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Housing

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.

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Two magnificent, successful works of brutalist architecture, both set 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 it 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 is possible).  Also, one of 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 the future wife of Walther Gropius and, later, 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” appearance that offsets the deliberate roughness of the concrete exterior.

Despite its seeming inhuman scale, the results of formal surveys and anecdotal inquiries suggest that Alterlaa complex is beloved by its residents.  Echoing the tradition of Viennese social housing shaped in the “Red Vienna” of 1919-1934, the complex contains social amenities: rooftop gardens, ample meeting and club rooms, swimming pools and sports facilities, creches 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 may have indeed succeeded in their mission of creating appealing private and public space.  Also, the relative isolation of the site fosters self-containment.   There is a more problematic side, however: whether and to what degree the relative homogeneous demographics of Alterlaa may have contributed to the satisfaction of its residents.

Unlike the great working-class public housing estates of the 1920s and 1930s Vienna, Wohnpark Alterlaa is a cooperative, rather than 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” that creates solidarity and contentment in the face of perceived external threats. These, however, are matters for investigation by the experts.

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Afterthought: For the tragic saga of a paradigmatic unsuccessful municipal housing project conceived in the racist, class-ist mold of 1950s and 60s urban renewal as practiced in numerous American cities at the time — 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, resented flop in its early years) — see the excellent documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.