Vienna loves council housing
You may be surprised that Vienna, one of the greatest of European cities, is of a similar size to the Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow conurbations. Of course it is the capital of a small country, but the huge difference is that Vienna was capital of a vast multi-national empire which endured for centuries until its collapse in 1918. The legacy of the Habsburgs still shapes the city today.
Vienna loves art & architecture
It is tempting to draw comparison between the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s and the United Kingdom today. There are great differences but many similarities too. Both live(d) on past glories with a massive sense of entitlement and that fin-de-siècle feel of corruption and decay. Their aged and ultra long-serving monarchs provide(d) a flimsy fiction of unity for a country that is deeply divided in every sense. The rising consciousness of long subsumed nations threatens the break up of the supra-national state. Irresponsible oligarchic elites excite the country towards disastrous foreign policy whilst populist politicians play on insecurity and the fear of ‘otherness’: in Vienna the Jews, in England anyone who sounds or looks different. The pampered cosmopolitan capital cities are increasingly detached from, and distrusted by, the rest of the country. Both societies failed to solve their housing crises, Vienna before 1918, as London today, prioritizing luxury apartments rather than social housing.
Where Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre
Well, ok, we can’t push this too far. Austria-Hungary was atomized by war, not its internal contradictions, although these were in part responsible for the war. There is little of the far sighted late Habsburg investment in urban infrastructure in Britain today. I don’t see today’s London architecture, arts and music scene as quite competing with Vienna 1900. But Vienna does have lots of lessons for us, if only we were not quite so determined not to learn them. It consistently comes in the top two or three cities in the world for ‘quality of life’ and however sceptical one may be about aggregating a potpourri of data rankings to determine ‘best and worst cities’, Vienna is self evidently an extremely pleasant, self assured, welcoming and relaxed city.
The forces of darkness in Mittel Europa – The Beethoven Frieze
Vienna is quintessential Mittel Europa, the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, as is obvious from the departures screen of its airport. It is so very different from the rectitude of north Germany with all that Austrian Baroque and fluffy stucco, the onion domes of the Counter-Reformation and that very Imperial heritage. The medieval core of the city is at the confluence of the Wien river with a braid of the Danube, now the Danube Canal; to the west the mountains and to the east the great plain. Today the mighty Danube flowing eastward to the Black Sea is here tamed and straightened with railways and motorways along its banks. It is not very blue.
Hope, suffering, ambition
In the C18 the built up area expanded beyond the tight walls of the medieval city which had withstood Ottoman and other invaders. The walls were demolished in the 1850s and this broad swathe was redeveloped with the creation of the famous ring boulevards. These are lined with vast palaces, parks, the parliament building, city hall, museums, galleries, opera house – Westminster meets South Ken. It is all a bit pompous, overpowering and indigestible, a bit like those rich and over decorated café cakes. However many of the interiors are splendid like the Opera salons, partly rebuilt after war damage, and MAK – Vienna’s V&A. The art collections are superb. The very grand, brick, City Hall looks Hanseatic rather than Imperial, possibly deliberate symbolism.
Wagner's culverted Wien and Stadtpark
In the 1890s the Wien river was culverted as part of a vast programme of infrastructure improvements for the rapidly expanding town. New urban railways were constructed including one alongside the newly tamed Wien, together with boulevards and new parks. The Stadtbahn linked the railway termini, which were inconveniently built beyond the outer ring of bastions, later demolished and replaced by the Gürtel (girdle) boulevards.
The key architect of these improvements was Otto Wagner, who became a leading figure of the Secession movement, the Viennese version of Jugendstil. His standard design for the stations of the Stadtbahn is a classic – simple, functional, elegant and very beautiful. More spectacularly decorated station pavilions built at Karlsplatz, and the Emperor’s own station at Hietzing, are now museums. Wagner also designed much other infrastructure including viaducts and the locks and embankments of the Danube Canal. Along the Wienzeile boulevard you find some of his extraordinary apartment buildings, like the Majolica House (the floral ornamentation actually designed by Ludwig) and the equally spectacular building next door with gilded façade and cornice by Moser, a key figure of the Secession. Later Wagner developed a more austere, functional (if beautifully executed) model for apartment buildings, as at Neustiftgasse 40. He still built elaborate villas for wealthy patrons in the suburbs; his own at Hütteldorf is now a museum. I was unable to see his much admired Church of St Leopold nearby which is only open on Saturday afternoons.
