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Friday04 September 2015

Britain should try the Red Viennese waltz

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The government needs to learn from Vienna’s example of how to create inclusive social housing in city centres

Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

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

Owen Hatherley

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.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Owen your reflections on Vienna are interesting but not likely to be repeated in London.

    As you can see we have a Tory Government, a history of private development, and some of the most expensive land prices on the planet.

    This is not to mention the resistance to densification of existing areas of the city. Coupled with the national dream of retiring to the noddy approximation of an oversized country cottage.

    We also are destroying estates we currently have rather than building up the city around them and dealing with half built utopian ring roads and the 1960's traffic engineer's patchworks on the map of a thousand years of city development.

    my words do not discount your comments, but it is easier to reflect in and on Vienna than to work on the coal face in London.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    @Hugo:
    I think Owen is taking a wider view. Thinking about the provision of social housing as part of a bigger political change that will not necessarily come about in the next 5 minutes.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    P.S. in this view of things, Grant Shapps is the Enemy.

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  • @Scepticalaboutthewholething

    I appreciate the wider view, but sometimes the narrower view with application, skill and in incremental steps produces the wider view.

    Too many idealists and not enough practical application.... and thats my opinion after a theoretical masters degree at the Berlage institute.

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  • Interestingly, the East End Housing by Peter Barber is also in this episode of BD and I would argue makes a stronger case than Owen's musings over an apple turnover.

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  • the built socialist republic of finsbury has not gone away; it is still there for all to see some of our best council housing, followed by the Barbican.
    bring back council house building
    what is citywest homes up to?

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    @Hugo:

    I agree about Peter Barber, but alas, he's only one architect. What Owen is talking about is thousands of houses, all designed as part of a social vision and implementing strategic policies to provide the right numbers of houses required, to the right standard. Peter Barber's work is exemplary but on his own, is not enough. Now if he could be put in charge of all the housing in the country, and if he were supported by courageous politicians with a clear vision of what needs to be done (instead of leaving it all to developers) we'd be getting somewhere.

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  • dear sceptical
    that's what i said....................bring back council house building

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