» Texte / Vienna’s Housing Apparatus and Its Contemporary Challenges

Andreas Rumpfhuber

Andreas Rumpfhuber is an architect and researcher in Vienna.

Life in Vienna defies the cliché of the contemporary metropolis deprived of affordable space in which to live. life in the average contemporary city is ruled by scarcity: a scarcity that increases exponentially every day, always in parallel with the advancement of the financialization of capital that has driven the global economy not just since the real estate boom of the early 2000s and its foreseeable sub-prime crash in 2007, but from as early as the 1970s. measures to stabilize the market, accompanied by a generally accepted austerity policy, continue to tighten the situation. Affordable space to in which to live is getting even more scarce. until now, Vienna seems to have been an exception.
When it comes to housing, the city of Vienna’s commercial slogan: Wien ist anders [Vienna is different] seems to actually be true. In the 1990s it successfully liberalized the social housing sector. At the same time it is the authority of the municipality that still purports high quality standards and allows – so goes the official wording – for a »good tenure mix and social integration«. This is accompanied by a somewhat anachronistic administration that is organized in a strict hierarchical manner. Housing provision is ultimately centralized, as are decision- making processes. And social-democratic politicians, bereft of what socialist ideology could be and what it actually could produce today, appear to be paternalistic, complacent. They seem to understand today’s housing merely as a populist tool by which to stay in power. The Überstadt has generated a fragile situation wherein the social housing provision has its blind spots when it comes to really affordable housing for the lower income groups of society. It is a situation in which the governing body, always anxious to align itself with liberalism, has become passive aggressive and is no longer able to act autonomously. In other words, this situation poses serious challenges to the way housing will be produced and administered in the years to come.
The social housing production has become a subject of scrutiny, faced as it is with a global discourse of liberalism and its desire production, accompanied by the financial crises. Even though the stable mass of public and social housing in Vienna has absorbed parts of the effects of the ongoing financial crises, it is exactly because of its stability that it is not able to open up for reform that might be able to actualize the pragmatic socialist goal of solving the social question by building affordable housing for everyone. It rather seems the other way round. One gets the impression that due to a generally accepted and un-challenged austerity policy, Viennese politicians are rather ensnared to ultimately dissolve the public housing provision by implementing an international practice of a »low-threshold« private-public partnership (PPP) financing model outside the established model of public housing – the so-called Wohnbauinitiative.[1] Simultaneously, Baugruppen initiatives [so called Co Housing Groups] are drawing attention to themselves and claiming a creative boost for the city in autumn 2010, publicly discussing different models of co-housing and in 2011 organizing a tradeshow introducing projects from Berlin and Vienna to a broader public. Both the Wohnbauinitiative and the co-housing initiative are challenging the existing socially tempered climate in Vienna.
In order to understand what both of these initiatives are actually doing and aiming at, I will start by discussing a current situation and its dynamics in Vienna, before briefly speaking about the alleged shortcomings of the current housing schemes. I will then look into co-housing, analysing its entrepreneurism and how we can understand participation in a contemporary economy. Finally, I will discuss how a version of Baugruppen that I call Wohngruppen [co-living groups] could become productive in re-actualizing the social-democratic housing provision in Vienna.

