In the mid-1970s an unusual public-private housing project was built in Vienna—curvy concrete buildings that evoke notions of spaceships or Singaporean skyscrapers, conceptualized as a forward-looking satellite city providing everything a resident might want or need. From the beginning, Alterlaa, a housing complex of 3,200 apartments in three vast blocks, stood for accessible luxury built in concrete, a utopian notion that anyone can live in proximity to fresh air, water, and greenery. Austrian architect Harry Glück also placed great importance on community—so much so that his designs intentionally facilitated interaction.

In 2013 artist Zara Pfeifer began documenting this remarkable vestige of modernism in photographs. She soon discovered the community spaces that Glück created in each building’s belly. In these windowless rooms, thirty-three clubs and groups organically evolved over decades and continue to provide a community for the ten thousand residents of the complex through activities like ballroom dancing or aerobics. In her long-term project, Pfeifer focused on this part of life in Alterlaa—participating in club life, establishing relationships, briefly living in private apartments, and experiencing first-hand the cohesive social fabric that resulted from this architectural experiment.

Du, meine konkrete Utopie showcases Pfeifer’s visual and sociological discoveries in an expansive series of photographs. Alterlaa is a rare example of the successful implementation of modernity’s highest aspiration—a true machine for living, with nearly one-hundred-percent resident satisfaction for more than four decades. Here, Pfeifer captures its human side for the first time. Kimberly Bradley

Interviews and Publications on Du, meine konkrete Utopie:

The photobook is published by Kerber Verlag in December 2017. Details here.
E-mail me for a signed copy. Shipping worldwide.

Article "Willkommen im Club" ZEITmagazin
Interview with PW Magazine
Radio Interview with Monocle
Radio Interview "Schön hässlich" with Ö1
Radio Interview "Größtmögliches Glück für größtmögliche Zahl" with Ö1
Premiered as a short film at Diagonale–Festival of Austrian Film

Presented and exhibited at ARCH+ Schau Fenster Berlin, AzW Architekturzentrum Wien, CAFx Copenhagen Architecture Festival, One Architecture Week in Bulgaria, Mediterranea 18 Young Artists Biennale in Albania, CP Projects Gallery in New York, Galerie f4.5 München, Fotogalerie Wien and Fotohof Salzburg.

Interview

Zara Pfeifer in Conversation with Sascha Chaimowicz, Editor at ZEITmagazin
English translations by Tas Skorupa

S C How did you find out about Alterlaa?

Z P When I was studying architecture we dealt with postwar modernism in Vienna: buildings from the seventies, such as Alterlaa. We went on a tour, looked at the complex, and also visited one of the residents in her apartment. I was impressed and intrigued by her enthusiasm.

S C From outside, Alterlaa has the charm of nuclear power plant.

Z P I was interested by the discrepancy between what the residents told us and the reputation of the place. Most people know the residential area only from passing through it on the subway, and they think that it must feel like living in a chicken coop. Then you speak to a resident, and she tells you how happy she is there. I started doing research and found studies that reveal that over ninety percent of the residents are happy with the complex. I then asked myself how this compares to the housing complexes from the seventies, some of which have become problem areas. A year later I was starting my master’s degree, and I decided to have a closer look.

S C You live in a nice old apartment in Vienna. That is quite a contrast, isn’t it?

Z P You’re right, but Alterlaa never looked ugly to me. I liked the charm of the gigantic “machine for living,” with its ten thousand residents, the enormous ventilation systems, and the green, terraced façades.

S C What are the apartments like in Alterlaa?

Z P Over the years I have seen many different apartments. There are over thirty different floorplans. I have seen duplexes and apartments ranging from studios to five-room apartments, and I was surprised by how much privacy the apartments offer. Each apartment has walk-in closets and kitchens that open onto the living room. The residents plant vines, herb gardens, and trees in the troughs on their terraces. I have even seen a pond with fish and organic compost.

S C Was it easy to gain access to the complex?

Z P No. I spent the first days in cafés and in the shopping mall in Alterlaa, observing people and wondering how to get in. The buildings have an electronic system; you need a microchip to get in. I went to the information stand in the mall and asked if they could help me. They arranged for a janitor to give me a tour, and I still call him today if I need to see specific utility rooms. We walked through the kilometer-long tunnel with the garbage, electricity, and gas lines to the garbage chute. He explained the waste-disposal system to me—something that he also does for residents on a regular basis, with the intention of raising their awareness about where they can and cannot throw away certain types of garbage. We also passed the indoor swimming pools. He told me about the clubrooms in Alterlaa and about how much people like to meet there. I thought to myself that the clubrooms would be a good opportunity to meet residents. At home I did some Internet research and discovered the photography club. Each of these clubs has its own club night, when the members meet; for example, the photography club meets on Wednesday night. So I went there on the next Wednesday evening with my photography equipment.

