Das Neue Frankfurt
by Charlotte Adlard
To the modern metropolitan dweller – particularly in London – the proportions of the Frankfurt kitchen likely do not come as the great shock that it did to its early users. At roughly 6.5 square metres (1.9m x 3.4m), depending on the conditions of its installation, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen undoubtedly compensates for what it lacks in square meterage with a rationalisation of space scarcely found in flats today, let alone in the early 20th century when it was first installed in thousands of housing units as part of Ernst May’s Neue Frankfurt.
Das Neue Frankfurt – a citywide regeneration programme created by architect and city planner Ernst May during Germany’s Weimar years – considered itself more artistic movement than social housing project. At the core of May’s deeply utopian project was the cultivation of a new, aesthetically fulfilling way of living for the machine age; the creation of a ‘unified’ living culture. For May, the development of this unified culture would begin at home, and it had to be fiercely focused. Hence the 15,000 units of housing built during May’s tenure as city-planner, housing an impressive 1 in 10 Frankfurters between 1925 and 1930, and hence the obsessive attention to detail that led Ernst May to poach Lihotzky from Adolf Loos in 1925, hiring her with the mandate to build the most intuitively laid-out and rationalised kitchen possible.
“The result was a kitchen that was
no longer a living space, but a working space –
a laboratory kitchen, as it was later dubbed.”
At 28, Lihtotzky had never cooked or run a household (although she had by this time designed a modular kitchen made of concrete during her time in Silesia) and lacked sentimentality for conventional domestic tropes. Privileging science over tradition, she performed extensive time-and-motion studies to arrive at the optimum positioning, layout, size, distance between appliances and relation between the kitchen and the wider plan of the units. The result was a kitchen that was no longer a living space, but a working space – a laboratory kitchen, as it was later dubbed.
The particularity of Lihtozky’s laboratory kitchen is an impressive thing to behold, and must have been even more so to those first using it. The Neue Frankfurt estates were the first to be fully electrified, and to have built-in gas supplies. With metal surfaces, incredibly refined technical fittings, and efficiently interlocking parts, this was the first realisation of the kitchen as machine – a machine whose configuration choreographs the user’s movement within it. Continuous counter space surrounds the user, with a small waste bin on the short end, and a draining tray on another. A row of hooks above allow access to an array of ‘tools’, and to the side is a set of eighteen aluminium drawers – in scale and organisation reminiscent of an apothecary’s cabinet as much as laboratory storage.
The materials too were a revelation: linoleum surfaces, aluminium sinks and storage bins, enamelled cabinet fronts, tiles. Colour, like material, was meticulously thought through, colluding with carefully chosen light sources to give the illusion of space: the walls were white plaster, with a ventilator hood designed to reflect light from an end-window, where cabinets were removed. The palette, materials and structure signalled the development of the first truly modern kitchen – and one that could be dropped onto an estate by crane to boot.
With its dogged determination to deliver the most efficient user experience possible, the Frankfurt kitchen was a revolution in domestic life – one that certainly earned its place as one of the most acclaimed creations of the Weimar housing programmes. However, its reception has not been straightforward. Lihotzky herself was the first to admit that lack of supervision at the installation of the kitchens at the estates led to discrepancies in execution – some of which undermined key design principles. The implications of those oversights built on an existing sense that, in their decision to develop a one-person ‘working’ kitchen over a ‘living‘ kitchen, May and Lihotzky had dissolved the social hub of the house, isolating the housewife, and placing her in what was later described as a ‘golden cage’.
There were also some sinister agendas at work in the conception of the new kitchen at the state level. The modernisation of the kitchen was ultimately part of a government policy of ‘female redomestication’, which pivoted on the belief that if household work was professionalised, and the role of housewife treated as a job, women would stop seeking to unsettle domestic ideals by leaving the home. It was believed that if women’s spaces resembled those of men, they would be more satisfied with their lives, and not seek employment or independence.
Nonetheless, Lihotzky‘s own motivations were clear, and she stood by the radical design decisions she took when she spoke about the kitchen later in her career – saying that she ‘was convinced that the women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalisation of housework was an absolute necessity’. Ultimately, perhaps revolution and regression are both present in the Frankfurt Kitchen: Lihotzky’s work was madly propagandised, and co-opted by the veiled misogynist agendas at work at a government level. Sadly, problems in execution at the time also tugged it back from the great frontiers of a feminist, machine-age modernity to which it came so close. But there’s no doubt that the Frankfurt Kitchen was and remains revolutionary – and absolutely warrants consideration as one of the most crucial developments in 20th century design and architectural history.
i-ii) ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ – Neues Bauen – Neues Gestalten. Das Neue Frankfurt/Die neue Stadt. Eine Zeitschrift zwischen 1926 und 1933, Heinz Hirdina, Verlag der Kunst, 1984
iii) ‘Praunheim Estate’ – 1930 bildindex.com
If you are interested in more literature on the Frankfurt projects visit Room606 – they also have a set of original aluminium drawers for sale!