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.
Passive Passion is a good 20 minute long film introduction to the German Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, which reduces building energy use by 80-95% (depending on what existing code you compare it to). It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a few examples from the tens of thousands of Passivhaus certified buildings in Europe, including single family homes, row houses, apartment buildings, public low income housing, and office buildings. They talk about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. The film also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize the cost effective implementation of these methods. It’s clearly possible. The examples are out there today. We just have to decide to do it! If we’re going to get to carbon zero, someday our buildings will all have to function something like this.
Passive Passion is a great 20 minute long documentary about the German Passive House energy efficiency standard. It looks at the roots of the design standard in Germany, and gives a bunch of examples of implementations in Europe, from single family homes to row houses, apartment buildings, public housing, office buildings, etc. Talks about what makes the standard work: airtight building envelopes, super insulation, no thermal bridging, heat recovering ventilation. Also looks at a few builders and designers in the US trying to popularize these methods, and do it cost effectively. Clearly it’s possible, we just have to decide to do it!
The Empowerhouse is an affordable, net-zero Passivhaus design, that came out of the Solar Decathlon competition. In collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, the team as built a duplex in the Washington DC area that is site net-zero, despite having the smallest solar array of any of the homes entered in the competition. It was able to do this because it took a Passivhaus approach, aggressively minimizing all loads first, sealing the building nearly airtight, and super-insulating it. They also integrated a rooftop garden and terrace. By sharing the heat management equipment between the two relatively small units, they were able to reduce costs substantially. All this means the low income residents will spend much, much less on energy over the lifetime of the building. We need more affordable housing that looks like this.
A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.
Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.
Design Explorations of the Lower Colorado River, a landscape architecture course taught by a friend of mine at Cal Poly, in which the Colorado River is taken to be the primary client, and human needs are assumed to be real, but secondary. All we have left is gardening. We might as well do a good job of it!