Karl-Marx-Hof - working class architecture
From 1918 to 1934 Vienna was ruled by the Socialist Labor Party. The focus of their actions was on the social field and on housing. The majority of the urban population should have the possibility to live in a dignified environment. The Flagship of Gemeindebau (which means something like council or municipal housing) is the Karl-Marx-Hof in the 19th district called Döbling. The ensemble is surrounded by the Heiligenstädter Straße (in the west), the Grinzingerstraße (north), the Boschstraße (east) and the Geistingergasse (south).
The beginning of a social experiment
The area where the Karl-Marx-Hof stands today was a navigable channel of the Danube until the 12th Century. In 1750 there were only a few ponds left and they were filled with sand during the regime of Emperor Joseph II. In the following years the area was used by nurseries. This changed in the beginning of the 20th Century, when a jolt went through the Viennas policy. After the universal and equal suffrage for men and women was introduced, the Socialist Party won in the first local elections in 1919 in the Vienna city government with an absolute majority. Vienna was the only metropolis in the world which has been ruled by socialists at this time. Three years later the metropolis became a province. This gave the city the opportunity to carry out an independent tax policy to realize socio-political projects. This included for example a socially graded housing tax. Owners of luxury properties were paying higher taxes and thereby funded an ideal health care system with hospitals, public baths, clinics, sports centres, libraries and facilities for children and youth. Since the housing shortage among the working population was striking, the municipal housing in “Red Vienna” (Red as synonym for socialist) had an important meaning. The Karl-Marx-Hof should be the archetype of social housing.
The construction of the project Karl-Marx-Hof
In the middle of the 1920s the socialist housing program started to plan the third-largest residential ensemble in Vienna, named after the socialist, communist, philosopher, economist and philanthropist Karl Marx. In the context of the construction the nurseries had to move away from the area. In 1927 the construction started and took three years. The concept and design was penned by architect Carl Ehn, a student of the famous Otto Wagner. The huge complex hosted 1.382 decent apartments for about 5.500 residents. The monumental building is embellished with many bays, green balconies, numerous towers and high flagpoles. Impressive gates lead to this microcosm in the middle of Vienna. The focus of the construction was to optimize quality of life. The Karl-Marx-Hof was definitely no home of barracks, of too small apartments in too dark and tight halls. In this case only 20% of the area of 150.000 sqaremeters are obstructed. The majority of the area was earmarked for garden, playgrounds, kindergartens, medical offices, a library, business offices and laundries. Since 1929 the “Council for Interior Design” had their headquarters there. The public transport around the Karl-Marx-Hof is convenient: The tram has four stops while passing the more than 1.000 meter long building. This awesome size makes the Karl-Marx-Hof the longest connected building worldwide. In the courtyard there is a bronze figure of the artist Otto Hofner from the year 1929. Above the distinctive arches “enlightenment, liberation, child care, physical culture” there are two ceramic figurines of Josef Franz Riedl, they are from the year 1930. The official opening ceremony took place on the 12th October 1930. Mayor Karl Seitz spoke to the people and proclaimed: “If we are gone, these stones will speak for us.” He was right: The Karl-Marx-Hof is still a living monument of his time. On the 1st May 2010 there was set up a permanent exhibition in one of the laundries which deals with the history of the “Red Vienna”, the Gemeindebau, the educational and cultural activities and the celebration and festival culture of the Viennese labor movement. Occasionally it hosts special exhibitions.
Decent housing for the general population and marginalized groups
The Karl-Marx-Hof made Vienna the „Red Vienna‟ and brought many achievements for broad levels of the population. While the wealthy bourgeoisie (a rather small clique) lived in magnificent mansions or houses downtown, the workers were housed in poorly equipped apartments. More than 92% of dwellings had no private toilet and no water pipeline. The conditions were inhumane. As a result the mortality rate in inferior districts has been three times higher than in the first district of Vienna. Architect Hubert Gessner was a leading architect who wanted to improve the living conditions of the general population. Living should no longer make the people sick. This idea was completed by kindergartens, laundries, libraries for workers and community facilities. But not only the working class benefitted from the improvement in “Red Vienna”. Even single mothers finally got the chance to let their children grow up healthy and worthy. Usually they had problems to rent a proper apartment, because they did not fit into the ancient concept of morality and were a disdained fringe group. They often had very limited financial resources too.
With the apartment in the Karl-Marx-Hof came the opportunity to go to work regularly, for the children could be cared for in the nearby kindergarten. The rents were very low and the sanitary conditions very well – at least for that time. Many of the residents got their first own bed in the Karl-Marx-Hof, and finally had adequate ventilation, a separate toilet, enough water and gas, fair illumination. Single mothers, families and low-income people felt no longer unwanted. On the contrary they were given preferential treatment on the basis of the points-based system for the award of the apartments. But the Karl-Marx-Hof is not only a notable construction project from the past. The complex was also important in the resistance to fascism.
