This walk was crafted to help visitors encounter an era of Vienna that is truly off the beaten trail, one which travellers seldom manage to discover on their own even though it is well worth the excursion. The end of World War I brought about the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire and with it the disappearance overnight of six hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule. In this moment of shocking transition, Austria was changed forever from the capital of a powerful empire to the major city of a small republican country. Marking this seismic transformation, the elections held in 1919 saw the socialists win the absolute majority in Vienna’s city government, a position of power they kept hold of until 1934, a fifteen year window which is now known as “Red Vienna”.
Unsurprisingly, the new socialist city government was full of ideals and ambitions for how they could lead Vienna out of the rubble of Austria’s defeat and into a new era. Many of the political leaders that rose to prominence in this moment of startling change had earnest aspirations to create a more equal society with better conditions for Vienna’s teeming lower class population. To that end, they introduced numerous legislative initiatives in the areas of labors rights and public housing. While tourists understandably flock to view Vienna’s imperial palaces, legendary coffee houses, and regal museums, very few travelers ever experience the fascinating and gargantuan art deco public housing estates that were built in the 1920s and 30s on the outskirts of the city. But 60,000 such new apartments were constructed between 1925 and 1934, apartments that came to house a full ten percent of the postwar Viennese population. An exploration of these complexes reveals the reformist and utopian ideologies that dominated Vienna for this shortlived, ephemeral 15 year window “between the wars.” These estates are striking to wander through and discuss because they were built to be ideal worlds with small but practical housing units, common baths, public squares and communal green areas, with spaces allotted for shops, libraries, theaters, kindergartens, medical clinics, laundromats and political clubs.
During this walk, you visit two such “council” estates, first the most famous and largest, “The Karl Marx Hof” (1927-1930) dubbed the “Ringstrasse of the Proletariot” and built by urban planner Karl Ehn, a follower of the city’s famous Art Nouveau architect, Otto Wagner. A short metro ride away, we visit the Reumannhof (1924) . In the company of a historian, you will learn about the political vision behind the civic functions incorporated into these housing complexes as well as the sophisticated modern aesthetic philosophies that were boldly introduced into the buildings’ designs in the hopes of creating humble but charming and beautiful details in an Art Deco vernacular to provide lower middle class and working class Viennese with a new sense of community, sociability and social uplift.
While our walk unabashedly celebrates the little known populism that flourished in Vienna during this period (a populism which provides a striking contrast to the imperial splendor which tourists are routinely served as the “end all and be all” of Viennese history), we also frankly discuss the clumsy propaganda of the socialist politicians and the naïve failings of their attempts to produce a utopian solution the massive postwar social problems of the city. The years of “Rote Wien” were by no means life on the bright side. In the end, insurmountable economic devastation led both to the defeat of Vienna’s socialist minute and to the Nazi’s takeover of Austria in 1938. Nevertheless, we cannot say that Vienna’s socialists failed to predict their own fragility. It is also no coincidence that even while these estates were designed to promote a new ethos of public health, sociability and communal identity, they resemble fortresses. They were equally intended to be easy to defend in case of attack. In fact, we could say that, Red Vienna’s socialist politicians and their architects were prophets in this regard. in 1934, thousands of the residents of the Karl Marx Hof complex barricaded themselves inside against the rise of the fascist to power and held off the estate, in a three day revolt that was only crushed by the use of heavy artillery against the buildings (buildings still occupied by women and children).