Werkbundsiedlung Vienna 1932

On the 80th anniversary of the construction of the housing estate in Lainz, an exhibition at the Wien Museum illuminates the historical initiative that allowed for low-cost housing construction in the city in 1932.

"People say that previous eras were pathetic. But there cannot be a more pathetic era than ours. Every unsurpassable simplicity is pathetic, to want to make everything the same, to want to organise everything, to cram people into one big homogeneous mass."
— Joseph Frank, 1930

Werkbundsiedlung Vienna celebrates the 80th anniversary of the construction of the housing estate in Lainz, Vienna, launched as an international exhibition for residential construction in 1932. Thirty famed architects from Austria, Europe and America such as Richard Neutra, Adolf Loos, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Otto Niedermoser, Ernst A. Plischke and Gerrit Rietveld completed 70 fully furnished houses for public display in the Werkbundsiedlung, before being made available for sale to potential residents. At the Wien Museum , the historical significance of this event and the maintenance of the estate is commemorated with detailed documentation in the form of photography, plans, models, sketches, interior furnishing, and even sale prices of the completed homes. As an initiative of the Austrian Werkbund within the framework the building activity of the Rotes Wien City of Vienna, the Werkbundsiedlung applied the glamour and capacity of these architects to this affordable housing project, departing from functionalism by prioritising colour, beauty and decorative elements.

Established in 1912 the Austrian Werkbund was an association of designers and craftspeople intended to work on both luxury and quality affordable design projects. With members such as Josef Frank , Adolf Loos , and Margarete Schütte Lihotzky , it shared an ideological premise with the Viennese social democratic govenment first elected in 1918 which was responding to local poverty and housing demand by initiating and realising a large scale building program. From 1925 more than 60000 apartments were constructed in Gemeindebau , or municipal housing. Funded from specially introduced taxes implemented by the finance minister Hugo Brietner, including a tax on luxury, the program was hugely successful, offering low cost rent controlled apartments at 4% of average income.
Top: View of Houses 17 to 24 by Karl Augustinus Bieber / Otto Niedermoser, Walter Loos, Eugen Wachberger und Clemens Holzmeister; coffeehouse visible in the left of the image, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum. Above: Living room in the house by Josef Frank, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
Top: View of Houses 17 to 24 by Karl Augustinus Bieber / Otto Niedermoser, Walter Loos, Eugen Wachberger und Clemens Holzmeister; coffeehouse visible in the left of the image, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum. Above: Living room in the house by Josef Frank, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
The Werkbundsiedlung of 1932 was one initiative in the framework of this building program, which differed from it in specific ways. Under the direction of Werkbund architect Joseph Frank it proposed the housing of families in townhouses with a modest garden surrounded by green space in the periphery, rather than the indiscriminate grouping together of people in large apartments. Various international architects were invited to participate by contributing 1-5 housing designs using equal measure of space in stylistically diverse ways. The spirit was modernism, rather than socialism, with measures of individuality and a particularly Viennese appreciation of comfort. The settlement was internationally successful and received thousands of visitors as well as local and international press coverage, including documentation by Domus, which is also included in the exhibition at the Wien Musem.
Josef Frank, <em>Fauteuil A 63 F</em>, Thonet-Mundus. © Galerie Julius Hummel
Josef Frank, Fauteuil A 63 F , Thonet-Mundus. © Galerie Julius Hummel
The plans, photographs and above all the models on show reveal true diversity in form and detail. Built on more or less equally spaced plots the Rietveld example used stairs to maximise the use of space through levels, while other apartments left everything on a plane. The houses were not grey or white, but painted diverse colours, many of them in pastels. The diversity in estate design realised a form of modernism still embedded in the context of the Austrian Werkbund and its veneration of craft against the mechanical or repetitive forms.

