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.
The Frankfurt Kitchen could be constructed so successfully because May had the purchasing power to make its manufacture economical within the limited budgets set by the city government. Prefabrication never became the panacea many thought it could be because industrially produced components seldom were ordered in numbers large enough to be cost-effective. But the unprecedented scope of the Frankfurt Siedlungen gave May the ability to specify customized elements—especially precast concrete wall panels, for the production of which he established a factory—in sufficient quantity to actualize new concepts that remained mere theories to others.
In 1929, the second annual meeting of the Congrès International d’Archi- tecture Moderne—the Modern Movement’s main policymaking and agenda-setting organization, of which May was a founder—was held in Frankfurt at his behest. He organized visits to his Siedlungen for conference attendees, and they came away duly impressed. Many of them would apply ideas they were exposed to for the first time in Frankfurt in their own work back home.
In 1930, when the USSR was in the midst of its initial Five-Year Plan, Soviet officials invited May, whose renown had spread internationally, to deliver a series of lectures on housing and town planning. His hosts were so won over that they asked him to become chief architect of the country’s building endeavors. He accepted with alacrity, not only because of the dire effect the worldwide depression was having on Germany’s already depleted economy, but also because the Soviets allowed him to bring a contingent of nearly two dozen longtime associates—the May Brigade, as they were called in a Communist double entendre. They would become the core of an office of eight hundred charged with realizing twenty major projects throughout the country.
May’s three-year stint in the Workers’ Paradise followed the all-too-predictable path of other European Modernists enticed there by promises of large-scale construction freed from capitalism’s profit motive. The May Brigade’s leader termed the hero’s welcome they received a Kaviargewöhnungskur (getting-used-to-caviar cure), and his wife wrote to a friend in Germany that they “have never lived as magnificently anywhere.” His subordinates, however, were less than ecstatic, compelled to board in collective dwellings and eat in communal kitchens, conditions from which their demanding boss had carefully exempted himself and his family.
The group’s workload was overwhelming and their supervisory visits to far-flung construction sites for new industrial cities were exhausting, but May and his loyal cohort were sustained at first by their certainty that they were engaged in a noble cause. Instinctive political animal that he was, however, May sensed, as the first Five-Year Plan came to an end in 1933, that his days in the USSR were numbered.
He was demoted and placed under the thumb of commissars; his budget, salary, and authority were reduced; and his team’s herculean efforts had deeply disappointing results, especially when their Master Plan for Greater Moscow of 1932 was shelved. Photos of the May Brigade’s surviving housing blocks and schools in such dismal Siberian outposts as Magnitogorsk and Novokuzneck indicate that even when brand-new these drab structures were dim reflections of what May and his team had brilliantly accomplished just a few years earlier in Germany.
Though May’s unhappy departure was papered over by Stalinist officials as a triumphant exit, one of his closest associates who stayed on, Werner Hebebrand, was jailed for a year before being deported, in 1938. Hebebrand was among the lucky ones. In an informative essay in the superb exhibition catalog (with texts in English and German), the German politician and cultural historian Thomas Flierl reveals that May eventually learned that “all the Soviet protagonists of a modern town-planning policy who had close links to him had been liquidated.”
There was no question of May’s returning to Germany after Hitler took power in early 1933. The architect was doubly damned by the Nazis: his mother was Jewish, and his Marxist politics and Soviet sojourn caused him to be denounced by Goebbels in a radio rant. May decided to emigrate not to the US (because he was repelled by American commercialism) but to East Africa. This startled those closest to him, who didn’t suspect that he had apparently gathered a highly romanticized view of the Dark Continent from a popular book, Fremde Vögel über Afrika (Strange Birds Over Africa), by Ernst Udet, a World War I flying ace who later helped build the Nazi Luftwaffe.
The architect and his family first settled in what is present-day Tanzania on a coffee plantation he bought with his Soviet earnings. But after three years he grew bored and relocated to neighboring Kenya, where he opened an architectural office in Nairobi. There he built Kenwood House of 1937, a delightful five-story residential-and-commercial complex with a streamlined exterior of semicircular concrete bays shaded by projecting sunscreens on each floor. His small but thriving practice was interrupted during World War II, when he was jailed for two years by Kenya’s British colonial government as an enemy alien.
After his release, May and the architect George Blowers invented the Hook-on-Slab system of 1945, an ingenious construction technique whereby flanged panels of precast reinforced concrete could be slotted into one another to create load-bearing exterior walls. May used this as the basis for a housing prototype modeled on traditional East African grass houses, which in his more solid rendering resembled Quonset huts with a pronounced parabolic profile. As Philipp Sturm dryly notes in the catalog, “The Africans were impressed by the technology of this building, but stated that they would prefer to live in European-type houses.”
Despite May’s leftist leanings and commitment to social justice, his fortunately unexecuted Urban Expansion Plan of 1945–1952 for Kampala, the capital of Uganda, then a British protectorate, would have abetted racial segregation through its demarcation of strictly separated residential enclaves for Europeans, Africans, and Asians. Perhaps the architect simply reflected attitudes of the colonial government that commissioned him, but his willing implementation of such pernicious social engineering tarnished his longstanding reputation as a progressive and has led some leftist critics to scorn him as a white supremacist.
After two decades in Africa, May had become deeply disillusioned about the untapped potential he once imagined its peoples possessed and was alarmed by the Mau Mau uprising. With large-scale postwar urban reconstruction underway in Germany, May returned to his homeland in 1953 at the outset of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle). During this final phase of his career May served as chief planner for several cities including Hamburg, Mainz, and Wiesbaden.
Nothing May subsequently did ever approached the coup he carried off during his brief but astonishingly productive Frankfurt heyday. Along with Taut in Berlin, May represented the high-water mark of social housing in interwar Europe, and therefore in the twentieth century as a whole. Franklin Roosevelt’s fitful greenbelt New Town schemes never approached their earlier Weimar Republic counterparts either in comprehensive scale or design distinction. Subsequent American public housing programs retained a degrading class stigma that deepened with each passing decade.
After Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the belief in decent housing as a political right or social obligation was supplanted in the US by the notion that suitable shelter should be an act of charity. Thus today in the absence of taxpayer-sponsored initiatives we have volunteer construction programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Homes for Heroes, Make It Right, and Rural Studio—honorable in intent but pitifully limited in scope, and focused on erecting single-family dwellings rather than creating cohesive multi-unit housing communities.
In view of America’s current political and social direction, it seems quite unlikely that we will soon see anything approaching the miracle of late-1920s Frankfurt in this country. But for as long as dreams of equality advanced through architecture persist, the surpassingly humane work of Ernst May will show irresolute idealists just how much a principled pragmatist can achieve.
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