Not exactly the Manchester Metro is it? - Karlsplatz
And we use Trespa - Majolica House
Wagner gave Emperor Franz Joseph his own Stadtbahn station
Wagner’s most spectacular building is the Postsparkasse savings bank (1903-12), a key buildings of modernism. Externally it has a simple clarity, faced with marble mounted with aluminum capped bolts. Aluminum is also used on the canopy supports and for the amazing statues which crown the building. Yet more spectacular is the bank’s cash hall with its vast glass, iron and aluminum roof. This is complemented by the most beautifully and functionally detailed furniture and fittings. There is a small museum display of the building.
Postsparkasse savings bank
Very early, and very swish, modernism
The most famous building of the Secession is its exhibition hall designed by Olbrich in 1897, a series of chaste white cubes topped by a fantastical ‘golden cabbage’. It caused a scandal, as it was meant to. Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibited there and was much admired. (Margaret MacDonald is on display at MAK). Klimt’s famous frieze, an interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, was displayed too and now restored is on permanent exhibition. It is a disturbing piece, not at all like those somewhat kitsch Klimt posters that used to adorn every student flat. His actual works appear much more nuanced than reproductions and are a real eye opener. But for me the stand out Viennese artists are Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl, who sock you in the eye with their raw emotional power. Both died in their 20s – Gerstl killed himself when Schoenberg’s wife ended their affair and Schiele was a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic. Visits to the Leopold and Belvedere galleries are an absolute must. The Architecture museum is very good too.
Adolf Loos famously rejected the Secession and declared ‘ornament is crime’. This is not entirely apparent at his American Bar, which incorporates marble, onyx, mahogany, brass and very cleverly used mirrors to transform a tiny space into a deeply satisfying and comfortable experience. It is a pity that the exterior, with its angular canopy featuring a stylized American flag, is compromised by a dreadful awning and crappy advertising. Vienna is not quite so respectful of its icons as you might expect – his Café Museum opposite the Secession has been buggered too. The famous ‘house without eyebrows’ opposite the Hofburg Palace, which so annoyed Emperor Franz Joseph, offended not so much by being proto-modern with its flat elevation having no sills or lintels as by its revival of classical forms which were anathema to the bourgeoisies. It is somewhat insensitive that the façade today is adorned with window boxes. You can wander into Loos’s Knize menswear shop on Graben, like a Tardis, and marvel at his manipulation of space (as well as the prices). Nearby are the Loos loos, a model of elegant simplicity. Loos’s capacity for provocation is also very evident with his villas in the swanky Hietzing district. Whilst Wagner’s students were designing amazing extravagances like the Schokoladehaus, with shiny brown glazed majolica reliefs, Loos’s nearby 1910 Steiner house presents a metal barrel roof to the street. His Scheu house of 1912 caused outrage with its unadorned façade and stepped flat roofs.
Loos House has no eyebrows, so why window boxes?
Ornamental restraint and similarities with Rennie Mackintosh
The Loos loos
Schokoladehaus, dark 70% cocoa
Steiner house upset the neighbours
Scheu was a Social Democrat and the influential public housing movement met at his house. Vienna’s working class tenements were notoriously cramped and squalid and when democracy came with defeat in 1918 the new Social Democratic city administration put Scheu in charge of housing. ‘Red Vienna’ was responsible for a remarkable programme of council house building. In the decade before the Clerico-Fascist putsch of 1934 the city built more than 60,000 flats, re-housing about 10% of the city’s population. This was made possible by the Wohnbausteuer, a radical tax on more expensive houses and luxury goods specifically to fund social housing. I did say Vienna had a lot to teach us.
