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”).
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.
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.