Witness of Change

At 80, Red Vienna’s Karl-Marx-Hof is still a landmark in public housing that the world used to watch with great interest

On The Town | Mary Albon | October 2010

In a city full of astonishing buildings, the Karl-Marx-Hof in Heiligenstadt is in a class by itself. Probably the best-known of Vienna’s public housing estates, it is a striking mix of medieval and modern architecture, a kilometer-long "superblock" built during the remarkable period known as Red Vienna. These fifteen years – 1919-1934 – between the end of World War I and the rise of the Nazis saw the city’s first Social Democratic administration, which introduced wide-reaching social reforms that still resonate in Vienna today.

A recent sunny Sunday afternoon turned out to be a perfect day to check out the new permanent exhibit on the History of Red Vienna housed in one of the Karl-Marx-Hof’s former laundries. Along the imposing, even forbidding, exterior, someone has spray-painted anarchist symbols and slogans on the walls. (Diebstahl ist Freiheit– Theft is Freedom). With its massive walls and high brick towers, its huge half-moon arches and spiked metal grates protecting its entrances, Karl-Marx-Hof lacks only a moat and a drawbridge to look like a real fortress. It seems sturdy enough to withstand a siege, and indeed, during the 1934 February Uprising it did.

Built between 1926 and 1933 to a design by Karl Ehn, a student of Otto Wagner, Karl-Marx-Hof officially opened 80 years ago, on October 12, 1930, with Bürgermeister Karl Seitz officiating. According to a contemporary report in Das Kleine Blatt, its 10,000 windows were ablaze with red lamps and banners and garlands festooned its walls. Hundreds of young people marched around Karl-Marx-Platz, the central square, singing and carrying flags. The square was big enough, the report noted, to comfortably hold the Rathaus, while the estate’s courtyards could easily accommodate the Neue Burg, the Staatsoper and Stephansdom.

But when I venture into those courtyards, the architectural philosophy that Karl-Marx-Hof embodies is immediately evident: "Licht, Luft und Sonne" (Light, Air and Sun) abound. Of the estate’s 156,027 square meters, only about 18 percent is built on; the rest is dedicated to public thoroughfares, playing fields and above all, green space. There is no sense of oppression so common to public housing projects the world over, from Chicago to Paris to Moscow.

The permanent exhibit "Red Vienna in the Laundry Room," which the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) opened last May in a building that once housed water tanks and showers, covers the history of Red Vienna and its social and cultural policies, with special focus on its innovative approaches to public housing. Faint strains of "The Internationale" playing on an endless loop emanate from a shrine-like room in the back devoted to the heroes of Red Vienna.

Although exhibit placards and captions are only in German, there are plenty of photos and artifacts, maps and posters that give a sense of what life was like during Red Vienna for the average worker who lived in Karl-Marx-Hof or one of the city’s other residential superblocks.

In the aftermath of World War I, Austria suffered greatly from hunger, inflation and high unemployment. Even before the war, living conditions for Vienna’s poor and working class had been unsanitary and overcrowded. But the devastation of the war made the issue of housing all the more urgent. Vienna’s municipal elections in May 1919 swept the Social Democratic Workers’ Party into power, making Vienna the world’s first city of over one million inhabitants to have a Social Democratic government. Improving life for workers and their families was the top priority, and the government introduced wide-ranging reforms in public health, education and housing.

To make this happen, Hugo Breitner, the city councilor responsible for finance, introduced a progressive taxation system that relied heavily on luxury and "sin" taxes as well as a housing construction tax (Wohnbausteuer). In 1927, the "Breitner taxes" accounted for 36 percent of Vienna’s tax proceeds and 20 percent of its overall revenue.

The housing construction tax was based on the market value of property; because it added to the cost of ownership, it caused property prices to drop. This enabled Vienna to buy up large tracts throughout the city for the construction of affordable housing. Between 1923 and 1934, Vienna built over 380 public housing estates with more than 64,000 apartments financed by the Breitner taxes. The Südgürtel with its concentration of workers’ housing estates became known as the "Ringstraße of the Proletariat."

The world watched Vienna’s large-scale experiment with public housing with great interest. The central idea of Red Vienna’s "superblock" concept was to build a city within a city, with its own infrastructure, services and park-like open spaces, to improve the quality of life for workers and their families. Apartments had modern kitchens and plumbing, and rents were set at affordable levels, with strict rules governing increases. But Red Vienna’s superblocks can also be considered a continuation of the larger process of urban modernization that had begun under Franz Josef.

Karl-Marx-Hof is not the largest of the superblocks; Sandleiten in Ottakring, with 1,587 apartments, is bigger. But it is the best known — in part, no doubt, because of its evocative name. With 1,382 apartments, Karl-Marx-Hof provided housing to over 5,000 people. Its communal facilities included two wash houses for bathing and laundry, two kindergartens, a dental clinic, a mother’s advice center, a library, a youth center, a post office, a health center offering ambulatory care, a pharmacy and 25 other shops.

Karl-Marx-Hof also became famous for its role in the Austrian Civil War in 1934. Hard hit by the Great Depression, Austria’s already high unemployment levels grew still higher, and social stability grew shakier. After the war, right-wing paramilitaries, the Heimwehr, had formed in various Bundesländer with financing from Austrian industrialists and Italian fascists. In response, in 1923 the Social Democratic Workers’ Party created the Schutzbund, a workers force intended to protect Austria’s young democracy. At its peak in 1928, the Schutzbund had 80,000 members armed with light weapons, principally in Vienna, but also in Upper and Lower Austria and Styria.

Tensions between right and left grew throughout the 1920s; at one major flashpoint in July 1927, the Palace of Justice burned following popular demonstrations in which the police killed 89 and wounded 1,600. Events culminated on Feb. 12, 1934, in what is known as the February Uprising. (See "The Battle for Red Vienna," by Saleha Waqar, The Vienna Review, March 2010).

February 1934 saw the death of democracy in Austria for another 11 years. Fighting around the country resulted in hundreds dead and more than a thousand wounded. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party and the Schutzbund were banned, and nine of the uprising’s leaders were executed. The democratic constitution was replaced by a corporatist constitution that introduced Austrofascism.

The rule of Red Vienna also came to an end. Many of the municipal housing estates were renamed in an attempt to disavow their socialist heritage. Engels-Hof, for example, became Engel-Hof (Angel Court). Karl-Marx-Hof was renamed Heiligenstädter-Hof.  It did not regain its original name until 1945, and the damage from the February Uprising was only repaired in the 1950s. In 1985, its central square was renamed 12. Februar-Platz in memory of the 1934 uprising.

In a speech at the 1930 opening of Karl-Marx-Hof, Otto Glöckel, an influential educational reformer, said the following:  "Earlier, castles and fortresses were built for the oppressors of the people, the nobility and knights; today fortresses of the people are arising, which is also a sign of democracy, a sign of awakening."

Today, an underground parking garage is being built beneath 12. Februar-Platz. Children scamper across the well-tended lawns and residents say hello when I pass by. Flowers tumble from balconies adorned by satellite dishes instead of red flags. Karl-Marx-Hof seems like a nice place to live. Red Vienna seems to have got things right.


Red Vienna im Waschsalon

Karl-Marx-Hof, Waschsalon Nr. 2

19., Halteraugasse 7

Thursdays, 13:00-18:00, Sundays, 12:00-16:00 and by appointment.

Admission:  €3.00


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