Back in early February, we travelled to Vienna on holiday.  Ironically, the only thing affecting our travel was Storm Ciara which disrupted the return journey.  This post is published in very different circumstances.  Stay safe and stay well. 

The Gemeindebauten (municipal tenement blocks) of Red Vienna are probably the most celebrated council housing in the world – epic in conception, construction and, in 1934, conclusion.  When the programme ended, one in ten Viennese citizens – around 200,000 people – lived in municipal housing: the city had built some 61,175 apartments in 348 tenement blocks and around 5250 houses on 42 more suburban estates.

Red Vienna Map

A contemporary map depicting the extent of Vienna’s urban programme in the 1920s

Whilst the numbers are impressive, Vienna’s ambition went further.  This was not merely a housing programme. In the words of Eve Blau, its foremost chronicler, this was ‘a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living’; beyond housing, it provided: (1)

a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.

Reumann Hof Kindergarten SN 1

The kindergarten at Reumann-Hof

The dramatic context for this unheralded experiment lay in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.  The population of the rump Austrian state which emerged stood at 5 million, less than a tenth that of the former empire. Vienna itself, the erstwhile imperial capital, had, at peak in 1910, a population of 2,031,000.  A post-war coalition was formed of the Christian Social Party and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAPÖ) to cope with the immediate crisis. And in the May 1919 local elections, Vienna became the first major city in Europe governed by socialists; Jakob Reumann, of the SDAPÖ, its first socialist mayor.

Otto Bauer

Otto Bauer

The party’s leader and chief theoretician was Otto Bauer. Bauer today is chiefly remembered – alongside other leading thinkers such as Max Adler, Karl Renner, Friedrich Adler, and Rudolf Hilferding – as a proponent of Austro-Marxism. This, they believed, was a corrective to the narrow economic determinism of ‘vulgar Marxism’ – a revised theory and practice that ascribed an active role in social development to ideology and culture; a ‘Third Way’ that envisaged the possibility of revolution through reform. The Gemeindebauten were to be its practical expression.

Siedlung am Wasserturm 1928

Siedlung ‘Am Wasserturm, 1928

Initially, however, the Viennese municipality under Reumann pursued an architecturally more conservative strategy though a series of peripheral garden suburbs. Some of these Siedlungen were built by the municipality, some by cooperatives; they were inspired by both the established Garden City ideals of Ebenezer Howard and the contemporary practice of Weimar Germany.  In 1921, however, the housing shortage remained severe with over 30,000 families squatting public and private land on the city fringes in a series of so-called ‘wild settlements’. (2)


Hugo Breitner

The major – political and financial – shift occurred in 1922. Austria’s new 1920 constitution had created a federal state and, within that, a Province of Lower Austria comprising both Vienna and rural hinterlands. It suited both conservative and radical politicians that Vienna became a wholly self-governing province in 1922. Crucially, this allowed the municipality to pursue an independent taxation policy. Under Hugo Breitner, Minister of Finance, it did so with daring and finesse.

Breitner inaugurated a progressive tax regime with levies on luxury goods and services and, most notably, a Wohnbausteuer (Housing Construction Tax) on rents, so powerfully skewed that the largest 0.5 percent of residences accounted for 42 percent of revenues; the 90 most expensive properties paid as much tax as the 350,000 least expensive. (3)

Wohnbausteuer SN 2

One of the many plaques recording the contribution of the Wohnbausteuer to Vienna’s building programme. This one is on a block in Langenfeldgasse

By 1927, Breitner’s taxes provided almost 20 percent of the City’s income. They also enabled rents – calculated to cover only regular maintenance and repair costs – to be kept low; a typical semi-skilled household in a municipal flat paid an average of 3.5 percent of income in rent. Combined with efficient borrowing and administration and the economies of scale enabled by Vienna’s huge construction programme, this made for a highly successful economic model for the ambitious City Council.

