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A Walk Around Alt-Erlaa, Vienna

This article was originally published in BD:Online, 30 April 2018.

Imagine an architectural pitch. A new housing project in the suburbs of London. You have been invited to submit proposals for 3,000 affordable homes on a 25ha site. You decide to go crazy and deliver a masterplan of apartment blocks around shared gardens with open-air swimming pools and saunas climaxing at the top of each tower. Your considered layouts include an integrated shopping centre, sports complex including a large central auditorium, tennis courts, 30 leisure clubs and gyms, three schools, two nurseries, medical centres, youth clubs, a church and basement parking garages providing a space for every apartment. Each tower is an architectural tour-de-force, with gardens spilling over balconies creating a lush natural elevation. Two thirds of the mix is for family apartments, three bedrooms or more, each with a liveable area above London Plan recommendations. Contemporary paintings by celebrated artists are hung in each entrance foyer, a nice touch you think. You are quietly confident they will applaud your heroic vision.

When you are thrown out of the building with rolled up drawings under your arms made soggy with tears of laughter and your concept model broken in half, you might ruminate on your terrible lack of design judgement. Though you may also regret not being a practising architect in the studio of Harry Glück (GHR) in Austria in 1968, as this was the successful pitch that he made to the City of Vienna. Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa was constructed between 1973 and 1986. It is the largest housing estate in Austria. I had a stopover in Vienna so I decided to take a look.

Alterlaa U-bahn station is seven stops south of the main terminus at Westbahnhof. It is an integrated part of the housing estate with walkways leading you to the housing, but I entered through Kaufpark, Alterlaa’s purpose-built shopping centre which has the architectural smell of the Seventies. Modular shop units of varying scales are accessed through low walkways with waffle-cut ceilings masking strip lighting, which occasionally open out into double-height atria and nicely modelled exterior courtyards surrounded by translucent fibreglass sculpted cloisters. Above the shops are two levels of office space. It is certainly retro but not without charm. More relevant though is its coverage of facilities and use, everything you need, from supermarkets and department stores to niche goods, cafes, restaurants and bars. I enjoy a waffle of a different nature before heading out to explore the housing.

From a distance they are reminiscent of industrial cooling towers covered in green climbers. Eighteen large convex blocks arranged in banks of three, rising to 26 storeys. Every apartment on the first 12 floors opens out on to a generous balcony which terminates in a half-drum planter, wide and deep enough for small trees. A low-tech integrated watering system recycles rain into the planters, which retreat at each level according to the hyperbolic curve of the building form.

This typology is not perfect. The single-aspect nature of the apartments requires the accommodation to recede quite deeply. Natural light is in short supply or non-existent at the corridor side. Despite this flaw, there is a very low turnover of tenants, and a long waiting list. In fact, there is a 93% favourability rating among its residents, the highest for any estate in Vienna. Perhaps we are too concerned these days with flooding every corner of a room with natural light. Particularly when the aspects that you do have look over your own well-tended garden.

The form of the masterplan feels like an evolution of the superblock model. Civilised towers in garden blocks. Except the garden has broken loose and made its way up the precious façade of the building, something the traditional modernist planners may have baulked at. Glück’s approach was somewhat utopian, with an environmental leaning. The city returned to nature, or nature returned to the city. A little heady for a hard-nosed urban modernist, but not without merit.

It should be stated that this is a type of living that is highly conditioned. Alter-laa is self-contained and organised. With its own TV station, newspaper and cultural facilities, it must feel like living in a municipal factory town. It is a rule-bound place, with a comparatively low crime rate. This is not for everyone, and certainly not for your average creative urbanite who thrives on the chaos of the city. However, it is an estate that has a civilising effect on its users. It was designed for that purpose in both its planning and its management which is still overseen by the city authority, with input from residents and other business users of the estate. It is a model born out of the Gemeindebauten (municipal housing) of Red Vienna in the 1920s, and carried through to this day. The approach has survived many political flavours of city government, who have all somehow resisted the impetus to hyper-commodify housing in the city. Vienna still invests €600m annually in social housing projects on behalf of the 60% of its residents who call these buildings home.

Witnessing Alter-laa provides another melancholy reminder of how we are being short-changed in Britain. It might be argued that we don’t have a culture of publicly funded housing in this country. But we do. Or perhaps it could be suggested that social housing projects of this scale are just not affordable any more, but Vienna is still building them. One economic solution might be to look to new suburbs. Alter-laa was built on low-premium land outside of the centre. Our own major cities have a lot of options here, if only the politics were to line up accordingly. If you remove the profit motive from social housing, free up planning conditions and combine with an ambitious ongoing programme of public investment then great things can be achieved.

Meanwhile, Harry Glück quietly passed away 18 months ago, aged 92. He was in the process of working with the City of Vienna on proposals for Biotope, a 5.4ha environmental city quarter on the site of a disused Coca Cola factory.

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