In 2023, Vienna once again topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of the world’s most livable cities. It scored a perfect 100 for stability, healthcare, education and infrastructure — that last metric encompassing the high quality of its housing and public transport. It wasn’t always thus. At the end of the First World War, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the metropolis transformed from the centre of the world into an impoverished and overcrowded city so rife with tuberculosis that the illness became known as “the Viennese disease.” Then, in 1923, the Social Democrat government approved a plan to build 25,000 housing units; they were paid for by taxes on luxury goods, traffic, land and even brothels. They could do this because of the Austrian capital’s unprecedented independence thanks to “a constitutional law,” according to the City of Vienna, that “separated Vienna from Lower Austria, turning Vienna into a separate Bundesland (state) with financial sovereignty and her own taxing authority.” Only a decade later, at the end of the “Red Vienna” period, more than 60,000 apartments housing 220,000 people had been built.

As part of its plan for the new central district of Wildgarten, Arenas Basabe Palacios designed 11 blocks of varying scales that contain 82 homes and boast a multitude of amenities: community spaces, collective bicycle parking and ground-floor shops. Known as the Sunflower Houses, the buildings are clad in ceramics, including bright yellow tiles, that make for an exuberant addition to Vienna’s ever-growing stock of social housing.

As part of its plan for the new central district of Wildgarten, Arenas Basabe Palacios designed 11 blocks of varying scales that contain 82 homes and boast a multitude of amenities: community spaces, collective bicycle parking and ground-floor shops. Known as the Sunflower Houses, the buildings are clad in ceramics, including bright yellow tiles, that make for an exuberant addition to Vienna’s ever-growing stock of social housing.

Other major cities were only beginning to embark on social housing — places like New York in the ’30s, London in the ’60s, Toronto in the ’70s. But ideological barriers were already in place. In one egregious example that has echoes in socio-economically discriminative zoning policies around the world, a ban on apartment buildings in residential neighbourhoods was enacted in Toronto in 1912. And in 1934, when Charles Hardy of the Brookings Institution travelled to Vienna to write the first major study of housing in Vienna, he too readily concluded that it did not have application elsewhere. “The housing program was a development out of specific housing conditions, tax policies, building regulations, war-time adjustments and class controversies, most of which were peculiar to Vienna,” Hardy wrote. He saw nothing that “goes far to demonstrate that the provision of shelter is in general one of those services which cannot be performed satisfactorily through private enterprise without governmental subsidy or governmental participation.” A legacy one hundred years and running proves him wrong. To this day, Vienna has maintained all its original social housing stock and continues to build. The result: 60 per cent of the city’s population lives in social housing.

The Sunflower Houses’ different scales guarantee ample sunlight in all the interiors. Their organic connections to the outdoors via shared exterior stairs make them porous to the south-facing gardens and the open spaces between.

The Sunflower Houses’ different scales guarantee ample sunlight in all the interiors. Their organic connections to the outdoors via shared exterior stairs make them porous to the south-facing gardens and the open spaces between.

A few years ago, after participating in a conference in Vienna, I toured a few projects with the American architect Michael Eliason. Many were in Aspern Seestadt, a community of 25,000 people built on a former airport in the city’s northeast. We rode our bikes around the cyclist-friendly development, which has been in progress since 2007, when the city approved a master plan by the Swedish firm Tovatt Architects & Planners in collaboration with N+ Objektmanagement. Among its first major completed works is a wood housing project by Berger+Parkkinen Architekten with Querkraft. It looks massive from the street, but from within, it breaks up to form slender buildings connected by open walkways and separated by some of the nicest urban green spaces I have seen anywhere.

Child runs through the Sunflower Houses social housing complex in Vienna

Eliason is a housing expert who characterizes the Vienna model as a “100-year experiment in solidarity, building up community, and providing adequate and affordable housing.” He explains how this history has evolved into an embrace of various building typologies. “Vienna is constantly working to improve itself,” he says, “and to prioritize equity, sustainability and the environment. It has built some of the best new urban districts globally, numerous Passivhaus buildings, a broad array of decarbonized buildings, and social housing with amenities and community spaces rarely found elsewhere. The city is all-in on these issues and doing so many things right.”

