IWD 2022: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky
I haven’t updated this thing for a while and judging by the visitor stats, nobody reads it anyway. It’s mostly a chronicle for my own sake at the moment. The world is dark and monstrous and, selfishly, I need an outlet.
However, the aim of this journal is not political analysis; there are several thousand million journals and blogs and substacks etc (one of these days I will gather and share a reading list) out there that are far more insightful than I could ever be. I will bend this rule a little bit in the coming days or weeks or months (unavoidable in the present climate), but I will keep the analysis light as the last thing the world needs is one more hot take from a comfortable Brit looking on from the computer screen as the horror unfolds. Nevertheless, I will aim to keep any political chat relevant to the task at hand: trying to make sense of the urban environment around us.
I have a couple of dry book-review-y/recommendation-y type entries stacked up, but since it is International Women’s Day today I will write a little homage to a good international woman: committed communist, feminist designer, and architect-activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.
Recently I watched the film Sotsgorod: Cities for Utopia which merits its own entry. In a nutshell, it details a group of architects (known as the “May Brigade” led by the Dutch architect Ernst May) from the West – mainly Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland, Austria, who went to the Soviet Union to help deliver panellised housing to create planned socialist cities in Magnitogorsk,Siberia during the USSR building programme in 1920s and 1930s. One of these architects was Schütte-Lihotzky.
Schütte-Lihotzky was the first female student at the University of the Applied Arts in her hometown, Vienna, and one of the first female architects in Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad, who was extremely influential in the mass social housing projects in Vienna (sozialer Wohnbau). Vienna has long been an object of interest for planners, urban designers, and architects in terms of social housing (and this also warrants an entry in its own right).
In 1926, she was commissioned by the City of Frankfurt to support an effort to resolve the city’s acute housing crisis led by the architect and city planner Ernst May. Schütte-Lihotzky worked on the New Frankfurt project, bringing her humanitarian values to housing to create a space that was affordable, comfortable, and stylish.
Her work on the New Frankfurt project gave rise the Frankfurt kitchen in 1926 (insert cap from film clip) based on the principle of a small kitchen to maximise a housewife’s efficiency and reduce the amount of time spent on unpaid domestic labour. The Frankfurt kitchen model is extremely common in the mass-built social housing prevalent across mainland Europe.
Beyond her design activities, she remained a committed communist until her death in 2000. She became a member of the Austrian Community Party (KPÖ) in 1939 where she worked with the Austrian Communist resistance. She was caught by the Gestapo in Istanbul in 1941, and imprisoned by 15 years in Bavaria. She was liberated by US troops at the end of the Second World War, upon which she no longer wished to return to Austria immediately. She worked in Bulgaria for a few years before returning to Vienna, although her communist views prevented her from receiving any major public commissions in Austria.
To finish up, here is an excerpt from Schütte-Lihotzky’s work “Why I became an architect,” published by Juliet Kinchin in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2011), pp. 86-96:
“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.”