Eve Blau, adjunct professor of the history of urban form, was recently awarded the Victor Adler State Prize from the Austrian Ministry of Science, Research, and Economy, in Vienna. She delivered a lecture on April 23 at Vienna’s Architekturzentrum Wien museum, discussing her book Rotes Wien: Architektur 1919–1934. Stadt – Raum – Politik (Ambra, 2014). She then received the prize at an official ceremony on April 24.
The Victor Adler State Prize is a biannual award, recognizing scholarship in the history of social movements that is distinguished by its interdisciplinary breadth, use of innovative methods, and contemporary historical questions, and that is widely published.
Blau’s book examines Vienna’s Gemeindebauten, an early-20th-century program of communal housing blocks distributed throughout the city of Vienna, investigating how political meaning is reflected and manifested in architecture and urban form. As the Social Democratic Party of Austria gained municipal power during Austria’s First Republic (1919–1934)—when Austria’s capital was dubbed “Red Vienna”—it began the project of improving living conditions for the working class. Gemeindebauten emerged during this time as a primary instrument of socio-spatial transformation.
Through Gemeindebauten, homes for working-class families were integrated with schools, libraries, clinics, theaters, and other social institutions and facilities. A total of 400 communal housing blocks were constructed, containing around 64,000 units that housed one tenth of the city’s population.
In her book, Blau investigates how the development of these Gemeindebauten was shaped beneath ideological tension, with socialist ideals playing out against the backdrop of a conservative political majority. Gemeindebauten architecture reconfigured the spaces of everyday life in ways that, Blau explains, granted agency and power to the city’s poor, allowing them both private and public space in the city.
“When I first began researching Red Vienna, the program was generally understood as a housing program,” Blau says. “But, as I discovered, it instead was a comprehensive urban project that set itself the task of making the city a more equitable environment for modern urban life. It was a project to change society—by changing the city. For those of us in the design disciplines, one the most important aspects of the project is the key role played by architecture and urban design in this process.”
Insights and impacts from the original Gemeindebauten movement continue to resonate. The program still provides housing for hundreds of thousands of residents, and the City of Vienna recently announced plans to begin building new Gemeindebauten. This past April, New York magazine’s classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson suggested that if New York City mayor Bill de Blasio were “serious about making New York not just pleasant but just, he ought to go on a scouting trip to Vienna.”