I haven’t posted to this site since early summer. Since then, I’ve paused in New York and immersed myself into the concerns and demands of mundane daily life in the city of my birth. A friend refers to my prolonged stay here as a term of protracted participant research into the increasing bifurcation of a society, the hyper-gentrification of a city, massive demographic changes, the rendering of whole categories of people into superfluity and neglect, and the slow-grinding wheels of unresponsive bureaucracies. In the course of other investigations, I’ve gained two arcane municipal licenses: as a certified tourism guide and as a substitute teacher in New York’s Byzantine and overburdened public school system. Betwixt and between, as always: study, reading, work, and long urban wanderings. As often as not, my late-day pauses involve fast walks or slow strolls through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And my pauses while traversing the Park include stops at number of seemingly random sites including those portrayed above and below: A tree fractured at its trunk, its halves bound together by iron rods below and by near-intertwined branches above, and at the Park’s boathouse, silent and deserted at dusk on late winter afternoons. There’s been pause in my photography as well: I do not have an analogue camera with me and my perpetually malfunctioning Fuji X-100 digital camera seemed to have given up the ghost during the chill of winter although, as evidenced by the two accompanying photos, every now and then it miraculously springs back to life, for the moment at least. (Note: Please click on the photos for larger images and richer tonality.)
On his epic voyage homeward from Troy to Ithaca, Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, had his crew bind him to the mast of his ship to keep him from being lured away by the enchanting sound of the Siren’s song. The crew stuffed their own ears with beeswax, to cut out not only the music of the Siren but also their captain’s delirious orders for them to set him free.
My own mundane journeys homeward in search of traces “my” vanished (or imagined) New York include a ritual of recurring late-day walks from Brighton Beach, past Coney Island, and on to Seagate and back, sometimes over the sand but usually on the part-wood, part-concrete surface of the historic boardwalk. Unlike Odysseus and his crew, I do not fear the songs of local Sirens. I traverse my route with ears unfilled and feet unfettered. Among the rewards: A pastiche of overheard conversations in Russian, Yiddish, Spanish, Haitian Creole-French, and even English, these inter-cut with melodies and rhythms of live and recorded music: Salsa, Hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, and mid-20th-century Soviet pop and post-Soviet Russian Rap. The music, in turn, brings with it occasional chances to join in summer-evening dance events, organized and impromptu.
A few weeks ago, a new Siren’s song led me from the boardwalk, across the windswept beach, and into the cold surf of Lower New York Bay. What had first caught my ear was a distant Serbian-Roma brass-band sound not unlike that of Goran Bregovich that then seemed to merge with the tightly-arranged, turn-of-the-20th-century military marches of John Philip Sousa and then take on a hip-hop beat. Turning seaward towards the source of the music, I saw the blinding glint of late-day sun rays bouncing off the polished brass bells of two Sousaphones. There, standing in the surf, was a dozen-person-strong brass orchestra, its members attired as monochrome gladiators or, with a flight of fantasy, as Odysseus and his crew. The name of the band: Funkrust. I hope to hear — and see — them again.
Over the past three years, betwixt and between,I’ve been delving into the housing policies and achievements of “Red Vienna” (i.e. the visionary, socialist-dominated municipality of Vienna from 1919-1934) and its legacies, physical and social. So far, my method has been two-fold: On a number of extended stays in Vienna, I’ve systematically walked the streets of the city from core to periphery, stopping at the great Gemeindebau (municipal housing estates) of the period. I’ve also explored relevant literature; amongst my primary guides: Architectural historian Eve Blau’s masterful The Architecture of Red Vienna (MIT Press, 1999).
Between the end of the First World War and the right-wing, fascist coup d’état that brought down the legitimate government of Austria in 1934, the left-wing “red” government of the municipality of Vienna managed to do what few cities have done before or since. In only fifteen years, Vienna built scores of housing complexes providing a total of more than 65,000 new apartment units — affordable, modern, appealing dwellings for a total of more a quarter of a million people— and this in the face of a massive housing shortage, a legacy supply of substandard housing, minimal available green- or brown-space, a declining tax base, and severe economic deprivation stemming from the post-WWI dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and compounded by the worldwide great economic depression.