A centre of restistance to fascism
Since autumn 1926 it came to fast changes in the policy and the polarisation between conservative parties and the Social Democrates increased. The world economic crisis finally lead to high unemployment rates and big financial problems for the state. The basis for a change of policy was provided. The National Socialist movement grew stronger. Thus chancellor Dollfuß had to deprive the parliament of power and hat to declare a state of emergency. The NSDAP (National Socialist Party) was forbidden officially, but they managed to continue their activities illegal. This development lead to a rebellion in February 1934. The Karl-Marx-Hof took the position of a political centre in this revolte, which protested against the austrofascist state. Outraged workers and members of the „republikanischen Schutzbund‟ (a paramilitary organisation of the Socialist Labor Party) entrenched in the Karl-Marx-Hof in February 1934. The police tried to get back the complex on the 12th of February without any success. In the evening forces of the army and the „Heimwehr‟ (a paramilitary organisation of the conservatives) took position to support the police. This movement was commanded by Karl Biedermann, who later has been a leading restistance fighter in the final phase of the Worldwar II. On the 8th of April 1945 Karl Biedermann got hung at the Floridsdorfer Spitz in 21th district. The first artillery fire could be heard at one o clock in the night of February 13th. It‛s aim was to capture the Karl-Marx-Hof. On the following morning they started a systematic bombardement and attacked the area with machineguns and tanks. The fights went on until the morning of February 15th. Finally the last resistance fighter had to withdraw, for the attacker were superior in strength. This civil war resulted in the dissolution of the Social Democrates.
The renaming of the Karl-Marx-Hof
The Karl-Marx-Hof was renamend immediately in February 1934. Now it was called Biedermannhof, after the military commandant Karl Biedermann. In August 1934 the building ensemble officially got the name Heiligenstädter Hof, the National Socialists used this name too. They used the Café on staircase 3 (Stiege 3) as a meeting place for their party. After Austrias affilliation with the German Reich, 66 families were turned out of their apartments between 1938 and 1939. At least 29 former inhabitants of the building died in the Holocaust. After the end of the war the building got back his name Karl-Marx-Hof. The air-raid damages were repaired and in the 1980s the housing complex was completely refurbished. Today there are big commemorative plaques next to staircase 32 (Stiege 32) in Boschstraße. They remind of the revolt in February 1934, where Austrian workers tried to fight the arising fascism. They were the first resistance fighters in Europe.
The Karl-Marx-Hof as an example of the Viennese Arbeiterarchitektur (working class architecture)
The Karl-Marx-Hof is an important example of Viennese Arbeiterarchitektur. But in the context of Gemeindebau a lot of other projects were realized. Because of their impressive look they are also called „Superblocks‟. The Socialdemocrate Labor Party and their proletarian attitude were a counterconcept to the dominating bourgeoise society. In the time between Worlwar I and Worlwar II, no other municipial authorities attracted more attention than the Viennese. The remarkable projects Vienna realized were about reconstruction an recovery. Despite the difficult economic situation there were built 63.000 new apartments in 382 council houses within 15 years. For example the Lassallehof in the 2nd district, Rabenhof in the 3rd district, Goethehof in the 22nd district, Metzleinstalerhof in the 5th district. The Reumannshof in the 5th district is a typical and formidable Gemeindebau too. The building was constructed between 1924 and 1926, based on the plans of architect and visionary Hubert Gessner. The building is listed in the meantime because it shows the characteristic features of the Viennese Arbeiterarchitektur. The idea was to create an environment that supports a healthy and all-embracing lifestyle. The complex is extensive and hosts 478 apartments, 19 shops and other facilities. The Victor-Adler-Hof in the 10th district is based on the plans of the architect Engelbert Mang. There are 117 apartments in the ensemble that is embellished by balconies, pediments and round arches. The George-Washington-Hof is in the 10th and 12th district. This Gemeindebau was created by the architects Robert Oerley and Karl Krist. Its design is similar to the dispersed structure of a garden city. Therefore this building shows that the focus of the Arbeiterarchitektur was on the well-being of the tenants. The court of the George-Washington-Hof is especially wide and has a impressive double archway with a relief medaillon of George Washington. Similar to Karl-Marx-Hof, the George-Washington-Hof offers communal facilities like kindergarten, laundry and a library.
Some more Gemeindebauten in Red Vienna
The biggest Gemeindebau is the Sandleitenhof in the 16th district, which encloses almost 1.600 apartments. The complex surrounds a huge area, the centre is the Mateottiplatz. Around the ensemble of buildings there are the Steinmüllergasse, Sandleitengasse, Rosenackergasse, Nietascheplatz, Baumeistergasse and Karl-Metschl-Gasse. And there are several streets that lead right through the complex a well: Liebknechtgasse, Rosa-Luxemburg-Gasse and Gomperzgasse. Another Gemeindebau, called Friedrich-Engels-Platz, is situated in the 20th district and contains more than 1.467 apartments. This project was planned by Rufolf Perco and realized in the last years of the „Red Vienna‟. Like most of the Gemeindebauten the complex has its own facilities like a Kindergarten, a farmacy, a post office, a laundry, swimming baths, a Restaurant, party headquarters and some small shops. In 1926 the construction of the Karl-Seitz-Hof started. Leading architect was Hubert Gessner, who already showed his skills in planning the Metzleinstalerhof. The construction of the complex with 1.173 apartments took seven years. The design reminds of the Socialdemocrate dogma of representation: The emphasis of the horizontal, the withdrawn mid front and the staggered towers. The gates to the court are situated at the axes of the complex.