Study Across Time 

Crossings through Vienna’s Settlers’ Movement 

Protagonists: Anette Baldauf, Andreas Gautsch, Ernst Gruber, Stefan Gruber, Moira Hille, Michael Klein, Elisabeth Kofler, Annette Krauss, Peter Krobath, Karin Lischke, Maria Mesner, Vladimir Miller, Gerhard Rauscher, Mara Verlič, Hong-Kai Wang, Julia Wieger, Tina Wintersteiger


Scheme: In the early 1920s, Vienna’s settlers’ movement inspired the foundation of housing cooperatives and spawned the construction of almost 50 housing estates, providing about 15,000 homes within a timespan of just five years. The constructions relied heavily on the movement’s bottom-up approach, as well as on do-it-yourself construction techniques.


Sites and archives: Rosenhügel settlement, Eden settlement, the ‘Einfach Bauen’ catalogue (1985), historical photographs of the settlers’ movement from the photo archive of the Renner-Institut, the Vienna settlers’ movement's newspaper Der Siedler (1921-44).


(Parts of this section have been adapted from the essay ‘Study across Time: Glancing Back at Vienna’s Settlers’ Movement’, previously published in Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday on pp.102-120)

In the early 1920s, to escape the postwar housing and food shortages besetting Vienna, citizens set off for the outskirts of the city to settle and cultivate the land. What would later be called the ‘settlers’ movement’ eventually provoked a large-scale restructuring of the city of Vienna. Neither state-led nor market-driven, it was rooted in self-organisation and a bottom-up negotiation of the community’s social contract and distribution of resources, including housing, agriculture, education and reproductive labor. Out of this powerful social movement grew Europe’s most expansive housing initiative, Red Vienna. As a group of artists, architects and social scientists, we studied the movement’s propositions for an alternate future through the lens of contemporary commons debates. At the same time, we also studied the settlers’ cultural archives across time, so as not to seek answers in a nostalgic, remote past. Instead, we attempted to situate our study within a specific historic struggle, thus distilling from the past another possible world in order to imagine another possible future. 


Jose Esteban Muñoz’s reflections on utopia enabled us to elaborate on these speculations. In his book Cruising Utopia (2009), Muñoz follows Ernst Bloch’s distinction between abstract and concrete utopias, dismissing abstract utopias as being detached from any historical consciousness. Instead, he favours concrete utopias for being ‘relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential.’ Muñoz proposes a modality of utopia that is at once affect and methodology — a critical methodology that he describes as "a backwards glance that enacts a future vision."1 


We set out on a search to build (upon) practices of commoning, using insights into specific histories and by asking questions such as: which practices of studying or living do we consider meaningful in terms of the production of commons? Which practices are and have been already among us? This ‘us’ is tricky as it jumps generations2, it is full of difference, and is always in danger of appropriating other people’s experiences and histories. ‘Building (upon)’ does not mean to follow a simple line of past-present-future, but to understand the present through the past, the past as a surprise for the future3, and the future as a bold potential contained in the present. 


With this perspective, our approach to the settlers’ movement can be described as a series of encounters and iterative settings, an attempt to create situations that would allow us to collectively engage in the distinct, yet synchronous temporalities of the past, present and future. These settings, described here as different crossings through the settlers’ movement, took place in the form of a collective walk, readings, an exercise in rewriting, a search for material traces by knocking on settlers’ doors, a speculative walk through gaps in memory, and an re-enactment of an editorial meeting of the newspaper Der Siedler


Spaces of Commoning research group, collective walk and reading, Rosenhügel settlement, Vienna, 2014

Final Remarks

Looking back on the histories of Vienna’s settlers’ movement, we engaged in an interdisciplinary study guided by both, the making of a common and the making in common. We walked into the past, tried to conjure gaps in memories, and reimagined everyday practices of commoning, from hands-on deforestation and the DIY construction of houses to the redistribution of reproductive labor. 


