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. A year afterward he was called to Frankfurt, where his accomplishments were historic.
Between 1925 and 1930, May, as director of the city’s housing department, constructed twenty-three Frankfurt-region Siedlungen (settlements) that provided some 15,000 dwelling units, a logistically astounding accomplishment. His closest rival in the quantity and quality of that output was Taut, who built about 10,000 units during the Weimar years in and around Berlin.
Although these housing estates were financed by a variety of sponsors that included local municipalities, labor unions, and private building societies, they were substantially underwritten by the national government following the enactment in 1924 of the Hauszinnssteuer (house mortgage-interest tax) applied to private residential structures built before World War I. This considerable income stimulated a huge increase in public housing projects until the international market crash hit the economically shaky Germany with particular force at the end of that decade. In her classic survey Modern Housing (1932), the American urbanist Catherine Bauer estimated that one in ten German families benefited from this nationwide initiative, one of the proudest achievements of the often beleaguered and much maligned Weimar Republic. According to Bauer, this was “the most fruitful epoch of modern housing which the world has yet to know.”
In contrast to such widely published contemporaneous showpieces as Gropius’s Bauhaus of 1925–1926 in Dessau and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion of 1928–1929 at the Barcelona International Exposition, May’s diffuse Frankfurt ensembles could not be summarized in single photographic images, and were best comprehended through aerial views. That elevated perspective is especially useful in appreciating the most admired of his housing projects, Römerstadt, in the suburb of Heddernheim, which like others in the homesteading program was sited to plug gaps in Frankfurt’s urban sprawl.
Römerstadt combines long, whiplash-like rows of three- to five-story apartment blocks with semidetached and terraced private houses, all interspersed with playgrounds, sports fields, a primary school, and shops. That graceful organic layout feels notably different from the geometric handling of the central feature at May’s Bruchfeldstrasse Siedlung of 1926–1927—the so-called Zickzackhof (zigzag courtyard), with imposing flanks of flats set at serrated ninety-degree angles—or the rigid ranks of parallel rectangular residential structures, called Zeilenbau (linear blocks), that predominate in some of his other Frankfurt developments, including Praunheim of 1926–1929 and Westhausen of 1929–1931.
The ground plan of Römerstadt follows and emphasizes the undulating contours of the shallow Nidda River basin. To echo that flowing quality, both ends of the two main residential blocks terminate in rounded bays, a streamlined treatment that recalls the favorite motif of May’s architectural contemporary Erich Mendelsohn. A series of four rampart-like raised terraces overlooking the river valley are similarly curvilinear, and mediate between the housing units above and a fan-shaped field of narrow allotment gardens below, in which residents could grow their own vegetables and flowers. Further softening the somewhat severe appearance of May’s architecture, the stucco façades at Römerstadt were painted in harmonious earth tones, from a delicate rose-beige to a deep terra-cotta. The cumulative effect was quite different from the all-white exteriors that many now erroneously think were mandatory for Modernist workers’ housing.
But no matter how they were configured, May’s housing projects invariably were oriented to optimize southern exposure. Following traditional Garden City planning principles, they were laid out to free large internal portions of the site for shared green space. And the problem that bedeviled the few Garden Cities ventured in the US—what to do with the cars?—was moot in a setting where automobile ownership was rare and tramlines provided cheap and convenient transportation. Frankfurt citizens who had grown up in the cramped, dark, unhygienic quarters of the dense medieval city center found the idyllically landscaped new Siedlungen—spacious, sun-washed, sanitary, and salubrious—to be nothing less than a revelation. Eight decades later they remain well-kept, attractive places to live.
To drum up broad support for his grand enterprise, May became an adept publicist. He put out a strikingly designed magazine, Das Neue Frankfurt, to chronicle his Siedlungen in particular and spread the gospel of Modernism in general. He lectured extensively, encouraged the publication of picture postcard series, set up popular home-outfitting exhibitions to demonstrate and promote new building materials and labor-saving devices, and used the emergent medium of radio broadcasting to reach an even wider audience. More importantly, the charismatic May’s extraordinary executive skills, political acuity, and dauntless willpower enabled him to achieve much in little time at Frankfurt. He was furthermore physically impressive: he stood nearly six-foot-three and was feared for his intimidating gaze.
“May the Magician” (as one awestruck employee dubbed him) stayed well informed about rising talents in the international planning community. One of his smartest moves was to hire Margarete Lihotzky, a young Austrian who was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from Vienna’s School of Applied Arts and had been working for the city of Vienna, which under its social democratic government from 1918 to 1934 carried out a public housing program comparable to Frankfurt’s in its ambitiousness and excellence. Known as Grete Schütte-Lihotzky after she married the architect Wilhelm Schütte (who designed schools for May’s Siedlungen), she lived until 2000, when upon her death at 102 she was hailed as a feminist heroine and the last survivor of a singularly uplifting episode of the Modern Movement.
Lihotzky’s most famous design, for the pathbreaking ready-made all-in-one unit known as the Frankfurt Kitchen, was informed not only by recent advances in standardization, prefabrication, and mass production—interconnected concepts through which reformers believed that good design could be made affordable for everyone—but also by time-motion studies, sociological tracts on domestic economy, and above all a conviction that more efficient food preparation would free women from a central aspect of oppressive household drudgery.
Dimensionally, the Frankfurt Kitchen—which measured approximately thirteen feet long by seven feet wide by nine feet high (proportions that varied slightly from one Siedlung to the next)—is a marvel of what German theorists called the Existenzminimum (minimum for existence). This was clear when a rare intact example of the unit—removed from an unrenovated apartment in May’s Höhenblick housing project in Ginnheim (where he himself lived in a cubic villa of his own design)—was acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009 and displayed there earlier this year as part of the exhibition “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen.” For New Yorkers resigned to even smaller, often windowless galley kitchens, Lihotzky’s light-filled, shipshape design seemed anything but minimal. However, the show’s thin catalog is extremely elementary. Given the paucity of texts available in English on Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen, it seems mildly scandalous to have issued such an inadequate publication.
Lihotzky’s close reading of home management texts by such pioneering feminists as the American Christine Frederick, along with her own careful observations about the order in which women prepare, cook, serve, and clean up after meals, prompted her very specific positioning of elements in the Frankfurt Kitchen to make each task as labor-conserving as possible. To maximize the efficiency of every square centimeter of space, Lihotzky emulated fitted-kitchen models from early modern transportation—steamboats, railroad cars, and lunch wagons—which employed prefabricated components to achieve ultimate efficiency. She made sure there was a place for everything and everything in its place, down to a clever storage unit for dry staples such as flour, rice, and coffee, each given its own removable scoop-like aluminum compartment complete with handle and pouring spout.
May and Lihotzky did not agree on every feature of the Frankfurt Kitchen. She wanted an eat-in kitchen, but size and budget restraints made this impossible, whereas he was somewhat overly concerned about the hygienic separation of cooking and dining. Lihotzky, who considered the subject from an empathetic female perspective, tried to bring the woman of the house into closer contact with other family members as she went about her chores (which would later be encouraged by kitchen pass-throughs in postwar American subdivisions), whereas May held to a more conventional male point of view about woman’s place in the home.