There are few cities that strike the traveler from Britain — and dare I say, from America too — as more quintessentially European than Vienna and Budapest. These former dual capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire continue to embody the civic and commercial grandeur of the old Habsburg dynasty, of a culture characterized by bourgeois prosperity and shaped by the artistic and literary intelligentsia that frequented the famous coffee houses. Both cities straddle the Danube and have maintained to a remarkable degree the attractive visual homogeneity that is the legacy of late 19th- and early 20th-century urban planning. Tourists to Vienna are still rewarded by the imperial showcase of the Hofburg, by the Gottfried Semper-designed Kunsthistoriches and Naturhistoriches Museums, by the wide Ringstrasse and much-photographed Prater Ferris wheel. Budapest offers the artfully contrived romantic spectacle of its Danube riverfront, with the series of sublime suspension bridges that link hilly Buda to flat Pest, with the composite historical fantasy of the Gothic-Baroque Parliament, and with ancient Buda Castle, rebuilt in the mid 19th century by Emperor Franz-Joseph with fanciful turrets and battlements that suggest nothing so much as the inspiration for the Magic Kingdom.
Vienna and Budapest are each populous, metropolitan and multicultural, and each dominates the small and somewhat parochial countries of which they are the oversized capitals. 1 Both cities were deeply marked by the turbulent events of the 20th century, from the collapse of Austria-Hungary in the aftermath of World War I to the spread of socialism, fascism and Nazism, from the cataclysm of World War II to the postwar rise of Soviet Russia and the Eastern bloc. More recently the cities have become entangled in the volatile politics of the European Union, in the waves of globalist optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and now in the resurgence of right-wing nationalist ideologies across the continent. In 2016 Austria very nearly elected as president a member of the Freedom Party, a far-right white-supremacist group founded in the mid-’50s by former Nazis. For several years now Hungary, led by the conservative Fidesz party, has been shifting hard toward what prime minister Viktor Orbán has notoriously called an “illiberal democracy” that will defend “Christian Europe” against the perceived threats of multiculturalism and Muslim refugees; last fall he called the asylum seekers “a poison” and described Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance as “valiant.”
Today, then, both Vienna and Budapest can be viewed as battlefields in an unfolding European crisis of identity and confidence that threatens the continent’s political unity and raises fundamental questions about what exactly it means to be European, to be Europe. Can we read these crises at the level of architecture? To explore this question it’s useful to examine key moments in the historical trajectories of these two cities over the last century, and where these have led.
“Built by the City of Vienna”
In 1898 the architect-theorist Adolf Loos criticized his home city of Vienna — then at the apogee of the Habsburg imperium — as a “Potemkinstadt,” a metropolis in which the aristocratic pretensions of grand boulevards, prepossessing institutions, and ornamented plaster facades masked banal, bourgeois flats and muted awareness of the dire poverty of proletarian workers. 2 Two decades later the city would begin at last to respond to the longstanding inequities — and more, to embark upon what has been arguably the most impressive and certainly the most sustained and consistent public housing program in Europe.
Vienna has sustained what is arguably the most impressive public housing program in Europe.
To be sure, Vienna’s experiment in social housing would start with an explicit rejection of utopian ideas. In the tumultuous years following the world war and dissolution of empire, some of the city’s leading architects and thinkers — including Loos, Josef Frank, and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, along with sociologist Otto Neurath — argued for fundamental change in the way the city was organized. Squatter settlements were clustering on the outskirts, and these self-organizing spaces suggested the possibility of a new kind of city in which workers would construct their own environs, low-rise and homely but also modern, with a closeness to nature and an anarchic independence that would be impossible to achieve in inner-urban tenements. This fleeting vision was quickly rejected by the Social Democratic party that was elected to power in 1919 and ran Vienna — no longer the glittering imperial seat but merely the impoverished capital of the new Republic of German-Austria — as an Austro-Marxist city-state until the mid 1930s, when it was overthrown by the rising fascists in the years before another world war. Confronted with an acute shortage of good housing, and keen to respond quickly, the new leaders initiated instead what they argued was the more pragmatic solution of creating dense communal housing on infill sites throughout the metropolis.
