of the city's population. The pride of this gigantic program was the majestic Karl-Marx-Hof, designed by Karl Ehn. Stretching almost a mile along a major railway line, the Karl-Marx-Hof featured five monumental archways, a striking red and yellow stucco facade, and lush interior courtyards as well as state-of-the-art kindergartens, playgrounds, maternity clinics, health-care offices, lending libraries, and laundries.

Karl Ehn, Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna (1927–1930)

As their heroic scale suggests, the Wiener Gemeindebauten (Vienna Communal Houses, as all of the new socialist apartments were called) amounted to far more than mere residential housing. They embodied  a political idea. As Eve Blau points out in her excellent study, The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919-1934, the communal houses were an expression of the working class's ascent to power. The Viennese workers' houses were islands of socialist power in a bourgeois city. With their monumental facades and their entrances accessible only from interior courtyards, they resembled citadels.

Hubert Gessner, Karl Seitz-Hof in Vienna (1926-31)

Red Vienna had its beginnings immediately after World War I, when the Austrian Social Democrats, whose leaders included such remarkable Austro-Marxists as Otto Bauer, Karl Renner, and Max Adler, inherited power and established a new republic. Against the backdrop of severe food and housing shortages produced by both the military defeat and the collapse of the monarchy, the Social Democrats won a significant electoral victory in the municipal elections of May 1919, making Vienna the first major European capital to be governed by an absolute majority of socialists. (One of my favourite writers, Joseph Roth, in his The Emperor's Tomb portrayed the decaying Vienna society in the aftermath of Wold War I).

 Plate at Karl-Marx-Hof remembering 29 tenants who fell victim to the Holocaust

There also was a sizable and radical squatters' movement, and settlements were springing up on unoccupied land at the outer edges of the city. The city enlisted several students of Vienna's most prominent prewar architect, Otto Wagner, who is now best known for his Postsparkasse (Postal Savings Bank), to design large-scale public housing. The city building agency favored a "neovernacular architecture", and Wagner's students, notably Josef Hoffmann, Hubert Gessner, and Karl Ehn, seemed best qualified to create it.

Hubert Gessner, Karl Seitz-Hof in Vienna (1926-31), Detail

The Wagner school's predilection for courtyards and monumental facades highlights not only their belief in the social function of architecture but also a certain sensitivity to the cultural memory of Habsburg architecture in the Baroque era. An especially striking example is the Reumannhof. With its large central court flanked by smaller side courts in the Baroque manner, the building alluded to Schönbrunn, the nearby imperial summer palace. 

Hubert Gessner, Josef Bittner - Jakob Reumann-Hof in Vienna (1924–1926)

A number of Vienna's most innovative architects, including the eminent Adolf Loos, who worked for the city administration, criticized the Vienna building agency for failing to produce a unified aesthetic vision. In his view, Vienna suffered by comparison with the sleek, modern satellite towns built in Berlin (today a World Heritage), and in Frankfurt by Ernst May. The Winarskyhof, jointly built by Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Frank, and Margarete Lihotzky, diverged from both Wagner School monumentality and German functionalism, achieving a more complex balance of tradition and modernity, and a greater diversity of color and detail.

Inauguration of the Ferdinand Lasalle monument in front of the Winarskyhof in Vienna (1928). The monument was destroyed in 1936 by the rightwing Schuschnigg government.

In the words of Otto Bauer, the party's leader and most important theorist, Red Vienna fused "sober realpolitik and revolutionary enthusiasm." On the other hand, in his 1980 study Vienna Rossa, the influential Italian architecture critic Manfredo Tafuri, a Marxist, described Red Vienna as a "declaration of war without any hope of victory," condemned to failure by the contradiction between the Social Democrats' radical rhetoric and their reformist strategies. The communal houses, he argued, were, like Red Vienna's socialist administration, "petit bourgeois" and structurally incoherent. 

Erika Giovanna Klien, Revolution in Vienna, 1930

The symbolism of the houses did not go unnoticed by the socialist's fascist opponents. Socialist housing went up in the midst of highly charged, and often violent, political conflict. During the civil war of February 1934, Red Vienna came to a tragic end, as the austro-fascist chancellor Dollfuß ordered Karl-Marx-Hof shelled with artillery, forcing the socialist fighters to surrender after two days of heavy fighting.

 February 1934: Surrender of the last socialist "Schutzbund" fighters. 200 of them died. The Social Democratic Party and all Trade Unions were forbidden, and eight party leaders executed.


  1. Very good post dear G. Somehow reminds me of Godin project of the familistère

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