The exhibition easily represents the stylistic differences between the architects involved, but only hints at their philosophical differences. Chief manager Joseph Frank sought to use decor to distinguish between "staying" or "belonging" and "living" or "wohnen" and "leben". This could be seen as at odds with Adolf Loos' 1908 Ornament and Crime , where he claimed that "The evolution of culture depends on the elimination of ornamentation from commodities", meaning that ornament can cause objects to go out of style and thus become obsolete.
Under the direction of Werkbund architect Joseph Frank it proposed the housing of families in townhouses with a modest garden surrounded by green space in the periphery, rather than the indiscriminate grouping together of people in large apartments
Left, Museum of Society and Economy, <em>Exhibition poster for the Werkbundsiedlung</em>, 1932. 
© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Art collection and archive. Right, Joseph Binder, <em>Design for exhibition poster for the Werkbundsiedlung</em>, 1932. © MAK – Austrian Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna
Left, Museum of Society and Economy, Exhibition poster for the Werkbundsiedlung , 1932. © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Art collection and archive. Right, Joseph Binder, Design for exhibition poster for the Werkbundsiedlung , 1932. © MAK – Austrian Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna
Unfortunately the exhibition did not go into great detail about this conflict of ideas. It featured instead many colourful interior furnishings, fabrics, and print samples, to make the point ornament is not crime but a happy accomplice, contributing to the livability of simple or so-called affordable places. Whether this goal was realised is another question, the information on display about the pricing of the apartments shows that they were mostly unaffordable for the middle classes they were designed for. The Gerrit T. Rietveld houses for example were priced at 50,00 — 53,00€ in 1932, re-evaluated at 110,000 — 116,600€ in 2001. Very few in 1932 had the cash, or as some argue, the taste , to want this kind of modern home, being perhaps to kleinbürgerlich . The city of Vienna therefore purchased 56/70 of these apartments, which have since been used as social housing. Renovation work on the settlement began in 2011, with forty-eight buildings to be renovated at the cost of 10 million euro. The main goal of the renovation is to make improvements in energy efficiency. The first five houses include four from Gerrit Rietveld and one from Josef Hoffmann.
Left, Terrace houses by André Lurçat, 1932.
Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum. Right, Bedroom in House 45 by Jacques Groag, 1932 Photo by Julius Scherb © Wien Museum
Left, Terrace houses by André Lurçat, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum. Right, Bedroom in House 45 by Jacques Groag, 1932 Photo by Julius Scherb © Wien Museum
Werkbundsiedlung Vienna at the Wien Museum is a fascinating summary of this historical event that reveals information about two key trends specific to Vienna in the early 20th century. That is, the programme to make housing affordable for large numbers of middle and working class people, and also the preoccupation with craft and the decorative as a response to the hyper rationality of functionalism. While the ideological differences between the designers could have been better illustrated, the exhibit makes full use of an archive of models, plans, photographs as well as realised furniture and fabric to give a sense of the commitment of these designers to the new and fair, as well as the diverse styles in which they managed to achieve it. Philippa Nicole Barr
The Werkbundsiedlung on its opening day, 4 June 1932. Photo by Albert Hilscher. © Austrian National Library, Image archive and graphics collection
The Werkbundsiedlung on its opening day, 4 June 1932. Photo by Albert Hilscher. © Austrian National Library, Image archive and graphics collection
Through 13 January 2013
Werkbundsiedlung Vienna 1932
Wien Museum
Karlsplatz 8, Vienna
View of the Werkbundsiedlung from the south, with the Rote Berg in the background, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
View of the Werkbundsiedlung from the south, with the Rote Berg in the background, 1932. Photo by Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
 Josef Frank for “Haus & Garten”, <em>Decorative fabric “Karma”</em>, 1925-30. © Private collection/Photo by Peter Kainz
Josef Frank for “Haus & Garten”, Decorative fabric “Karma” , 1925-30. © Private collection/Photo by Peter Kainz
Model of the Werkbundsiedlung on a scale of 1:100, 2012, built by students at the Technical University in Vienna, Institute for Art and Design/ Department of Three-Dimensional Design and Model Making.
© Wien Museum/Photo: Augustin Fischer
Model of the Werkbundsiedlung on a scale of 1:100, 2012, built by students at the Technical University in Vienna, Institute for Art and Design/ Department of Three-Dimensional Design and Model Making. © Wien Museum/Photo: Augustin Fischer

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