On Utopia’s Doorstep

Vienna's newest communal housing project 'CityCom2' wants to be a prototype for social integration in an ageing society – but early registrations suggest it may be ahead of its time

News | Laurence Doering | October 2011

Prospective tenants inspect one of the bedrooms in the shared flat. Exposed concrete walls are a defining design feature (Photo: IKEA)

"We have developed a new form of living here," the wiry speaker in a trim, dark grey suit announces to a languid crowd of mainly students, dotted around the open plan kitchen-living room on monochrome IKEA furniture. What sounds like the inauguration of an ashram refers to a new communal living project built by the public-interest housing company Österreichisches Siedlungswerk (ÖSW) with funds from the City.

The speaker, Michael Pech, is ÖSW’s chairman; his young audience will furnish the first residents of "CityCom2" when it opens in December. Tonight, they get a first glimpse of a model flat, and a chance to meet the people with whom they may be wrestling over the bathroom for years to come.

Indeed, what’s special about CityCom2 is that all 42 apartments in the building are designed as shared flats, each with four to six identical, 15 square metres, rectangular bedrooms adjoining a shared kitchen-living room and two bathrooms.

In addition, the housing block has a roof terrace, sauna, gym, communal kitchen, music room, and bike workshop, shared with two adjacent buildings of private apartments. "This is a whole community," says Walter, a 35-year-old bachelor who is moving into one of the private flats.

But while the upmarket facilities and modern branding – including the project’s self-consciously digital age name – are reminiscent of a New York condominium, CityCom2 in fact follows in a long tradition of communal housing in Vienna. The Gemeindebauten of the 1920s provided communal kitchens, libraries, gyms and crèches (day cares) for their residents. But the living space itself was reserved for the nuclear family; CityCom2 has socialised the apartments themselves.

Yet the most innovative thing, Pech tells as we step out onto the balcony corridor, is that "there is no defined target group such as students or elderly people. These are shared flats that are open to everyone."

While half of the apartments will go to groups applying together, the other half is reserved for individuals who match up through social events organised by ÖSW, such as the one tonight.

"I’m excited to see how that will work," Pech says, displaying a remarkably experimental attitude for a businessman.

The planner’s vision

But ÖSW is no usual business: Founded by a Christian charity to re-build housing stock after WWII, the company limits the dividends that are paid out to its shareholders, so that most profits are ploughed back into new housing projects. City subsidies and a cooperative funding model, in which new tenants pay a one-time contribution into a communal pot, keep rents down. For the shared flats, however, residents will only pay a deposit of three times the monthly rent which is €328.

"A top cost-benefit-ratio for this location and the modern design," says Max, who has moved to Vienna from Vorarlberg to start university. Another attraction is that every resident has her own rental contract, unlike the classic Altbau flat shares that leave individuals at the mercy of one main tenant.

Pech is convinced that shared apartments have a future in an ageing and increasingly diverse society: "As a public interest company, we try to anticipate social trends," he says. "Many elderly people don’t want to live alone or face the monotony of a geriatric home. I can imagine three elderly people taking a flat together, and renting the fourth room for a carer."

Looking out over a yawning hole where an underground garage is being built, and where a generous, green courtyard will soon be, Pech elaborates his vision: "Young residents can do the shopping for the elderly, while they, in turn, look after the children of working parents." This is nothing less than the holy grail of urban planning: social integration.

Despite forming a closed block, broken only by access corridors, the building design by Viennese architecture firm BEHF conveys openness: a large-meshed grid façade, offset against the balcony corridors on every floor, recalls open windows, while actual French windows open onto the balconies, connecting the apartments to the outside. The gym and in-house crêperie are intended to forge links to the neighbourhood, made up of similarly attractive, modern housing estates.

A view from the ground

But Pech’s vision may prove too utopian. While there are already more applications than rooms, elderly people are still the exception. "This is a topic for the future," Pech insists. Yet the students milling around the model flat have mixed feelings about mixing: "For us, the upper age limit is 40," says Alex, surrounded by four potential flatmates whom he has just met. Asked about doing the shopping for elderly residents, he balks: "For heaven’s sake! I actually just want to live here." Kathi, a student from Upper Austria, is not averse to helping older residents, but is convinced that "only people of a similar age will live together."

Some young families are inspecting the shared apartment, but only to get a sense of what theirs will look like in the private residence block next door. The bedrooms here are too small for a family, says Andrea holding her 1-year-old daughter Lea. Moreover, "with a child, you have a different rhythm that doesn’t go well with others."

While mixing ages seems to be the developers’ main concern, questions of social class are strangely absent. In fact, under subsidised housing rules, residents can earn no more than €40,000 a year. Students, however, require a guarantor’s letter, usually from their parents, whose income is not assessed. Thus, a large number of the flats could end up in the hands of middle-class youngsters. Here too, Pech sees a silver lining:

"Social mixing goes in every direction, from the poorest to the wealthiest." Moreover, he thinks that any bias will be self-correcting: "Rich people won’t live in shared housing forever. We expect that residents will fluctuate."

However, given that departing tenants have two months to nominate a successor – a provision aimed to ensure cohesion – middle-class students may pass on the privilege to their younger peers. In the absence of quotas for income groups, the idea that "residents will fluctuate", rather than tend towards homogeneity, seems naïve.

As such, CityCom2 is somewhat of a test run. The project will be improved and replicated as the company gains more experience, Pech says. Whether this "new form of living" can be more than a fun student dorm with a sauna, and confront the problems of social integration and an ageing society, remains to be seen.

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