The Legacy of Red Vienna: Future Living in the Fossilized Utopia of the Past?

Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

A socialist municipal project fundamentally transformed Vienna in the early twentieth century, creating a blueprint for a city that prioritizes the common good: a place where workers would build and shape their urban environment according to their needs, creating the infrastructure necessary for sustainable social reproduction. In her article for the “Kin City” series, Nina Pohler traces the utopia of Red Vienna, asking what has become of it and what might become of it through future struggles in times of climate collapse.


I have memories of my sister and me as small children playing in my grandmother’s garden under a blue and sunny sky. The garden was a relatively small strip of green belonging to a rather modest row house in the 22nd district of Vienna. Surrounding this house were 1,014 other houses, most of which looked almost identical. These houses are not ordinary houses, my grandmother used to tell me with a proud smile. All the houses around us had been built by the workers who had initially lived in them.

The subsistence-based settler-movement in Red Vienna

The Freihofsiedlung was one of the ambitious housing projects of early Red Vienna. Red Vienna is commonly known as the period between World War I and Austrian fascism, from 1919 to 1934, when the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAP) governed the city for the first time.

After World War I, there was a severe shortage of housing and food in Vienna, and people simply began squatting on land wherever they could. They built shelters, cultivated land, grew vegetables and fruit, and kept small domestic animals. These informal settlements were mostly located on the outskirts of the city, in the Viennese forest and the Danube wetlands. When the Social Democrats came to power, housing was one of the major challenges they faced. The City of Vienna (CoV) tried to formalize and regulate the wild settlements. The city bought or rezoned squatted land, and a newly established city office helped plan and organize new settlements. The CoV also provided funding and building materials to the newly formed settler cooperatives. It must have been an exciting and hopeful time for all involved. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, of Frankfurt kitchen fame, and Adolf Loos were among the architects who designed the settler’s houses. The association tasked with representing the interests oft he settlers, the „Österreichische Verband für Siedlungs- und Kleingartenwesen“ (Austrian Federation for Settlement and Allotment Gardening), was founded by Otto Neurath.

The construction of the Freihofsiedlung, where my grandmother grew up, started in 1923. The first 99 houses were built directly by the City of Vienna for workers of the Vienna Electricity and Gas Company. After that, the CoV supported two cooperatives to build more houses, all of them row houses with a garden to grow food, according to the ideal of the settler movement. The CoV financed 85% of the cost of each house, and workers who wanted to move into one of the houses could either pay the remaining 15% or pay with their own labor. On average, workers spent 1,600 hours building their homes. Up to 89% of the construction work in the Freihofsiedlung was done by the original residents, as Romana Pötter explains in the anthology “Das Rote Wien 1919-1934” (2019).

The housing construction tax and the building of superblocks

In 1922, Vienna became an independent state, and with it came a new taxing authority. In 1923, the city introduced the housing construction tax, a highly progressive tax on rental property, so that people who owned small apartments paid 360 gold crowns, while for a luxury apartment the tax was between 50,000 and 100,000 gold crowns. The housing construction tax was used exclusively for the construction of new municipal housing. With this new means of financing housing, the CoV made plans to build 25,000 apartments. By 1933, the CoV had far exceeded these initial plans, and 63,934 apartments had been built for almost 250,000 people, financed solely by the housing construction tax.

The settlement of small row-houses in which my grandmother grew up was an outlier for Viennese social housing by then. Red Vienna is famous for buildings like Karl-Marx-Hof, a monumental social housing complex with 1,382 apartments. Karl-Marx-Hof provided not only housing, but also communal social infrastructure such as communal gardens, a washing saloon, daycare centers, a library, a dental clinic, and a center for mothers. In 1921, more than 50% of the city’s new housing were settlements/settlement row houses; by 1925, it was only 4%. The vast majority of new construction work from 1923 on was focused on superblocks. Workers built these huge buildings, but it was no longer the same workers who would live in them.

Two competing models: Garden City or Superblocks?

At the beginning of Red Vienna, there were two competing models for solving the housing crisis. The settlement movement focused on cooperative building from below, with (some) autonomy in the design and use of housing. What CoV eventually settled on was a model from the top, grandiose buildings for as many people as possible, with integrated communal social infrastructure that extended the private living space into a collective urban space. The decision to focus on building larger blocks for more people may have been an ideological preference for some members of the city council, but the main reasons were pragmatic. The CoV needed to house as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

Today, Vienna still benefits from the legacy of Red Vienna. 60% of Viennese live in municipally owned or subsidized housing. Rents are too high and housing is scarce, but for a European capital, Vienna is still better off than most.