To put this in perspective, imagine the city of New York, which today has a population four times greater than that of Vienna during the 1920s (more than 8,000,000 people in NYC today vs. almost 2,000,000 in Vienna at the end of WWI), having built more than 250,000 new apartments for more than a million of its residents in the space of only a decade-and-a-half — and this not even during well-heeled times a la the Bloomberg and de Blasio years, but, say, during the great depression of the 1930s or the municipal bankruptcy era of the 1970s.
The housing complexes and ancillary social infrastructure of “Red Vienna” provided people with more than just shelter. Their siting, layouts, external architecture, interior design and fittings, communal facilities, shared space, and interfaces with the city-at-large were painstakingly thought out and implemented down to the smallest details to foster family life, social cohesion, and individual growth, and to craft both a new aesthetic and a better urban and socio-economic environment. Not least, in addition to the enormity of physical achievement of its housing program, the land acquisition and funding strategies involved in building projects of “Red Vienna” were brilliant exercises in public administration and finance.
Today, almost a century later, the aesthetic and social legacies of the building programs of “Red Vienna” — anathema to the Austrian and German right-wingers and Nazis who attempted to destroy them between 1934 and 1945 — have endured to the present. Physically, they continue to house lower-income Viennese, new immigrants primarily. Ideologically and in terms of ethos, they lay dormant, a “sleeping beauty” of sorts ready to provide any and all who are interested with ample clues and inspiration for how to deal with today’s crisis-level social and economic bifurcations and the associated lack of affordable housing that fillets the demography and eats away at the foundations of major cities worldwide.
The photos at the top of the page and immediately above provide but a bare-bones introduction to the architecture of Red Vienna and the world it attempted to shape:
At the top: The main courtyard and emblematic arched facade of the Karl-Marx-Hof housing estate, designed by architect Karl Ehn and built between 1926 and 1930. Conceived and constructed in the form of a single, elongated structure well over a kilometer in length, the interconnected blocks of Karl-Marx-Hof snakesaround a series of open and enclosed courtyards on a plot with an area of more than 150,000 square meters. Massive archways still open the complex to pedestrian through-traffic, making it’s length a real and a symbolic gateway rather than a barrier. At its opening, the Karl-Marx-Hof contained 1,400 apartments intended for more than 5,000 inhabitants. It’s original communal laundries and bath and shower facilities yielded way over the decades to apartment-based amenities. The central area shown above was severely damaged during the fascist coup of 1934, when working-class residents of Karl-Marx-Hof rose up to defend their new home against right-wing militias. Euring the years of the Nazi period the name “Karl Marx” was (temporarily!) expunged.
Immediately above: The Amalien Bath, built in the early 1920s, one of the world’s largest swimming pool and bath complexes and a gem of the social infrastructure of “Red Vienna.” Towering over Reumannplatz,a central square in the traditionally working-class 10th district of Vienna, the complex was named after a Viennese social-democratic children’s and women’s rights advocate, Amalie Pölzer. The Amalien Bath was severely damaged by aerial and artillery bombardment during the Soviet advance into Vienna in 1945 but was restored to its original appearance during the immediate post-war years. The luxury of its interior continues to give ordinary Viennese access to low-cost but luxurious swimming and spa facilities.
More on this subject in the future …
Two recollections of moments and details from spring-times past. Above: A kite, a delighted child, and a patch of green on the shore of the Golden Horn near Fener, Istanbul, 2012. In the background, a shipyard and dry-dock dating from early Ottoman times. Below: Blossoms, greenery, and the weathered, roughly-welded sheet-metal wall and numbered spaces of an empty parking lot in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014 (the straightforward text on the signs: “paid unguarded” + “parking”).
Two views from a balcony on a cul-de-sac street in the Tepebaşı quarter of Istanbul, anno 2013. The buildings: Row houses built a century-and-a-quarter ago when the neighborhood was populated by Istanbul Greeks; the narrow frontages of the buildings dictated by late-19th-century regulations issued in the aftermath of fires that had swept gutted swaths of the city. Even day, these balconies continue to form an interstice between private and public space, serving as mini-terraces, extensions of domestic space, and perches for observing street life, chatting with neighbors, or just enjoying late day breezes.