S C What happened when you showed up?

Z P It was really bizarre. I opened the door, and immediately I was in the middle of it all—the rooms are cramped, and you couldn’t just sit in the corner and only watch. These predominantly older people looked at me, confused and astonished that such a young woman would come to their photography club. I think that they thought I was pretty strange at first. Then I told them about my plan to photograph in Alterlaa. The club leader joked, “You’re not going to get far with analog!” So I went there every Wednesday. One evening I showed them my first photographs of the garbage system on the monitor in the clubroom, and after that the men accepted me: “She knows what she’s doing!” Some of them took me to other club evenings and invited me to their apartments: “On Friday we are going to the theater club, why don’t you come?” Or, “We live in Block C on the west side, come visit us.” That’s how it slowly developed. At some point I met the head of all of the clubs, who presented me at one club meeting as the photographer. That was very helpful for my work. I got a lot of help from individual residents, some of them were really dedicated.

S C Can you describe a typical meeting of the photography club?

Z P The people drift in on Wednesday between 7 and 8 p.m. They greet each other warmly and sit down at the bar or on the couch. They talk about vacation or health, discuss topics pertaining to the complex, and tease each other. Every two weeks they show movies. The members show their vacation videos, and I have even seen short homemade documentaries. Chairs are set up for everybody, and there is a strict seating order: the chairs are reserved with nametags. They sell sandwiches, and photographs taken by the members are hanging on the walls. They spend a lot of the time at the bar laughing and talking. It is a friendly social gathering, and usually they ask me to have a beer with them.

S C Where are the clubs located in Alterlaa?

Z P The clubrooms, which are usually rooms without natural light, are located on the lower floors between the apartments. They are not visible from the outside; on the inside you find all of these little, individual worlds. The feeling of community that I have experienced in these rooms, is exceptional, especially when you consider the size of the complex. The potential for community is an important point for the happiness of the residents in my opinion. The rooms are used, and the residents take initiative due to the fact that the rooms exist.

S C Did you photograph residents at that first meeting?

Z P At the first meeting in 2013 I was only a bystander. I often just went there and did not take pictures. I never go to Alterlaa without my equipment, but sometimes I don’t take pictures. Sometimes I don’t feel that it is appropriate to take pictures. As soon as I get out my tripod and camera, the situation changes—once in a while I don’t want to do that.

S C How did Alterlaa’s club “culture” begin?

Z P The empty rooms were presented to the residents in the seventies. A governing body was formed, which managed them. So if somebody wanted to start a ceramics club and needed a workshop, they would ask the governing body. There are currently thirty three clubs. The first club that was founded was the photography club. The newest is the Freddy Quinn Museum. One couple living there put together an enormous archive on the Austrian singer and actor Freddy Quinn. You can make an appointment with them, and they will talk to you for hours about Freddy Quinn in their museum. Originally their memorabilia was spread about their apartment, in the closets, under the beds.

S C How do you gain the trust of the residents?

Z P I think it is due to the fact that I kept coming back. The regularity. I also always brought prints of the photographs with me. After two years a resident said, “If she continues to keep coming, then she must really like it.”

S C Is that typical for your working method as a photographer to delve into a topic?

Z P Absolutely. I work on one topic for an extended period of time, and I aspire to be able to tell about a thing from the inside and to get the most authentic image of it possible. I think that I could continue photographing Alterlaa for years without getting bored.

S C The photographer as a participating observer?

Z P Yes. It is always an alternation between participating and observing. I danced in the dancing club, I attended the photography club on a regular basis, and I watched in the theater club. Sometimes I just made appointments to photograph, and I just took pictures.

S C You can tell from your pictures. It is not a zoo gaze; you have empathy for the people.

Z P I think that I approach people with great openness. I am truly interested.

S C Is there a line that you do not wish to breach in spite all of the proximity that you create?

Z P After being there very often for a long period of time I did notice that I needed some distance, so I took a break. A certain, small amount of distance helps me see things that are interesting.

S C How do the residents react to your photographs?

Z P They mostly find personal connections: “Oh yes, that is Hannelore, who is not doing very well.” Or, “Oh, the bad-weather playgrounds, yes, I used to go there with my kids all the time.” The rooms are self-explanatory to the residents; they see them and use them daily. A resident once said to me that my pictures made her see the rooms in a new way. She noticed the ventilation pipes in the clubrooms for the first time in my pictures; she had always blocked them out. Recently one of the residents made me really happy when he said that my pictures show how Alterlaa really is.

S C Do you have the feeling that there is a sort of community pressure in Alterlaa?

Z P The community is actually pretty unobtrusive. Over the years I have met residents who do not use the clubrooms. They still say that the clubs are an important advantage of living in Alterlaa. You don’t have to participate to appreciate the clubs. It is enough to know that you could participate if you wanted to.