The Social Democrats may not have been radical but they were embattled. Even today this is evident in the architecture of the apartment blocks — the Gemeindebauten, or “municipally built” housing— that were constructed from the mid 1920s to the mid ’30s. These were not simply tenements: they were monumental tenements, stretching over entire city blocks, following the local model of the Hof-Haus, or perimeter block. In fact the Gemeindebauten were a response not only to the housing crisis but also to a more existential dilemma. What would be the identity of the city, now that it no longer ruled an immense land empire that extended from Trieste on the Adriatic to Lviv beyond the Carpathians? To the Social Democrats the answer was clear: Vienna would be a metropolis dedicated to the welfare and edification of its inhabitants, particularly the long-neglected working classes. And so over more than a decade they proceeded, through various means, especially massive taxation of the wealthy, to transform the imperial capital into a socialist city: Red Vienna.
In this light the Hofs can be understood as not merely practical but ideological. No less than Gothic churches, they are absolutely loaded with rhetoric: massive mid-rise superblocks articulated with towers, archways, loggias, and bays; embellished with bas-reliefs, tiles, metalwork, and sculptures depicting workers and worker families. The labor-intensive construction was itself an integral part of the program: a means of employing as many workers as possible. The most famous of the Gemeindebauten, Karl-Marx-Hof, looks like the architectural equivalent of a mass demonstration, with its series of arched entryways and flagpole-topped towers seeming to step arm in arm into a glorious future. Designed by Karl Ehn (a student of Otto Wagner) and opened in 1930, the building is immense — comprising 1.6 million square feet, with the main facade running for three-quarters of a mile — and accommodates an astonishing 5,000 tenants in 1,400 apartments. Yet Karl-Marx-Hof was only the largest of the 400 apartment blocks constructed by the Social Democrats during their relatively brief period in power. The clarity of purpose is powerfully evident in the focus on the collective: in the provision of generous and open courtyards and a remarkable range of shared facilities. As Eve Blau writes, in The Architecture of Red Vienna:
The buildings, which were designed by more than 190 architects in a period of less than ten years, varied considerably in quality and articulation. Again as part of the city’s employment program, in this case of artists and artisans, they were generally elaborately and individualistically detailed with sculpture, molded and painted decoration, glazed tiles, and ornamental brick and metalwork. … The individual apartments in the Gemeindebauten were small and minimally equipped. They had running water, toilets, gas, and electricity, but no “luxury fittings” such as bathtubs and showers, built-in cupboards, or closets. Instead, the emphasis in the Gemeindebauten was on public, communal facilities such as laundries equipped with modern appliances, bathhouses with tubs, showers (some even equipped with steam baths and swimming pools), kindergartens, child-care facilities, clinics, libraries, carpentry shops, meetings rooms, theater, and even cinemas. 3
Over the decades the Gemeindebauten of Red Vienna have continued to function as vital and attractive housing, with accessible and attractive public spaces that remain a respite and a pleasure. 4 Near the Gürtel, the so-called “Ringstrasse of the Proletariat,” you can still walk for a mile or so on a route that winds through the landscaped courtyards that link one Hof to another, all beautifully maintained and well used. You can still see the inscriptions which are affixed to the buildings, and which proudly declare: BUILT BY THE CITY OF VIENNA. It is both surprising and moving, in this era when public housing has become so diminished in ambition and stature, to realize that this sense of pride endures, though in somewhat more muted form.