Homely Desires

Life in the contemporary city is driven by the desire for a – to some extent – spacious home which, at the same time, always exceeds the protagonist’s financial reality, whether one wants to buy or rent. There is always too little money, even as the vision of how one needs to live becomes necessarily more modest: suddenly there is no need for a balcony anymore, nor for the envisioned extra room, nor the green vista, the nice kitchen, the good detailing, the lively neighbourhood, the direct access to public transport...This process of desire aligning with reality does not lead to the minimal-space concepts that early modernist architects would have conceived of, but to a very wired logic, to strange substituting acts, and to justifications that make the protagonist effectively settle for what is on offer. It becomes, finally, a compromise – albeit one that still needs to be credit-financed. This matter is contrary to the imagery with which the media and the investors feed our desires. Be it life- style supplements to weekend issues waxing lyrical about roof- top terraces and penthouses; be it the Home & Living section of newspapers reporting ecological and socially sustainable co-housing units as harmonious environments one could invest in; even be it contemporary themed magazines such as appartamento depicting decent, likeable artist-individuals that have arranged themselves with a scarce way of contemporary living, having creatively adapted to a global, urban life in Barcelona, Madrid, London, or New York: all these are stories about lovely refurbished homes and their romantic-nostalgic- melancholic gardens and living rooms.
Of course desires are similar all over the world in a globally networked society. International trends like guerilla gardening or cycle chic, Single-Speeds or single-bean coffee do not stop at the city border of Vienna, although they may well take on their own flavour, sometimes even creating an incongruous, strange local aesthetic. And of course there are roof-top terraces in Vienna with overwhelming vistas and there is even a world- famous example of the most successful co-housing project Sargfabrik in Vienna. Thus there are legions of mid-twenty to early-forty year olds that are looking for the perfect flat to buy with what they have inherited from their parent’s savings of the last 50 years.
Relatively speaking, the rent on the real estate market in Vienna rises constantly, despite rigorous legal restrictions on how much a landlord is allowed to charge; similarly, prices on the buyers-market rise steadily. A specific urban myth fuels this. It is a recurring motif at parties and dinners that one could have bought this 200sqm flat some years ago for the same value as what would now get you only 80sqm of space. 80sqm is not that big for Viennese conditions, bearing in mind those huge bourgeois flats of 140+sqm, and is thus most often felt to be inadequate for a young family. Speak with young families in Paris, however, or in copenhagen, and an 80sqm flat is pure luxury. Despite the subjective experience of Viennese, there is still enough affordable and accessible space in the city of Vienna when compared with international circumstances.[2] the effects of the myth are manifold. The desirability of buying something or owning something increases because the myth suggests that there is an ever-growing market, allowing for an ever increasing share that will return when I sell my property. The myth promotes a sense of urgency, the need to act now – not in a month, or a year – as the price is constantly going up.

It has a psychological effect on the owners of today’s real-estate market, encouraging the impression that there is more to be earned by splitting up their apartment building into small units and selling them to individuals, or that they would be better off only renting out the flats for a limited time, but with higher rent, which is actually not legal, but who cares? This emerging short term rent market and the insecurity it engenders again encourages the desire to own, even if purchasing something actually means taking out a loan and running into debts for the next 30 or so years. As the popular argument goes: »Rent is just lost money, but when I pay back a loan, some day all will be mine.« To be precise: to purchase means, in the average case, depositing at best a third of the amount and owing the rest to a bank. The savings of the last 50 years that a young generation has inherited from its parents often does not even make up this third. And even if you have a third of a loan to buy a 80sqm flat in Vienna at this moment in time and with low interest rates, you would still need to pay back the amount of money that would enable you to rent an apartment of about 110sqm...
Let us look in for a moment from the outside, let’s say with the trained eye of a Londoner who, no matter what her ideology, already accepts a liberalist real-estate market as the only possible scenario. She is seduced on the one hand into interpreting the Vienna situation as abundant; on the other to explain its current setting with a kind of anachronism. On the one hand: for a young Londoner family, or even for a young family living in copenhagen, the 80sqm flat is pure luxury, extravagance and abundance. On the other, it is easy for them to dismiss the Vienna situation as inevitably transitory: a situation which will irrevocably move towards a private market and pure scarcification of space to live. As one hears: »It’s just a matter of time until things go the way they did in Copenhagen ten years ago.« I argue that both assertions accept a smooth and seamless process of globalization in which the complete real-estate market falls under the neoliberal spell of the same global logic without local deviations, or the possibility of alternative economies. In other words both assertions are too simple, are partially wrong and do not do justice to the actual situation in place in Vienna.

