Passages from Why I Became an Architect by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky

February 9, 2011
Selected and Translated by Juliet Kinchin

This translation is taken with permission from Margarete SchütteLihotzky, Warum ich Architektin wurde (ed. Karin Zogmayer), © 2004 by Residenz Verlag im Niederösterreichischen Pressehaus, Druck- u. Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, St. Pölten–Salzburg.


The manuscript is held in the estate of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, now deposited in the archives of the Universität für angewandte Kunst in Vienna. Selection and clarification of the manuscripts for the published text in German were undertaken by the editor, Karin Zogmayer.

 

Supplementary Literature:


Bullock, Nicholas. “First the Kitchen—Then the Façade.” Journal of Design History 1, no. 3/4 (1988): 177–92.

 

Dreysse, D. W. Ernst May Housing Estates: Architectural Guide to Eight New Frankfort Estates, 1926–1930. Frankfurt: Fricke Verlag, 1988.

 

Henderson, Susan. “A Revolution in the Woman’s Sphere: Grete Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen,” in Architecture and Feminism, edited by Debra Coleman, Elizabeth Danze, and Carol Henderson, 221–48. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

 

Noever, Peter, ed. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Soziale Architektur—Zeitzeugin eines Jahrhunderts. Vienna: Böhlau, 1996.

Introduction to Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky 

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000) studied architecture from 1915 to 1919 at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna under Oskar Strnad, a pioneer of social housing design. In 1921 she began working for the municipal housing department of the Commune of Vienna alongside Adolf Loos. In January 1926 she was called to Frankfurt to join Ernst May’s team in the municipal building department (Hochbauamt) implementing the comprehensive program of renovation and social housing known under the generic title Das neue Frankfurt. Her most famous work was the so-called Frankfurt Kitchen, an integrated and prefabricated kitchen designed along rational-space and labor-saving principles which was installed in around 10,000 new homes. Each kitchen came complete with a swivel stool, a gas stove, built-in storage, a fold-down ironing board, an adjustable ceiling light, and a removable garbage drawer. Labeled aluminum storage bins provided tidy organization for staples like sugar and rice as well as easy pouring. Careful thought was given to materials for specific functions, such as oak flour containers (to repel mealworms) and beech cutting surfaces (to resist staining and knife marks).

In addition to the kitchens, Schütte-Lihotzky was also engaged in designing schools, kindergartens, and student accommodation as part of the city’s wider civic development program. In October 1930 she and her husband Wilhelm Schütte, a fellow architect in the department, joined May’s “Brigade” and embarked for the Soviet Union to work on new industrial cities as part of Stalin’sfirst Five Year Plan (1928–32). May left the Soviet Union in 1933 but Schütte-Lihotzky remained there until 1937 when Stalin’s purges made life intolerable for foreigners. After a brief spell in Paris and London, she moved to Istanbul in August 1938 to teach in the Academy of Fine Arts alongside Bruno Taut. In Istanbul she further developed her interest in the design of schools and nurseries. In 1940 she joined the Austrian Communist Party in exile, and in December returned to Austria to work with the underground resistance. Soon after her arrival, on 22 January 1941, the Gestapo arrested her and, although her accomplices were executed, she was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Liberated by American troops at the end of April 1945, she resumed her career as an architect, first in Sofia, Bulgaria, and from 1947 in Austria. Her political views—which had hardened because of her war experiences—were an obstacle to receiving major government or civic commissions but she continued to work on small-scale projects and regularly traveled to countries in the Communist bloc where she was engaged as a consultant. As scholars rediscovered her achievements, her reputation began to grow. In 1980 she was awarded the Architecture Prize of the city of Vienna, the first of many awards. In 1985 she published Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand (Memories of the Resistance), a memoir of her political activities.Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand, 1938–1945 (Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1985). In 1990 she advised the Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna on the creation of two replicas of the Frankfurt Kitchen, one of which went on permanent display. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky died on 18 January 2000, age 103.