In the end Red Vienna was undone by its own success, overthrown in 1934 in a bloody coup by the clerical-fascist Christian Social party that well understood the rhetoric — architectural and otherwise — of the collectivist housing. (During the uprising the Karl-Marx Hof was among the buildings shelled by the fascists’ artillery.) As the American writer John Gunther wrote at the time, about an urban-rural divide that to some extent persists to this day: “The disequilibrium between Marxist Vienna and the clerical countryside was the dominating motif of Austrian politics until the rise of Hitler. Vienna was socialist, anti-clerical, and, as a municipality, fairly rich. The hinterland was poor, backward, conservative, Roman Catholic, and jealous of Vienna’s higher standard of living.” 5
In the postwar era Vienna — jointly occupied by Allied and Soviet forces through the mid 1950s —resumed its program of social housing fitfully and slowly; yet at least twice the city has worked strongly to advance its progressive legacy. The first time was in the 1970s when two new housing developments were built in the southern part of the city. The most famous of these is Wohnpark (“residential park”) Alt-erlaa, located near the U-Bahn that extended the old imperial Stadtbahn into a very sexy new transportation line, with stations clad in molded plastic that now evoke a nostalgic futurism. Built over a dozen years by a city-owned housing cooperative, and containing more than 3,000 apartments, Alt-erlaa comprises half a dozen high-rise apartment buildings set within landscaped gardens. Designed by Harry Glück — who died only last December, aged 92 — the development embodies a rare combination of Brutalist aesthetics and spatial opulence; in its site planning it suggests also a classic Corbusian Radiant City. At Alt-erlaa the residential towers step down in a ziggurat-like section, enabling most units to have large, lushly planted balconies; the buildings are spread across parklands created from artificial hills. Near the U-Bahn station there is a shopping mall that serves as a neighborhood center.
It’s a vision of collective luxury all the more convincing because the place has never fallen into decline, become dystopian.
Why does Alt-erlaa succeed when so much mid-century high-rise housing does not? One essential factor is surely visual; as architecture it is tremendously exciting, with a drama and grandeur that had been absent from Viennese housing since the fascist coup. But another important factor is programmatic, the ways in which the design encourages a communal life. The plans of the Alt-erlaa towers are deliberately sprawling and deep, so that the interior spaces in the middle could be used for social clubs, pools halls, leisure centers, or whatever the residents might want — and they have been adapted in exactly this way, with each block containing slightly different facilities. On top of each tower there are a swimming pool and sauna. On the grounds there are tennis courts and mini-golf courses. Thus does Alt-erlaa extend the legacy of Red Vienna. “Glück’s megastructures,” Eve Blau has argued, “can be understood as refashioning the proletarian Wohnkultur … for postwar consumer culture.” 6 It’s a vision of collective luxury all the more convincing decades on because the place has never fallen into decline, become dystopian. Quite the contrary; as the headline of a segment on U.S. public radio put it, Alt-erlaa is one reason “why rich people in Austria want to live in housing projects.”
Still, the project was heavily criticized in the architectural press when it opened, at least partly because of its novel floor plans. You could fit a billiard table in the generous public hallway but you couldn’t have apartments with two orientations; ceilings were low and units were compromised to provide for the collective. More important, though, Alt-erlaa was widely considered to be bad as urbanism, precisely for its Corbusier-like divide between the megastructural towers in the park and the existing city, a planning concept then being increasingly rejected by the New Left and communitarian activists like Jane Jacobs. The Viennese architect Michael Klein, co-author of Modelling Vienna: Real Fictions in Social Housing, notes that the critique of Alt-erlaa coincided also with the wider dismissal of the “monotonous Zeilbenbau” — the highly uniform public housing complexes then being built across Europe. “Alt-erlaa was seen as a self-contained utopia that did not contribute to the city,” he said. 7
The other notable housing development of that era was in part a reaction against such self-contained projects. Am Schöpfwerk, built by the city from 1967 to 1980, is just round the corner from Alt-erlaa, near the local U-Bahn station. Here the ownership is structured not as a cooperative but as fully public; the rents are lower and Schöpfwerk is more diverse, more multicultural. Designed by a team of architects led by Viktor Hugnagl, the project is in many ways a self-conscious effort to reproduce and update the Gemeindebauten of Red Vienna — to create large communal housing within a grid of blocks that is identifiable as an urban street grid. There is a monumental tower but also a series of mid-rise buildings that form courtyards with public spaces that contain bars, cafés, and schools; as with the housing of the ’20s, everything flows together, nothing is gated off. Am Schöpfwerk has been considered problematic, its public spaces prone to vandalism; and on my visit the interior stairwells did feel somewhat eerie — galleried and top-lit, they had the feel of a Victorian philanthropic project, or a model prison. But in the context of Vienna, where municipal housing is so extraordinarily well made and meticulously cared for, this is exceptional. 8
It’s widely argued that in the past quarter century Europe became definitively neoliberal, with decreasing options for local authorities and national governments in the face of continent-wide pressures to privatize. Yet even in these years Vienna has continued to produce and implement innovative social housing. Sparked by a 1991 photography exhibition organized by a group of urban planners, “Who Owns Public Space: Women’s Everyday Life in the City,” municipal administrators embarked on what has become an influential and comprehensive program of “gender mainstreaming.” In practice this has meant extensive research into the different ways in which men and women (and boys and girls) use and inhabit the city, with the goal of promoting greater equality via the design of housing, parks, playgrounds, transportation, and diverse public spaces.