The Practice of Vienna Housing Is Almost All Right

The nearly one hundred years history of social-democratic ruled housing provision has actually generated, when it comes to housing, an »alternative« economy in Vienna compared to the rest of Europe. Vienna is not like Berlin, for example. Berlin got rid of about 40% of its public housing stock under its finance senator Thilo Sarrazin in 2003, either selling out public housing stock or eliminating subsidies. Vienna even differs from the Austrian state, which sold its housing cooperative BUWOG with a stock of about 32.000 units in 2004. Vienna did not sell its housing stock: it actually expanded its hold on the Vienna real-estate market by intelligently liberalizing the public housing production. Today, 27% of the housing stock is owned by the municipality and 21% of the city’s housing stock is owned by Limited Profit Housing Association (LPHA)[3] but indirectly controlled by the city’s authority via quality management, land provision and subsidies. The legacy of the 1920s social- democratic intent that was backed up by the Austro-Marxism of the same period, together with the Superblock as typology, is today adjusted to globally spread liberal assumptions and has turned into Überstadt: half of the housing market is accessed by the municipality, creating a so-called integrated market with efficient management, assessment criteria, competition and quality control as the common vocabulary in today’s practice of social housing. this Überstadt is characterized not only by the vast influence on the real estate market itself: Überstadt diffuses into all aspects of life in the city, creating a specific interrelated and interdependent network of actors that is impossible to step outside of once you engage with it. Überstadt is the ghost of the city’s housing apparatus that subtly rules and steers the city.

It is a partly transparent, partly translucent and partly opaque field, infused with myths, vested with an effective and dense regulatory regime, in which everybody in the city becomes expert and amateur at the same time. In order to manoeuvre within its boundaries, one needs to be familiar with it. It is due to this that only a few international architects have built social housing in the city so far and most of them – with all respect – have failed. And it is thus that only insiders are able to understand and analyse the subtle innovations that happen – for example – in a seemingly similar and boring façade.

Ottokar Uhl’s participatory public housing                    scheme in Feßtgasse.
Ottokar Uhl’s participatory public housing scheme in Feßtgasse.

It is exactly this inaccessibility to Überstadt and its imperviousness to change that provokes resentment and critique. Of course, the stability of the vast housing stock generates a relative security within a fluid world economy in crisis; at the same time it seems unable to guard against the subjective dynamics of the global situation and its powerfully generated desires. It is as if it would not be possible to think of housing schemes that are dynamic; as if such schemes can only be built under neo-liberal regimes somewhere else – be it in Copenhagen, or Berlin.

The Critique of Baugruppen

one critique of the practice of social housing in Vienna has recently been brought forward by Baugruppen [Co-Housing groups]. Baugruppen have increasingly drawn attention to themselves within public discourse, proclaiming to be able to reform the practice of social housing in Vienna by being a bottom up initiative that proceeds by participation, and furthermore being able to build much cheaper through lean management and the engagement of all involved. Hence the argument that Baugruppen would collectively generate a sustainable city development. To understand how such a movement – that in recent years has become most popular in Berlin and other German cities – might become a critical force leading to reform in Vienna, I will briefly analyse its general characteristics as they circulate in the discourse, before I move on to link its potential to the current practice of social housing in Vienna.
Looking at who engages most in the promotion of co- housing groups in Vienna, one gets the impression that Baugruppen are a new business model for young architects not just in Germany, but also increasingly in Austria. It is not dissatisfied residents or citizens that have launched the Viennese co-housing initiative or the 2011 fair on co-housing projects in Vienna; it is mainly architects that have become entrepreneurs and developers of such projects. Secondly, these projects follow the logic of a growing market: building new or renovating an existing house as a group. This implies two things: on the one hand, such a co-housing project is a specific financial investment with an anticipated return of investment. Furthermore, to build participatorily in a group implies an investment in time and knowledge that becomes part of the reduced building costs. Such a participatory process, that ideally is seen today to be a consensual decision making process, focuses additionally on the object to be built, and thus only in limited ways on the mode of how to live together in the long term. Especially since the ultimate incentive for people to get together is the promise of individualization: to be able to design his or her own residence to his taste and her ideas. At the same time the hope is for more space with less money. Thus most of the projects are rather conventional housing typologies in contemporary design, and only seldom does one find collective typologies, like a one-kitchen-house for example, being applied. And most of the co-housing groups can be said to be comprised of only one exclusive »target group« that somehow has the same social background, has somewhat similar interests and age... Most of the time, thus, exclusive groups of single mums, women, queer people, or young families get together, forming groups on a small scale. With their investment they hope to influence and upgrade the urban environment in which the co-housing object is being placed.
As the German Institute for Applied Urbanistik (ifau) together with the Berlin-based architect/theoretician Jesko Fezer have already pointed out, Baugruppen are not likely to solve any contemporary social or urban problems; with their small- property and social homogeneity social segregation they can be expected, rather, to increase them. Yet ifau and Fezer write about a specific situation in Berlin. With their own Baugruppe they try to establish a different co-housing group, but admit that they actually fail to some extent.[4] As mentioned, the Vienna situation is different to Berlin. In order to make sense of the reformist potential for the practice of social housing in Vienna I want to make a little historic detour into another, more local phenomenon of co-housing groups that has been emerging since the 1960s and is strongly related to the transition from a fordist economy towards a post-fordist mode of immaterial labour, in which the formerly clearly drawn spheres of the modernist city – labour, leisure, living – start to merge and become diffuse. In this very moment architects became entrepreneurs, starting to critically engage with the re- organization of society. Rationalization of the building process – making a building cheaper – also generated the possibility for individualization through rule-based participation.
It was the Linz-based architect Fritz Matzinger who started the entrepreneurial trend when he posted an ad in a local newspaper in early 1974. With this he would start his career as a developer-architect for the most successful co-housing typology Les Palétuviers. In principle it is always a central common space, initially with a kitchen and a fireplace in the middle, around which 16 housing units are placed. Apart from its peculiar typology, it is the organizational and immaterial form of the groups over the years that Matzinger engaged with: to prevent speculation, to allow for divorce within the built structure, etc. The entrepreneurial trend could also, however, be said to have been started by the Viennese architect ottokar uhl, who in the 1970s implemented a participatory public housing scheme in Vienna. uhl, who has not received the institutional attention he should have got over the years, strongly engaged with the prefabrication and rationalization of building systems, and with this implemented a participatory process into his housing schemes.

