Leftist Urbanism and Red Vienna

Thanks to a pointer from Claudia Thiem I found this short exploration of the origins and form of Red Vienna — a few decades between the world wars when the city of Vienna had a robust social democratic government, and almost city-state like autonomy. They decided to implement constructive socialist policies at the scale of the city. But it apparently wasn’t just socialism happening in the city, rather it was a more comprehensive leftist urbanism. I’ve heard a lot about this period, but haven’t found a good English language text to read yet.  If you have one to suggest, please let me know!

Red Vienna seems especially interesting in its contrast to other socialist development schemes. Austrian socialism was explicitly pro-city, rather than romanticizing and idealizing the rural peasant (or yeoman farmer… if you prefer Thomas Jefferson).  What happens when leftists wholeheartedly embrace the city as their platform for change instead of heading back to the land?  There’s so much more opportunity for connection and communication and interaction with each other and the other facets of society in cities — and much more in the way of economic opportunity to work with.

More than social housing: a leftist urbanism

Obviously plenty of other socialist governments built housing in cities — but typically in the deeply anti-urban form of isolated repetitive towers or apartment blocks. In Vienna the socialist project didn’t just happen to take place in the city, it was about re-imagining the city as a platform for equitable living.

…the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. [It] was a project to change society by changing the city…

Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna

Austro-Marxist theory held that the city offered positive cultural and social advantages to the proletariat. It was a stimulant to body and intellect, and it was the locus of the creative energy and the social progress that were shaping the modern world.

Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna

The city was understood to be a useful scale for this work, both physically and politically. They changed the things they could change locally, and still acknowledged that they were embedded with a greater system, and needed to pragmatically relate to that system.

Capitalism cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.

Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna, 1919

For instance, the urban re-development (which built 60,000 flats in 15 years, housing 220,000 people) was funded by largely by property and luxury taxes that primarily affected the wealthy property owners in the city. The money raised by the city was deployed to create decent housing for workers, which was then rented out at the cost of operations and maintenance — the capital costs were written off.  This kept rents low (as low as 4% of a typical worker’s wages) which was important, because the city needed to keep wages low in order to keep its labor pool competitive in the wider market. Rather than fighting for higher wages locally, which likely would have caused capital and production to flee, they re-allocated the immobile wealth held in the land and location.

Evolutionary Architecture

The architecture of the ~400 Gemeindebauten, designed by ~200 different architects, wasn’t obviously revolutionary. It was meant to integrate into the existing city.

The Gemeindebauten… were urban apartment blocks inserted into the existing urban fabric… At first glance [they] appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks

Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna

However, tthey were different from the existing exclusive perimeter blocks in subtle ways that mattered. Ways that sound similar to what makes good co-housing architecturally much more than just “condos with potlucks.”

Not only is the Karl-Marx-Hof much larger than the traditional Viennese apartment building, but it also choreographs a carefully modulated entry sequence in its plan: from the public space of the street, into the semipublic space of the courtyard, to the communal space of the facilities (kindergartens, laundries, libraries, etc.), located in it, to the private spaces of the apartments.

Eve Blau, Re-Visiting Red Vienna

It’s physically the same city — the mid-rise, mixed-use, mostly pedestrian city that has been working well for hundreds if not thousands of years — but slightly re-organized to serve different people.

Plan view of two Gemeindebauten in Vienna, highlighting how they integrate seamlessly with the existing urban form.
Heinrich Schmidt and Hermann Aichinger, Rabenhof and am Fuchsfeld, Vienna, 1927

This kind of re-development couldn’t be more different from slum clearing and “urban renewal” projects of the Robert Moses era. And it’s stood the test of time — whereas many of our towers have decayed or been demolished, these buildings still exist, and still provide affordable housing to a wide spectrum of residents. 60% of Vienna’s population lives in the 420,000 units of social housing the city now hosts, and the city’s housing costs are around half those of Zürich.

Aerial View of Social Housing in Vienna
Aerial view of one of the above pictured Gemeindebauten today, via Google Maps.

What would a leftist urbanism look like today? How can we make our cities into thriving places for everyone? Blau suggests that the modest apartments, and the social housing itself even with all of the shared facilities, was really just a small part of the mental space Vienna was trying to reallocate to its working population. There were trying to make a shared city where everyone had a role to play in its creation. They had a vision for what a successful city looks like.

The unholy alliance of leftists and the anti-development CAVE people certainly isn’t it. The mass redistribution of urban land-based wealth that Red Vienna pulled off is certainly attractive — and seems to be what many democratic socialists in the US idealize, but holding out for that while working alongside wealthy homeowners seems… not pragmatic.

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