VIENNA'S LARGE-SCALE HOUSING DEVELOPEMENTS: ON THE LUXURY OF CONCRETE MONSTERS, THE POTENTIAL OF GREEN BUFFER STRIPS, AND OPPORTUNITIES OF MONOFUNCTIONAL TRISTESSE.
The late summer of 1977 provided a rare moment in Austria’s history of pop music. No, it wasn’t Donna Summer who, with masterly repetitions, impressive vocals, and opulent sound, intoned for almost six minutes that she “felt love,” topping the national charts at No. 1 for a full nine weeks. Rather, it was the Austrian singer-songwriter Wolfgang Ambros—singing about “the flower from municipal housing” [Die Blume aus dem Gemeindebau]—that remained in the chart for a surprising eight weeks. It was and is a rare moment in which Vienna’s municipal housing (moreover, a post-war large-scale housing estate) becomes a notable feature of pop culture. Ambros’ love song doesn’t quite celebrate, one could argue in a manner quite specific to the Viennese, the direct effect of love. No butterflies in the stomach are aroused, as Donna Summers’ track might elicit. No. Rather Ambros laments about the unattainability of the beautiful, beloved woman. Only from a distance does the hero of Ambros’ love song yearn for the lady of his heart. His compliments merely circle in his mind, as do his anxieties about losing his reputation as a womanizer. Amongst others, the love song thus illuminates a problematic and widespread patriarchal view of women: Women may be plucked like flowers, as a kind of trophy, that at best end up in a vase before wilting away.
The “flower” Ambros sings of lives in a municipal housing development in Stadlau, a neighborhood which is part of Donaustadt—Vienna’s most extensive municipal district. Seen from the historic center, Stadlau is located beyond the Danube river (on its left bank) and in the direct vicinity of the local recreation area of “Alte Donau,” with its typical allotment gardens. In those days, when Ambros sang about his “Rose from Stadlau,” the only municipal housing located there was the Siebenbürgenstrasse estate: A vast post-war and pre-fab housing development, whose first two sections were built between 1962 and 1964. Designed by architects Oskar and Peter Payer, and built in pre-fab concrete, it is comprised of 858 units, of which 846 units were one and two bedroom flats, one shop, six depots, and three units for medical practitioners. Together with the adjacent municipal housing sites, partly designed by the same architects and constructed with the same technology until 1965, the grounds formed a continuous neighborhood subjectively experienced as one estate with 1400 units, supplemented with a small shopping center. From north to south the complex extends over a distance of approximately 1.5 kilometers, only split by a major urban traffic artery (Erzherzog-Karl-Strasse), dividing the estate in a one-third to two-thirds ratio.
Already in 1977, large-scale housing developments were represented as synonymous with a drab, grey, alienated existence, a life of unfulfilled and unrealized desires, and violently suppressed fantasies. A life confined by the grey grid of the housing complex, even though some flowers seems to bloom here and there. This topos tenaciously persists to this day—both in public discourse, and various forms of cultural production. It is the uninspired “modern” architecture, the allegedly too cramped layouts, as well as the ever the same uniformity of the quasi-stenciled façades, the inhuman scale of the estates, the monotonous washed-out grey of the building materials used, and so on, that according to this narrative frames the lives of those who are forced to live there, people who are presented as losers of society. It is a topos that cannot easily be dismissed but should be taken rather seriously. One must oppose these generalizing, often purely ideologically-motivated narratives, as well as the ubiquitous, one-dimensional solutions proposed for the much-decried “large-scale housing development problem”—such as demolition and reconstruction, or hesitant, partial perimeter densification (as practiced in Vienna). By doing so one must—to a certain degree—strive to rehabilitate the image of these developments, highlighting their potentials and, in this way, begin to sketch their possible future.
The Stadlau housing development of Ambros’ song is definitely not a singular phenomenon of either Vienna or of any other Central European city. Between 1950 and 1980, the City of Vienna built a total of 50,000 municipal units in large scale housing estates. All of these estates are based on the same defining monofunctional blueprint, and with each estate comprising of at least 500 units each. This equals one fourth of all of Vienna’s municipal housing stock today, providing homes for about 125,000 people. This figure does not include flats built by limited-profit developers in the same or in a highly similar way adjacent to these municipal estates. With an average density of 1.2, they offer a kind of spatial luxury that, today, with enormous pressure for maximizing space utilization, is almost unthinkable.