The first housing project to reflect the gender mainstreaming approach, Frauen-Werk-Stadt, or Women’s Work City, designed by a team of architects including Franziska Ullmann with Lieselotte Peretti, Gisela Podreka, and Elsa Prochazka, opened in 1997; its planning and design were notable for diverse units that allowed for multigenerational living; spacious and well-lit hallways and stairwells; communal facilities including laundry spaces, play rooms, and roof terraces; generous storage spaces for bicycles and baby carriages; a parking garage with natural lighting; and an onsite daycare center and kindergarten. The project was so successful that it led to second and third Frauen-Werk-Stadt developments, in 2004 and 2010, and the ideas have become a kind of common sense in Viennese urbanism. The city has established a Department of Gender Mainstreaming and produced a manual to guide city employees. The built results are at once feminist and universal. As Franziska Ullmann has written, Frauen-Werk-Stadt produced nothing less than a “long-term transformation,” in how the Viennese create social housing.
Firstly, there has been a clear increase in the involvement of women architects and planners in the planning and implementation process, with women expressly involved in almost all those official processes requiring expert urban input. Secondly, the lessons learned by women planners in the design of women-adapted housing are increasingly being incorporated in other projects and, most importantly of all, are being taken into account in … relevant provisions of the Viennese Building Code. 9
“A Hungarian Language of Form”
Budapest can boast nothing like the same commitment to social programs as its former co-imperial capital. This would seem at first to belie the political allegiances of the two cities during the long postwar era, when Hungary was in the communist East and Austria in the capitalist West. Yet this distinction may obscure as much as it reveals. For even during its decades as a Soviet satellite, Budapest did not create communal housing at the same scale or of the same quality as did Vienna, and since 1989 — when Hungary voted the socialists out of power and began its peaceful post-communist transition — much of what had been built was subject to “instant privatization.” 10
20th-century architecture in Budapest was engaged not with international socialism but rather with ethnocentric nationalism.
What is far more distinctive about 20th-century architecture in Budapest is the engagement not with socialism and its internationalist aspirations but rather with nationalism and its ethnocentrism. This goes far to explain the ongoing efforts, across decades, to create a specifically Hungarian, or Magyar, style that would advance the contention that Hungarians, whose language is not Indo-European, are not actually Europeans. Two periods, bookending the century, are especially revealing. The first major works to emerge from the ethnonationalist impulse were designed by Ödön Lechner, who at the turn of the 20th century sought to achieve what he called a “Hungarian language of form.” Often hailed as the “Gaudí of Hungary,” Lechner was inspired by vernacular art, including embroidery and ceramics, and he was deeply influenced by contemporary theories which argued that Hungary’s ethnic roots were not in Europe but in Asia, especially India and Persia. Lechner’s buildings, including his magnificent Museum of Applied Arts and Postal Savings Bank, both in central Budapest, feature richly colored ceramics, elaborate mosaics, and exotic rooflines, all in an effort to evoke a “real” Hungarian architecture that may never have actually existed. “The first European museum in a non-historical style” is how architectural historian János Gerle describes the Museum of Applied Arts, which opened in 1896.
