Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology

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Vienna's Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology
The Karl Marx Hof apartments in the north of Vienna enclose schools, baths, a library and a health centre © Art Kowalsky/Alamy

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Vienna's Karl Marx Hof: architecture as politics and ideology
The Karl Marx Hof apartments in the north of Vienna enclose schools, baths, a library and a health centre
© Art Kowalsky/Alamy

This mid-rise block of flats looked like a fortress years before it actually became a besieged holdout against the Nazis in the brief Austrian civil war of 1934

Vienna’s Karl Marx Hof (roughly, “Karl Marx Court”) is a rare example of architecture both as political instrument and ideological symbol – a building people would fight for, and against, with guns.

Started by the municipality of Vienna in 1927 and finished three years later, it became one of the main battlefields of the brief Austrian civil war of 1934. Its bombardment, like its construction, became a symbol – this time not of municipal socialism but of Fascism, and of the first serious resistance to it.

None of this meaning, however, would have been imparted to Karl Marx Hof were it not for the fact that the building already looked like a fortress, a bulwark, a castle of solidarity, years before it actually became a besieged holdout. An incredibly long, red, mid-rise block of flats punctuated by archways just north of the city centre, it encloses schools, baths, a library and a health centre. It culminates in a grand square with sculptures, spikes, turrets and the prominent legend, in beautifully cast letters: “Karl Marx Hof, built by the Vienna City Council.”

Simply, this is the sort of building that you could imagine people being willing to lay down their lives for. Yet its architect, Karl Ehn, was not an active socialist. He carried on working on commissions after the Fascist coup of 1934, and even worked for the Nazis after the annexation of Austria four years later.

For all the aplomb of the design, it came from the brief, not the designer’s political or even architectural inclinations. Instead, it came from the intersection of the city of Vienna’s needs for high-density inner-city housing, and the sort of architectural ideas that were dominant in the capital of the Hapsburg Empire in the early 20th century. []

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