—Juliet Kinchin


Selections from Why I Became an Architect

From pages 105–61. kitchen_1.png 

One day, possibly spring 1922 or 1923, the phone rang in the building office of the housing association. Hans Kampffmeyer, head of the Vienna housing department at that time, was on the line.Inspired by the “Garden City Movement,” the artist Hans Kampffmeyer (1876–1932) took up town planning and became an advisor on housing to the ducal government of Baden at Karlsruhe. In 1921 he became director of the housing department in Vienna and in 1925 he moved to Frankfurt, where, with Ernst May, he led a pioneering program of house building for the regional government. Apparently there was an architect from Breslau [now Wrocław, Poland] named May who wanted to see the Vienna settlements.Ernst May (1886–1970) was a modernist architect and city planner whose left-wing politics and experience of the English garden city movement inspired his work in mass housing. As city architect in Frankfurt-am-Main between 1925 and 1930 he implemented one of the most radical and successful civic housing programs of the period. As well as Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, May’s department in Frankfurt included Wolfgang Bangert, Herbert Boehm, Anton Brenner, Max Cetto, Martin Elsässer, Max Frühauf, Eugen Kauffman, Walter Körte, Ferdinand Kramer, Hans Leistikow, Albert Löcher, Rudolph Lodders, Adolf Meyer, C. H. Rudloff, Werner Hebebrand, Wilhelm Schütte (who became Margarete’s husband), Walter Schultz, Walter Schwangenscheidt, Karl Weber, and briefly, Mart Stam. In 1930 he led a group of his staff to the USSR, the so-called May Brigade, where they were engaged in planning new industrial towns in the Moscow region. Loos did not have time to take him round, and so this was how I ended up taking him to my private studio. . .Adolf Loos (1870–1933) was an Austrian architect, designer, and polemicist who made his reputation with a series of bold modernist buildings, interiors, and essays in the period before World War I. Appointed chief architect of the Vienna municipal housing department in 1921, he embarked on a campaign of low-cost, flexible housing designs. Finding himself out of sympathy with the prevailing policy of mass housing in the Vienna council, he resigned in 1924 although he continued to design projects in the city. In my romantic little workroom high up above the trees of the castle gardens I had a huge pile of theoretical texts and drawings on the rationalization of housework. May immediately seized upon these and asked if I would write an article for the magazine Das schlesische Heim.Das schlesische Heim was a Breslau-based journal founded in 1920 and edited by Ernst May for the Schlesische Bund für Heimatschutz (Silesian Federation of Homeland Conservation). This was the first article I ever wrote. At that point the Viennese settlements were closely bound up with ideas and discussions about labor-saving in the home, and all the principles were already in place that would be developed five years later in Frankfurt.
[Impressed by the work on the Vienna "gypsy" settlements, and by the functional clarity of Schütte-Lihotzky's designs, May approached her in 1926 to join his team in Frankfurt.]

From pages 113–14

As soon as I arrived I hurried along to see May in the Frankfurt City Hall. The first thing that caught my eye in his office were the large red letters on the wall behind his desk. There it was: "Keep It Short." I was stunned. But in an instant, May—a lean figure with lively Roman features—hurried toward me and shook my hand warmly. He immediately invited me to his home for a meal the following Sunday, a gesture that struck me as the complete antithesis of the writing on his wall. The next Sunday I asked the very sensible Mrs. May what I should make of the writing. We both agreed it gave the wrong impression. But May vigorously defended his "Keep It Short," and the large red letters stayed on his wall until we left Frankfurt together nearly five years later.

From pages 127–30

The central task facing us was house building. At the very first meeting in the main building office, May suggested to me that I focus on standardizing floor plans keeping in mind the rationalization of housework. He introduced me to Eugen Kaufmann, leader of the "T" (for Type forms) section in which all the city housing projects were based.Eugen Kaufmann (1892–1984) was a German architect engaged by Ernst May in 1925 to work in the municipal housing department at Frankfurt, where he was responsible for several schemes including the workers housing estate at Praunheim, 1927. In 1929 he organized the exhibition Die wohnung für das Existenzminimum (The Minimal Existence Home) in Frankfurt. He followed May to the Soviet Union in 1931, after which he settled in Britain, changing his name to Eugene Kent. Since we wanted to keep housework to a minimum, before we did a stroke on the designs—before we even made any decisions about the basic questions of where to live, where to eat, or where to cook—it all came down to the question of either the "living kitchen" (living room cum kitchen), or the cooking cupboard. Basically, were kitchens for working in, or eating in?

