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‘Stam was doomed to disillusionment with the politics of the countries in which he worked’

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Archive: a radical Modernist, who believed that architecture had a role to play in designing a more egalitarian society

Originally published in August 1997

Since the city of Frankfurt cut its budget, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum has been finding creative ways to raise money. For the Mart Stam retrospective they have teamed up with Tecta, the chair manufacturers, to offer Starn’s ‘Kragstuhl’ (developed from the prototype first shown at the Stuttgart Weissenhof exhibition housing in 1927), and with lighting manufacturers Technolumen to manufacture his ‘Wandlampe’, originally designed for the Henry and Emma Budge Old People’s Home in Frankfurt, completed in 1929. Both chair and wall lamp are now in production for the first time since the ’30s. The museum is processing orders and will benefit from sales.

The Dutch architect Mart Stam may well have approved. His career encompassed furniture design, teaching at the Bauhaus and architectural practice, designing the Hellerhof estate for low income groups and the Budge Home in Frankfurt. He also edited the Swiss avant-garde magazine ABC (Contributions to Building), and was an original member of CIAM, attending its first meeting in June 1928 at La Sarraz in Switzerland.

Second stage Hellerhof estate, Frankfurt, 1930.

Second stage Hellerhof estate, Frankfurt, 1930.

Second stage Hellerhof estate, Frankfurt, 1930.

Under the shadow of developing fascism, Mart Stam was one of the architects, along with Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, who accompanied Ernst May to the Soviet Union in 1930. Here they hoped to continue their ‘Neue Bauen’ town planning, developed while working in Frankfurt-am-Main’s city building department. In 1933, when the Soviets started to favour crude Neo-Classicism, the group dispersed. Germany was no longer an option, so Ernst May left for Nairobi, Schutte-Lihotzky joined a resistance support group in Turkey, Meyer returned to Switzerland and Stam to Holland. This was one of his several emigrations. As a radical Modernist, who believed that architecture had a role to play in designing a more egalitarian society, Stam was doomed to repeated disillusionment with the environmental politics of the various countries in which he worked; first in pre-war Frankfurt, subsequently in the Soviet Union and post-war East Germany and finally in the Netherlands.

During the cold war, the political motivation behind the work of Modern Movement architects was intentionally ignored. Schutte-Lihotzky had to wait until she was 100 before being fully rehabilitated in Austria. Perhaps for the same reason, Mart Stam’s influence as director of applied art and design schools in the Netherlands, Dresden and Berlin-Weissensee in Germany, or his buildings after 1953 in Amsterdam (offices for Geillustreerde Pers N.V. or flats and a supermarket in the Linnaeusstraat, and other projects including his own office building, comprising two thirds of his total architectural output) have been less well publicised. On discovering that he was seriously ill in 1966, Stam suddenly abandoned his practice and left Amsterdam to live in Switzerland, with his wife Olga. In 1986 the Deutsches Architekturmuseum inherited original design material from Olga Stam, strengthening the importance of Frankfurt’s modern architecture archives for researchers.

Skyscraper design for Moscow, 1925.

Skyscraper design for Moscow, 1925.

Skyscraper design for Moscow, 1925.

Renewed interest in Stam’s work has resulted in a Dutch television documentary, a seminar course at Munster School of Architecture, remanufacture of his designs and concern over the upkeep of his two remaining projects in Frankfurt.

The Hellerhof housing has been renovated, but the fate of his Budge Old People’s Home originally designed in 1929 for a community of both Christians and jews, used by the American forces since 1945 as a dental clinic and now returned to the city- is still undecided. Its future has been examined by architecture students from Frankfurt, Zurich, Delft, and Cracow. This summer it will be open to the public for the first time in 50 years.