Karl Marx Hof
The success of the housing programme was partly because the Social Democrats pursued a pragmatic approach to design and construction, building on Viennese traditions rather than following radical theories like those of Corbusier or the Bauhaus. The construction is conventional brick and render, partly because Vienna had no tradition of new building techniques and anyway the objective was to provide work for as many of the unemployed as possible. The flats were small, based on model tenements derived from English example. They lacked bathrooms and central heating – these were too expensive at the time. The City bought land cheap and it benefitted from earlier municipal investment in the Stadtbahn, trams, gas, electricity, water, flood prevention and the magnificent sewers, a backdrop to Carol Reed’s late-expressionist masterpiece ‘The Third Man’.
No 'poor doors' here
The most famous icon of Red Vienna is the Karl Marx Hof, built on a vast scale and over a kilometre long. The name and its dominant, fortress-like presence are a deliberate and defiant statement of working class and Social Democrat power. The design by Karl Ehn was completed in 1930. At first impression it looks not so much Modernist as Post-Modern in its scale, bright colours and employment of large scale, simplified motifs like the arches. The arches are not structural but symbolic and give permeability; the grand arches opposite Heiligenstadt U bahn station were apparently provided to cater for football crowds heading for the nearby stadium. But they also present a real sense of grandeur for what was conceived of as a palace for the people. The Karl Marx Hof was very influential and its grand arch motif is imitated in many of George Lansbury’s LCC estates.
The neighbouring, more intimate courtyard blocks
The central courtyard blocks are nine stories high. Above the arches are displayed secular icons to freedom, knowledge, health and the community. Other courtyard groups are lower and more intimate but all are grouped around large gardens with playgrounds, schools, crèches, surgery, shops, restaurants, laundries and public baths (as the flats had no bathrooms). There was an agency to help residents furnish their small flats; Viennese furniture was too big and heavy, like that crammed into Goldfinger’s Willow Road terrace by his Austrian mother-in-law. The Karl Marx Hof was the scene of a battle in the brief civil war of 1934 and prior to recent improvements, including new insulation, you could apparently still see the bullet holes.
The Reuman Hof
Akin to the Amsterdam School – Matteotti Hof
The other major concentration of Red Vienna council housing is along the Margareten Gürtel, the ‘Boulevard of the Proletariat’. These flats are less monumental and fit into a pre-existing block structure but are nevertheless very impressive. They were built slightly earlier in the 1920s, in different styles by a variety of architects; Loos had been appointed as chief architect but his schemes were not accepted. The more purist German Social Democrats called the resultant lack of a unifying style ‘chaos’. The Reuman Hof, named after the first Social Democrat mayor, is fairly typical, built around a large garden courtyard with his statue in the middle. Like most of the Margaretan Gürtel flats it looks like the sort of mansion blocks you might easily find in Marylebone, possibly Nice or even Miami. This was deliberate – they were meant to be as impressive as the housing of the bourgeoisie. The Matteotti Hof, named after the assassinated anti-fascist Italian, is strictly modernist. What distinguishes the buildings as council flats is the proud lettering on their main façades, noting that they were commissioned by the City Council and paid for by the Wohnbausteuer tax. Today they have not been sold off and are generally fairly well maintained, although with some signs of stress around the edges. Some of the courtyard gardens are now gated, but fortunately most can still be visited.
This is not 70s sci-fi art, this is actually real, Alterlaa
The Social Democrats regained power after World War II and continued a programme of building council house blocks, opportunistically on various sites across the city. In the late 1960s a grander building programme was deemed necessary which resulted in vast estates like Alterlaa. The scale of this is fairly mind blowing, as if Alexandra Road meets the Victoria Centre flats in Nottingham, but on steroids. The three gargantuan blocks designed by Harry Glück are remarkable with their stepped profile and stacked-up green balconies, but what is more remarkable is their beautiful and well maintained parkland setting – eat your heart out Alice Coleman. In fact the only part of the complex which is not well maintained is the crummy shopping centre between the U bahn station and the flats.
Courtyard enclosure ...