Lechner was fifty years old when he achieved this opportunity to realize a long-fostered belief that the cradle of Hungarian culture was Eastern, and that everything considered to be a national archetype — as he called it, a national language of forms — originated in the East. … His vision of a new national style was based on the rebirth of the pre-Christian Hungarian culture, with folk art as its authentic source. 11
As architecture this can be thrilling to experience, and Lechner has remained an influential figure. As art historian Ilona Sármány-Parsons writes, in a recent essay: “For more than a century the complexity of Ödön Lechner’s experiment with a ‘Hungarian style’ has generated fierce theoretical debates, often strongly influenced by politics.”
This was surely the case in the last decades the 20th century. Although many observers argued that the fall of communism would lead to increasing convergences among the nations once divided by the Iron Curtain, in Hungary the major architectural trend of the 1990s stressed not global solidarity but national difference. That decade saw the growing prominence of the self-described school of “Organic Architects,” led by the guru-like Imre Makovecz. Starting to practice in the 1960s, but receiving few commissions until the 1980s, Makovecz, a devout Catholic, was equally anti-Soviet and anti-globalist. (He died in 2011.) He is best known for designing tent-like structures inspired by speculation about what the yurts of the Magyars, who traveled from Central Asia to Hungary sometime in the medieval era, might possibly have looked like. Over the years he created a fascinating and deeply odd style characterized by swelling, maternal domes, phallic protrusions, and anthropomorphic face-like elements. Obsessed by trees, Makovecz disdained industrial fabrication and preferred to build in wood; his celebrated design for the Hungarian pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo, constructed in timber and containing an actual tree whose roots were visible through a glass floor, was described at the time as a “dizzy fantasy.” But above all Makovecz and his followers were driven by nationalist visions of Hungarian uniqueness; they favored an “authentic” and rural Hungary and expressed distrust for urbane and cosmopolitan Budapest. It was all clearly a reversion back to the imaginary worlds of Hungarian form that so excited Lechner and his protégés at the start of the century.
Was this so specific to Hungary? There was a lot of fantasy architecture in the Post-Modern ’80s, and Makovecz’s work was often categorized in these terms. In Vienna there was the far less talented Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who created somewhat lumpen buildings decorated with colorful, textured, and ostentatiously irrational designs intended as a populist reaction against the alleged inhumanity and industrialized interchangeability of modernism. (Hundertwasser even got to design some public housing in central Vienna; Makovecz, an infinitely superior architect and spatial thinker, never got a comparable opportunity in Budapest.) Yet there was a crucial difference. Hundertwasser’s critique of modernism was based on a vague disdain for industrial aesthetics as the destroyer of “place”; as such it was rooted largely in the back-to-nature sentiments of Sixties radicalism. Makovecz’s dislike of the city was premised upon something older, deeper and more sinister, upon the anti-Semitism and anti-Communism that saw the modern city as the decadent result of an unhealthy, “rootless” cosmopolitanism common both to Americanized capitalism and Soviet socialism.
The Organic Architects focused obsessively on ‘Europeanness,’ or the lack thereof.
Makovecz’s ugly politics are not a side issue. Although outnumbered in the capital by the proponents of international modernism and international neoclassicism, the nationalist architects attracted attention through the very virulence of their arguments, which were always about more than stylistic oppositions. The Organic Architects focused obsessively on questions of “Europeanness,” or the lack thereof: We Hungarians are not truly European, so the architecture that speaks to our souls, to our blood, must be different. In recent years these sentiments have been combined with claims that would seem the opposite: We Hungarians are the true heart of Europe, the bastion of Christendom, the gatekeepers who will protect the continent from Asiatic migrants. This is incoherent, but nationalism often is; as a design ethos it offers insight into the rise of Viktor Orbán, who has consolidated power by playing upon xenophobic fears of the Communists (who no longer exist), of migrants (who seldom want to settle in Hungary anyway) and, particularly, of Muslims (“Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” Orban has asked in one of his typically inflammatory speeches).
