Monday, January 03, 2005
Red Vienna? Brilliant!
As I was reading Anthony Tung’s Preserving the World’s Greatest Cities (A Wonderful book that I will review in full when I finish it) this weekend, I came across an extremely important and enlightening chapter entitled “Historic Preservation and Social Conscience,” which featured Vienna, Austria. As a subsection to the chapter Tung covers “Red Vienna,” which unbeknownst to me, was a period of progressive socialism in Vienna during the early 20th century. This impressive period produced one of the most innovative and intelligent public housing policies in modern history. Though America has always struggled ideologically with socialism, Red Vienna’s housing policy was a program that regardless of its ideological origin, should have been mimicked as soon as the American federal government decided that they should offer housing to those who could not always provide there own.
In short, Red Vienna’s housing policy supported close to ten percent of the cities population (200,000) within 400 housing “blocks” dispersed throughout the city. All of these housing projects, which were completely unlike America’s conception of a housing project, were built within 15 years and were accompanied by the creation of facilities like health clinics, playgrounds, theatres, shops, and green space. Integrating these services into the overall public housing plan ensured more economic equality, and gave the lower economic classes in Vienna a great sense of dignity, as well as access to all the pleasures of urban living that meet the panoply of human needs.
Yet, the entire public housing program in Vienna could not have been possible without the Federal Rent Control Act of 1922. This act helped ensure that the average rental rate within the city would be less than 5% of an individual’s salary – a concept that today could not be any more foreign to the average urban dweller in the western world. Although the rental freeze program enveloped close to 25% of the cities annual budget, it significantly decreased the profitability of speculative real estate development. The rental freeze decreased the value of Vienna’s land, which helped the burgeoning city purchase cheap land on the open market. This allowed the City of Vienna to double its land holdings from 17% to 34% of the total land mass within the city’s limits. The city then created a graduated tenant rental tax that focused on taxing the wealthy and their luxury apartments, which kept rental rates affordable for the poor and generated 40% of the money needed for the cost of its ambitious public housing policy.
Though the creation of rent control, the graduated tenant tax, and the suppression of the speculative real estate market were essential components in the creation of a successful public housing policy, they were merely a representation of the larger ideological framework from which the city was operating. That is to say, the leaders of Red Vienna envisioned a collective humanist society where the poor were not to be marginalized from the social and cultural achievements of a city that was entering the rapidly industrializing world of the 20th century. (Wow! A society that cares just as much about its people as the bottom line!?)
Before all of the public housing projects were actually built in Vienna, they were conceived as being both public buildings and private dwellings, or communes that supported a shared vision of a convivial urban social life. This vision contributed greatly to the integrity of the actual housing stock created for Vienna’s underclass. Amazingly, none of the land that the public housing was built upon in Vienna was acquired via eminent domain. Impressive. Can you imagine this happening in America? I most certainly cannot.
Perhaps what is more impressive is that since the housing blocks were interspersed throughout the city, there weren’t any heavy concentrations of the urban poor. Thus, the communes were established gracefully into existing neighborhoods that were already connected by Vienna’s existing mass transit system (an impressive subway system that featured stations designed individually to fit in appropriately within the context of the neighborhoods for which they were a part). Such an amenity is not known by most poor urban dwellers, especially in early 20th century Europe.
Because the new housing developments were either fully integrated into the existing urban fabric, or were extensions of established neighborhoods, they easily could have completely distorted the architectural pattern of Vienna’s historic neighborhoods. Yet, the architecture of the communes sought to simultaneously show the progress that the socialists were making in Vienna, while also honoring the historic architecture of existing buildings. As a result, there were no generic housing plans capable of ruining the aesthetics of Vienna. The result of which was a proletariat class that believed their housing stock helped assimilate them into the established culture of the city. The new buildings, though larger in scale, incorporated several components of the architectural language and patterns endemic to the unique styles of the historic city. Moreover, most buildings were built by hand to guarantee unique craftsmanship, and to employ several workers, craftsman, and artists.
By giving the poor dignity through housing, Red Vienna was able to engender the widespread political support of the proletariat, which was quite an accomplishment during the tumultuous times of early 20th century Europe. Moreover, the city was able to create a fluid transition between its great architectural history and the imposing force of modernism, which began pressing down on Vienna as it industrialized. Yet, like many great social and cultural strides that were made in Europe during this time period, most were virtually erased by Adolf Hitler and his goon laden squad of misanthropes. Nevertheless, Red Vienna and all of its public housing glory should simply serve as a lesson in how to properly integrate the poor into a successful city. Once again, we have the wheel and it does not need to be reinvented.
 All of the information contained in this article may be found on Pgs. 206-211 in Preserving the World's Greatest Cities, By Anthony Tung.