As the German architectural historian Werner Durth has stated, large-scale housing developments are without doubt an “integral part of European cities” (Durth, 2010). One is inclined to agree with Durth when viewing these housing developments as part of a genealogy of political and architectural efforts embarked upon to end the miserable housing situation of the working class. Given this consideration, large-scale housing estates must be perceived as part of the modernization of the 19th-century city—a city structure which was criticized by its contemporaries as unfit for humans to live, yet today is often idealized. In any case, it is worth remembering that the genealogy of housing—and the development of European cities at large—is directly linked to the advancement of capitalism. Modern, isolated dwellings are constructs that are by no means “natural,” but specifically aim to organize the leisure and reproduction of the working class. In fact, such spaces emerged in parallel to the introduction of wage labor. In this sense, housing construction has always been part of the logic of the dominant economic model, even though various housing initiatives often view themselves as revolutionary, emancipatory political projects.
Postwar housing developments are arguably built images of the idea of leisure and reproduction in the social market economy of the post-Second World War period. Reflecting the urban ideal of the functionally differentiated city—as formulated by the 4th International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) with “The Functional City” (1933)—they affirm the cybernetic euphoria of the postwar years with industrial (Fordist) technology and models of mathematical quantification aimed at revolutionizing the construction industry.
The design of these housing developments is based on the principle of mass production and the creation of distance (between the inhabitants, the units, the blocks). On the one hand, the estates reflect the local concrete industry’s ambitions to automatize construction with prefabricated modular elements. The serial arrangement of the individual blocks mirrors this, as do their structure and the repetition of identical elements. Taking the Siebenbürgenstrasse estate as an example, it is difficult to avoid the impression that it was conceived on an abstract and idealized plane: Individual blocks are positioned at a specific distance from each other (a distance optimized for mechanical construction), and in relation to the plot boundaries of the abstract plane. On the other hand, the designs of the estates create a distance to the city and to its residents’ workplaces, not only because they were erected on the edge of the urban periphery at the time. Rather, they also created distance between the individual blocks. A distance was thus also established between residents. The negative space, the empty position of serial planning (in-between the blocks) was landscaped in such a way as to mask the industrial production of housing, as well as creating separation. Apart from the islands of toddler playgrounds—constructed according to serial, prefab principles with obligatory sandboxes—the available open spaces were not conceived as landscapes for appropriation or leisure activities. Along the perimeters of the estates, the remaining spaces were used for private car parking and planted with trees. Along the circulation paths inside of the estates, the landscape was designed with green buffer strips, which, taken on their own, resemble the image of a romantic landscape that is, however, accessed via linearly optimized paths, somewhat like a conveyor belt. It is a landscape that residents are not allowed to use but may contemplate only from their living-room windows. In keeping with the ideal of functional differentiation, these urban quarters serve only for living, sleeping, and consuming everyday commodities. They are places to spend free time in, and time-off from work.
published in: IBAWien 2022, future.lab (eds., 2020): New Social Housing, Positions on the IBAVienna 2022
Bauer, Otto (1919). Der Weg zum Sozialismus, Chapter 4 (“Die Arbeiterausschüsse”), Complete Works (German edition), Vol. 2, p.104-108, here p. 106-107.
Durth, Werner (2012). Große Wohnsiedlungen als Bestandteil der europäischen Stadt, in: Weidemüller, Dagmar (ed., 2012). Klimaschutz und Energiewende. Potentiale der großen Wohnsiedlungen. Berlin: Kompetenzzentrum Großsiedlungen e.V., p. 10-25.
Wandering through these car-free urban quarters on a summer day, it is difficult to avoid associations with rambling Mediterranean holiday resorts somewhere in the South, that just by their bigness would qualify as potential neighborhood centers, if activated. Fifty years after their completion, these estates, viewed from the street, disappear behind a dense forest of trees. On the inside, the often exquisite and differentiated greenery has attained its full splendor. The space inside of these estates is often astonishing, sometimes uncannily tranquil and contemplative. There is hardly anybody about, apart from the gardeners employed by the municipality tending to the greenery. In the summer months, they are busy mowing the grass and pruning the luxuriant tree stock. The paths crossing the urban quarters are as long and monotonous as ever before.
