Thursday, 24 March 2016

Karl Marx Hof

Monumentality for the people, built on a human scale
On the last day of our trip to Vienna, we decided to see Karl Marx Hof. This is a famous social housing complex built during the time when the city was known as “Red Vienna” (1918 - 1934). After the end of the Habsburg empire--at the end of the Great War--Austria became a republic with a democratically-elected government, in which the left-wing social democrats formed the majority. There were severe housing problems in Vienna, and the city embarked on a massive public housing programme. Karl Marx Hof was one of these housing projects, built between 1927 and 1930, by Karl Ehn, a pupil of Otto Wagner (who built the Postssparkasse I wrote about in a previous post).

I had been aware of this building for a long time but had never visited because the district of Heiligenstadt, where it located, is at the end of the U4 underground line. Like London's District Line, the U4 is coloured green on the maps, and I had assumed that a trip to Heiligenstadt would be like travelling to Kew or  Barking. But Vienna is not London, and Heiligenstadt is only a few minutes away from the centre. Yes, it's also the Heiligenstadt of Beethoven's testament.

The moment you step out of the station, Karl Marx Hof is right there across the street, directly in front of you, with its red stepped towers and massive arches immediately recognisable to anyone with an interest in 20th century architecture. The building certainly makes an impact, and it was quite a thrill to see it.
From the few photographs I had seen, I had expected something massive, forbidding, faceless and totalitarian. Not at all. It's monumental, but on a human scale. The building is often described as fortress-like, and  it is enormous. It’s over 1 kilometre long (1100 metres, in fact), making it possibly the longest housing development in the world. However, it's not particularly tall: mostly about 6 or 7 storeys high. The facade and elevation are much more complex than I had expected. There's a lot of fine detail and texture. 

The grand arches lead into internal courtyards overlooked by the apartments, with gardens and play areas, and other amenities. This is what lies behind the heroic street facade: housing on a human scale, well proportioned outdoor spaces for the residents, fine detailing. Remember that this was housing for working class people, built between 1927 and 1930.

When the Hof was built, every apartment had its own balcony, cold water supply and toilet, which was revolutionary for social housing of the period. Before that time, the working classes had to share communal toilets with their neighbours. Balconies were only for the rich. Not only did this project provide all of the aforementioned, there were also kindergartens, clinics and divers other amenities. 
Originally, the communal facilities also included baths and laundries, which are now no longer in use, the apartments having been modernised many years ago. Wash-house no 2 is now a little museum with a display about Red Vienna. It's only open on Thursdays and Sundays, something to bear in mind if you're planning a visit. The captions are all in German, but I think it’s worth a visit even if you don’t understand the language.

The flats are said to be rather small by Viennese standards. I haven’t been inside but you can see an example in this video, and get an impression of what one of them is like. To most Londoners I think it wouldn't seem too bad.

In the area around Karl Marx Hof there are examples of social housing built during later periods, less distinctive, rather conservative for their time, but well-mannered and attractive nevertheless.
I was rather taken by the mosaics  at the entrances to one of the developments, depicting ordinary people at work and at leisure.

Here are couple of articles on Karl Marx Hof I found interesting:

Vienna's Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology - a history of cities in 50 buildings, day 24. Owen Hatherley. 27 April 2015 Guardian

Karl-Marx-Hof: The Kilometre-Long Apartment Building. kuschk. 21 April 2011 The Basement Geographer

Karl Marx Hof

“Red Vienna”
Wash House No. 2
Halteraugasse 7
1190 Wien
Opening hours
Thu. 13.00 – 18.00
Sun. 12.00 – 16.00
or by appointment

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