You can see this aggressive insularity at work in such prominent projects of recent years as the National Theater. Designed by a relatively obscure local architect, Mária Siklós, the building is at once an exercise in neoclassical kitsch and a monument to provincialism, with expensive materials and gimcrack details, and surrounded by bronze statues of famous Hungarian actors; it’s widely considered to be a personal favorite of Orbán. The theater is part of a large real estate development project, Millennium City Center, which now includes a modern art museum, corporate offices, and speculative luxury flats (marketed to an international clientele with English language brochures), all of which are integrated into a linear park featuring sculptures of medieval Hungarian warlords stroking their beards or flexing their muscles and “interactive” elements modeled on yurts for children to play upon. It is altogether strange, yet in its very contradictions the project underscores that aggressive nation building and globalized capitalism are not so incompatible after all. No matter that the government fulminates against “international finance” — especially as personified by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish émigré who has supported liberal initiatives — it remains eager to make the deals.
As I write, Fidesz is threatening to shut down Central European University, which was founded by Soros a quarter century ago, in the heady days of the new democracy, and which was seen as an example of the “open society” liberals hoped for after 1989. It’s worth emphasizing that Fidesz is not an insurgency; in fact it grew from a centrist-liberal group set up by the Budapest intelligentsia in those early post-communist years. Today it’s a party of experienced operators who’ve been skillfully navigating the shifting currents of European politics. Lately they’ve been closing opposition newspapers and appointing cronies to key positions in business and media, even as their rhetoric has focused ever more fiercely on ethnic purity. It has been a notably successful move. The contemporary Hungarian-Romanian thinker and former dissident Gáspár Miklós Tamás argues that Orbán’s rule is an example of a “post-fascism” which no longer needs a one-party state, a paramilitary enforcer like the SS, or an absolute ruler. “It has all the democratic trappings, there is no need for a formal dictatorship,” he argues in a recent interview, about the new regime. “We have a minority media world, where people [like] myself can talk with no consequence … because [we don’t] reach more than five to ten percent of the population. Most people in Budapest are not even aware that such a thing as the left exists.” In contrast with earlier radical nationalists, the Fidesz are, he argues, “model capitalists.” He continues:
Look, Mr Orbán is a billionaire many times over, and is the head of a vast empire run by his family members and his flunkies, in construction, agribusiness, mining. … He has a whole county that belongs to him and his family. So actually he is very much in favor of capitalism, and the great Western companies enjoy fantastic favors here. In spite of all the propaganda, Mercedes is welcome, BMW is welcome, every investor is welcome and they barely pay any taxes. 12
The result of all this is not any local specificity, but increasingly a possible counter-model. Orbán’s Hungary is authoritarian, but it is not insolvent, like Greece, and it hasn’t really threatened to upset the European order as reflected by the European Union and the Eurozone — it challenges only the “multicultural” gloss of these institutions, and Orbán has become an example to other right-wing insurgents, from Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland to Nigel Farage in Britain.
Today the ‘European’ city is not necessarily the social city, the good city. It is also the nationalist city, the fearful, guarded, and resentful city.
Last year the Austrians did not elect Norbert Hofer, head of the violently anti-immigrant and openly xenophobic Freedom Party, as president. But it was close: Hofer received 46 percent of the vote, and today Vienna confronts some of the same anxious currents of insecurity and bigotry as Budapest. The city has extraordinary social housing, but it also has strict citizenship laws; and to be eligible for publicly funded housing, you must be a citizen. This excludes the city’s many immigrants from participating in one of its signal democratizing achievements, and it also instills a palpable anxiety in Viennese citizens who benefit from what is arguably the best municipal housing program ever established anywhere — and who surely do know how good they have it. In this light the resurgence of a new, rebranded fascism can be understood at least partly as the result of inchoate fears that somewhere beyond the borders — once so heavily guarded against invading foreigners — there might be outsiders who want to settle within the city and benefit from its generous social provision.
So today the “European’” city is not necessarily the good city, the social city, that it so often appears to be to the traveler from elsewhere — dense, historically rich, egalitarian, clean, endlessly walkable and seemingly welcoming. It is also the city of the nation state, of guarded borders and exclusionary laws, of fear, nostalgia, and resentment. Budapest is beautiful, but, as Tamás has pointed out, the city was beautiful in 1944, when the Arrow Cross government was deporting the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. At its best, the 20th-century European city promised something better, something fairer. In Vienna that better city still survives, as home for a lucky few, and as aspiration to the many less fortunate.