Defeat in WWI was preceded by the economic and political collapse of Vienna with the municipal government no longer being able to provide for its citizens. With an acute shortage of housing many people turned to subsistence farming on squatted land and lived in self-built shelters; by 1918 over 100 000 people were living in such conditions. The period of 1919-1923 saw the Social Democratic city council undertaking a series of radical reforms, including the construction of the Wiener Gemeindebauten, which is arguably one of the largest and most successful of co-operative housing projects built in Europe. Overhauled in the 1980s, they remain popular today and retain their co-operative community ethos, although the residents are a more heterogeneous mix than the industrial workers that the housing was originally built for. Based on Ebenezer Howard's garden cities approach of self-sustaining satellite settlements to major cities, they consisted if 400 communal housing blocks with shared facilities such as kindergartens, libraries, medical centres, laundries, workshops, co-operative stores and sports facilities, as well as some space for subsistence gardening.
One of the initial moves was the setting up Zentralstelle, an organisation that administered and built the settlements; for a time Adolf Loos was its chief architect. But it was not the architectural design of the built schemes that made them so successful and interesting but their organisational structure and management. There was a small participative element to the building process but mostly future residents were involved through their labour, which provided up to 80% of the total labour, and was used as a form of sweat equity to reduce costs. Ten to fifteen per cent of construction costs were covered in this way. All profit making ventures were excluded from being involved in the building process, including the supply and handling of material, with a public corporation set up for this purpose. Very few resources were wasted through the re-use of surplus material elsewhere and these strict rules resulted in there being no requirement to raise capital for the building through the normal means of bonds and shares. With no form of mortgage, the city kept the title to the land and leased it to the building co-operative for ninety-nine years.
This way of building and managing co-operatively gave a collective spirit to these settlements but also created frictions with their middle-income neighbours. That Vienna's socialist council was working in direct opposition to the right-wing, conservative national government also meant that the building programme was short-lived. Although the schemes resulted in good quality low income housing produced at the lowest costs they were abandoned in 1930 as the emergency conditions of housing and food shortages of WWI were alleviated and more profitable ventures were sought.
Eve Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).
Robert Rotenberg, Landscape and Power in Vienna. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1995).
---, "The Viennese Cooperative Garden City Movement." Open House International. Special Issue: Collective and Cooperative Housing, 17(2)(1992): 17-29.
Longstreth Thompson, 'Housing and Land Settlement in Vienna', The Town Planning Review, 9(4)(May 1922): 205-212.
The crux of the ideology underlying garden settlements was that
the material conditions of everyday life determined social
consciousness. The movement in Vienna set about to alter those
conditions for as many workers as possible. In doing so, it
established an alternative form of housing to that available
through the market. The great contribution of the idealists who
founded the Zentralstelle was to fashion the legal mechanisms
through which people could establish alternative housing and
protect it from co-optation. The settlers were as aware of the
provocation they represented to the capitalist housing market as
the government bureaucrats assigned to support them. To build a
settlement and live cooperatively was a statement of class
awareness and a commitment to forging a non-capitalist alternative
to urban society.
- Robert Rotenberg, "The Viennese Cooperative Garden City Movement." Open House International. Special Issue: Collective and Cooperative Housing, 17(2)(1992): 25-26.
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