... and impressive scale, Am Schöpfwerk
Next stop on the U bahn is Am Schöpfwerk – another massive estate but on a grid system around landscaped courtyards with mostly medium rise blocks. This is a more familiar example to British eyes, the difference being that it is far, far better maintained and has fantastic public transport connectivity. The design has an admirable simplicity of form and a clarity of organization. However despite the huge success of Vienna’s council house programme, in Austria today social housing has to be delivered by private developers. It is subsidized by the federal government but still ends up being much more expensive to rent than the city’s own council housing – which in theory at least is still open to all EU citizens.
Tram spotters' paradise
A striking thing about Vienna is the excellence of its public transport system, one of the best in the world according to UTIP. The foundations were laid before the first World War with the building of the Stadtbahn, originally steam like the Metropolitan line and electrified in 1924. Orbital railways provided the basis for the extensive S bahn network and a very comprehensive tram system was constructed. But extensions to the system had to wait until the 70s, since the Social Democrats prioritized the building of housing in the inter and post war years. In 1969 three new lines were constructed (U1, U2 and U3), which tunnel under the heart of the city.
The old platforms, restored ...
... and the modern, remodeled
The generously scaled city centre stations have expansive underground concourses and the platforms are spacious with wide exits at either end (which can lead to some confusion – you are signposted to your line in two different directions!). The platforms of the new lines are all to a very elegant standard design with a simple plastic form, I imagine conceived as a modern reinterpretation of Wagner’s work. At the same time the Stadtbahn was upgraded as lines U4 and U6. Wagner’s entrance pavilions were mostly retained and additional entrances with escalators or lifts provided at the opposite ends of the platforms, the platforms themselves often remodeled in the new corporate plastic style. Although retained, many of Wagner’s structures have been carelessly treated with inappropriate kit, tat and advertising but some such as Stadtpark are now being fully restored to the original designs.
The Vienna U bahn and TRON. Courtesy Marcin Skrzątek
The U bahn is frequent, very fast and uber convenient. It provides seamless integration with the S bahn and mainline train services (although there is a long walk at the new Hauptbahnhof). The tram system is amazingly extensive, frequent and a lot of fun but can be slow because the trams have little priority over general traffic. Buses mostly run as outer suburban extensions to the U bahn and tram lines, or as orbital routes. They are remarkably frequent, running every five or ten minutes. Needless to say ticketing is completely integrated and what is really civilized is that there are no barriers at stations, you just validate your ticket and the general presumption is that you are not a fare dodger, unlike authoritarian Britain. It is worth emphasizing that Vienna is a relatively small city – no London or Paris or even Berlin, more the size of Manchester or Birmingham. Of course it is pointless to speculate how investment in public transport on the Viennese model would transform those cities as this is simply inconceivable, but it would of course shoot them up the ‘quality of life’ and productivity league tables.
New Central station - the bit that is not all about shopping and eating
Vienna had various terminal stations like London, but main line trains now all go from the new Hauptbahnhof. This is part of a big regeneration plan which aims to overcome the great barrier between the inner and outer suburbs created by the tangle of railway lines into the old East and South stations. Early evidence for the success of this plan is not too encouraging. The Hauptbahnhof, designed by Wimmer, Hoffmann and Hotz, is like an inverted Birmingham New Street. You approach by long, wide subways like a shopping centre mall, all glitzy shops and eateries and nothing to do with trains. Eventually you find the platforms at the upper level, so somewhat better than New Street. The platform canopies are quite stylish, especially seen from a distance. The entrance from the (un-crossable) Wiedner Gürtel is glass and projecting canopies; simple, even sparse but a dignified refuge from the chaos of traffic and mall-dom. New development around the station is fairly dreary, all chain hotels and glass offices on windswept streets. However the new campus for the Erste group on the old South Station site, designed by Henke Schreieck Architects, is more promising: an arrangement of relatively low rise, curving glass blocks in subtle relationship to each other, possibly inspired by Vienna’s UN buildings. It is not great architecture but it is competent and confident, the height respecting the Belvedere Schloss nearby, a World Heritage Site. How very different from the approach at Liverpool Waters.
