21 Aug Vienna – past glories
Sunday. Sitting in the open space created by a 3-sided rectangle of tenements, 7-storeys high, some with balconies. The building stretches for several hundred metres and has small towers and large, low arches at regular intervals. Originally railway arches at the start of the twentieth century, they were incorporated into the design. It’s all rendered smooth and painted in pale terracotta and cream. Blocks of ice-cream flanked by wafers. This softens the lines, stopping well short of socialist brutalist, which would definitely have been a risk. I’m in the grounds of the Karl Marx Hof in Heiligenstadt, the last stop at the end of the U4 line north out of the city centre.
It’s social housing day for us on this long weekend trip to Vienna. An unusual choice, certainly, but we’re here with our friends from Germany who lean well to the left and have a keen interest in the political and social history you can soak up from simply pacing the streets of a city. We’ve done Leipzig and Berlin with them, so we trust them to lead us to the really interesting parts the tourist books don’t always reach.
We’d had enough of grandeur and monarchy in any case with Saturday’s free tour. It covered the city centre’s imperial highlights with the excellent Wolfgang (no relation). He showed us the huge palace, the Hofburg, with its 4,000 rooms (I know, it makes you gasp) and told us that every member of the imperial household was entitled to 55 personal servants (another gasp). Since the long-living and insatiably libidinous Franz I had 16 children (11 survived) with the long-suffering, perpetually pregnant and supremely capable Maria-Theresa, you start to see why they needed all those rooms. Apparently, there are still around 400 Hapsburgs left – though quartered elsewhere these days. And likely not so fruitful.
We started the day at the Hundertwasser village, built in the 1980s. Hundertwasser was a man who believed that architecture should be in harmony with nature. Straight lines? Forget it! No flat floors anywhere. Wavy floors bring you nearer to nature; they’re good for the soul. He also had an exuberant sense of colour, so each part of the village’s undulating tenement is a different colour. Broken pottery and tiles of all hues appear along walls, in pillars and on floors. Trees and shrubs grow everywhere; nature as cohabitee. Such a contrast to the perfect off-white symmetry of Vienna’s majestic heart – it’s impossible not to look at it, walk across its wonky floors and …. just smile.
And now, sitting here in the pleasing communal front garden of Karl Marx Hof, I find I’ve summoned up a different kind of gasp. Monument to an astonishing social-democratic experiment of the 1920s and early 1930s when the Hapsburg Empire was carved up after the war, the Hof had wash-houses, kindergartens, a library, youth centre and chemist, a health centre and a dental clinic, and lots more, all financed through progressive taxation. And not just here – there were many such community structures built across the city. An enlightened experiment by the city’s council, it ended in 1934, when the right-wing seized back power. And we know what happened after that.
Here you get an eyeful of twentieth century political and social history. And a sense of déjà-vu – if you know what I mean. Contemplating the distance between inner city Vienna with its grand old buildings and shiny, smart shops, its tourists with fat wallets, sightless eyes and selfie sticks, and here, at the end of the U4 line, where it feels calm, peaceful and uplifting. Closer to a history you would like to feel you can recognise. A moment when the future looked kind.