Vienna and Vancouver square off on what makes a city ‘liveable’

swimming pool on building terrace and lots of other buildings in the background
The Alt-Erlaa housing estate by architect Harry Gluck.
(Image credit: Hertha Hurnaus)

Vienna may soon be home to a new population of exiles from Vancouver’s hyper inflated housing market – especially in the wake of ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st-Century City’, a new exhibition at the Vancouver Museum.

On through 16 July, the exhibition – curated by Wolfgang Forster and William Menking and spanning text, photography and video – raises many questions about two of the world’s ‘most liveable’ cities that consistently reach the upper rungs of the ‘top ten’ lists compiled by the Economist and other sources. While the exhibition is heavily promoted and subsidised by the Austrian government, and doesn’t delve into much controversial or critical discourse (like say, housing for immigrants or refugees), it does a fine job of showcasing Vienna’s public housing in a city where 60 per cent of the population lives in municipally built, owned or managed housing.

Innovative forms of social housing include a coffin-factory turned housing estate, colour-coded housing projects designed for Alzheimer’s patients, and the Alt-Erlaa development set on 59 acres of land with swimming pool topped towers that read like luxury flats, but are actually full of family friendly homes, complete with schools and shopping plazas, and home to 7,000 residents. The idea of ‘luxury for all’ is quite foreign to Vancouver, currently gripped by a housing crisis, where high-end towers are bought up by offshore investors and young families are forced to flee to distant suburbs.

tall round building

Gasometer City photographed in 2001, where housing has been built in what was once Europe’s largest gasworks.

(Image credit: Stephanie Stern)

While the Vienna Model has toured to other cities including Hong Kong and New York, where it provoked much discussion about social housing policy, in Vancouver the curators have teamed up with local artist collective Urban Subjects to explore more specificity in terms of the Vancouver/Vienna connection. A special comparison panel highlights statistics such as greater Vancouver’s (population 2.5 million) 25,745 social housing units and 1-7 year wait times, and Vienna’s (population 1.8 million) 220,000 units and average one year wait time.

While the exhibition often has a rose-coloured glasses feel (one can almost hear Vienna, City of My Dreams in the background) and doesn’t address, for instance, the spate of nouveau riche Russians buying up downtown flats – compared to the world’s third least affordable city Vienna does seem a social housing idyll. But with its Red Vienna legacy and housing market much more tightly controlled by the city than Vancouver’s neoliberal, developer driven market, it’s hard to imagine a direct translation of the Vienna model to Canada’s third largest city.

In the end, the Vienna model, held in its liveability list rival Vancouver, begs the question: ‘liveable’ for whom?

view from a balcony with lots of plants

View from a balcony in the Alt-Erlaa estate.

(Image credit: Hertha Hurnaus)

larch-paneled facade

The larch-paneled façade of the Asp Holzwohnbau.

(Image credit: Stephanie Stern)

interior courtyards grouped around a central wood-paneled canyon

Within the Asp Holzwohnbau, interior courtyards are staggered across different levels and grouped around a central, wood-paneled canyon that serves as a meeting point and play area. 

(Image credit: Stephanie Stern)

roof gardens and a pond

The roof gardens of the Sargfabrik model for communal living, photographed in 1996.

(Image credit: Miriam Kittel)

vermillion building behind a tree

Some of the 75 units at Sargfabrik. 

(Image credit: Miriam Kittel)

view of city from the sky

Karl Marx-Hof, photographed in 1930, the huge housing development planned by architect Karl Ehn. 

(Image credit: Stadt Wien)


‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st-Century City’ is on view until 16 July. For more information, visit the Museum of Vancouver website


Museum of Vancouver
1100 Chestnut Street
Vancouver BC V6J 3J9