Erste group campus, very Sir Owen Williams
If you get the train from the airport you will arrive at the more central Mitte Station. (Don’t get the rip-off CAT express – the S7 is much cheaper and hardly takes any longer). Mitte was redeveloped in the 90s and is just like New Street, trains in the bowels of the earth and you emerge into a torrid and disorientating shopping centre. However it does have good U and S bahn connections and, if you can find your way out to the street, the building structure devoid of advertising junk looks quite impressive. The peaceful Stadtpark nearby is a welcome relief.
This Secessionist stuff is everywhere – Cafe Rudigerhof
Given the delights of Secession Vienna and the relevance of Red Vienna, we had little time to explore more recent architecture. We did not get to see the sculptor Fritz Wotruba’s extraordinary concrete church on the outskirts. We did see the Wittgenstein House, designed by Paul Englemann in 1926 for the famous philosopher and his sister. It is a modernist paradigm expressing ‘a vision of form perfection outside styles and times’ but like the Villa Savoye, it was not really a place to live in. Hermine Wittgenstein said ‘it seemed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than a small mortal like me’, and it is now a cultural institute. Relatively nearby is the eccentric Gaudi-lite Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser, which seems rather trite, like the Po-Mo which Vienna seems fond of, for example the 1990 Haas-Haus on Stephansplatz, opposite the very wonderful cathedral. Hmmmm.
All forethought and no play – Wittgenstein House
All play and no forethought – Kunsthaus by Hundertwasser
The Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, designed by Oswald Heartl in 1959, is beautifully detailed with fine internal spaces. The central courtyard has been roofed over recently. Amongst other displays is a modernist living room designed by Loos, and a small but exquisite collection of Vienna 1900 art. A major revamp and extension is planned. In the park between the Belvedere and the Hauptbahnhof you find the 21er Haus, a reconstruction of the Austrian pavilion for the 1958 Brussels Expo, which, when we saw it, was housing a beautiful wooden temple reclaimed by Ai Wei-Wei. The simple geometry of the 2002 temporary Kunsthalle at Karlsplatz also seems set to remain as permanent exhibition space. Rachel Whiteread’s ‘nameless library’ Holocaust-Denkmal memorial in Judenplatz to the 65,000 Viennese Jews murdered by the Nazis is very moving.
The Wien Museum - a study in time and space
Austrian pavilion from the 1958 Brussels Expo
In 1955 Khrushchev agreed to Russian withdrawal from Austria on condition of its permanent neutrality. Vienna has used this neutral status very effectively to revive its position as a great international city. The United Nations has one of its largest headquarters there in the Vienna International Centre, established on the east bank of the Danube in the 1970s. This has its own station on the U1 but it is worth getting off at Donauinsel station on the immensely long, thin island park in the middle of the mighty river, largely populated by very polite punks and goths. From here you get a good view of the conurbation and the hills beyond. The UN is now subsumed into Vienna’s version of Canary Wharf, including its tallest building at 60 stories, the slightly wonky DC Tower of 2013 by Dominique Perrault with a shorter sibling under construction. The rest of the ensemble doesn’t merit much attention. The really awful thing is that there is no urban structure or public realm, although the covered way leading to the Austria Centre is quite elegant. Overall it is a non-place, but note the small church opposite the VIC U bahn station, trying to tell a very different story from the surrounding towers of Mammon.
Gary Neville would love this – commerce towers over United Nations
The UN complex is literally international – you need a passport to get past the gun-toting guards, so we only saw it from outside. The Lonely Planet guide says ‘ this complex was a picture of modernism way back in 1979; today it looks less than fab’. Designed by Johann Staber, the semi-circular towers with their powerfully solid ‘bookends’, arranged around an arena as a symbolic way of expressing international relations, are very dignified and appropriate. They still seem pretty fab to me.
At the centre of Europe and the World
Thanks to Owen Hatherley and Anne Lloyd-Thomas for their advice.
Dr. Christa Veigl gave us an excellent tour of Red Vienna www.wien-architektur-tour.at
Jannon Stein’s article ‘The Propaganda of Construction’ in Jacobin Magazine is very useful on Red Vienna. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-propaganda-of-construction/
Falter Verlag’s City Walks 1 on Viennese Jugendstil provides very useful itineraries covering most of the best Secession architecture and has good, short expositions on the movement.