Prestel, 334 pp., €49.95
Museum of Modern Art, 88 pp., $24.95
There is no sadder tale in the annals of architecture than the virtual disappearance of the defining architectural form of the Modern Movement—publicly sponsored housing. The provision of decent dwellings for all people was a cardinal tenet of the reform movements that arose throughout the industrialized world during the late nineteenth century, when new building materials and construction techniques seemed to put that ideal within the grasp of reality. Particularly after the cataclysm of World War I and the resultant rise of social democratic governments in Europe, massive housing programs were undertaken as a means of establishing political stability, promoting equality, and nurturing a productive workforce.
That dream has effectively vanished both abroad, where several European nations now face insolvency and have drastically cut government spending, and in the United States, where public housing has long been demonized as an incubator for a vicious cycle of dependence, indolence, poverty, and crime. As a timely corrective to that current disfavor, one of the foremost champions of modern housing is being honored on the 125th anniversary of his birth with a much-deserved retrospective in his native Frankfurt, scene of his greatest professional triumphs. “Ernst May (1886–1970): Neue Städte auf drei Kontinenten” (New Cities on Three Continents), as the title indicates, investigates this underappreciated master’s architecture in Germany, the Soviet Union, and East Africa, the three locales of a six-decade career shaped—some would say distorted—by three of the twentieth century’s major political forces: communism, fascism, and colonialism.
May, son of a prosperous Protestant factory owner, received his architectural training at the Technische Hochschule in Munich. During a summer break he worked for the British architect and town planner Raymond Unwin, who was then constructing Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, the first development of its kind, founded in 1903 by Ebenezer Howard, father of the Garden City Movement. There May was steeped in that housing reform group’s ethos of urban decentralization, ecological conservation, communal land ownership, and humane scale. Though Germany had its own vigorous offshoot of the Garden City Movement—exemplified by the New Towns of Hellerau near Dresden and Falkenberg near Berlin—May’s formative English experience is evident in the sensitive site planning and landscaping of his mature work.
He was conscripted into the German army during World War I, designed military cemeteries in Romania and France, and during the last year of the conflict joined the Deutscher Werkbund, a progressive design group. In 1919, under the Weimar Republic, May was named technical director of the Schlesische Heimstätte, a government home-building agency in the eastern German state of Silesia, where he oversaw construction of housing in a far more conservative architectural style than would soon be his practice. In 1924 he joined Walter Gropius, Martin Wagner, and Bruno Taut in forming a Kopfgemeinschaft (think tank) to address innovative housing solutions.…
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