Light, Air and Sun in the Palace of the Proletariat
Once you make it past the crowds of tourists basking in the imperial splendour of the Schönbrunn Palace, grab yourself a seat on the U4 subway line and take it all the way to the other end. You’ll swoop underneath the famous (and famously overrated) Naschmarkt, past the imposing St. Charles’ Church, looping around the old city centre until you hit the Danube channel. Follow it north, against the current, past the seedy Schwedenplatz and Hundertwasser’s eccentric waste incineration plant. Get off at the final station Heiligenstadt and you’ll find an entirely different palace to marvel at, one that pays tribute not to handful of royals who turned the city into the heart of a long-gone empire, but to the hundreds of thousands of nameless workers that built it and kept it going long after the kings had gone.
Karl Marx Hof, also known as the Palace of the Proletariat or the Worker’s Versailles, is probably the most impressive example of social housing in the world. You won’t have a problem finding it – over a kilometre long, it is the longest residential building in the world.
After the fall of the empire Vienna became the first metropolis in the world with a social democratic mayor in 1918 – thanks, in large part, to the women who got their voting right that same year. Thus Red Vienna was born, laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state and an unprecedented feat of social urban planning with the motto “light, air and sun.” For the first time, hundreds of thousands of workers were guaranteed good living conditions at an affordable price. But the Robin Hood approach of taxing the rich to build for the poor did not win the project many friends among the wealthier classes, or among the nationalists dominating the rest of the country. In February 1934, on the first day of the civil war, Karl Marx Hof was attacked by military forces. The residents fought back despite overwhelming odds, turning their palace into a symbol of resistance to fascism.
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Walking through the Karl Marx Hof on a Tuesday afternoon, the streets are empty and everything is quiet except for the sound of children playing in the kindergarten playground. With less than 20% of the complex built up, there’s plenty of air and space in the green courtyards, even if the sun is hiding today. This socialist utopia is no relic of the good old times, nor is it an exception – eleven years after the Karl Marx Hof fell in the uprising, the socialist government returned to power in Vienna, and the city has remained a red stronghold ever since. It’s no coincidence that the city with the highest quality of life is also Europe’s biggest landlord, providing affordable rents to half a million Viennese with its 1800 municipal buildings. The buildings are scattered throughout the city, ensuring a level of socioeconomic integration that is unimaginable in cities like Paris or Berlin. On our street in the third district, post-war apartment blocks rub shoulders with municipal housing from the golden era of Red Vienna and brand new buildings with airy terraced apartments for the affluent.
Tourists flock to Vienna for the imperial charm, but for most Viennese it’s the legacy of Red Vienna that makes the city a good one to live in. The city government considers housing a human right and the basis of a safe and flourishing society, and having experienced first-hand the effects of a housing crisis on the social fabric of a city during my years in Berlin, I don’t have to be told twice. Housing policies are about a lot more than brick and mortar. It’s the difference between feeling like a city is trying to kick you out, and a city welcoming you in. It’s about feeling at home – and what could be more important than that?
As the daughter of globe-trotting journalists I filled my first passport with stamps from five continents before losing the last of my baby teeth, and at eighteen I emptied my piggy bank and went to explore the world on my own. Since then I spent about three years travelling – the first solo trip to Asia at eighteen was followed by an overland trip from Iran to Indonesia a few years later, plus a couple of shorter trips fuelled by my SCUBA diving addiction – and the rest working towards my degrees in anthropology and global studies, which gave me a great “grown-up” excuse to move first to Berlin, and later to Buenos Aires and New Delhi. These days home is somewhere between Vienna and my mum’s kitchen in Ljubljana.