Vienna's Sunflower Houses social housing complex as seen from above

The success of the model is not explained by any single attribute but by a mix of initiatives and approaches. An embrace of good design has always been paramount: in the Red Vienna years, to build a “Versailles for the working class” at the iconic Karl-Marx-Hof housing estate; and, in more recent times, to create housing that is attractive to people of all economic strata, rather than signalling that this is low-cost housing for low-income residents. And it’s one of the key contributors to Vienna’s social housing success. Essentially, the model can be boiled down into six defining aspects:

Inclusive Zoning

There is no zoning for single-family housing. Whereas in many cities, social housing projects are built on the edges or the outskirts, like the banlieues of Paris, Vienna integrates them into the core, where they are built out consistently at six to eight storeys. This precedent long ago precluded NIMBYism, and by upholding the mid-rise character of the city’s neighbourhoods, planners eliminate the spectre of tall buildings overlooking single-family private homes.

In the massive development of Aspern Seestadt, Berger+Parkkinen, in collaboration with Querkraft Architekten, have created the Wood Housing complex: a total of 213 apartments and eight shops united by their warm timber cladding and jutting concrete balconies.
In the massive development of Aspern Seestadt, Berger+Parkkinen, in collaboration with Querkraft Architekten, have created the Wood Housing complex: a total of 213 apartments and eight shops united by their warm timber cladding and jutting concrete balconies.

Better Building Codes

After seeing how well they work in Germany and Austria, Eliason has been promoting the use of single-exit stairs in North America. Permitted in Austrian buildings up to 32 metres tall, they allow for marvellous interior courtyards and much greater flexibility in design. Buildings then tend to be smaller (and much thinner — rarely more than 20 metres deep), since there are limits on the number of units that can be served on each floor by one stair. But this results in layouts with more sunlight and air. In many buildings, the stairwell itself is like an enclosed courtyard — a social space, often with a big skylight that opens for smoke abatement in emergencies. During COVID-19, these operable windows allowed fresh air to circulate through the common spaces.

Sometimes, architects use the freedom afforded by the single stair to break projects up into even smaller buildings; the vibrant Sunflower Houses in the new central neighbourhood of Wildgarten (by Madrid firm Arenas Basabe Palacios with engineering firm Buschina & Partner) are a collection of 11 small buildings, surrounded by green space, that feel more like houses than apartment buildings. This simply could not be done under North American codes requiring two exit stairs and a corridor between them; it takes up too much space. Whereas North American buildings tend to bulk up to amortize the cost of multiple stairs and elevators over more units, the suites in the 11 Sunflower blocks all have multiple aspects for cross-ventilation; many of them have windows and views on three sides, where generous balconies cut a sculptural figure.

In the centre of the complex, residents have access to the “canyon,” a communal spot with stadium stairs and sloped sides that encourage different modes of play and gathering.

In the centre of the complex, residents have access to the “canyon,” a communal spot with stadium stairs and sloped sides that encourage different modes of play and gathering.

Smarter Transit

Vienna long ago recognized that housing and transit are inseparable. Before development began for Aspern Seestadt or any of its housing units went up, the city constructed the U2 underground subway connection. In this one district, the goal is to have 40 per cent of trips by transit, 40 per cent by bike or on foot, and only 20 per cent by car. If you’re carrying a heavy load, a fleet of rental e-cargo bikes is at your disposal. So residents choosing to live in this new community not only save on rent, but they also avoid the need for car ownership.

Marchfeld Terrassen, by the firm Trans_City, is low-cost social housing located near a rambling park and the Ernst-Theumer-Hof development, which exemplifies 1980’s Viennese social housing. The project consists of two vibrant white buildings with sculpturally undulating facades.