Large-scale housing in Vienna has had and still has its drawbacks. I think the biggest one is that residents don’t have much say in the construction, design and use of the spaces they live in. Historically, the construction of large-scale housing has been associated with top-down planning. But the phenomenon of collaborative housing groups involved in urban expansion projects through the CoV suggests that it is possible to develop ways of planning and building large(r) scale housing while giving future residents more voice, agency, and autonomy in the process.

Cities and CO2 emissions

As much as I loved my grandmother’s garden as a child, as an adult I often feel uncomfortable on my way to the Viennese forest when I see the legacy of the settler movement: On the edges of the forest there are hills full of small houses instead of trees. Some of the houses have retained the original size of the settler movement, but there are also larger, newly built or adapted houses. Each nuclear family has its own house, complete with a garden, a garage, and often a swimming pool. When I look at the legacy of the 1920s settler movement, I don’t see the materialized dreams of socialist cooperative housing, I see urban sprawl.

Vienna, like most cities, has drastically lower CO2 emissions per capita than the surrounding countryside, in fact Vienna has lower CO2 emissions per capita than the rest of Austria. If the CoV had built mostly settlement-style row houses in the 1920s, if Vienna was a giant garden city, the emissions would be much higher.

Cities like Vienna have drastically lower CO2 emissions per inhabitant than the countryside, mainly because of their density, which means people use and heat less space, and they have shorter distances and better public transportation. Cities may be responsible for 70% of global CO2 emissions, but this is not because they inherently produce more emissions than the countryside, but because more than half of the world’s population lives in cities.

The lasting legacy of energy infrastructure investments

Red Vienna’s investments were about more than housing, however; it had a holistic approach to urban life. The CoV was responsible for and continuously developed all aspects of social infrastructure. Among the (still) municipally owned infrastructure providers were public transport, waste management, funeral services, water, electricity and gas.

Directly opposite the building where I work in the 11th district of Vienna, I see four giant round brick buildings from the late 19th century, the Gasometers. These buildings were once the gas stores for the city’s gasworks. Today, they house a shopping mall as well as cooperative and privately-owned apartments.

In the 1920s, both the electric and gas utilities were owned by the city, and when the city began its massive housing projects, it made sure that all buildings had access to both electricity and gas. This was a huge improvement at the time, because before World War I, workers’ housing did not have the infrastructure for electricity or gas, and coal was the primary energy source. Because it was municipally owned, gas was also cheap compared to other cities. As a result, most heating systems and cooking stoves in Vienna still use gas.

The ambitious, forward-looking, massive municipal investments in gas infrastructure of the 1920s look very different from the perspective of the 2020s. By 2040, about 580,000 gas heaters will need to be replaced in Vienna.

Lost utopia

The CoV (still with the Social Democrats in government, although in a coalition since 2005) has climate policies, of course. But while there are attempts to deal with the climate crisis by the city government, I have never experienced the enormous will and ambition to transform the city for a better future that must have been alive in Vienna in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Last year, the CoV celebrated a project to replace gas heating with geothermal heating in 277 municipal apartments. That is 277 out of 220,000 municipal apartments! When the project was announced, the City Councillor for Housing called it “a historic day for municipal housing.” The very modest ambitions of today’s Viennese government probably have several complex and depressing reasons that I cannot fully comprehend. Certainly, the lack of integrity and ambition of politicians is part of the explanation. But there is also the fact that support for progressive politics was very different in the 1920s than it is in the 2020s. The first elections in Vienna were held in 1919, shortly after a huge socialist anti-war movement had led to the January 1918 strike of about a million workers throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Social Democrats won the elections in Vienna, Austria was on the verge of a socialist revolution that never materialized.

This period did not last long and was soon followed by Austrian Fascism and then Nazi Germany. It was only for a few short years that the Social Democrats had the support of the majority of the people in Vienna. But this brief period of progressive political power was enough to bring about a radical transformation of the city that continues to affect the quality of life of Vienna’s residents today.

Red Vienna, the past of the city where I was born and raised, is a very concrete reminder that huge, transformative change on a city scale is possible and can improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It is also a reminder that change is only possible if there is pressure from people.

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