In all the Frankfurt housing—whether low-rise housing estates or apartment blocks—there was gas supplied for cooking. This negated any fuel savings made by cooking and living in one and the same space when using wood and coal, which meant turning away from the "living kitchen." Also, the cooking recess that opened directly onto the living room struck us in Frankfurt as too primitive, on account of the off-putting cooking smells. It was a long time before most people had electric extraction hoods. The eating kitchen that was popular in Sweden in the thirties (I was very taken with them at the time) added at least seven or eight square meters to the living area around the table. We couldn't afford those additional eight square meters without pushing up the cost of the rents even further. We decided therefore to split off the living room leaving the work-only kitchen with the following stipulations:

1. The distance from the stove, countertop, and sink to the eating area was to be no more than 2.75–3 meters.

2. The floor plan was to be organized in such a way that the housewife and mother could keep an eye on children in the living room while she was occupied in the kitchen. This meant that the door opening between kitchen and living room had to be at least ninety centimeters wide, and could be closed off with a sliding door.

3. The kitchen must have direct access to the hall.

4.Lighting during the day was to come through an external window. Artificial lighting was to be positioned so that no shadows fell upon the work areas (stove, preparation surface, sink).

5. Cooking vapors were to be extracted through a hood and ventilation pipe to the roof.

6. The work-only kitchen was to be small enough to make the greatest possible economies of steps and handling, yet big enough so that two people could work alongside one another without getting in each other's way.

7. The kitchens could only make a significant labor-saving impact on housework if they were fitted with all the necessary equipment. These were made ready for people at the same time as the houses. This system had two great advantages. First, constructing kitchens with fittings already built in took up less space. Second, with the money saved it was possible to hand over the homes to tenants with a complete kitchen fitted and arranged according to all the principles of labor-saving housework.

8. When kitchens were included in the building costs, they were financed from public funds. The rental costs in Frankfurt were calculated according to the building costs. The addition of a kitchen raised the rents by one deutsche mark a month, but this was offset by savings made on space, so that ultimately the inhabitants did not have to bear any increase in rent.

These then were the basic considerations that led to the "Frankfurt Kitchen." After much research it was revealed that the most advantageous format for the kitchen was an area 1.9 meters wide by 3.4 meters long—that is, nearly 6.5 square meters—with a 90-centimeter-wide door to the corridor and exterior windows 1.4 meters wide. This conception of the basic kitchen unit was the blueprint for all the other kitchens that were built, regardless of whether they were installed in apartments or row houses. Besides the design for the floor plans, there were a lot of other planning issues concerning the standard kitchen equipment and its installation. . . .

Unfortunately, the construction of many of the apartments was not supervised by the Building Department but by the housing association, who did not oversee the builders and the materials properly, giving the Frankfurt Kitchen a bad name, which still survives to this day. For example, the broad doorway between the kitchen and the living room was often omitted, destroying the essential unity of the kitchen–living room; this was part of the original design of the Frankfurt Kitchen. Small causes but big effects. The mother could no longer supervise the children playing in the living room while working in the kitchen because the distance from the stove, kitchen table, and sink to the dining table had grown from three meters to six meters! Also, in this arrangement two doors had to be opened. And third, the kitchen working space had been reduced to a miserable, confining corridor in which no one could feel at home. As an architect, I would be embarrassed to have designed something like that. Unfortunately, in West Berlin today this is the type of kitchen that is being built, and after fifty years, this nonsense is justified in the name of the Frankfurt Kitchen and its creator!

From pages 145–51

It is completely misleading to suggest that one person in the 1920s thought up the "idea" of the live-in kitchen, which was then followed by everyone else. The form of a dwelling is never achieved through the idea of a single individual . . . So long as burning wood or coal in a stove or oven was the only means of heating a room, a practice that to this day has not completely died out among mountain dwellers in Austria, people were going to eat and live in the space where the single fireplace was to be found. . . .

