In the week the UK government unveiled a housing policy that will never work, I was in Vienna learning a bit about one that did. The wave of radical politics that swept the world after the Russian Revolution and the First World War left an indelible mark on the Austrian capital. ‘Red Vienna’ was short-lived and ended disastrously, but its legacy is a city where 30% of the population live in municipal housing and another 30% in some other form of State-funded, rent-stabilised, non-market accommodation. Unlike many other cities, Vienna has not privatised its housing and although the pressures to do so are growing, the Viennese might resist. According to someone who lives there, street homelessness is virtually unknown. This may be only one indication of a successful housing policy, but in my five days there, I didn’t see a single person sleeping rough.
What happened to Vienna’s housing between the wars has parallels with many other places, including the UK. At the turn of the 20th century, the city had a level of urban deprivation that rivaled Victorian slums elsewhere. The rate of deadly infectious resulting from insanitary, overcrowded housing led to tuberculosis being known as ‘Viennese Disease’. Although the city had pioneered advances in urban planning, this was primarily used as a showcase for the grand, imperial buildings that dot the Ringstrasse. Always a city of immigration, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 increased the population surge that had made Vienna the fifth biggest city in the world.
The aftermath of war and revolution brought demands for better housing and social conditions. The environment in the inner city had become so had that thousands of people left for the nearby countryside where they appropriated land and built there own homes and self-sufficient communities. These ‘settlements’ resemble the inter-war plotland movement in the UK and the mass post-war squatting of government land that fed into the pressure for increased investment in council housing. In Vienna, a progressive social democratic administration, elected in May 1919, undertook a municipal house building programme that created 60,000 homes, the most famous of which is the massive Karl Marx Hof in the Heilingenstadt neighbourhood, a 40-minute walk north of the city centre.
The first and most obvious thing to say about Karl Marx Hof is its architectural monumentalism. It’s almost possible to imagine members of the Politburo standing on the balconies waving and perhaps it’s this image that feeds much of the hostility to municipal housing. Construction began in 1926 and the official opening took place on 12th October 1930. There were 1,382 flats to house 5,000 people, with on-site nurseries, dentist, library, youth centre, post-office, shops and laundries (one of which now houses the Red Vienna museum), but the majority of the site was laid out as gardens and play areas, part of a city-wide provision of social welfare and recreational facilities that was also happening in many other places, reflected in the physical similarities between Karl Marx Hof and some council housing in the UK.
Around the time work was staring at Quarry Hill, Karl Marx Hof was a bastion of resistance to the rising threat of Austrofascism, led by the Christian Social Party, predecessor of today’s neo-Nazi Austrian People’s Party. Following the Anschluss in 1938, Karl Marx Hof was renamed, but restored to its original title in 1945 and preserves it despite the onslaught of corporate branding. A similar restoration has so far eluded a council block built by Bethnal Green Borough Council in 1927 and named Lenin House, but now known by the anodyne Cambridge Heath estate (and privatised).
The appalling consequences of the defeat of Red Vienna are enshrined in a plaque on the wall of Karl Marx Hof commemorating those residents who, like thousands of other Viennese, lost their homes and often their lives under the Nazis.
Wandering around the Karl Marx Hof conveys a sense of civic pride that is another reason why neoliberalism can’t live with municipalism. Building again on this scale and form may not fit with 21st century sensibilities. But it’s another reminder of a philosophy to housing and society that goes beyond the illogic of the market that even the UK Tory government admits is ‘broken’.