The movement’s context, practical aspirations and ambivalent positions are what makes Vienna’s settlers’ movement an important historical milestone for understanding commoning today — and putting its ideologically, sometimes deeply conflicted, applications in practice. The settlers’ movement can be described as a movement for self-organised housing, making it an important part of an as-yet incomplete genealogy of alternatives to market and state-driven housing solutions. Yet its history is also a history of the delineation and subsequent occupation of ‘empty’ land, resonating with the rhetoric that historically established Europe as a colonial power. Moreover, the settlers’ movement provides the potential for a shared reconceptualisation and rematerialisation of space that challenges spatial order and law. It offers a glimpse into a world where the separation of production, reproduction and consumption is challenged. And it raises questions about the relationship between capitalist modes of production, reproductive labor and gender. 


The embeddded ambivalences provided the conceptual and material basis for our interdisciplinary approach. Thinking with Sara Ahmed, the potential of such an approach is built on the understanding that "the failure to return texts, documents and objects to their histories will do something."4 While our interdisciplinary approach, including artistic, sociological, urbanist and everyday research practices struggled with parallel universes, in which each speaks their own, barely translatable languages, it was also the resonances between these diverse languages and practices that allowed us to partake in several registers, speak a few languages at once and extend our definition of research.

Stefan Gruber: This is the only map we have right now and it’s oriented north. 

Moira Hille: Is this the garden we passed by? 

Vladimir Miller: We are somewhere here in between. I think these would be the communal houses. 


Our first encounter with the settlers’ movement took place on a collective walk through the present-day Rosenhügel settlement. At moments, we paused and read excerpts from texts written by settlers to one another: architect Adolf Loos’s emphatic endorsement of the settlers’ land rights struggles; his fellow architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s more humble recollections of gathering with settlers in candlelit taverns over construction plans; art historian Eve Blau’s history of the settlers’ movement interpreted as the prelude to Vienna’s more illustrious Red Vienna programme; and architects and urban researchers Klaus Novy and Wolfgang Förster’s meticulous account of the movement’s institutionalisation and their affirmatory eleven points on the relevance of settlers’ experiences for cooperative initiatives of the 1980s. 


SG: This was the first comprehensive publication on Vienna's settlers’ movement, from Klaus Novy and Wolfgang Förster in the early 1980s. Here are historical images of the workers constructing their houses. And here is the Genossenschaftshaus, the cooperative house. This is what we should be looking for. 

Anette Krauss: And what does it involve? What does it say on the map? Clubrooms, a gym, a mandolin orchestra, a theatre ... 

SG: It was also the place where they would meet and politically organise. 

Anette Baldauf: What kind of communal house is it? Was there a community kitchen in the community house? 

Mara Verlič: To me, the settlers’ community building doesn’t seem like a house where you would organise reproductive labor. 


Reading aloud and listening to voices from the past, we started doubting the accounts of the settlers’ movement we had heard so far. What has often been framed as a pioneering site for an emancipatory cooperative movement today felt like a petit-bourgeois suburban neighbourhood. The juxtaposition of the present moment with distinct, even diverging, historic accounts underlined the extent to which our perception is distorted by narrative constructions. For example, numerous historic texts refer to the uncultivated forest and no man’s land on which the settlers built their houses. While the narrative of the no man’s land did not receive much attention in earlier accounts of the settlers’ movement, for us, it reverberated with colonial imaginaries. One of our recurring discussions, therefore, arose from the fact that the settlers’ movement coincided with intense European colonial activity.


Hong-Kai Wang: The land that they occupied: were there no inhabitants at all? 

SG: I think it was originally farmland, owned by the city. 

HKW: I am asking because the idea of settlement also includes the idea of erasure, classic colonialism, erasure of what has been there. 

(The wind blows) 

AB: The promise is the same, no? The promise of setting off to other countries and supposedly there is nobody. And, of course, in these countries lived a lot of people who were simply not regarded as human beings. The promise that there would be a better life is part of the colonial trade and the discourse that made these movements possible.

First Crossing:

Collective Walks and Readings — Where Are We? 


