Karl-Marx-Hof: The Kilometre-Long Apartment Building

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That long row of buildings you see in the above image isn’t actually a row of buildings – it’s one giant building; the world’s longest residential building. On the shores of the Danube in the north end of Vienna, Austria lies Karl-Marx-Hof, a late 1920s fusion of medieval and modernist architecture built at the height of Red Vienna, the period between 1919 and 1934 (the aftermath of World War II to the Austrian Civil War) where democracy was introduced to the city for the first time and power was held locally by the Social Democratic Party.

The Social Democrats had big goals for Vienna, one of which was improving living conditions for workers and their families in the crowded, war-torn Austrian capital (at one point, 70 000 people were living on Vienna’s streets). Part of achieving this was constructing ‘superblocks’, massive blocks of low-cost, high-density urban housing that could function as cities within cities, with their own separate infrastructures (these were the first major tenements in Vienna with modern kitchens and plumbing), stores, services, and park systems.Rents were kept low and strictly governed. The city government funded these superblocks via luxury taxes, sin taxes, and construction taxes, all named ‘Breitner taxes’ after the councillor responsible for finance who introduced them. These superblocks were indeed super – between 1923 and 1934, 380 housing estates containing 64 000 apartment units were constructed in Vienna, the largest containing 1 587 units alone. But none hold the iconic of the second-largest, the kilometre-long, 156 000-m² Karl-Marx-Hof.


Source: Dreisung, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karl-Marx-Hof_2009.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Vienna la Rossa #1

Source: D. Fredlani, http://www.flickr.com/photos/al_fred/2186283300/.Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

The ideology of the Social Democrats at the time is readily apparent in the name they chose for the great building – this complex was meant to be an equaliser for workers. Residents had plenty of services they could access within Karl-Marx-Hof: kindergartens, playgrounds, maternity clinics, health-care offices, libraries, laundries, youth centres, a post office, a pharmacy, and 25 other shops. In total, 1 382 apartments were built between 30 m² (one-bedroom) and 60 m² (two-bedroom) in size each in Karl-Marx-Hof.

Only the eastern side of the building stretches the full kilometre; the western side loops upon itself to create enclosed courtyards and parks (less than 20 percent of the grounds are occupied by the actual building). One of Karl-Marx-Hof’s trademarks is its system of archways passing under the southern portion of the giant building symmetrically placed underneath each set of balconies. These archways connect the green spaces inside and outside the complex to each other, and also serve to heighten the aesthetics of the building, giving it a fortress-like appearance when combined with the red-and-yellow façade, the statues adorning each archway, and the light poles that rise above them. Some of the archways also serve as tunnels through which streets can pass, ensuring that traffic flow patterns aren’t disrupted by the sheer length of the building. The building alone spans four train stops. The northern half of Karl-Marx-Hof was built in a more utilitarian modernist style and thus lacks the archways and towers of the southern half; a predecessor to the Stalinist style of architecture soon to take hold in the Soviet Union and post-World-War-II communist countries.

080907_Kahlenberg 008

Source: Weisserstier, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alfreddiem/2835784427/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Underlying the last part of the era of Red Vienna was the Great Depression. Austria was hit as hard as any other country, and the growing frustration with rising employment the faltering economy led to the empowering of right-wing paramilitaries deeply opposed to the Social Democrats. When the rather short Austrian Civil War broke out and then ended within a week in February 1934, Austrofascists fired upon the building, a symbol of Red Vienna socialism, where socialists fighting against the conservative Christian Social government had barricaded themselves inside. The artillery created damage that would not be repaired until the 1950s.In the aftermath of the conflict,the far right took power in Austria and began renaming anything that had to do with socialism. Karl-Marx-Hof was renamed Heiligenstädter-Hof after the neighbourhood it was located in, and would remain under that name until the original name was reinstated after World War II (other tenements got off relatively lightly; for example, Engels-Hof simply became ‘Engel-Hof’). Ironically, many of the same architects who designed Karl-Marx-Hof for the Social Democrats would wind up designing buildings for the Nazi government after the Anschluss. In commemoration of the February Uprising, the central court of Karl-Marx-Hof was named 12. Februar-Platz in 1985. The building operates in the same fashion today as it did when it was built, inexpensive government-owned public housing aimed at young families and the elderly. Being older, it doesn’t have quite the same cachet it did back in the 1930s, but it has been renovated over the years and is certainly adequate. It’s even finally getting an underground parking garage.

For a rather large collection of photos from Karl-Marx-Hof, Great Buildings has a collection of 60-or-so photos taken from various points around the complex.

Further Reading

Albon, M. (2010). Witness of Change. The Vienna Review, 1 October 2010. Available at http://www.viennareview.net/front-page/witness-change-4182.html. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Brown, I. (2009). World’s Longest Residential Building. Google Sightseeing, 17 July 2009. Available at http://googlesightseeing.com/2009/07/worlds-longest-residential-building/. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Fowler, B. (1991). History and a Name In a Vienna Project. New York Times, 11 July 1991. Available at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE4DD173AF932A25754C0A967958260. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Gan, R. (2010). Workers’ Versailles. Dieselpunks, 14 August 2010. Available at http://www.dieselpunks.org/profiles/blogs/workers-versailles.

Jaffer, M. (2009). Memories of Karl Marx Hof. Hardnews, 2009(5). Available at http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2009/05/2889. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Matthews, K. (2011). Karl Marx Hof. Great Buildings. Available at http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Karl_Marx_Hof.html. Accessed 8 April 2011.

Rabinbach, A. (1999). Public Hausing: How the serenely bourgeois city of Vienna nearly became a workers’ paradise. Metropolis, 1999(10). Available at http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_1099/oc99ph.htm. Accessed 8 April 2011.

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