Marchfeld Terrassen, by the firm Trans_City, is low-cost social housing located near a rambling park and the Ernst-Theumer-Hof development, which exemplifies 1980’s Viennese social housing. The project consists of two vibrant white buildings with sculpturally undulating facades.

Rental Tenure

Eighty per cent of Vienna’s population rents, and for good reason: They have security of tenure that is almost equivalent to ownership. Rents are relatively low, 60 per cent of units are subsidized and there are no year-to-year leases. Tenants can stay in their apartments forever, even if they started in subsidized units, and can hand them down to their children. The mix of families on full, partial and zero subsidies in the same buildings rarely leads to conflict because multi-unit residential communities across the entire city reflect an assortment of different incomes. Conservatives in Austria sometimes complain that rich people should not be living in social housing, but according to Francesca Mari in the New York Times, authorities believe that the mix creates a more stable environment for everyone.

Marchfeld Terrassen social housing complex in Vienna

Land Ownership

In North America, cities rake in operating revenues by selling land to private developers. Vienna has different ambitions for its assets. Whereas in the Red Vienna days the city was the developer, today the Wohnfonds Wien land bank controls 325 hectares and makes it available for Bauträgerwettbewerbe (housing developer competitions). The winning projects are based as much on design quality as on other criteria. “Teams compete to develop and receive subsidies for individual projects and are judged by a diverse panel on the economics of the project, the architecture, the ecology of the building and the social mix,” explains Eliason. “The city has effectively leveraged its purse to push the price of construction down, making interested parties compete on the merits and economics.”

FUX provides supervised housing for unaccompanied refugee minors in the rapidly evolving 11th District. The handsome building, clad in iridescent stained larchwood, arranges eight individual bedrooms on the second level and administration on the ground floor.

Also by Trans_City, FUX provides supervised housing for unaccompanied refugee minors in the rapidly
evolving 11th District. The handsome building, clad in iridescent stained larchwood, arranges eight
individual bedrooms on the second level and administration on the ground floor.

Great Design

Design has been a critical attribute of housing in Vienna since the days of
Karl-Marx-Hof and the Hundertwasser. In her book The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919–1934, Eve Blau describes how the city rejected the modern movement and the German Model, instead embracing an indigenous urban building typology exemplified by smaller buildings that are worked into the city fabric — with playgrounds, wading pools and gardens in their central courtyards. But there were also large projects, often designed by students of Otto Wagner, as was Karl-Marx-Hof, which was envisioned by Wagner pupil Karl Ehn, trying to reconcile the old with the new. “As part of the city’s employment program, in this case for artists and artisans, they were in general elaborately and individually detailed with sculpture, moulded and painted decoration, glazed tiles, and ornamental brick and metalwork,” Blau writes. The modernists hated it (Sigfried Giedion ignored it altogether in the seminal modernist tome Space, Time and Architecture). But the occupants loved the buildings, which were (and continue to be) affordable and well-served by public transportation.

FUX social housing in Vienna

A hundred years since the ground was broken for Karl-Marx-Hof, courtyards and playgrounds still abound; connections to public transportation are a given, as are access to daylight and air. The Woody M Buildings Tivoligasse by Freimüller Söllinger Architektur are a good example of how high-quality housing can be inserted into an existing community with less disruption and lower carbon emissions. It replaces a single-storey grocery store with a new shop topped by a landscaped podium and four small mass-timber apartment buildings. The additional units could have been housed in a single building with two stairs and perhaps two elevators; instead, we have four stairs and three elevators — this isn’t just about economy, it’s about quality. Each suite has two aspects and cross-ventilation, and shares the single-loaded corridor with a maximum of four other units. As the architects note, “The spaces between the buildings function as green open spaces with trees, bushes and meadows for the residents, and enable views between the neighbouring buildings.” Vienna’s focus on quality and a strong tradition around community and solidarity has made it a beacon for contemporary planning. “The urban form they want is a city of short distances,” Eliason says. “It isn’t any one thing: Vienna’s successes and high quality of life stem from a massive amount of comprehensive planning and incredible efforts to build a better city. It all dovetails together.”

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