S C How do conversations in Alterlaa typically begin?

Z P When I come to a club evening, some people say, “There is the photographer again!” Or, “When is your book going to be finished?” But a typical conversation between residents who are meeting each other for the first time could be something like this: “Where do you live? Block A, B, or C?” “I live in Block C, Stairwell 7.” “Oh, east or west side?” “West side. I just prefer having sun in the afternoon.” “Oh, yes, I live on the east side. The west side is too windy for me.”

S C Are people formal or more informal when they talk to each other?

Z P More informal. Many of them have seen each other already. They always say hello and goodbye in the elevator.

S C Sounds like a self-contained world of its own.

Z P You’re right. In the summertime it has the atmosphere of a spa. You meet people wearing bathrobes and slippers in the elevators who are on the way to the pool.

S C They actually have everything they need right there?

Z P Alterlaa was designed as a city within a city. It has everything: shopping, doctors, schools, kindergartens, gymnasiums, churches, clubrooms, rooftop pools. There are large parks in between the buildings; the whole area is free of cars. One resident told me, only slightly exaggerating, that his daughter did not learn to cross the street until she was twelve.

S C What is it like to shop there?

Z P People love walking underground to the supermarket. The parking garage extends from the apartments to the mall and the subway. Whenever it is raining you meet pedestrians, cyclists, and people pushing shopping carts down there. I am a member of the Facebook group “We live in Alterlaa,” and somebody recently asked what people liked the most about the complex. Quite a few people responded that they liked being able to walk underground when it was raining. To go shopping you just take the elevator down to the parking garage, walk underground to the supermarket, take the stairs up, do your shopping, go back down, return home, drop off your stuff, put on your bathing suit, and take the elevator up to the rooftop pool. Residents tell me that they can go shopping in their slippers. And that they can get to the Cathedral of St. Stephan in the city center without getting wet.

S C Can you sense how happy the residents are in your conversations?

Z P I have never met anyone who didn’t love living there. Or anyone who is neutral about living there. They say that they never want to leave. The sense of identification with Alterlaa is especially high among the original residents who have lived there since the seventies. But also among the young families and young people. There are so-called returnees—young people who have moved out and then return as soon as they have families. When the article with the headline “Alt-Erlaa Looks Scary and Has the Charm of a Nuclear Power Plant” was published in the German weekly ZEITmagazin it was heavily criticized by many in the Facebook group, and some even took it personally. Other residents calmed down again. It was really very interesting to observe. When I started my project many of the residents I met were very adamant about how great it was to live there. That showed me they were probably frequently confronted with negative preconceptions.

S C Is the complex well maintained?

Z P It is extremely well taken care of. There are fifty locksmiths, painters, electricians, gardeners, and security guards, and every single fluorescent light works. There is a twenty-four-hour management service. If something doesn’t work in your apartment, you just call up, and it is taken care of on the same day.

S C What do you think is the secret of Alterlaa?

Z P In my opinion the architect Harry Glück is congenially pragmatic. When I met him he said that behavior scientists were his inspiration for the concept of Alterlaa. The proximity to water—to the swimming pools—and nature—to the park between the buildings—and the possibility of experiencing community in the clubrooms are very important. When you are on the terrace of one of the apartments, you have the feeling that you are in a single-family home. Although the building opposite is 140 meters away, you never feel like you have been forgotten by the community.

S C What was your favorite part of the research?

Z P I have a favorite space, and that is the “bad-weather” playground. There are seven of them in Alterlaa. It is a green playing environment. The colors, the abstract green forms, the colorful walls, the fluorescent lights, and the slides—it looks like an art installation. I love the small detail of the corner of the carpet that is cut away so that it fits in the room when it is turned at an angle. The woman who showed it to me told me how practical these bad-weather playgrounds were for her because her kids could romp there when it was raining outside. You could also have birthday parties there. Afterwards you would just vacuum and everything was clean again. I also really like the aerobic group that meets there once a week. They have been meeting since the eighties, and they are still listening to the same homemade Sydne Rome CD. There are multiple copies to ensure that it doesn’t get lost. In the summer they work out on the roof.

S C You recently house-sat an apartment in Alterlaa for two weeks and shared your experiences for a few days on the Instagram account of ZEITmagazin. What did you experience?

Z P I went to the rooftop pool every day. It was so refreshing to do a few laps in the evening. I met many residents up there and noticed that everyone has a certain routine; you always meet the same people at certain times. They exchange recipes, talk about the noise they heard the night before, and also give each other advice about what to do if something in their apartment doesn’t work.

S C Can you imagine moving to Alterlaa?

Z P Sure, yes. I am on the waiting list. But I would like to live in Building A, because it is closer to the subway, and I need to go to the city center often. It takes two or three years on the average to get an apartment.

S C What do you look forward to most when you finally get your apartment there?

Z P The rooftop swimming pools.