Red Vienna was born a hundred years ago with the election of a Social Democratic government in 1919. Its ethos was driven by the experiences in the aftermath of the First World War when overnight, Vienna went from number one in an earlier version of the Mercer quality of living survey, to last from bottom in the League of Nations crap places to live index.
The central tenet of Rotes Wien was the democratisation of society (this philosophy still persists which might explain in part Vienna’s contemporary love affair with the global liveability rankings) with the aim to improve the living conditions of the poor and downtrodden. Whereas around the same time victorious Britain had its similar moment of reflection and soul-searching with its “home fit for heroes”, Vienna was arguably about to take social engineering to another level. And so the question of how to live was not just about building massive council apartment blocks (with a few mod cons) funded by innovative financial instruments including a “luxury tax”, it sought to question the very fundamentals of everyday life: the role of men and women in society, education for zee Kinder, leisure facilities, the use of revolutionary urban design, the vitality of the body, the role of art and culture and, much later, what to do with all those idiotic e-scooters.
Even today you can get an impression of this advanced ideological shift; you just have to look in wonder at the modernist architecture. An outstanding example can be found in the social housing complex in Vienna’s third district known as the Rabenhof, built between 1926 and 1927. (Originally it was called the Austerlitz-Hof, named after the editor of the newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, but they renamed it 1934 with the arrival of those guys in the nice uniforms). The Rabenhof, and many others like it, included more than a thousand flats, a school (kindergarten today), 38 shops, open spaces where people could congregate and perhaps most notable of all, a large hall as a meeting point for workers to discuss how to spot bourgeois slackers. It was revolutionary then and in a sense revolutionary today, in that ninety years ago it promoted a way of urban living rooted in the concept of cohesion and community designed – and this is important – around people. In truth this idea never deserted Vienna and its many modern housing developments place an emphasis on not only providing units to live, but essential aspects of a community infrastructure to sustain it.
But its guiding principles are a source of inspiration today – and here Vienna is no different – because such ideas underpin many discussions amongst urban planners and policy makers about the future of cities in a time when we are told the experience of many metropolitan dwellers can be social alienation and loneliness. More so because the ideas of community embodied in Red Vienna seem the very antithesis to what life in some cities and larger towns has become since the 1970s. By this I mean local infrastructure (shops especially) have disappeared in favour of drab, low-level peripheral shopping malls where people shuffle about with same haunted looks of acquiescence as parents forced to endure a kid’s birthday party at an indoor play-centre.
Or the fact that many urban areas (streets, open spaces) have in the past decades been mistakenly calibrated and in turn over-run in servitude to the private motor vehicle and their occupants (thus reinforcing social exclusion I would contend). And so these ideas are revolutionary again because they are, or should be, at the heart of any modern, progressive urban planning which seeks to address the twin evils of alienation and never speaking to your neighbour (in my case the reasons have nothing to do with social estrangement more to do with the fact he is an arse).
In any case, the reason I am hanging around the Rabenhof is to see a production from the Theater der Jugend (Youth Theatre) which is playing in the original large meeting hall in the cellar (it was converted to a cinema in the 1930s and fully restored in 2008). Incidentally, I don’t go to the theatre because of some fixation with proving my social capital credentials, although I fear by playing it down, I can’t win either way.
Also neither do I serve it up as an example of a pushy-progressive-parent where children are ferried from theatre, to music practise, to sports club to debating class. And bear in mind, I am no huge devotee of being in a largish room for a couple of hours wedged in with other miscreants who have made such events in recent years an obstacle course in enjoyment. A result of patrons suffering a surfeit of “hurry sickness” who insist on firing up their smartphone every few minutes to check that nothing has changed since their face was illuminated by the devil’s glow only sixty seconds before. To be reminded, again, that nobody liked their tweet, their Instagram picture or their Facebook posting. Because they are what they mostly are – with few exceptions from a clutch of dear friends and trusted acquaintances followed on Twitter – vacuous, inane and pointless.
