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Housing

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The subject is so worthy, and I could write so much about it, that I am struggling, without effect, to keep this entry as short as I can …

Betwixt and between, over the past three years, I’ve been delving into the housing policies and achievements of “Red Vienna” — the visionary, socialist government of the municipality of Vienna from 1919-1934 — and its legacies, both physical and ethos-wise.  So far, my method has been two-fold:  During a number of extended stays in Vienna, I’ve systematically wandered the streets of the city from core to periphery; I’ve also explored relevant literature. Amongst my primary guides to both: Architectural historian Eve Blau’s masterful The Architecture of Red Vienna (MIT Press, 1999).

The essence of the story: Between the end of the First World War and a 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 and its supporters 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 during the great depression of the 1930s or the municipal bankruptcy era of the 1970s.

And, the housing complexes and ancillary social infrastructure of “Red Vienna” provided people with more than just shelter.  Their siting, layout, 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 a new aesthetic for 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-wing who attempted to destroy them between 1934 and 1945 — have endured and 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 bifurcation and associated lack of affordable housing eating away at the foundations of major cities worldwide.

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The photos at the top of the page and immediately above reveal but the tip of an iceberg, and provide a bare-bones introduction to the architecture of Red Vienna and the world it attempted to shape:

At the very 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 Karl-Marx-Hof snakes around a series of open and enclosed courtyards on a plot of more than 150,000 square meters.  At opening, the Karl-Marx-Hof contained 1,400 apartments intended for more than 5,000 inhabitants.  It’s original collective laundries and bath and shower facilities yielded way over the decades to apartment-based amenities.  Massive archways still open the complex to pedestrian through-traffic, making it’s length a real and a symbolic gateway rather than a barrier. 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; during the years of the Nazi period the name “Karl Marx” was (temporarily!) expunged.

Immediately above, the Amalien Bath, built in the early 1920s, is one of the world’s largest swimming pool and bath complexes and a gem in the social infrastructure emplaced by “Red Vienna.”  Towering over Reumannplatz 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 to liberate Vienna in 1945 and was restored per its original appearance during the immediate post-war years.

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To tourists at least, the city of Amsterdam is  known for its historic urban core of 17th- and 18th-century townhouses set along a grid of concentric and radial tree-lined canals, and for its supposed openness and tolerance, its red-light district, and easy availability of drugs.  Stereotypes of the people of Amsterdam’s inner city are no less the stuff of guidebook hyperbole: free-spirited hippies and revolutionaries, rough-and-tumble but lovable Dutch proletarians, sardonic barflies, and Jewish market workers, cigar makers, and diamond-cutters.  In reality, however, 90% of Amsterdam’s Jews were murdered during the Second World War (with the active connivance of the the city’s bureaucracy and police), its Dutch proletariat out-migrated to suburban new towns during the post-war decades, sardonic barflies yielded way to “cool” cafe-goers, and counter-cultural “Provos” of the 1960s were replaced by heroin addicts, urban “pioneers,” and, ultimately, by gentrifiers.

My own favorite neighborhoods of Amsterdam were far from the historic center and closer to the urban edge.  Late in the 19th century, the municipality of Amsterdam began a process of urban renewal and clearance of overcrowded slums.  First, new tenement neighborhoods were constructed, modern in terms of the time, and parks and green-spaces were laid out.  Then, during the early decades of the twentieth century, housing estates and apartment buildings were built farther afield, many financed and constructed by cooperative movements formed on the basis political affiliation, labor union membership, and/or religious confession.  The signature architectural style of the such cooperative housing was Dutch Expressionism, aka the Amsterdam School, a style that featured rounded corners and curved lines, garden-gnome-like sculptural ornamentation, hints of Jugenstil and Bauhaus, and cream-colored brick facades rather than the traditional Dutch dark-red.

