Memories of Karl Marx Hof

Published: May 1, 2009 - 18:59 Updated: July 1, 2015 - 13:42

It may not be billed in your brochure as one of the top places to visit in Vienna, but Karl Marx Hof is my favourite site in the city.

The Karl Marx Hof is often called the People's Palace that was built as an island of socialist power in a very bourgeois city exactly 90 years ago. This was during that crucial period in history when the electoral success of local Marxists had earned the city the name of
 Red Vienna.

The best way to first glimpse the expressionist building is from a streetcar as it crawls away from Vienna's imperial first district, along the Danube River and into the northern suburbs of Heiligenstadt.

A 15-minute ride on the same route allows you to eventually lock gaze with the world's most daring communal housing complex still painted in revolutionary pink and with a central façade that trumpets socialist solidarity with a chest-thumping pride.

Over one kilometre long, the Karl Marx Hof is the longest single residential building in the world. The streetcar must roll along four stops before it leaves the fortress behind. By the time it was finished in 1930, the Karl Marx Hof was the biggest apartment block in Europe. Later, the concept inspired the block apartments of Socialist countries around the world, although the Vienna apartments remain one of the best designed.

There are 1,382 apartments between 30 and 60 square metres, each a living example of how maximum facilities can be provided within minimum space. The sprawling 56,000-metre premises are only 20 per cent concrete. The rest is landscaped into playgrounds and gardens. Designed for a population of about 5,000, the complex includes amenities like laundromats, kindergartens, library and medical clinics.

The Karl Marx Hof was launched as an extraordinary campaign during the Red Vienna period and is a powerful symbol of what Socialism can do when it is practised in its true spirit.

The idea proved to be a successful strategy to win the hearts of voters by providing housing for the working majority. It is also a marvellous showcase of the social function of architecture that establishes a perfect relationship between the private and the public space. During this creative period, all sorts of public facilities were built from scratch - from apartments to transport for ordinary citizens perhaps for the first time in the history of humanity.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, visitors to Europe, who were interested in reform and social progress, it is said did not fail to visit the magnificent apartments that Vienna had built for its workers.

This idea included an extensive network of educational, social and cultural institutions under the same roof as the residential complex. Here, the immediate needs of workers were fulfilled so that the majority could groom itself into socialist citizens.
Said Otto Bauer, the party's brilliant leader, that the concept of Red Vienna fused "sober realpolitik with revolutionary enthusiasm".

The Red Vienna phase began immediately after World War I when the Austrian Social Democrats, led by Austro-Marxists like Otto Bauer, Karl Renner and Max Adler, had inherited power in the midst of severe food and housing shortage.
Austria was militarily defeated in the first World War and the monarchy had collapsed. The power vacuum was filled by the Social Democrats who won the municipal elections of May 1919, making Vienna the first major European capital to be governed by an absolute majority of Socialists.

However, the problems were intimidating. Around 70,000 residents lived on the streets. The danger of conflicts erupting amongst the homeless was a real threat. A sizeable squatters' movement had mushroomed and makeshift settlements sprouted upon unoccupied land at the city borders. Since the Socialists addressed problems faced by the majority, they won the municipal elections.

Financed by a special tax, within 11 years more than 60,000 flats were built in different parts of the city. After World War II, more flats were built and five years ago the latest complex was completed. Nowhere else in the world do authorities subsidise and build housing for the public like the Viennese do to this day. A contemporary Marxist, who prepared to celebrate 90 years of the Karl Marx Hof on the first day of May or Labour Day, said that he is happy that the architecture of Red Vienna still stands.

What he misses, however, are ideas that had animated these places in the past.

This story is from print issue of HardNews