For nearly a century, Vienna’s Gemeindebauten have gotten municipal housing projects right
Picture the clusters of typical multistoried apartment buildings speckled across Vienna: the ones with hanging balconies, sometimes enclosing well-manicured residential court-yards brought to life with the exciting chatter of families and children. Anyone unfamiliar with the city could be forgiven for mistaking them with private luxury condominiums: in fact, these are Gemeindebauten, social housing projects.
Often dismissed as crime-ridden slums offering subpar living conditions elsewhere, housing projects are entirely different in Vienna. The remarkable vision of the Gemeindebau blurs lines between rich and poor, shattering the stigma of social housing projects with an estimated 500,000 citizens living comfortably in around 2,000 municipal-funded or subsidized buildings. Over the years, Vienna’s social housing concept has garnered international attention. As Vienna is a melting pot of architectural epochs with buildings that tell of empire, civil wars and sieges, the Gemeindebau compounds have a rich history as well. Old and new, they make up a significant part of the cityscape, from the huge Alt-Erlaa compound in the 23rd district to the Lindenhof in the 18th and the Fontanastraße Gemeinde-bau to be completed by autumn 2019 – just to name a few.
To unravel the secrets of attractive social housing, I traveled to the Karl-Marx-Hof, one of the largest, oldest and most recognizable Gemeindebauten, where a museum in the former laundry room documents the history of municipal housing in Vienna and the social democratic administrations that promoted it (see “Detergent, Knackwurst and Socialism, MET Feb 2018). Initially, it was the collapsed economy at the end of WWI, hyperinflation, mass unemployment and overcrowded, two-bedroom apartments that sparked a dire need for new housing. Mayor Karl Seitz, who took office in 1923, began implementing communal housing projects that brought “light, air, and sun” back into the city, as the party manifesto put it. This relieved the strained working class from impoverished living conditions, creating communal living spaces that felt utopian at the time: Laundry rooms, bathhouses, kindergartens, supermarkets, schools, care and health facilities made the earliest Gemeindebau projects nearly self-sufficient.
By 1934, when the Austrian civil war saw the end of Social Democrat rule in Vienna, 63,000 communal apartments had been erected in new, affordable housing projects, paid for by a special tax.
Many of these first-generation Gemeindebauten are integral to the city’s architectural heritage: Ornate, charming and resembling a socialist version of art deco, projects like the Rabenhof or Karl-Marx-Hof became iconic, an enduring symbol of the success of Red Vienna. One of the model projects was the Gartenstadt Jedlesee, a garden city design in Floridsdorf that was renamed Karl-Seitz-Hof after the mayor following his death. With more than 1,000 homes curving around a courtyard, its monumental front and raised middle sections were based on a model by Otto Wagner. Its architecture is typical of the period, built on the early Aufgelockerten Superblock (loosened superblock) layout: huge, multistory residential buildings, still spanning several blocks today.
The Suburbs Of Tomorrow
After the chaos of WWII, city hall was back in Social Democrat hands and picked up almost where it left off, and while more recent Gemeindebauten lack the stylistic panache of the interwar period, the system has remained largely in place. Ranked highest for quality of living by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey for the ninth year in a row, Vienna seems to hold a secret formula for innovative subsidized social housing. The Viennese approach is fairly straightforward though: funding and cooperation. Pouring nearly €5 billion into new construction since 1994, the public sector works hand in hand with private enterprise to build affordable housing, with developers competing for projects on public land that follow strict rules for optimum land use, environmental and social sustainability and cost-effectiveness. The best proposals are accepted, and the government allocates a certain proportion of homes to lower-income residents.
One of the biggest recent social housing projects, Aspern – Die Seestadt Wiens, is right next to its own designated subway station on the U2. Designed by the Swedish Architect Johannes Tovatt in 2014 and expected to be completed by 2028, its ambition is comparable to its predecessors’ in the 1920s: a city-within-a-city, the area is a lively green hub of shops, restaurants, apartments, and offices enclosing a lake.
“Seestadt is like an independent little city outside of Vienna. Sometimes it feels a bit cut off from the world, but it has everything you could possibly need,” Serina Satti tells me. A university student who moved to Vienna in 2012 after growing up in the US, Satti is not fond of living on the outskirts, but this is offset by the desire to live in a new urban space that led her family to Seestadt. “It was a huge change-up for me, but I can say that this certainly beats the American dream any day for me,” she muses. “We were able to realize the needs and wishes of the citizens in planning Aspern Seestadt in the best possible way: an attractive, modern district with plenty of green spaces and apartments,” says Ingrid Spörk, head of communications for Aspern Development AG, citing a study on resident satisfaction by the Institute of Sociology of the University of Vienna, the Center of Competence for Social Work of the FH Campus and the district management of Seestadt.
At the core of the Gemeindebau system is the housing association Wiener Wohnen that oversees, manages and refurbishes 220,000 residential apartments. Renting municipal apartments requires a “Wiener Wohn-Ticket,” (Vienna Living Ticket) issued by the Wohnberatung Wien, which rents out around 10,000 municipal apartments each year.
“Social housing should not only offer homes, but also a starting point for a better and healthier life,” says Renate Billeth of Wiener Wohnen. With dwellings scattered throughout all 23 districts, creating well-functioning neighborhoods is at the forefront of the organization’s aims. Through this geographical diversity, there’s no space to marginalize communities. “This certainly distinguishes municipal housing construction in Vienna from other cities,” she says.
Indeed, the Gemeindebau is also at the core of Viennese consciousness, not least because they once housed local heroes like journalist and Mayor Helmut Zilk, pop legend Falco and today’s cloud-rap sensation Yung Hurn, known for singing about the ebbs and flows of Gemeindebau life in the 22nd district. Culture vultures have long taken the Rabenhoftheater into their hearts: initially constructed between 1925-1930 as a workers’ assembly hall, then converted to a cinema to educate workers, it has survived into the 21st century as an independent urban stage.
The many Gemeindebau clichés have greatly informed Viennese entertainers, from Austro-pop singer Wolfgang Ambros’ 1986 love ballad, “Die Blume aus dem Gemeindebau,” (Flower of the Gemeindebau), to the 1993 cult comedy Muttertag (Mother’s Day), which lampooned life in the Alt Erlaa project; there’s even a reality show on ATV called “Wir Leben im Gemeindebau” (We live in a Gemeindebau).
Die blume aus dem gemeindebau (Wolfgang Ambros)
All in all, it seems that in a world riddled with housing crises, that nearly render affordable homes a myth, Vienna’s solution may just be the golden key to social housing gone right.