About a Red City and a Pink Building: Communal Housing in Vienna

Ed.: this is part one of a sociological photo journal in which authors Carina Altreiter and Franz Astleithner will give us a visual introduction to Austrian places of historical and sociological importance. The first station on our photographic journey is the Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna

Karl Marx Hof Aerial View
Karl-Marx Hof, aerial view, 1930 (© Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)

The Karl-Marx-Hof (Karl Marx Court) is one of the biggest and best-known communal housing complexes (“Gemeindebauten”) in Austria. It was one of the flagships of the communal housing projects of the so called ‘Red Vienna’. This nickname – Red Vienna – refers to the period between 1918 and 1934 when Vienna was governed by the Social-Democrats for the first time. During this period, a far reaching and unique political program – comprising social- and health politics, education and public housing – was implemented to improve the living conditions for people in Austria’s capital. The financial resources for this tremendous societal project stemmed at least partially from new taxes that were collected in addition to federal taxes and targeted the upper class for activities (e.g. visiting night clubs or brothels) and objects (e.g. luxury villas, private cars or racehorses) considered as luxury. These taxes were named ‘Breitner Steuer’ after Hugo Breitner (1873-1946), financial officer of Vienna from 1919 to 1932. Furthermore, a progressive tax, devoted especially to the construction of communal housing (Wohnbausteuer), was introduced.

The Karl-Max-Hof was designed by Karl Ehn (1884-1956) and built between 1926 and 1930. Initially 1382 apartments should offer a living space for about 5.000 residents, forming a small city within the city.

Karl Marx Hof Facade
Karl-Marx-Hof, facade of the middle part, 1927-1930 (© Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)

The complex was equipped with various collective facilities like two central laundromats, two central baths, two nursery schools, a dentist, a library, business offices, a doctor’s office and a pharmacy to name just a few. To enhance the quality of living only 18.4 per cent of the 156,027sm big area stretching out for more than 1100m was built up. Each apartment was equipped with its own toilet, which was groundbreaking in times when huge parts of the working class lived under appalling hygienic conditions.

The dentist within the Karl Marx Hof, 1935 (©Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)
The dentist within the Karl Marx Hof, 1935 (©Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)

During the Austrian Civil War the Karl Marx Hof was an important place of resistance against the Austro-fascist regime in Vienna. On February 12, 1934 the ‘Heimwehr’, a paramilitary formation of the Christian Social Party, attacked the building that was mainly inhabited by workers and defended by the socialist ‘Republikanische Schutzbund’. One day later, artillery was directed against the residential building. On February 15, after three days of fighting, the last resistance fighters had to withdraw due to the military superiority of the armed forces. During the Austro-fascist era the building was renamed twice, first to ‘Biedermanhof’ and subsequently to ‘Heiligenstädter Hof’. After the End of World War II its original name was restored. The large square located in front of the middle building was named 12th-February-Square in memory of the civil war in Austria.

Austrian armed forces in front of the Karl-Marx-Hof
Austrian armed forces in front of the Karl-Marx-Hof, 1934 (© Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)
Damages of the fighting at the Karl-Marx Hof
Damages of the fighting at the Karl-Marx Hof, 1934 (© Bildarchiv Austria, ÖNB)

Today the Karl-Marx-Hof is still the longest single residential building in the world, spanning four tram stops. The former laundromat (Waschsalon) was rebuilt into a museum in 1990, hosting permanent exhibitions on the interwar years, public housing or education and culture in ‘Red Vienna’.

The following pictures of the Karl-Marx-Hof should give some contemporary impressions of communal housing in Vienna.

(Photographs and concept by C. Altreiter and F. Astleithner, June 2015.)

Four images of the pink facade and green courtyardthree images of the pink facade of the Karl Marx Hof

four images of a sign that says four pictures of windows and oher details of the Karl Marx Hof


Carina Altreiter

Carina Altreiter studied sociology at the University of Linz. Currently she is a university assistant and PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. Her research interest covers work and employment, social inequalities and gender studies.

Franz Astleithner

Franz Astleithner studied sociology and economics in Vienna. Currently he is a PhD student and university assistant at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna.

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