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Learning From Red Vienna

As Los Angeles searches for ways to solve its housing crisis, some policy makers are turning to a somewhat unlikely location for inspiration: Vienna, Austria.

After World War I, Vienna, formerly the seat of one of the most powerful monarchies on the planet, found itself in a relatively small democratic country. Good housing was in dire need. Existing stock was expensive, overcrowded, and engendered poor quality of life (small spaces for several people, few windows, common toilet facilities).

Vienna was both a province and a city, which allowed control over its own taxing powers. The newly elected Social Democratic Party used those powers to fund an ambitious agenda of building massive public housing blocks in almost every neighborhood of the city. The Gemeindebauten, or municipal housing projects, were started around 1918 and continued until 1934. The period is now referred to as “Red Vienna.”

The superblocks provided relatively small one-bedroom/one-bath units by today’s standards, but they were a significant upgrade from the available housing stock. Vienna employed some 200 architects to build more than 380Gemeindebauten, creating 60,000 new apartments in a 15-year period. Rentals were not limited to the lowest income tenants, but embraced a wide variety of socio-economic classes to ensure diversity.

The Gemeindebauten were built in a variety of architectural styles, some drawing from the surrounding neighborhood context, others in more avant-garde modern designs. Architects within the community hotly debated what the styles should be, however all projects responded to the integration of landscape, light, and social services into these superblocks. Every project sought to engage the neighborhoods and communities around them.

Built between 1927 and 1930, the Karl Marx Hof was designed by Karl Ehn (1884-1957). It remains the model of the Gemeindebauten, offering grand archways, public art, large courtyards, and landscaped gardens.

In 1933, the chancellor of Austria suspended the country’s parliament. The following year, the new authoritarian national government took national power. Four years later, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany. Yet, the legacy of Vienna today is less about its capitulation to the Nazis and more about the ongoing utility of the Gemeindebauten. Vienna is one of the most reasonable big cities for renters in Europe today.

As Los Angeles grapples with its own housing crisis, can it learn from Vienna? What applies? What doesn’t? Can it adapt any of these lessons to rethink a city in a whole new way? Join me on Saturday, January 27th at the Neutra Office Building in Silver Lake as the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design hosts a free symposium exploring the policies of Red Vienna and Los Angeles’ housing needs.

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