Time has not stopped for the concrete structures either. If judged exclusively from a qualifying angle, it is true that their thermal and acoustic performance, nor their access routes, no longer correspond to modern requirements, or to state-of-the-art desires. However, the layouts, with all the peculiarities of early prefab concrete construction, are still well-designed and, at least in the case of the better ones, often superior to new buildings with regard to space-use and spatial organization, since postwar planning did not have to meet with the glut of current industry standards. In short, both the projects and the buildings themselves present their own charm and their own qualities, much like any other building or urban quarter with some history. However, contrary to the Gründerzeit buildings, which are often idealized in Vienna, their particularities still need to be discovered and seek to be activated.
Yet the past fifty years have also left their traces on the residents of the Siebenbürgen estate as well. The young lover of Ambros’ song is likely to be a seventy-five-year-old pensioner. Perhaps he did work up the courage to talk to his “rose,” or perhaps he fell in love (happily, let’s hope) at some later date. Statistically, he is likely to have married and fathered 1.6 children. He probably worked for the same company until retirement. And if he still lives in this housing development, the chances that he still votes for the Social Democratic Party are just fifty percent.
The 2015 figures for typical housing developments (available to me) reveal an unemployment and retirement quota that is average compared with the rest of Vienna. By all accounts, too, resident satisfaction with these housing estates is average. At the same time, current electoral district visualizations for Vienna’s large-scale housing estates resemble a tilting image that does not compare with the city as a whole. The estates clearly highlight how the former voter base of the Social Democratic Party nowadays tends to support the right-wing, nationalist Freedom Party. The vote returns of recent parliamentary elections, for example, present ratios of 38 vs. 35, 42 vs. 35 or 39 vs. 34 percent, one time the electoral districts of which the large-scale housing estates are part of, are colored red (Social Democratic), while another time they show up dyed in blue (Freedom Party).
Moreover, one must recall that the public discourse on what constitutes adequate housing space—and an adequate housing environment—has shifted somewhat over the past fifty years. This relates in particular to the municipal housing model, and the idea of a housing provision for all, in keeping with the objectives of a just distribution of resources, and a socially diverse city. It seems it is precisely this discourse that makes residents of such housing developments “modernization losers.” An illustrative example of this link is provided by the discussion over who is, and who is not, entitled to a municipal flat: In 2012, Peter Pilz, a member of Parliament from the Green Party, was publicly attacked by the Freedom Party (and their media campaign) for living in a municipal housing development, despite his above-average income. The argument that followed claimed that Pilz—by living in a municipal flat—was depriving poor or disadvantaged people from an affordable home. This sort of debate defines municipal housing generally in the spirit of neoliberal ideas, i.e. as dwellings exclusively destined for those in society who count as “losers,” people who are unable to afford a flat at market conditions. Among estate residents, such a debate tends to generate aggression vis-à-vis their own “fate,” and life conditions, identified as dismal and as a result of lacking, for instance; a “useful“ education, earning too little to afford a flat at free-market conditions, not living in a fulfilling relationship, or even being lonely.
Postwar large-scale housing estates represent a dense mesh of different aspects that must be taken into account in order to conceive of interventions. On the one hand, this concerns the serial urban design, architecture, and landscape planning of these estates, all of which reflect the economic-industrial ideology of the postwar era. On the other hand, “soft facts,” such as the specific discourse on the legacy of modernism, as well as the general social housing debate, come into play here too. If these urban housing estates are to be taken seriously, I recommend not only quantifying but in particular qualifying their potentials, in addition to their deficits. Only the qualification of large-scale housing estates will disclose the “spaces of opportunity” inherent in these urban quarters for the future of the city and its inhabitants.
On an urban level, Vienna’s large-scale housing estates qualify as car-free neighborhood centers. With respect to their ownership structure, extension, and comparatively low development density, they qualify for densification and continued development of a type that complements available housing options—in line with current requirements and in particular, aims at enlivening the estates by means of a programmatic combination of different forms of use. Further construction and densification activities would allow for a spatial restructuring of the interstices inside the estates, thereby incorporating the extensive landscape that has grown over time, and in the process would create more compact-sized neighborhoods. What is also evidently required is a positive vision for the large-scale housing developments—and the urban community as a whole, in order to combat the current prevalent neoliberal discourse, specifically the negative connotations attached to the estates. A vision that inter alia abandons the demand-oriented and hierarchical idea of socialist administrative practice and, as already demanded by Austro-Marxist visionary Otto Bauer in 1919, releases municipal housing estates into self-administration (Bauer 1919 106f.). A vision that turns away from the “Viennese” lament—as exemplified in the song by Wolfgang Ambros—and instead draws closer to the more affirmative attitude of Donna Summer, in this way letting the flowers of the projects bloom.