The photo above was taken in 6X9 cm format on 120 color negative roll film through a 55mm Rodenstock lens (viewpoint equal to 24mm on 35mm film or “full-frame sensor” digital formats) mounted on a Toyo folding field camera. The photo below was taken with my customary APS-C format Fuji X100 digital camera (a “full-frame” equivalent of 35mm). The negative of the image at the top was scanned but, otherwise, not processed further. The sharpness and optical accuracy of the Rodenstock lens and the delicate colors of negative film stock are inimitable.
My last post included a photograph of a 1940s military recruiting booth on the Fordham Road overpass at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Portrayed above, another wonderful oddity of Bronx architecture: Public School 11, originally Grammar School No.91, in the Highbridge section of the borough. The core structure of the school, designed by George W. Debevoise, was built in 1889. A portion of a 1905 addition, designed by C.B.J. Snyder.the most prolific of the New York City public school system’s superintendents of building, is visible at the far left of the photo.
New York City’s public schools — or their facades at least — were designed to conjure up ennobling palaces of education in which all pupils could feel equal, and as deliberate contrasts to the often substandard housing from which most pupils came. Public School 11 is a rare example of a New York City school with a facade inspired by Romanesque Revival, a style that, in the city’s massive school building program, was soon surpassed by Neo-Gothic and later, by Neo-Classicism, Art Deco, and Modernism.
For an introduction to the architecture of New York City’s public schools, click on the website of the NYC Department of Education. And, if you went to public school in New York in decades past, feel free to join me in singing a chorus or two of “East Side, West Side”!
Street corners. Anchoring points in the urban landscape. Places to pause, linger, turn, or confront unexpected vistas. Apt metaphors for the start of a new year. Places devoid of meaning from the vantage points of automobiles.
Above and below: Two seemingly nondescript street corners in Istanbul, 2014.
At the top: An intersection in Gümüşsuyu near Taksim — a 1920s apartment house, a late-nineteenth-century neighborhood mosque, and a high-rise cube under construction. Straight ahead, a 45-degree plunge into the quarter of Fındıklı; a turn to the left, and a grid of steep side-streets and concrete stairways wending down to the Bosporus.
At the bottom: A hard-left-turn upwards past a rarely-used sidewalk, a recent generic apartment block, and the wall of a centuries-old cemetery at the edge of Hasköy on the Golden Horn, photographed late one Sunday afternoon at a moment when the roadway was free of its usual, near-continuous, high-speed stream of rattling bus, truck, and automobile traffic
Above: The main entranceway and facade of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank Building, the Österreichische Postsparkasse (originally the k.k. Postsparcasse Amt, the Royal and Imperial Postal Savings Bank), designed by Otto Wagner and built between 1904 and 1906. Below: The Kassenhalle, the main hall and one-time central banking area of the building.
As the 20th-century began, Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank building brought a new face to public sector architecture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire: streamlined, free of superfluous decoration, and with meticulous attention to the choice, finish, and unadorned display of materials, including glass, aluminum, and polished steel. Inside and out, the building marked a shift from from Jugendstil to modernism, as well as from ornate neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque displays of state power to aesthetic simplicity and the perfection of the environment in which public employees worked and the general public accessed essential services — secessionist architecture geared both to the public eye and to public health and welfare.
Late-Hapsburg Vienna was a densely-populated city. For most people, housing was substandard, overcrowded, and unhealthy, as were the city’s factories and workshops and the dank rooms in which ordinary office employees worked long hours. In tenement dwellings and at work, fresh air and sufficient sunlight were rarities for the bulk of Vienna’s population. Tuberculosis was endemic and conditions for its transmission rife.
Otto Wagner’s design and implementation of the State Postal Savings Bank building stressed provision of light, circulation of air, and availability of adequate and open work space. The Kassenhalle, the main banking hall, of the building is a case in point. The photo below shows its overhead glass skylight and its opaque glass-brick floor. Together, these transmitted a glow of light directly into the hall itself, and indirectly into the postal services section of the building one flight below, thus improving ambience and saving energy at the same time.
