An IBA with a wider scope

Rudolf Scheuvens

International Building Exhibitions (IBAs) are very particular instruments of urban development. Designed for a finite period, IBAs serve as spaces for experimentation, as urban development labs. For this, they require political and administrative backing for an “exceptional situation”, as it were, during which the accustomed frameworks, patterns of action and power relations relating to a specified territory are temporarily suspended. In this spirit, IBAs should be understood as temporary laboratories, as areas of both spatial and intellectual experimentation, which can serve as an aid and obligation for necessary free and experimental spaces and innovative solutions to build sustainable structures. What does this mean for the Vienna IBA, whose objective it is to generate internationally effective contributions to New Social Housing? Some suggestions and perspectives follow.

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Opportunities and risks of IBA_Vienna.

IBA_Vienna is a special IBA. It is not so much organised out of necessity, but rather based on the special strengths and qualities as well as the routines of subsidised housing in Vienna. This harbours both opportunities and risks. Opportunities, because IBA makes use of the specific conditions prevailing in Vienna to show at a European level how much can be achieved in a growing city if responsibility for housing is assumed by the state or municipality. For this purpose, IBA_Vienna relies on established processes and sophisticated subsidy instruments that are consistently evolved through work on concrete projects. Risk, because this approach entails the danger of reducing IBA_Vienna to the role of a marketing instrument. This might occur above all if IBA_Vienna limits itself to the mere presentation of good practices in the subsidised housing sector. It is therefore essential to focus more attentively on the specific  genesis of this IBA, on its concerns, goals and projects and, ultimately, on its characteristics in tackling the housing question.

Housing is an international issue.

On an international scale, the thematic area and field of action that is housing - or rather, the safeguarding of affordable housing - has become a central challenge of urban development. In many ways, this situation is an outcome of the financial crisis of the 1990s, when many cities decided to sell their municipal housing stock to the highest bidder, often to financial investors. This made it possible to replenish the mostly empty coffers of these heavily indebted municipalities and ensured their capacity to function. Also, this sales logic was underpinned by the apparently calm housing markets. In the 1990s, coping with urban shrinkage was still a dominant topic of urban development and restructuring - in the East as in the West. 

Only a few years later, conditions are fundamentally different. Above all the big cities and metropolises have come under massive growth pressure and their housing markets - chiefly the segment of affordable housing - are fiercely embattled. The consequences of the withdrawal of municipalities and the state from social housing and active land policy are now palpable. Often, there is no way of actively steering the development of building land and housing construction. The land markets have increasingly spun out of control. Rents augment in step with rapidly rising land prices. This has severe consequences: More and more people are no longer able to find affordable housing on their own.

Vienna’s challenges. 

As a result, many European cities and municipalities are looking to Vienna for solutions. For roughly one century, Vienna has been synonymous with successful social housing policies and high qualities in subsidised housing - also because the City of Vienna has never abdicated its responsibility for an active housing policy. An international comparison shows that the financial burden caused by rents is quite moderate here, mainly due to the strong segment of subsidised and municipal housing. 

But in Vienna, too, affordable housing is increasingly under pressure. Sharply rising land prices lead to an insufficient number of plots being developed at the financial terms of subsidised housing. For example, the average price of one square metre of building land has increased by 114% in the last decade (cf. APA-OTS 2019). Subsidised housing is affected particularly badly since the maximum admissible land price that may be paid under the legal provisions for subsidised housing construction is € 235 per square metre of usable residential floorspace. The already tight market is cornered by commercial property developers and financial investors that develop housing as an investment product.

Despite sophisticated instruments of housing policy and quality assurance, it has thus become evident that social housing in Vienna is increasingly under strains caused by sharply rising land prices and construction costs. At the same time, the conditions of municipal housing policy are changing. The challenges of a more and more diverse and individualised society, a growing number of people with precarious incomes, demographic and technological change - they all impact each other and are gaining in relevance with regard to the provision of and demand for affordable housing. The housing question has become a dominant factor of socially sustainable urban development.

Massively growing cities are in particular confronted with the question of how to “further construct” the city and, hence, how to define desirable spatial and social qualities of new urban quarters. How do urban development and housing construction respond to the challenges of climate change and digitalisation? How can the combination of housing and work, of cultural and social offerings in the new urban quarters be fostered and stimulated? What are the effects of digital technologies and the Internet of Things on the structure, function and image of the city and urban life? What expression do these developments find in architecture and urban planning and vice versa, and what can architecture and urban planning contribute, what impulses can they generate for new forms of social housing and resilient urban and quarter development? And what does this mean, for example, for the involvement of additional partners, the building of new networks and the further development of the instruments of urban and housing policy? What is truly “new” about New Social Housing as the leitmotif of IBA_Vienna?

