Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The well-being of residents, communal facilities and the affordability of housing have been the hallmarks of Vienna's social housing programmes for almost a century. Urban explorer Duncan JD Smith leads us to the 'Ringstrasse des Proletariats': Vienna's Karl Marx-Hof.

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The old wine-making village of Heiligenstadt in the suburbs of Vienna has long been popular with visitors and locals alike. Its winding streets and pitched roofs give the place a rustic feel, especially in autumn when the leaves are turning and the vineyards are busy with grape pickers. Not surprisingly Beethoven came here on the advice of his doctor in the hope that some country living might improve his hearing.

But walk downhill from Heiligenstadt towards the Danube and the urban scene changes dramatically. Emerging like an island in the city is a very different sort of living space. This is the Karl Marx-Hof. Over one kilometre in length and spanning four tram stops, it holds the distinction of being the longest single residential building in the world.

The origins of this colossal structure can be found in the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the First World War. Out of this cataclysmic event, the First Republic of Austria was born — but the loss of so many former territories inevitably brought severe economic hardships, widespread unemployment and even famine.

Against this troubled backdrop, the vote was extended to all Viennese adults. That widening of the franchise, coupled with the rise of a powerful labour movement inspired by the country’s Marxist Workers’ Party, led to a landslide electoral victory for the Social Democrats. Vienna thus became one of the world’s first cities to be run by a firmly socialist government. In 1922, Vienna was made a separate Austrian federal province, distinct from conservative Lower Austria of which it had formerly been a part.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 48.