Just as the design and implementation of the building eased the lives of those who worked in and patronized it, so did the services the Postsparkasse offered. The inception of postal savings in 19th-century Europe brought secure ways to save within the reach of the mass of ordinary people. Postal savings services, however, were founded on more than government largesse. They served to channel volumes of small hordes of cash out of proverbial mattresses and other hiding places and into the hands of the state, thus keeping money in circulation and augmenting governmental coffers with what was, in effect, an immense stream of ongoing, low-interest, long-term loans.
The night of November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass: Throughout Nazi Germany (including Austria, which had folded itself seamlessly into Nazi Germany some months before) synagogues were plundered and set afire, with crowds of bystanders cheering, and police and fire brigades standing idly by. Shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, Jewish men beaten and arrested, Jewish women terrorized and molested. All this a seeming apotheosis of European religious antisemitism, exclusionary nationalism, “scientific” racism, nostalgia for a past that never was, and urban economic, social, and spatial competition.
In Vienna, all but one of the city’s monumental synagogues and modest prayer-houses were destroyed during the 24-hour rampage. How are they remembered today? Barely, and by few. Memorial plaques mark the sites of a quite a number of the city’s destroyed synagogues, but their texts are as often as not confusing and bland, with events sanitized and the perpetrators obfuscated by overuse of euphemisms and passive voice in German and by shoddy accompanying translations into English.
Phantasm and Reflection: Two Photos of Monuments without Words
The photographs above and below portray two impressive memorials to two Viennese synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht. Both memorials eschew words for silence and didacticism for emotion.
The photo at the top was taken through a large plate-glass plaque set as a memorial on the corner of the Eitelbergergasse and Neue-Welt-Gasse in the posh Viennese suburb of Hietzing. The plaque stands across the street from the one-time site of the “Neue Welt Tempel,” a freestanding structure, quite modern in its time, designed by architect Artur Grünberger in a style seemingly influenced by the Viennese Secession. The Neue Welt Tempel was constructed in the late-1920s and early-1930s in the midst of Hietzing’s quiet tree-lined sidestreets and Jugendstil mansions.
Silkscreened onto the surface of the glass plaque is a finely-rastered, semi-translucent reproduction of an archival photograph of the exterior of the Neue Welt Tempel taken sometime in the mid-1930s, probably from the exact location where the plaque now stands. By positioning oneself at just the right angle and distance from the plaque, a viewer is treated to a mirage … suddenly, the present and past are juxtaposed, and a ghost-like image of the Neue Welt Tempel appears to sprout from the surface of the yellow apartment house now standing on its former site. For a moment, the Neue Welt Tempel reappears as if still there … and then, just as suddenly, juxtaposition is lost and the illusion fades.
In the photograph below, a sparse, minimalist garden fills the length and part of the width of the one-time footprint of the 1870s, Neo-Renaissance style, “Turnertempel” synagogue at Turnergasse 22 in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, not far from the Gürtel and the shopping thoroughfare of Mariahilfestrasse. The greenery at the edges of the garden offsets the starkness of the gravel surface, concrete pathways, and benches of well-weathered wooden beams. The trees at the left of the photo are lindens. Summers, the scent of linden blossoms fills the garden and, as the weeks pass, fallen linden petals turn into perfumed dust that cushions the garden’s gravel surface. The total effect is apt: life emerging from, but never quite obliterating, destruction.
This past summer, I stopped at the Turnergasse memorial garden a number of times to read, write, reflect and rest. There were few other visitors: workmen on lunch and cigarette breaks, occasional pairs of daytime beer drinkers, small numbers of neighborhood residents, judging by their appearances and voices, immigrants mostly, from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Did they know what once stood at the site where they were sitting? Were they aware of its fate? Could they sense the one-time prayers, concerns, and celebrations of people who had preceded them, and who had played out-sized roles in Vienna’s former greatness and in the shaping of the city in which they now live and the rights and security they now enjoy? Probably not. Most people in Vienna, like most people elsewhere, are propelled by the intentionality of their own immediate concerns. Others in Vienna, native-born Austrians and immigrants both, turn up their noses at the memories of Jews and bristle at reminders of their murder. But for those of us open to it, to those of us who bear the weight of its absence, a presence seems to hover in the garden at Turnergasse.