Towards Wohngruppen

ottokar uhl’s participatory public housing scheme in Feßtgasse brings me back to the alternative economy of Vienna’s social housing and my initial question of how co- housing could become a reformist movement in the spirit of the pragmatist socialist ideology to solve the social question by building affordable housing for everyone. It is certainly not the particularized, socially homogenous property-owning group that is the answer. The question remains: Who is able to afford such a project? Who has got the means, the time and the knowledge to engage in Baugruppen? Ottokar uhl’s housing scheme shows that even public housing can be built in a participatory manner. Still, its process was focussed on a participatory planning process and not on an integrative process of how to live together – potentially conflictive – in the long term. But the very idea of engaging with the question of how to collectively live together in the city, to engage with the existing stock and inventory of the city (and here I not only mean its existing spaces, but also its administration) might become a political movement that has the power to re-actualize the public and social housing in Vienna. Such Wohngruppen (co-living groups) are not based on property, they comply with individual needs by engaging in the heterogeneity of the city and its potential conflicts. Wohngruppen would be able to invent new forms and organizations of spaces we can collectively live and work in, which could flexibly react to ever new situations evolving in society as a whole.
Wohngruppen could become a reformist movement that abandons the position of the critical researcher, the critical architect, or the critical building contractor. It could become a movement that understands that looking or acting from the outside is an impossible position to take on, since such criticism is always necessarily embraced and made productive for the existing apparatus. On the contrary, applied research into the field of public housing in Vienna, especially research by designers and architects, that tries to be conscious from the very beginning of its entanglement and its impossibility to step outside, may find itself possessed of an unique possibility: that of becoming a reformist agency from within.


  1. See also: Georg Kolmayr: Lucky Vienna, p. 20—24. ↩︎

  2. Yet again one needs to consider the objects that are on sale: most of them are part of the real estate stock of Gründerzeit, thus have a specific layout that is not at all optimized to contemporary standards — often with too big a bathroom at the wrong position in the layout. Certainly to only count and evaluate a flat by surface area is not enough, but it helps to make the argument here. ↩︎

  3. Cf. Glossary: Integrated Market. For exact figures and diagram see: Social Housing 32). ↩︎

  4. ifau und Jesko Fezer about Dilemmas and Perspectives of Co-Housing Groups in Berlin (written in German). In: Arch+ features, März 2011, p. 8. ↩︎

Heft kaufen