Dear Readers, 


It’s been almost 100 years since Der Siedler first appeared. In some ways, it seems the basic conditions of the early 21st century aren’t unlike the early 1900s, when the settler movement first appeared. Once again, Vienna is growing due to the arrival of newcomers from all over the world. As with earlier, this has accelerated societal changes with all its implications: new potentials for development, a shortage of housing and employment, fear, insecurity, but also optimism. The settlers’ vision for a democratic alternative to capitalism also seems to live on in an array of initiatives, such as worker, consumer and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organisations, intentional communities and neighbourhood self-help associations. 


Retrospection also provides critical distance. Returning to Der Siedler becomes an opportunity to revisit some of the settlers’ concerns. Beginning with the title, we have shifted focus to ‘un-settlement’ and ‘resettlement’. In light of the ongoing refugee movement, we hope The Un-Settled as the paper’s new title will initiate debates on the uprootedness and fugitivity of many lives today. We aim to trace differences and parallels between the settler and refugee movements — the search for housing, food, work and Lefebvre’s ‘right to the city’. But we cannot stop at renaming the paper: we have also carefully reconsidered the means of distribution and diffusing authorship. We have relaunched Der Siedler as a zine that is easy to reproduce and share, physically and digitally. Furthermore, parts of the zine will be complemented by an online Un-Settling-Wiki that will spread authorship as widely as possible. We hope these multiple formats and outlets will allow us to develop a rhizomatic network of cooperation with like-minded yet diverse initiatives. 


At the front of the paper, some of our new sections tackle issues such as the colonial condition of settling and the promises and challenges of the cooperative structure today. Confronting the colonial dimension of the historic settler movement is long overdue. Indeed, there has never been such thing as a blank site; settling always entails explicit or hidden displacement. But despite the fresh trauma of war, as well as massive migration and dispossession, the 1920s settlers seemed little concerned about the spirit of a new frontier and the implications of pioneers conquering the wild. To think through colonialism at large also ties into the present refugee crisis. 


In our section on cooperatives today, we examine the timeliness of the settlers’ original ideas. Their main goal was to create affordable, humane housing for people who were often unemployed but had the skills to build homes. The movement wanted to create space for a community striving for self-determination. Do today’s cooperatives still aim to realise these principles? If so, how? Among others, these questions are explored in a conversation between protagonists from the Hauptverband für Siedlungswesen (*1921) and the Initiative für gemeinschaftliches Bauen und Wohnen (*2009). 


Despite many changes to the back section, we have chosen to continue our favorite columns: the book review column and DIY tips for sustainable architecture. The first edition reviews Border as Method, or the Multiplication of Labor by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, published in 2013. The review is a general reflection on the various border struggles in, around and underneath the settler movement, and the lines drawn and redrawn in the search for a hands-on solution to the migration crisis. The DIY column explains how to produce rammed earth bricks, based on a 1919 instruction manual recently retrieved from the basement of a settler house in Rosenhügel. We submitted a sample brick to a material performance testing agency and will report our unlikely findings.

Second Crossing:

Knocking on Settlers’ Doors — In Search of Material Traces


In one scene from the 1980 documentary Das Bauen ist ja nicht das Primäre (Building is Not the Primary Thing), the architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky revisits some of the houses she designed at the edge of Vienna’s fourteenth district, in the settlement formerly called Eden. Together with radio journalist Beatrix Füsser-Novy and architects Gerd Haag and Günter Uhlig, she tries to remember her involvement in the settlers’ movement sixty years prior. The following scene begins with Schütte-Lihotzky sitting in a car, directing the driver toward a specific settler’s house. She talks with residents over the fence.5 


Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky: There we go. I think we need to leave the road here. Now we will see if we can still find the house for which I designed the interior. [...] Isn’t it grotesque that sixty years have passed ... ah ... someone is coming. 

Resident: Good afternoon. 