Footnote on Resources
For the past months, a small exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum showcased the research and meticulous computer-generated recreations of the exteriors and interiors of Viennese synagogues and the urban contexts in which they once stood, done by Bob Marten and Herbert Peter, and published in book form some years ago as Die zerstörten Synagogen Wiens: Virtuelle Stadtspaziergānge and later in English as The Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna.
Two magnificent, successful works of brutalist architecture, both at the very outskirts of Vienna …
The “Wotruba” Church
Above: The Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, set on a hilltop in suburban Liesing, at the edge of the Vienna Woods. The church is popularly called the Wotruba Church, after its designer, sculptor Fritz Wotruba, who died one year before the structure, comprised of more than 150 massive concrete blocks, was completed in 1975.
Despite their weight, the blocks comprising the Wotruba Church appear to float, and the large glass windows on three sides of the church give the building a gossamer appearance usually not associated with concrete structures. When circumnavigating the exterior of the church, visitors are treated to a kaleidoscopic view of seemingly random shapes and plays of light that appears to change with each step. The front lawn of the church offers a spectacular panoramic view of Vienna and far beyond, northwards, to the Marchfeld, the great Moravian plain.
Two curious footnotes: Between 1938 and 1945, when Austria comprised an integral part of Nazi Germany, the hilltop upon which the Wotruba Church stands had been the site of a Wehrmacht barracks, making the envisioning and building of the church an act of expiation of sorts (to the degree that expiation for past violence is possible). Also, one of Fritz Wotruba’s early pupils, sponsors, and lovers was Anna Mahler, the daughter of Gustav Mahler and Alma Schindler, Mahler’s wife at the time and, later, the wife of Walther Gropius and, subsequently, of Franz Werfel.
Housing Estate at Alterlaa
Below: A partial view of but one of the immense apartment blocks comprising Wohnpark Alterlaa (the Alterlaa Housing Estate), also at the edge of Vienna, designed by architect Harry Glück and built in the late-1970’s and early-80’s. The saw-tooth design of the windows on the upper floors ensures that apartments are filled with light throughout the day. The curved set-back of the lower floors ensures ample sunlight and rainfall for nourishing balcony gardens and also creates a lush hanging-gardens-of-Babylon-like appearance that offsets the deliberate roughness of the concrete exterior.
Despite its seeming inhuman scale, the results of sociological surveys and anecdotal inquiries suggest that the Alterlaa complex is beloved by its residents. Echoing the tradition of Viennese public housing implemented by socialist “Red Vienna” between 1919-1934, the complex contains social amenities: rooftop gardens, ample meeting and club rooms, swimming pools and sports facilities, nurseries and kindergartens, and even its own church. Grounds between the towers are landscaped and well-lit, and shopping and public transport are nearby.
In all, there is a feeling of community among the residents of Alterlaa. The positive side thereof is that the physical attributes of the complex seem to have indeed succeeded in their mission of creating appealing private and public space. Also, the relative isolation of the site fosters self-containment. But, there is a more problematic side: Whether and to what degree the relative homogeneous demographics of the Alterlaa estate may have contributed to the satisfaction of its residents.
Unlike the great working-class public housing complexes of 1920s and early-1930s Vienna, Wohnpark Alterlaa is a cooperative, rather than a municipal, housing development. The economics of cooperative apartment ownership skews the demographics of Alterlaa middle-class-wards and, thus, in terms of the class and ethnic matrix of Vienna, “ethic-Austrian-wards” as well. It is an open question whether such relative class and ethnic homogeneity eased the way to community or, more negatively, to a “bastion mentality” fostering solidarity and contentment in the face of perceived external threats. These, however, are matters for investigation by the experts.
Afterthought: For the tragic saga of a paradigmatically unsuccessful municipal housing project conceived in the racist, class-ist mold of 1950s and 60s urban renewal as practiced in numerous American cities (and designed by the future architect of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, mourned since its criminal destruction in 2001 but a resounding and resented flop in its early years) see the excellent documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.