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Vienna

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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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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.

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Above, further to my previous post (Five Wurst, Kebab, and Noodle Stands, the 10th District, Vienna): A photo of one more Viennese snack stand, Kebab Mann’s Crazy Noodels (sic), taken on the Quellenstrasse in the 10th district on a wintry afternoon a year or so ago.  I am posting the photo not only for its bold misspelling of “noodels” (puzzlingly modified by the adjective “crazy”) or for its logo (a portrait, aptly captioned “Kebab Mann,” of Kebab Mann himself, dressed in his own Kebab Mann t-shirt and  flanked by a large döner kebab)  but also for the over-the-top diversity and eccentric orthography of its menu: Faux-Asian “nudel” (noodle; note the singular), Turkish-inspired”kebab” (properly spelled!), “dürüm” (Turkish-style sandwich of grilled meat wrapped in thin flatbread; note the singular again), German “mann” instead of “man,” and one-hundred-percent-American “hotdog” (again, note the singular).  These offerings are augmented by “mais” (corn) and “langosch,” a German phonetic spelling of làngos, Hungarian fried flatbread, the latter lending a faintly nostalgic reminder of the bemoaned Hapsburg Empire.  If my memory serves me right, Kebab Mann’s Crazy Noodels now stands derelict, but whether despite or because of its menu, I’m not sure.

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Five fast-food “boxes” in Favoriten, the 10th district of Vienna.  A (somewhat lengthy) bit of background plus a few reflections — mostly factual but partly speculative —  on the content of the photos follows the last of the four images below.

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Background

In Vienna, during the 19th-century, wandering vendors sold cooked sausages from baskets and from portable bins — low-cost fast-food for time-pressed workers, many having no cooking facilities in their rented rooms and over-crowded apartments.

By the early-20th century, wheeled sausage carts appeared on the streets Vienna. From the 1960s on, semi-permanent kiosks — würstelstände — took root on the city’s sidewalks and street corners, serving food and drink and providing places to linger and gather — cafe-restaurants, as it were, for people with the shortest of lunch breaks, the thinnest of pocketbooks, the most work-soiled hands and clothes, and the strongest of appetites.  As the decades passed, Vienna’s sidewalk würstelstände increased in size, variety, and numbers, and their menus evolved to reflect waves of demographic change.

Today, the backbone of würstelstände offerings remains “traditional” sausages, their origins grounded in the tastes of 19th-century economic migrants to Vienna from the one-time expanses of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: Germanic white and frankfurter sausages, Polish kielbasa, Slovenian meat- and cheese-filled sausages, and paprika-laden sausages of putative Hungarian origin. In recent decades, however, such “traditional” sausages  yielded counter-space to fast-food dishes descended from the cuisine of more recent economic migrants from Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Middle East, as well as to Austrian oversimplifications of Asian cuisine.  The results have shaped new “traditions” that challenge the imagination and, more painfully, the digestive capabilities of all but the hardiest diners. Not least, the offerings, menus, and signage of the present generation of Viennese würstelstände have also brought about linguistic transformations that compromise the integrity of German, Turkish, and other languages.

Each of the five kiosks portrayed in this post expounds on this tale. All are located along a short stretch of Quellenstrasse in Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th district.  From the late-19th-century until the Second World War, Favoriten was a district of factories, brick and tile works, garden farms, and craftsman’s ateliers, and the home of people who worked in and around them.  At the start of the 20th-century, the distinctly working-class population of Favoriten comprised large numbers of descendants of emigre Bohemians and Moravians as well as other groups including more than  8,000 Jews, many originally from Hapsburg Galicia.  (Favoriten’s immense synagogue, destroyed by arson during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November, 1938, was one of Vienna’s largest and dominated the neighborhood’s skyline). By the middle of the 20th century, the district’s Bohemian and Moravian population had folded into mainstream Vienna, and the Jews of Favoriten had been segregated, terrorized, deported, and murdered by and at the behest of Nazi Germany, of which Austria formed an integral part from 1938-1945.