No the theatre, much like a great film at das Kino, is one of the few things I have come to realise where I am able to completely shut out the complexities of the world and where my Weltschmerz is temporarily excluded (the others are a good walk, sometimes gardening and curiously the dentist where it is impossible to think of anything else except the scrape of a scraper, the buttock taunting sensation of the drill or the sucking sound of the saliva machine). What I am trying to say is that the theatre is one of only few places where I can escape the existential torment that is the B-word.
The Theater der Jugend has been going since 1932 and has two main homes: Theater der Zentrum in the 1st district and the Renaissance Theater in the 7th district (and, from time to time, the Rabenhof). Each year it stages between eight and twelve theatrical productions based on the values of “excitement, diversity and innovation” where young talent can be nurtured alongside more established stars. In all it has forty-seven thousand subscribers and is the biggest youth theatre in Europe (“perhaps the world” – their words, not mine).
We have been going since 2013 and in that time I have been rarely disappointed in spite of the behaviour of some parents who are clearly expecting a Tinder swipe or an update from their WhatsApp group. The productions have always been superb, with just enough darkness to appeal to parents, and just enough darkness to shut up the more restless child rendered fidgety by too many goodies. And you never know, you might even get the chance to name-drop.
To explain requires a slight digression: when my late brother-in-law was alive, he ran his own public relations firm (his idea of public relations was to take a press release from one of his files, change the dates, names and a few incidental facts, email it off, send a bill for more than the average monthly wage, and then retire to the Beisl just after lunch). Anyway, in that first summer in Vienna when I was trying to establish myself in the cut-throat, quasi-enslavement of freelance language teaching, and the modest returns this implied, he took pity on me and persuaded his usual photographer that I should be used in a “modelling” assignment for one of his clients.
Recruited as a “wacky” plumber – think Austria’s Next Top Model with blue overalls and a branded baseball cap but without the budget, make-up and social media following because it hadn’t been invented – my job consisted of two parts: first, to appear alongside a more glamorous housewife demonstrating some bathroom fixtures; and second, to sit in a bath smoking a monster Cohiba, reading the paper whilst being cajouled into making increasingly “comical” faces for the camera. “Exude!” they encouraged me, “Exude,” as I sat there being plied with beer and an assistant ensured the bubbles continued to cover my pants. All I can say that it was a lot of hanging around but very well paid for a couple of hour’s work. And yes, my brother-in-law found the whole process hilarious.
Anyway, my co-model was none other than Pia Baresch an established actor and singer in Austria, having since starred in a couple of films and with regular stints in the perennial Austrian TV classics of SOKO Donau (Miami Vice without the sun, Cuban drug dealers and white shoes), and the Berg Doctor (handsome medic shags his way through Tirol). Of course, at the time I didn’t know this and in any case her career has eluded me since for reasons you would understand if you had watched Austrian television.
But twenty years later, in January of 2019, there I was sitting in the Renaissance Theatre watching a production of Der Kleine Lord, resisting the temptation to grab my neighbour’s phone out of his hand and crush it under-heel like a baddy in a Bond movie, when it slowly dawned on me: I knew the actor playing the mother of the eponymous Little Lord Fauntleroy. Naturally, I was tempted to leap from my seat and shout, “It’s me, it’s me, the crazy plumber!” but I realised this might distract the other parents from their electronic devices. But it did make me reflect on how long I had been in Vienna and poignantly how much had changed since I had sat in that bathtub. So much so that it even temporarily distracted me from the bastard in front checking his emails (focus you unconscionable dipshit, focus).
Red Vienna was about modernity, inclusion and reinvention. But mostly it was about optimism. It sought to make sense of the mistakes of the past with the essential need to improve the life experiences of the city’s citizens for the future. Although it only lasted for 15 years (as a cohesive ideal) it transformed the capital and built an ideological legacy which lasts to this day. Ninety years on it offers not only some useful pointers about how cities should work in the twenty-first century and beyond, but perhaps for nations and groups of nations trying to understand a shifting world. And you never know perhaps these three simple words – modernity, inclusion and reinvention – are just what the people of Europe need right now. And yes a large community meeting hall where we can meet to plot the demise of those Brexit tinpot elites.
© 2019 RJ Barratt