The mass arrival of workers to the city from the country created a serious housing deficit that led to the escalation of shacks and shanties, thereby shaping the image of an insalubrious city perpetuating the social conflict of the working class. Shortcomings and necessity were laid bare in the homes of that time, and would prompt the appearance of different solutions — communal housing, ambitious council housing programmes, cooperatives and industrial community housing were some of the architecture-based responses.
Ildefonso Cerdá would once again be at the forefront in dealing with this problem in the report of his preliminary design for Eixample. In it, he introduced the concept of a “minimum housing unit” and formulated different designs of new working-class housing models with shared services inspired by other models of workers’ cities in Lille and Paris.
In somewhat utopian terms, another proposal would take shape from the ideas outlined by Charles Fourier in his work Explanation of the Societal System. Framed inside a form of utopian socialism, the phalanstery was conceived as a self-sufficient community of production, consumption and residency in which neither salaries nor private property would exist — a concept that was picked up some years later, in 1877, by Jean-Baptiste André Godin when he founded his familistère in Guise (Aisne) based on Fourier’s project.
There would also be a response at local authority level, the main exponent of which was the public housing programme set up in the city of Vienna in 1920 and ended with the arrival of the Nazis. According to Vienna’s 1917 census, 37% of housing was made up of small apartments with unacceptable sanitary conditions. When the Austrian socialist party took charge of managing the city, the housing problem became a priority in its policies and 65,000 houses were built in alignment with Otto Bauer’s ideological orientation in his essay Der Weg zur Sozialismus. Vienna’s Höfe was chosen from 1923 as a privileged type of intervention representing an updated version on the phalanstery and, in turn, was a type of building deeply rooted in the city’s history.
Industrial owners would also tackle the problem. Whether through social commitment or as an antidote to labour unrest, it would be the promoters of housing settlements built next to factories and equipped these houses with the necessary infrastructures for workers. This paternalism was based on the control of all property by the employer, who also reaped financial benefits, social peace, industrial prominence and power. Furthermore, in return for the limitation of rights and social and moral control, the worker obtained, as compensation, the security of keeping work, housing and better conditions than in other industries.
Ultimately, however, it was the worker who provided a new solution to the housing problem by means of cooperatives which set out to guarantee the welfare of their members, focusing on education, health care, access to food, and so on. One of the most salient examples was the project carried out by a young Antoni Gaudí for the Cooperativa Obrera Mataronense, which, despite only building the nave de blanqueo (bleaching unit), created a neighbourhood of affordable housing for workers.