MSL: Good afternoon. We would like to ask you something with regard to the area here. I myself was member of the Eden cooperative many years ago. I have designed this house together with the architect Egli. 

R: At that time I was very young. There was forest everywhere. And these three houses were built out of stone. 

MSL: Yes, that could be. I worked on it in 1921. And for one of the inhabitants I furnished the entire house. The furniture wasn’t freestanding, but with built-in furniture and a small library. [...] There was a fireplace in the corner. I can sketch it for you. 

R: Are you talking about those houses? 

MSL: Yes, but there is no bell. 

R: The door is difficult to open. You have to knock hard. 

MSL: Is it an older woman? 

R: There was an older woman. She died, but her young daughter knows a lot. 

MSL: Wonderful. Let’s ask her. 

R: Yes, try it. You need to knock with a lot of force.


Thirty years later, members of our research group, together with Elisabeth Kofler and Andreas Gautsch from the Anarchist Library and Archive in Vienna, visited Eden again. For several days we walked around in a quest to find out more about the settlement. Eden’s settlers were known to be particularly diverse, including anarchists, members of diverse religious groups, theosophs and practitioners of other life-reform movements. Its current inhabitants, however, seem to know little about the founders’ original intentions. When we try talking with people, asking what they remember, we are sent from one house to another in search of someone who might know something — those who were young or born here shortly after the houses were built. We learn of people who have just died; we met a man whose wife had found a suitcase filled with photos that belonged to her parents, who once lived here. The people we ask speculate about which house might be the one designed by Schütte-Lihotzky: ‘Who?’ they ask. ‘A famous architect!’ we say. ‘One of the first female architects in Vienna.’ We listen to rumors of a woman who ran a notorious Gasthaus or tavern. But when we arrive at the settlers’ hangout, we find a store selling car insurance. 


We could describe what we tried to do: a 2015 re-enactment of the 1980s exercise of knocking on doors. However, this performative act was not done for the sake of repeating Schütte-Lihotzky, Novy-Füsser and Uhlig. Instead, this re-enactment was in pursuit of a certain legacy: a search for the practices of self-organisation from the past that we might identify as meaningful today. We hoped to find traces of these practices in everyday encounters and conversations with people who live or have lived in this area. The practice of walking and engaging with current inhabitants then became a way to produce new relations between people: between our research group, activists from the Anarchist Library, residents, the radio journalist, urban researchers, and Vienna’s first known female architect. It became a way to encourage creative encounters and negotiations through which experiences and ideas are shared and organised, and from which sparks of resistance or alternatives to contemporary forms of domination might possibly emerge.

Spaces of Commoning research group, Der Siedler editorial meeting, 2015

One of our central sources at the Rosenhügel was Einfach Bauen, a seminal book edited by Novy and Förster in 19856which also accompanied a travelling exhibition Novy curated together with Günther Uhlig. By revisiting ideas of cooperative and self-organised housing, their comprehensive documentation contributed to a broader debate on prevalent economic crises of the 1980s and the early disintegration of the welfare state. One chapter is dedicated to eleven theses on what we can learn from the settlers’ cooperative ideas today (being 1985). Novy and Förster’s attempts at writing and rewriting history render palpable the extent to which their thoughts and positions are embedded in a specific moment in time. They inspired us to reframe the settlers’ ideas from today’s perspective by rewriting the eleven theses. 

Third Crossing

Rewriting Alternate Future — The Promise of Cooperative Structures


In 1921, the newly founded Central Settlers’ Association published the first issue of the newspaper Der Siedler (The Settler), defined as ‘a periodical for allotment gardens, settlers and housing reforms.’ The association and its media arm were two of many emerging institutions marking the transition from a series of loose self-help initiatives into an organised movement. In the effort to consolidate different strands and smaller associations of the movement, Der Siedler, with a circulation of forty thousand, played a pivotal role. On the one hand, it served as a platform for exchanging information and practical advice. On the other, the newspaper aimed at creating a coalition among settlers, speaking as its representative voice and lobbying for its interests. Meanwhile, within the paper’s pages, ideologies did not always align and different contributions attempted to frame the movement in ways that often diverged. 