In the final days of World War II, a large portion of Favoriten’s industrial and housing stock was destroyed by aerial and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house combat. A massive rebuilding program began in the 1950s. By the 1960s, an exodus of  long-time residents from Favoriten to more attractive housing estates and, eventually for some, to more upscale suburban quarters, made room for new arrivals.  The first to settle were Turkish “guest workers” followed by their families and then by subsequent waves of Anatolian immigrants.  During the decades straddling the turn of the present century, Turks were followed by Serbs, then Bosnians, and, in more recent years, by Chechens, Afghans, Iraqis, and other peoples fleeing places of conflict.

Thoughts on the stands portrayed

The signage of Evin Imbiss, portrayed in the first photo above, is a study in multi-cultural amalgamation.  Evin is Turkish for “Your House” and Imbiss a German word  for snacks and, later, for snack-bar.  A click on the photo will enlarge it, revealing a menu guaranteed to deter all but the hungriest adolescents and low-budget diners with a penchant for the tortures of culinary post-modernism. For a half-century now, newly arrived foreigners in Western Europe have been badgered and oft-times harassed to “integrate.”  In its name, offerings, and even its yellow decorative highlights (which seem to blend with the yellow of the building behind it and with the logo on the phone-both at the left of the frame), Evin Imbiss provides an apt, albeit unintended, symbol of a merger of identities.

The stand portrayed in the second photo, Würstel Box, bears a straight-forward, more Germanic, generic name: Würstel being the diminutive of Wurst and Box an anglicism for kiosk.  The regular clientele of Würstel Box, however, consists of an uninterrupted day- and night-time stream of boisterous and moderately antisocial  high-volume beer drinkers drawn from nearly as many nationalities as now populate the district.

Tiger’s Box,  portrayed in the third photo, with its wonderful slogan, Tierisch Gut! (“Beastly Good!”), sells takeaway noodle dishes, bland Austro-Anatolian re-imaginings of Asian mainstays.  Note the black-lettered text on the left side of Tiger’s Box, partly obscured by the stand’s half-lowered louvered protective gate.  The full text, a vestige of the days when the very same stand sold döner kebab (nb. Middle Eastern shoarma, Greek gyros) reads: “Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen,” in English: “Eat kebab, forget your problems” — a straight-forward spiritual prescription of sufficient wisdom and simplicity to warrant adoption as a mantra.

“Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen” also reveals a linguistic shift made by the word  Kebap, a  phonetic spelling of kebab, a Turkish catch-all word for roasted or grilled, cubed, sliced, or ground, and sometimes skewered, meat dishes.  At Viennese street kiosks such kebabs are served in bread, Middle Eastern, Turkish, or traditionally Viennese. As a result, kebap transitioned from signifying meat dishes to meaning meat sandwiches, and then to meaning sandwiches in general. Going one step further, kebap made a third leap to mean snacks in general.  As evidence, note the sign at the far right of the photo: “Kebap Haus,” underscored by its very non-kebab menu:  Pizza, Schnitzel, Fisch, and, as an afterthought, Felafel.

The facade of the stand in the fourth photo has an elegant contemporary finish but the modestly small print of the menu stenciled on its display window mirrors the standard neighborhood fare visible in its interior: i.e. pizza and döner.

The stand in the fifth photo takes the word kebap a quantum leap further on a trajectory from its eastern and carnivore roots westward and vegetarian-wards via the somewhat contradictory offering of Gemüse Kebap, i.e. Vegetable Kebab.  Not surprisingly, the display window on the other side of the kiosk, not visible in the photo, betrayed an immense, slowly-turning, very non-vegetarian döner kebab.

Photographic note

All five photos were taken with with a dated and increasingly malfunctioning Fuji X100 digital camera augmented with “50mm-equivalent,” screw-on “tele” converter.  I’ve also taken a few photographs of the stands on medium format film; depending on the results, I’ll consider posting a few examples following long-overdue processing and scanning.