That ambition became clear in 1923 when the council announced its intention to build 25,000 new homes in five years. For the first time, these were very largely urban tenements. There were practical reasons for this change of policy – the difficulty of building beyond city limits and the expense of infrastructure at those fringes – but it was, principally and ideologically, a positive decision.  As Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna, declared: (4)

Capitalism cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful instalments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.  A socialist majority in a municipality can show what creative force resides in Socialism. Its fruitful labours not only benefit the inhabitants of the city, but raise the prestige of Socialism elsewhere.

The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the ‘social condensers’; this was ‘architecture as a way to forge radical new kinds of human collectivities’ in the words of Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell.  Urban living – and the socialised infrastructure to be provided – was seen as a means to transform a traditional Volkskultur (popular or folk culture) into a new Arbeitskultur (working-class culture).  Karl Seitz, who replaced Reumann as mayor in 1923, was clear that the goal was:

to educate our young not as individualists, outsiders, loners. Rather they should be raised communally and be brought up as socialised individuals.

A broader cultural programme augmented these efforts – a Workers’ Symphony Orchestra, a weekly cultural magazine named Der Kuckuck (a cuckoo heralding a new proletarian spring presumably) and organised programmes of workers’ sports and dancing, for example.

Opening march of the 1931 Workers' Olympiad in Vienna Wikimedia Commons

The opening march of the 1931 Workers’ Olympiad held in Vienna. The banner reads ‘Workers of all the world unite in sport’.

Architecturally, however, the new blocks disappointed interwar modernists. These were not the sleek Zeilenbauten – slab blocks oriented north-south away from the street and toward sun and greenery – favoured by the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne.  The new schemes were inserted directly into the existing urban fabric and were, superficially at least, more reminiscent of Vienna’s traditional perimeter blocks (though with a nod too to the earlier municipal housing of the Amsterdam School). Decoratively, they sometimes echoed features of even older Baroque Habsburg building. (6)


An early photograph of the first of the Gemeindebauten, Metzleinstaler-Hof.

But this was a knowing cultural appropriation and one that differed in key respects from those earlier models. Critically, and in contrast to the privatised inner spaces of the traditional perimeter blocks, grand entrances led from the public space of the street to the semi-public and communal space and facilities of the large inner courtyards which often took up to four fifths of the schemes’ overall area. This was, to quote Eve Blau yet again, ‘a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city’. And whereas working-class tenements had previously been situated along long central corridors with shared toilets at their end, these were replaced by stairwells serving just three or four apartments.

Karl-Marx-Hof (c) Wien Musem

An early photograph of Red Vienna’s most celebrated housing scheme, Karl Marx-Hof

Around 190 architects were involved in the planning and design of the Gemeindebauten but a large number were shaped by the example and teaching of Otto Wagner – ‘a modernising imperial architect who pioneered a rationalistic, stripped-down approach’ – at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts before the First World War. (7)

It’s time for a closer look at the schemes themselves but for that virtual tour – the  best we can manage for the time being – you’ll have to wait for next week’s post.


(1) Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project

(2) Andreas Rumpfhuber, ‘Vienna’s ‘wild settlers’ kickstart a social housing revolution’, The Guardian, 8 April 2016

(3) See Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934 (MIT Press, 1999) and Liane Lefaivre, Rebel Modernists: Viennese Architects since Otto Wagner (Lund Humphries, 2017). See also Jannon Stein, ‘The Propaganda of Construction’, Jacobin, 10 March 2014.

(4) Quoted in Eve Blau, ‘From Red Superblock to Green Megastructure: Municipal Socialism as Model and Challenge’, in Mark Swenarton, Tom Avermaete and Dirk van den Heuvel (eds), Architecture and the Welfare State (Routledge, 2014)

(5)  Michał Murawski and Jane Rendell, ‘The social condenser: a century of revolution through architecture, 1917–2017’, The Journal of Architecture, vol 22, no 2, 2017

(6) Anson Rabinbach, Red Vienna: A Workers’ Paradise

(7) Owen Hatherley, ‘Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology’, The Guardian, 27 April 2015