Intrigued by the ambivalence of the newspaper’s role, we set out to revisit the creation of the newspaper by organising an editorial meeting nearly one hundred years after its original publication. We invited a group of organisers, activists and researchers from Vienna to take on the role of guest editors and collectively read, review and critique Der Siedler’s first issue, and consequently imagine what questions a new edition might address today. The guest editors were selected for their engagement with the settlers’ movement through research or for their involvement and activism in projects and practices surrounding self-organisation, cooperatives or commoning in the city. Andreas Gautsch, Ernst Gruber, Michael Klein, Peter Krobath, Karin Lischke, Maria Mesner, Tina Wintersteiger and the members of the Spaces of Commoning research group all gathered in our office for an editorial meeting. 


AK: Welcome to the editorial meeting of Der Siedler. The meeting will follow the typical structure of an editorial meeting and take place in two parts: we will start off with a critical reading of the last edition of the newspaper, the historical one from 1921, and will then proceed to collecting ideas and topics for the new edition for 2015. Let’s start off with a quick round of introductions, where everybody introduces themselves and names the editorial department they represent. 

JW: My name is Julia, I’m an architect and I’m here today for the department of gardening. 

Michael Klein: I'm Michi and I’m at home in the department of housing, today more precisely at the Friedensstadt. 

Karin Lischke: I'm Karin, an architect and artist, and I represent the Rasenna association. 

Peter Krobath: I'm Peter, a freelance journalist and specialist on the Rosenhügel.

MH: I'm Moira and I’m in charge of the department we’re calling ‘miscellaneous’. 

SG: I'm Stefan and my responsibility today is the classified ads. 



During the critique, each editor provided a summary and feedback on his or her assigned section, ranging from ‘Gardening in April’ to the establishment of a ‘Settlers’ Bank’, or claims for the establishment of a ‘General Program of the Settlers’ Movement’. But the editors also found qualities in the settlers’ ideas that were less than utopian. Some expressed concerns about how the authors prioritised hierarchical and efficient structures over the settlers’ empowerment. Others were wary of the movement’s anti-urban sentiments: doesn’t the social control often inherent to rural life contradict the promise of urban emancipation, especially for women? Ideas of ‘living in nature’ could also resonate with more conservative ideologies, even National Socialist ones, as made evident in the article entitled ‘Status and Character of the Austrian Settlers’ Movement.’ 


In the second part of the editorial meeting, we discussed the relevance of Der Siedler today, asking what topics and questions we would like to address in a contemporary edition. What can today’s emancipatory and self-organising movements learn from the historic newspaper? What experiences and challenges are relevant a century later? And what aspects need to be reconsidered or radically revised? How can the projective mode of enacting an editorial meeting help us overcome mere criticality and instead engage in concrete utopias? 


One point of discussion was the class dimension of the settlers’ movement:  did it address the most urgent housing needs of the working class or was it rather a middle-class project with class-based exclusions? 


Ernst Gruber: Before today I never thought of who the settlers actually were. I was just fascinated by the cooperative ideology and organisational form of guilds. But after reading the paper today more closely, I feel like it was primarily addressed to intellectuals and the bourgeoisie. Thus, after reading Der Siedler, I feel like the settlement movement was probably less emancipatory than I had hoped. 

JW: I can imagine writing an article about that today: the social exclusivity of contemporary cooperative housing. Maybe this article could be written in the style of the more hands-on, practical contributions found in Der Siedler and include concrete advice on how to avoid such exclusive tendencies. I believe a lot of people in cooperative housing initiatives today are aware of mechanisms of exclusion. 

MV: Knowing about it and wanting to act against it is not the same. 


But can a settler’s house rooted in the ideology of the nuclear family ever inspire emancipation? At the time of the settlers’ movement, the notion of single-family homes was already subject to fierce criticism from the progressive left, as well as parts of the Social Democratic Party. Denser, multistory housing blocks with small individual flats and large communal spaces were generally seen as a more progressive kind of housing for the revolutionary working class. 