While the center of Amsterdam has long been imbued with nostalgia for a mythologized Dutch “Golden Age,” the apartment buildings and cooperative housing complexes of outlying neighborhoods such as Amsterdam-South embodied a forward-looking vision and a dream: a commitment to social and economic equality and the development and perfection of the individual, this animated by a spirit of cooperation, and intentionally shaped and nurtured by a thoughtfully designed built environment.  I wonder from afar whether today, a century after the development of Amsterdam-South and in the wake of waves of demographic change, decades of post-war prosperity, and the transformation of housing from social infrastructure to commodity, anything of this ethos survives or is even remembered in the streets in which it once flourished.

The Photographs

At the top of the page: the dedicatory inscription at a corner of an apartment block in the early-1920s socialist cooperative housing complex De Dageraad (The Dawn). (For excellent architectural photos of the complex, see the entry for De Dageraad in the Dutch-language Wikipedia.) Below: An early-20th-century municipal sculpture alongside the Amstel river.  Both photos taken during the early-1980s on color positive film using a Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar twin-lens reflex.

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S’Gravenhage, Den Haag,The Hague: Three names for a single Dutch city set behind the sand dunes of the North Sea coast, the seat of government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  I lived and worked in The Hague more decades ago than I care to admit, and for long enough to have observed the city over the course of a generation.

The Hague stood out from its better know neighbors, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.  Unlike Rotterdam, The Hague did not possess a busy deep water harbor or exaggerated memories of hard-working stevedores, and was left unscathed by bombing during World War II.  Unlike Amsterdam, The Hague was neither a commercial nor  manufacturing center, nor a center of learning, nor a wellspring of labor activism and progressiveness, and it also lacked Amsterdam’s contrived, self-promoted cachet for openness and the avant-garde.

In the years I knew it, The Hague was a city of government ministers and bureaucrats high and low, of the military and of aging ex-colonials.  The Hague was the base of Royal Dutch Shell and its far-flung petroleum and petrochemical empire, and of the myriad engineering firms that catered to it.  It was home to a middle-class that managed its service sector and to a working class, both Dutch and immigrant, that did the heavy lifting and filled repetitive entry-level jobs.

On the surface at least, The Hague was outwardly conservative, staid and quiet, its streets deserted after nightfall.  Socially and economically, The Hague was near-Byzantine in its stratification, its residents segmented and corralled according to finely-drawn class distinctions that defined one’s place and prerogatives: the neighborhood in which one lived, the accent with which one spoke, the way one dressed and cut one’s hair, and the education and work paths and prospects that were barred to one or open.

Still, The Hague had a poetry of its own.  It was a city of greenery and of parks in which the salted scent of the nearby North Sea was ever-present .  In  summer sunlight and the grayness of winter, the sky over The Hague seemed to hover low enough to touch.  The city’s eerie near-silence in off-hours revealed subtle sounds:  the occasional rhythmic slaps of shoe soles on sidewalks, the soft whoosh and rattle of bicycle  tires on rain-soaked brick-paved streets, the distant metallic grind of street-car wheels against  tracks, and the calls of ever-present seagulls.

Calvinist city to the core, The Hague was uniform in outward appearance and minimal in its decoration. Its fashions embodied a preference for a subdued, intentionally near-dowdy, elegance.  Architecturally, The Hague was a city of red brick, repetitive patterns, ornamental restraint, and subtle emblems of class — a sparseness that I’ve come to appreciate in hindsight.

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The photos above were taken in the late-1970s or early-80s on medium-format color transparency film, using a Yashica Mat 124G or a Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5 (I forget which) both of which were equipped with  fixed 75mm lenses that gave a tad more of a wide-angle view than the 80mm focal length usually considered visually “normal” in perspective for 6x6cm photographs. (Photographing architecture in 6×6 format has always been a delightful challenge, as was the requirement for absolute precision in measuring and setting exposures when using transparency film.)

The image at the very top shows how even the defining flamboyance of turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau was toned down and tamed to fit the conservatism of The Hague, and rendered subordinate to the city’s traditional red brick exteriors and Neo-Baroque  gabled facades.

The second image portrays a row of late-nineteenth-century town houses built for the upper-middle-class wealth, a study in uniformity and announcement of status.  At the time the photo was taken, many of these buildings had been subdivided into single-story apartments or rooming houses.  I assume they have been gentrified and reinstated as single-family dwellings in the decades since.

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 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.

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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.