Britain should try the Red Viennese waltz
The government needs to learn from Vienna’s example of how to create inclusive social housing in city centres
My summer holiday this year was in the former Hapsburg Empire. Across it is an invisible line that once divided Europe’s “east” from its “west”, but which now has the strange side-effect of its westernmost big city feeling stereotypically “socialist”. Vienna’s sleepy, somewhat icy affluence hides the fact that it is one of the world’s great social housing showcases — thousands of council flats have been built since the 1920s to the point where now, the former K und K capital has 60% of its inhabitants living in social housing — the kind of percentage more usually seen on the east side before the fall of the wall.
Coming back to the UK where council housing is still, depressingly, considered as a clapped-out form of charity, as seen in Policy Exchange’s report on council housing or the ongoing clearance of the Elephant and Castle, Vienna’s example is all the more interesting. It unknowingly broke most of the unwritten rules of social housing, both of left and right. The style of “Red Vienna”, the years of Austro-Marxism between the end of the empire in 1918 and a fascist coup in 1934, has always sat oddly in the architectural history books. The big names such as Loos, Behrens and Schutte-Lihotzky, who practised in the city and favoured the sort of verdant low-rise estates then being built in Berlin and Frankfurt, were sidelined for the likes of Karl Ehn and Hubert Gessner, students of Otto Wagner, who was the previous generation’s “modern architect”.
That, in many ways is what makes the example of Red Vienna so unusual. Unlike, say, Le Corbusier, Wagner’s programmatic theories didn’t assume that the imperial “Grossstadt” needed replacing, but merely reforming. The estates built by his students, such as Karl-Marx-Hof, were not peripheral, dispersed, suburban or particularly green, but rather urban and monumental.
Vienna’s icy affluence hides the fact that it is a social housing showcase
This was mocked plenty at the time. The Red Viennese claimed they wanted to build a “Ringstrasse of the Proletariat”, when giant, opulent boulevards were exactly what modernists elsewhere were trying to destroy. Accordingly, they tick Jane Jacobs boxes — active frontages, proper streets, etc. Nonetheless, at this distance, something else stands out — an immense feeling of pride. Each of these expressionist-classical street blocks has the words “Constructed by Vienna City Council” displayed in big red letters. This would now be considered marking off public housing from private, which everyone from Jacobs to John Prescott agrees is a dreadful idea. They did this because they wanted to shout the fact they were public housing complexes, not hide it.
Another aspect is particularly shocking to contemporary sensibilities. These blocks were built in prominent, usually inner-city, locations. Aside from dispossessing a generation of slum landlords, they built the less-than-affluent into a historic, famously beautiful imperial city, making it the opposite of, say, Paris. It’s also the opposite of what the government wants for London. What Grant Shapps now regards as the “perverse leftwing dogma” that the poor have as much right to live in the centre of the city as the rich was at work here, and the results are magnificent.