Pandaemonium

A MONUMENT TO RED VIENNA

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Vienna has more than its fair share of magnificent, beautiful and historically significant buildings. The Hofburg Palace, the Belvedere, Stephansdom, Schloss Schönbrunn, the Secession Building, Staatstoper, Karlskiirche, Hunderstwasshauss, Maolika Haus.

Along Helinganstädter Strasse, at the end of the U4 U-Bahn, stands a building that even its greatest admirers would not describe as magnificent or beautiful. It is, however, historically significant – though of a history that is often forgotten – and architecturally striking. The Karl Marx Hof, built between 1927 and 1930, is perhaps the greatest architectural monument to the days of ‘Red Vienna’ – the days when the city of  Vienna was a major site of working class struggle. Sometimes described as the largest council block in Europe, Karl Marx Hof, which can sometimes look like a barricade from the outside,  was a battlefield during the short-lived Austrian civil war of 1934, shelled by the army, attacked by right-wing paramilitaries, defended by its inhabitants. For both sides the building was not simply the home to thousands of working class radicals, but also symbolic of the struggle for a new Austria.

In the wake of the First World War, Austria was beset, as were many central European nations, with mass unemployment, and shocking levels of poverty and hunger. Most working class apartments in Vienna had no toilet or running water and lacked gas or electric lighting. So the city council, In the 1920s and 30s, dominated by Social Democrats who  were well to the left of social democrats elsewhere, embarked on a major project of house building and urban renewal. Sixty-four thousand flats, housing a quarter of a million people, were built in the ten year period from 1923 to 1933. The legacy can still be felt – even today more than half the population of Vienna live in subsidized public housing.

Designed by Karl Ehn – not, as it happens, ever a socialist, but an architect who was later to collaborate on Nazi projects – the Karl Marx Hof is monumental. The building is more than a kilometer-long, modernist, enlivened by flashes of art deco-ish touches, with archways, statues murals, and turrets. Where previously, public housing projects had only communal toilets and cold water taps, every apartment in Karl Marx Hof had a toilet and cold running water, and there were balconies, until then considered an aristocratic luxury that no building designed to house the working class needed. It contained schools, nurseries, washhouses, a library and a medical centre – all of which still remain. And at the centre of every block were mini-parks, dotted with playgrounds – a revolutionary shift at a time  when city flats generally opened out, if at all, into dingy airless yards, onto which other flats backed.

The days of Red Vienna are long gone. The large poster on the bus stop opposite Karl Marx Hof for Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the far-right FPO, sums up the change. Today, Karl Marx Hof can seem a bit rundown, old-fashioned, even mundane. Yet, as a symbol both of a significant moment not just in Austrian but in European history, and also of how it is possible to think of, and plan for, public housing, the Karl Marx Hof remains highly significant.

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3 comments

  1. ngir

    Again, thanks for an essential piece of history and comment – great juxtaposition of the memorial plaques to the Jews taken from the Hof and today’s FPO advert. Mind you, although my German’s not bad, I would welcome some translations of German texts, especially the dialect (Viennese?) speech-bubble on the poster – ” ‘E is my President.” ((a) voice(s) that count(s)…)(?)

  2. Great photo’s …Even though it was all very modern in its day …it looks a bit prison like doesn’t it?…..the estates built in the UK between the wars and just after WW2 were supposed to be ‘homes for hero’s’ for the working class military who managed to survive those events ….and indeed they were really ….good sized semi detatched family homes with a garden, inside loo’s and hot water etc …..Most of those are sold off now ….and today PARTICULARLY in London I understand …there is a ‘gentrification’ going on …or dare I say ‘social cleansing’ whereby folks homes are being compulsorily purchased for sums that will not buy them anything else really …oh …apart from maybe a ‘shared ownership’ which is a scam in itself in my view.
    Hmmmmm …..that poster you have pictured is a little ominous isn’t it?
    Socialism
    Facism
    Capitalism
    Maybe it’s time for a NEW way ….but where’s it going to come from? ….where will the seeds be sown and things start to shift? ….who knows? ….maybe it WILL come from J.C tho I’m not wholly convinced ….I am referring of course to Jeremy Corbyn not Jesus Christ ….Hmmmm although ….no …no …only kidding:D:D:D
    Ooh …and by the way …I ended up contacting the Grimsby Maritime Museum to check on the whereabouts of my Great Uncle’s boat ….unfortunately it had been got rid of along with a load of other boats when the museum modernised….the curator was lovely tho …sent me a picture of ‘The Better Hope’ ….it has a double meaning that name doesn’t it?:D:D:D

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