This list of questions alone makes clear that IBA_Vienna must go beyond retrospective contemplation and communication of the achievements of subsidised housing. The focus is now on the challenges of safeguarding affordable, “social” housing and developing social, inclusive quarters. The over 100 projects of IBA_Vienna address such issues as good-neighbourly relations and healthy and affordable housing, the stimulation and development of urban diversity in inclusive quarters, the renewal of built stock from the 1960s and 1970s, climate-adapted construction techniques or impulses to tackle the mobility revolution. The areas covered and transformed by these projects include selected urban development zones as well as large areas characterised by postwar buildings. Procedures and models for the design of urban succession processes as well as for the renewal and upgrading of the built stock are tested and showcased. The protagonists and players are drawn from (limited-profit) housing developers, from architecture, urban and open space planning, administration, science and research as well as from civil society.

Was the instrument of an International Building Exhibition really necessary for this purpose? 

Superficially no, because nearly all projects concern subsidised housing and hence would be implemented in the same or almost the same way also without IBA_Vienna. Even one of the most seminal decisions of the City of Vienna - the introduction of the “subsidised housing” zoning category - was not influenced by IBA.

Yes, because IBA_Vienna does not only build on projects within the system of subsidised housing, but rather proposes a programme that aims to evolve the available instruments and processes and adapt them to the new challenges. For this purpose, the project-related qualification processes are monitored by IBA_Vienna, which in this way brings the different groups of players involved together and supports comprehensive action ? for example, in the context of IBA Talks or project-related workshop discussions. In this way, IBA_Vienna manages to involve a continuous flow of new partners in the complex production processes to create housing and urbanity and also networks them more efficiently to foster joint action across the boundaries of  disciplines and institutions. In the area of research, IBA_Vienna  has generated a key impulse for the establishment of a research cluster managed by TU Wien and  the University of Vienna. The ResearchLab New Social Housing is mainly concerned with the promotion of interdisciplinary, critical and comparative research in the field of social housing and urban development. The creation of an international city network focusing on New Social Housing equally merits mention.

All this may seem rather “unspectacular” at first glance and perhaps is not particularly “experimental”, either. The projects implemented - also in the context of IBA_Vienna - still focus above all on providing full thermal protection façades and time-tested, but somewhat conventional housing architecture. It should be mentioned at this point that IBA_Vienna has no project budget of its own and also lacks a separate area of responsibility that  would enable it to have a fresh stab at anything. Rather, it is part of Vienna’s housing system and thus depends on the submission of good, viable projects, which are then further developed and qualified by means of a multi-tiered process in harmony with the goals of IBA_Vienna. Its claim to innovation is therefore of a highly incremental nature. Change is in the details and not always visible at first glance.

Being part of Vienna’s highly professionalised and mature system of housing promotion, IBA_Vienna plays an important role: It generates impulses, networks players, supports and monitors processes and thus influences the further development  of the available set of instruments - cautiously, but effectively. This enables IBA_Vienna to exert a strong internal effect. In this spirit, IBA_Vienna defines itself as a platform, facilitator and impulse generator for durable change management in subsidised housing. Its projects are fields of work and study areas that address the manifold demands to be met by New Social Housing, by the development of new, diverse neighbourhoods and urban quarters, by dealing with social changes and by the continuous enhancement of the importance of state and municipal responsibility as well as of the active promotion of social housing. 

Who are the target groups of IBA_Vienna? 

IBA_Vienna targets architects and urban planners as well as decision-makers in the fields of politics and administration. It is they who must set the necessary course to assume responsibility for “social housing” and the “right to housing” at the municipal, state and EU levels. Through its selected projects, IBA_Vienna highlights the factors accompanying this responsibility: from foresighted land policy and effective housing promotion or urban design and architecture to dealing with social transformation processes. And it makes quite obvious that these challenges, while based on a clear socio-political position, require the constant adjustment and evolution of instruments, processes and compositions  of players. In this way, IBA_Vienna operates proactively.

IBA_Vienna moreover targets a broad urban audience. It strives to involve interested and committed individuals in qualification processes for the development of new urban quarters and to give them space for co-determination and co-responsibility. On-site talks and exhibitions serve to communicate intentions, discuss expectations and objectives and, in this way, nurture understanding for the complex processes of urban and quarter development and housing construction. Furthermore, IBA_Vienna contributes to encouraging trust in future developments, which is of great value in view of widespread, often (party-) politically fomented uncertainties. 

2020 is the year of interim presentation. Some projects have already been implemented - at least with regard to their structural development -, most are still underway. However, the effects related to these projects go far beyond the handing-over of the keys. It must be proved that the standards of New Social Housing take root in urban life, in the everyday functioning of the city. As a result, the impacts and effects of IBA_Vienna will transcend built structures and outlive presentation years. It is by these outcomes that the contributions and the success of IBA_ Vienna on New Social Housing will be measured! The challenges are huge.

APA-OTS (2019): AK: Leistbares Wohnen darf nicht dem Markt überlassen werden dem-markt-ueberlassen-werden (Accessed: December 2019)