When the editorial meeting ended, we felt the need to give our guest editors another chance to elaborate on the historical edition of Der Siedler and outline their ideas for new fictional editions. We therefore asked them to propose articles they would like to write for an upcoming edition. Based on their ideas, we composed a speculative editorial letter for the settlers’ newspaper one hundred years after its first edition was published.

What is the relationship between the constitution of memories and practices of commoning? This question played a crucial role in yet another iteration of walking. However, this time we shifted our walks from the streets of the former settlements in Vienna to meandering through a series of photos and quotes extracted from documentation of the movement. We hoped to embark upon a ‘speculative walk’, including reflections, associations, imaginings and affective memories, in order to study the potential of remembering radical histories. Trying to conjure a relationship between practices of commoning and the settlers’ movement, the conversation revolved around the questions of who the settlers were, and what their motivations and aspirations were. 


In historiographies of the settlers’ movement, a few protagonists are repeatedly mentioned: Hans Kampffmeyer, Otto Neurath, Max Ermers, Adolf Loos or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Accounts about male settlers are rare, and there are fewer still about female settlers. How did they organise their everyday lives? What division of labor took place? What was the relationship to the land they were occupying? 


The following excerpts stem from audio recordings of a Bildkritik, or critical image reading, recorded during the speculative walk. Questions were posed in relation to archive images. Interlocutors included Kofler and Gautsch, Maria Mesner (a historian and docent at the Institute for Contemporary History, University of Vienna), Gerhard Rauscher (an activist in the Right to the City movement), and members of the Spaces of Commoning research group.


VM: Who are these people? Why are there so many in the woods? 

Gerhard Rauscher:They are actually cutting trees, not only branches, but whole trees. 

AB: Are these settlers collecting wood for the settlements? So if the camera would shift a little; would there be a construction site next to it? 

AG: Or are they people from the city who are looking for firewood? Or are they professionals, engaging in an informal economy of selling wood. [...] 

MV: Didn’t you just say that, since 1918, Vienna’s forests have been protected? Is what they are doing against the law? 

Maria Mesner: At that time, the authorities were [more] afraid of a socialist revolution. They were not afraid of the woods being cut down. They didn’t really mind about the trees in the forest. 

AK: And they did not see the cutting down of the trees as a part of the revolution?

MM: No, I don’t think so! 

Julia Wieger: But maybe it is not only about finding wood as building material or heating, but cutting down the forest to settle there? Land-grabbing, so to say. And that’s illegal. At least it sounds very daring! 

MM: Yes, indeed. But I don’t think we can compare our understanding of ownership and taking land to that following First World War. Ownership was then a much more undefined question. 


HKW: Who are these women? Why was this photo taken? And where? 

JW: I think this is a staged photo for educational purposes on how to organise the building site for one of the settlements.


VM: In the background, there are the last remains of the wild settlements. Do you see the sheds? 

Elisabeth Kofler: The women have been doing this for weeks. They know how to do it. [...] 

AB: Do you think the women were slightly pissed that their working hours were counted less than the hours of men? 

MM: No, actually I think at that time, it was a gift. An improvement from no payment to a little payment. 

AK: Phew ... depressing. [...] 

MH: Do you think all settlers were workers? 

AG: As far as I know it was a very heterogeneous movement. Civil servants, the unemployed, organised workers, especially railway men. 

MM: We shouldn’t forget that, after the First World War, poor people started to claim the right to have a family. Having a family was a class issue. 

GR: Thus there is a clear link. Leaving the city, grabbing land, and building this very typical single-family settler’s house. Is this what we see here? 

MV: Claiming rights sounds good. But weren’t the authorities trying to tame the crowd by making them focus on the family? 

MH: And how about supporting alternative forms of living?

Fourth Crossing:

A Speculative Walk through the Gaps of Memories —

Who Were the Settlers?

Pioneers of the Rosenhügel