Austrian city dwellers in the 1920s did not have room for separate eating and living spaces. A single large table set with stools or a corner bench doubled as the living area. In Germany, however, where the workers' standard of living was slightly better than in Austria, the two functions of eating and living began to be separated in small dwellings. The so-called Best Room, where one ate, was located next to the kitchen in working-class housing. It was only heated on special occasions and developed in the direction of "frigid formality," as a showroom for visitors, a cluttered copy of the homes of the rich. . . .

We progressive architects naturally fought this cold formality. . . . The influence of British domestic culture led to the idea that sitting down to eat was something quite different from sitting down to rest during one's free time. Loos gave whole lectures on this topic. He promoted British patterns of living and, in his interior currently on display in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, he naturally had both an eating and a living area: the eating area with a corner bench, the living area with armchairs in which one could sit around the fireplace and stretch out one's legs in comfort. . . .

For housing projects, it struck me as important to distinguish clearly the development and relationship of the three functions of cooking, eating, and living. . . . At that time we resisted the combination of living, cooking, and eating in one space as unsanitary and unacceptably squalid. So in Frankfurt we opted for work-only kitchens. . . . Nowadays—in very different labor-saving, technological, and hygienic conditions—the most desirable form for the majority of people has become a dining-kitchen with a separate living room. But I want to set the record straight at the outset: the Frankfurt Kitchen represented a great step forward at the time. The 10,000 examples that were produced made many people's lives easier and undoubtedly contributed to more women being able to take up a career, to become financially independent from their husbands, and to spend more time on their personal development as well as on their families and the upbringing of their children. Nevertheless, the Frankfurt Kitchen was not developed for current times. It would be a sad comment on life if a design that marked a step forward in the past were still being promoted as progressive today. . . . There are new and urgent problems that need to be addressed in the present. . . .

From all that I have said previously, I should point out that "Frankfurt Kitchen" is a misleading term since it does not just refer to the design of a kitchen with more or less practical arrangements and facilities. As far as I can remember, it was May who came up with the term and used it for promotional purposes. In everything he did and said he repeatedly mentioned the fact that it was no coincidence the Frankfurt Kitchen was designed by a woman for women. This stemmed from the prevalent petit bourgeois perception that women were, by their very nature, meant to work at the domestic stove. It seemed to follow therefore that a woman architect would know best what was important for kitchens. That was good propaganda. But the truth of the matter was that I had never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen. I had never cooked, and had no idea about cooking. On the other hand, looking back on my life I would say that I have been systematic in every aspect of my professional life, and that it came naturally to me to approach every project systematically. . . .

What were the theoretical foundations and ideals that lay behind the Frankfurt Kitchen that led to its being reproduced in the thousands? For me there were two motives that led to the creation of the Frankfurt Kitchen. The first was the recognition that in the foreseeable future women would have proper paid employment, and would not solely be expected to be on hand to wait upon their husbands. I was convinced that women's struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity. Foremost in my mind when working on housing projects was the idea that the design and, above all, the layout could save work. . . . Second, I felt the Frankfurt Kitchen—a design so connected to the architectural fabric and to the planning and built-in features of rooms—was only the very first step toward developing a new way of living and at the same time a new kind of housing construction.

 

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky

Selected and Translated by Juliet Kinchin


Juliet Kinchin is curator of the history of modern design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was curator of the exhibition “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” a highlight of which was an example of the Frankfurt Kitchen salvaged from 124 Kurhessenstrasse on the Ginnheim-Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt-am-Main.construction.

 

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Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (Austrian, 1897–2000). Frankfurt Kitchen as illustrated in Das neue Frankfurt 5/1926–1927.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (Austrian, 1897–2000). Frankfurt Kitchen from the Ginnheim- Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, 1926–27. Installation view of Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 15, 2010–March 14, 2011. 8'9" x 12'10" x 6'10" (266.7 x 391.2 x 208.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Joan R. Brewster in memory of her husband George W. W. Brewster, by exchange and the Architecture & Design Purchase Fund, 2009. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (Austrian, 1897–2000). Frankfurt Kitchen from the Ginnheim- Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, 1926–27. Installation view of Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 15, 2010–March 14, 2011. 8'9" x 12'10" x 6'10" (266.7 x 391.2 x 208.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Joan R. Brewster in memory of her husband George W. W. Brewster, by exchange and the Architecture & Design Purchase Fund, 2009. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar.