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

Thursday 17 March 2016

The Hundertwasser Museum at Kunst Haus Wien, and the Hundertwasser Haus

A most unusual artist and architect, whose work defies categorisation

All that I knew about Hundertwasser was that he was an artist who was also responsible for a crazy, colourful building in Vienna, the Hundertwasser House. I had always imagined that it was far away in the outskirts of the city, and had not got round to visiting it on previous short trips connected with the European Congress of Radiology. This time, however, with a week of leave tacked on after the congress, we decided to pay a visit, and discovered that it was actually within walking distance of the city centre. We also realised that close to the Hundertwasser House was Kunst Haus Wien, which houses the Hundertwasser museum as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions, so we decided to visit this first. Just as well, as this was an excellent opportunity to learn about him.

Born in Vienna in1928 as Friedrich Stowasser (he adopted the name Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1949), he was a most extraordinary chap. He developed his own style and was not affiliated to any of the other contemporary artistic movements. He seems to have been a real one-off. The Hundertwasser Museum in Kunst Haus Wien has a large collection of his work, including paintings, graphic work, applied art, and tapestry.

Hundertwasser was also an environmentalist and architectural thinker. He is probably better known as an architect than as a painter, in fact. Although he had no formal architectural training, he worked on architectural projects, and many of them were built in collaboration with trained architects.

Kunst Haus Wien was originally the Thonet factory (makers of the famous bentwood chairs), built in 1892, but it was remodelled to Hundertwasser’s design and opened in 1991. The result is a fantastic, colourful, irregular, joyful and beautiful creation. The façade is an amazing patchwork of colour and texture, with the odd trees sticking out of a window.

The pavement outside undulates, as does the floor inside ...

... and the visitor is greeted by a sign explaining why this is so.
“The flat floor is an invention of architects. It fits engines - not human beings”

The interior surfaces are covered with painted panels, tiles, bricks, and recycled materials. There are fountains and plants. Most of the lines and surfaces are curved. It's delightful.

(this one is in the gentlemen's toilet)

There's also a charming vegetarian cafe in the Kunst Haus Wien, serving rather good food.

Hundertwasser was an environmentalist, and a believer in the rights of individuals. His architectural projects often had grass roofs. He described the trees growing out of the windows of his buildings as “tree tenants”, who paid rent by creating oxygen, cleaning the environment, providing shade, and so on.

Another of his ideas was that of “Window Right”
A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm's reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm's reach, so that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door.
And why not?

In the Hundertwasser Museum we also learnt about Regentag, the motorsailer which was his home and studio for 10 years. She had started life as a freighter, which he bought in 1967, and modified over the years, increasing her length from 12 to 15 metres, and adding two masts and sails.

After spending some years around Venice and in the Mediterranean, Regentag went on a long voyage to the West Indies, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti and New Zealand. She sank in 1995 and was salvaged, then coated with ferro-cement and further modified in 1999 -2000. Hundertwasser died in 2000 on board the liner Queen Elizabeth II, and was buried in New Zealand.  In 2004, Regentag was transported to Tulln, in Lower Austria, where she remains at anchor today (brochure).

More about Regentag here, including a link to a short video.

From the Kunst Haus Wien we made our way down the road to the Hudertwasser Haus. Built in 1983 -1985, it had a lot in common with Kunst Haus Wien, with its colours, curved surfaces and crazy columns, and was a delight.

We couldn't go inside as it was a residential building, butI did wonder I wonder what the apartments were like. I looked to see if one of the them might be available to rent on AirBnB, but didn’t find any.

It was a fascinating day out which left me wanting to find out more about Hundertwasser, his work, and his philosophy.

More about Hundertwasser here:
There is a list of his buildings in his Wikipedia entry.

The Kunst Haus Wien and Hundertwasser House websites are also excellent and informative.

Kunst Haus Wien
Untere Weissgerberstrasse 13, 1030 Vienna

Hundertwasser House
Kegelgasse 36-38, 1030 Vienna