The socially oriented Frankfurt Kitchen aimed at a more egalitarian world
Source: Boya Latumahina
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky earned her stardom sometime around her 90th birthday. She would enjoy it another 13 years. In part, her new fame was thanks to longevity, in the way of those who, against all odds, live into advanced old age, when the old politics are fodder for stories rather than battles. So, and in the wake of second-wave feminism, she was discovered, much to her delight.
She was an exceptional figure, only partly for the Frankfurt Kitchen on which her reputation almost solely relies. It was her heady idealism, talent for living, passion for work, courage, and love of the good fight that set her apart.
Born in Vienna into an ordinary middle-class family, Lihotzky trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. She was, it seems, the school’s first female architecture graduate. From then on, her life was an alarming adventure riding the tidal wave of history. It began when her mentor Oskar Strnad exhorted her to go out and ‘see how the people live’. Her shocking encounter with working-class poverty set her on a life’s mission to design for the masses. Her approach was, simply, two parts improving to one part delight. As a star of her class, she landed her first job at the Vienna Housing Office, where she designed settlement blocks, model unit types, and, prophetically, modular kitchens at a furious pace that would never let up.
‘The kitchen lightened and brightened some of the most arduous kitchen labours, while famously rationalising gestures as in a factory workstation’
It was through Adolf Loos that she first met Ernst May, who was particularly intrigued by her odd concrete kitchen with its round-sculpted and wooden-hatched counter. She became part of his ‘New Frankfurt’ design team - the only woman - in 1925. Of the Frankfurt Kitchen, built in the hundreds for the fabled Frankfurt settlements, much has been published, and, recently, a number painstakingly restored and settled into museum collections. The classic photograph of the kitchen portrays a serene resolution of rationalised assembly and electrical equipment, set in a Loosian double-cube of space. The kitchen lightened and brightened some of the most arduous kitchen labours, while famously rationalising gestures as in a factory workstation. It was the paradox of the Frankfurt Kitchen-as-machine, the masculinisation of the kitchen narrative, that has most characterised Lihotzky’s peculiar legacy: the heroic woman architect celebrating a masculine professional mentality in the context of insignificant woman’s work projects. But for Lihotzky, like everything else worth doing, the Frankfurt Kitchen was also an epic struggle, and, ultimately, a triumph of the moderns over backward practice and cautious bureaucrats. She honed its compact form, not only for time/motion efficiency, but to fend off an assault by old bulky furniture, while municipal approval of its electrical fittings was only won by virtue of a ‘real battle’.
Over the five Frankfurt years, the kitchen was but one of an outpouring of designs from her hand: there were electric laundries and single-women’s housing schemes - although she inaugurated the type, the Frankfurt women’s associations neglected to hire her for their two commissions - her standardised garden huts were built by the hundreds in the great Nidda Valley settlements, and there was a modular furniture system of 103(!) components. When sidelined from the city office by a no-spousal-hires law, Lihotzky proposed the creation of a household research and information office from which would emanate a flood of prospectuses, photos, publications, slide presentations, demonstrations and exhibits, and send lecturers to housewives’ clubs and articles to major city newspapers. Like other early moderns, Lihotzky’s zealousness could be exhausting.
The New Frankfurt initiative was crumbling towards 1930, but a new opportunity was on the horizon: the Soviet Union, looking to usher in its own technological utopia, was, for the moment, not shy of foreign expertise. Lihotzky joined the ‘May Brigade’ - 17 professionals, led by May, and she the only woman. They spent the next seven years designing whole cities - notably Magnitogorsk - also schools, housing, even kitchens, rapt in political discussions, sleeping in a group house in Moscow, in barracks on far-flung construction sites, travelling around the vast reaches of the continent on trains, trucks and sleds. Their projects were so far flung, the team never saw many of its works. Lihotzky thought her best was a large daycare facility in Bryansk. It was bombed out of existence while she languished in a Nazi jail in 1941. Meanwhile, she was, as usual, on fire with work and initiatives - more daycares, kindergartens, another modular furniture system: children’s furniture this time.
Frankfurt Kitchen (1926)
From 1926: developing norms on standardisation and rationalisation in large-scale housing projects particularly in the Soviet Union
From 1930: kindergarten pavilions based on ideas of Maria Montessori
Architecture Award from the City of Vienna (1980)
Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold with Star for Services to the Republic of Austria (1997)
‘I’d never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen, I’d never cooked, and had no idea about cooking’
With Stalin’s expulsion order of 1937, Lihotzky and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, moved on to Paris, then Turkey. She joined a Communist Party cell and, in 1940, returned to Vienna to work for the Resistance. The Gestapo caught up with her within weeks. Unlike two of her collaborators, she escaped execution, but was sentenced to 15 years. She was four and a half years in prison by the war’s end.
Peacetime Austria did not thank her for her sacrifices, or glory in her successes. An ever energetic, now mid-life, Lihotzky found herself excluded from municipal work for refusing to join the Socialist Party. She spent the next 25 years in ‘political work’. Directly on her liberation by the Americans, in precarious Third-Man era Vienna, she attempted what she described as her first. She persuaded the local Communist Party to create ‘warmed rooms’ where Viennese could seek some respite from hunger and cold, while being engaged in political discussion. The Party requisitioned some abandoned Nazi quarters, and Lihotzky got fuel from the Russians. But ‘leider, leider, leider’, the endeavour foundered for lack of participation.
She took time out to meet up with her husband, who was in Istanbul. She travelled in a closed wagon, through a fearful snowstorm with nothing to eat, to Budapest, where she met with Central Committee members, then, starving again, by truck to Szeged, more meetings, and so on through Yugoslavia, until some weeks later reaching food and husband in Istanbul.
Then, back to work. In 1937, she and Wilhelm spent six weeks advising Chiang Kai-shek on the construction of schools and nurseries. Now she took a veritable tour of Communist Bloc countries and their allies, lending her expertise to the cause. She returned to Mao’s China as part of a professional delegation; next a sojourn in Fidel’s Cuba advising him on building children’s facilities, a visit ending just days before the Bay of Pigs; then on to East Berlin in 1966 for more of the same. Meanwhile, she was elected president of the leftist Union of Democratic Women.
It quietened down around 1970. In 1985, she received her first professional medal. She was 88. From then on, the honours accrued. She participated in conferences, was interviewed, fêted, and exhibited. She wrote a memoir about the war years, and assembled her archive. Even this chapter was epic, lasting until 2000 when she died at nearly 103.
While the Frankfurt Kitchen simplified kitchen chores, it did not win the status of ‘profession’ for housewifery, which remained a degraded, if at times romanticised, undertaking. It is more accurate to say that its modernity eased the transition of housewifery into a rationalised economy, and thus Lihotzky’s revealing comment, ‘I had never concerned myself with cooking in my life.’ It is a troubling and contradictory history. As a feminist heroine, we will be better served by considering how Lihotzky lived the rest of her life, devoted to designing facilities for women, and, especially, for children; indeed, doing women’s work.
Illustration by Boya Latumahina