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Public Space

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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.

DSCF0402Two 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”).

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One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.

Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies.  As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster.  Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings.  Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge.  The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and  public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting  their private lives in view of  neighbors or passersby.  Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.

The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since.  The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status.  For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.