In Rebel Modernists, Liane Lefaivre traces 120 years of Viennese design since Otto Wagner.


Urban design has a long and distinguished history in Vienna. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s most liveable cities, it has repeatedly produced beyond its size and been a front-runner in progressive architecture for well over a century. And that, argues Professor Ordinarius at the Academy of Applied Arts Liane Lefaivre, owes much to Otto Wagner, “Vienna’s first modernist rebel.”

In Rebel Modernists: Viennese Architecture Since Otto Wagner, Lefaivre assembles the vast architectural changes of the last 120 years into one work for the first time, bound in a stunning edition by Lund Humphries and packed with crisp and striking illustrations of many of the featured structures: Karl Schmalhofer and Otto Nadel’s Amalienbad in the 10th district, Harry Glück’s Wohnpark at Alt Erlaa and the ultramodern Martin Luther church in Hainburg, designed by Viennese avant-garde group Coop Himmelb(l)au, are among the few to earn a full page. Lefaivre discerns three “golden ages” over this period: the fin de siècle birth of modernism, beginning with Wagner’s impassioned and provocative 1896 essay Modern Architecture; Red Vienna, the interwar years when revolutionary Gemeinde bauten dominated the cityscape that lasted until the 1934 civil war; and the postwar return to social housing under 1970s
Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, which lives on today.

REDEFINING URBANIS

Wagner is seen as the defining hero and his provocative essay Modern Architecture his rebel yell. His career is pitched as a battle of “modern against anti-modern,” a progressive against stifling conservatism. While the city was reveling in its recently constructed Ringstraße and historicist monuments, a project the young architect cut his teeth on, Wagner was formulating a vision for a new type of city he eventually outlined in his 1911 work Die Großstadt – of social well-being, communal living and fluidity of modern transport – that informs Viennese urban planning even now. “The tradition of exceptionally inventive, well-conceived and well-managed social housing, glimpsed over a century ago by Otto Wagner, has not only become deeply
ingrained in the mentality of the architectural profession but also has continued evolving and adapting to new realities.”

MODEL SOCIAL HOUSING

As shown with the Gemeindebauten of Red Vienna and their return during the Kreisky era, the Viennese realized a model that is unique across Europe, both for its social and
economic benefits – a way to comfortably and affordably house large numbers in a manner that encourages integration and community. By 1934, with 348 Gemeindebau estates completed in just 14 years, a tenth of the city was living in municipal housing. The success has been nurtured to the point where today, Lefaivre states, “60 percent of Vienna’s population lives in it, paying around €7 per square meter in rent.”

It’s an important role model for other cities like London, where communal spaces are rapidly being closed, rent is skyrocketing and what social housing there is falls well below living standards (see Grenfell Tower). Having seen the wealth disparity during Vienna’s Gilded Age, “Wagner called for strong state interventionism as a means of regulating excessive speculation.” Lefaivre argues these stringent regulations and continued investment in social housing are key factors behind the city’s success.

“Spending on housing and infrastructure creates jobs; jobs create income, and the higher the income level, the bigger the tax base,” she writes. The 2008 financial crisis that resulted in unemployment rates above 10 percent in the Eurozone measured a mere 4.3 percent in Austria. From the Hundertwasserhaus in the 3rd district, to Harry Glück’s Wohnpark in the 23rd, “Vienna’s social housing [remains] committed to the tradition of community.” Moreover, incentives continue to draw some of the city’s biggest names in architecture, creating a thread of prestige and innovation between these and more upscale projects. “The result is that Vienna is an exceptional example of a socially just city.”