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Proletarian projects

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Review:The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919-1934 By Eve Blau. MIT Press, 1999. 510pp. £37.50

The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919-1934 is a major study of the mass housing projects built during the Social Democrat interregnum that changed the face of the old Empire's capital. Set out in nine comprehensively illustrated chapters, it opens with the evolution of municipal socialism, and the politics of Austro-Marxism: 'Against the idea of force, the force of ideas.' But a 1934 photograph of the shell-damaged facade of the Karl- Marx-Hof, stormed by the Fascist Heimwehr (militia), is a grim reminder that this idea was no match for artillery.

Chapter two documents the historical city and its unique position after the First World War: a capital shorn of its productive provinces. Even the Social Democrats saw unification with Germany as the better prospect. The squalid tenements housing the working class were disguised by surprisingly elegant facades, but this apparent denial of their presence on the face of Vienna would be dramatically reversed by the construction of assertive working-class superblocks on dominant sites around the city.

With hindsight, it seems easy to concur with Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co's assessment of this 'hopeless' political project. For if 'socialism in a single country' proved untenable in the massive territory of the Soviet Union, what chance was there for socialism in a single city, and in the single sector of housing? What's more, the radical city was surrounded by conservative countryside, with the burden of taxation and resulting economic stagnation prompting property owners to finance the right-wing alternative force.

While accepting Tafuri and Dal Co's critique in her introduction, Eve Blau nevertheless presses on, and the result - if initially daunting in detail - is fascinating. It brings to light again the debate on the nature, scope, and aesthetic of social housing.

From a libertarian point of view, chapter three, 'Learning to Live', is the most interesting, charting how the so-called 'wild settlements' that had grown up on land taken over for emergency cultivation during the war developed into a co-operative movement, with Adolf Loos as its chief architect.

His first model house at Friedenstadt in 1921, for all its traditional appearance and Arts and Crafts detail, came in for criticism. According to his wife, 'all these people who lived in miserable tenements were furious about the house and found fault with everything.' The reaction to the far more radical flat-roofed Heuberg Siedlung terrace housing is not recorded. The patented serial system of 5.5m timber beams spanning between party walls was designed to facilitate incremental, self-build construction, the long thin gardens set out as allotments utilising waste from the outside latrine. With their original timber cladding, they could be seen as precursors of the anti-urban, sustainable, 'green' housing movement.

By 1923, with the end of a post-war subsistence economy, the city council decided to concentrate instead on the denser urban housing which forms the core of this study. The new dwelling would be a reformed model of the tenement type, with functional kitchens and communal facilities (such as washrooms to encourage sociability). Improved ventilation produced a new and varied elevational style; for the first time, tiny wc-windows appeared on the principal facade. Reactionary paranoia saw the wcs as ready shelter for socialist snipers.

Certainly, for all the variety of architects involved, and the polemics of what might best represent 'proletarian architecture', a figurative aesthetic and traditional formal elements prevailed. Rather than the Modernist attempt at an abstracted 'classless' aesthetic based primarily on functional considerations, the siting and form of Red Vienna's social housing seemed, provocatively, to replace the domination of one class by another. Karl Ehn's famous Karl-Marx-Hof, now a part of Vienna's conserved heritage, looks for all the world like premature Post-Modernism.

David Wild is an architect in London

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