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March 13th, 2015

Future Designs

BY Christian Ford

Eighty-nine years ago, the future arrived in Frankfurt, Germany.  Remarkably compact, six and a quarter feet wide and a little over eleven feet long, it was the product of thousands of hours of study and experimentation, optimally efficient, eminently rational, and geared for maximum productivity.  It was a kitchen.

In the mid 1920s, Frankfurt was a hotbed of forward thinking, and it needed to be.  Germany was still reeling from the effects of the First World War.  The nation had entered the fight as a monarchy consisting mostly of farmers and exited in a revolution which deposed the Kaiser and inaugurated an industrial republic.  The fledgling Weimar was haunted by hunger, weighed down with reparation payments and its cities were overcrowded with folk who had migrated to work in now-shuttered war industries.

It was a nervous time, with the specter of social unrest never far from the surface.  Frankfurt’s mayor, Ludwig Landmann, believed that the solution was decent housing and lots of it.  To make “New Frankfurt” happen, he handed money, laborers and authority to a hometown boy with big ideas.

Ernst May was an architect and city planner and what he produced with prodigious speed were not so much buildings as communities — playgrounds, schools, gardens, theaters and even laundry facilities were as much as part of the design as the compact and functional apartments.  May’s apartment complexes weren’t luxurious, but they were rigorously egalitarian; everyone had equal access to amenities, no one got stuck with an air shaft for a window.

Into this whirlwind, May brought an Austrian architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.  Twenty-nine years old and Austria’s very first female architect, she was kindred to May, someone burning to use the built environment to better the lives of ordinary people.  But May seems to have noticed another attribute which made her right for the job.  To quote Schütte-Lihotzky:  “It seemed that a woman architect would know best what was important for kitchens.  But I had never cooked before designing the Frankfurt kitchen.”

It’s not that she grew up cosseted, but rather that she stepped directly from the role of child to the role of university student and that role was entirely inhabited by men; the cooking was done for them.  Perhaps sidestepping her kitchen experience was what freed her to find a radically different model for the home kitchen — the railroad galley.

The early twentieth century was the apogee of the passenger train, and their rolling galleys  were models of efficiency, packing everything needed to feed scores into a very tight space.  The designers of these mobile kitchens were varied, but they all owed a philosophical debt to the apostle of practical modernity, Charles Taylor.

A practical joker with no sense of humor, Taylor was the kind of guy who would spend weeks with a clipboard, a stopwatch and an unblinking eye, watching men work.  He didn’t watch just anyone, but over-performing factory workers.  What Taylor discovered was that these hyper-productive few had, by intuition or design, learned to do their work with an absolute minimum of wasted movement.  Out of his observations, Taylor produced his famed (or infamous) time and motion studies, which dictated the exact geometry and timing every worker should use to be as efficient as possible.  Henry Ford saw god in these time and motion studies, and realized Taylor’s ideas at gargantuan scale with his relentless assembly lines.

Schütte-Lihotzky did the same kind of observations, but the laborers she was watching were women in kitchens.  The method might have been identical, but her goal was precisely the opposite.  Where Ford and Taylor were determined to wring every last iota of work and profit out of their laborers, Schütte-Lihotzky’s aim was to harness efficiency to produce freedom.

You weren’t going to find many husbands helping out in the kitchens of Weimar Germany — they were too exhausted from their days of (a) searching for work or (b) actually working in Taylorist industries.  A 1920s hausfrau might well have her own shift in the factory, and even if she didn’t, she still had a hell of a lot to do, and no labor saving devices to help her do it.  Then, as now, all of the cooking, cleaning, nursing, teaching, mending, making and buying — all of the work that enabled everyone to go out and do “real” work — was not labeled work, even if it could absorb 80 hours per week.

What Schütte-Lihotzky had in mind was an efficient, rationalized kitchen that would be a room-sized tool, perfectly adapted to the task at hand.  It would speed the process of keeping the family fed and in so doing, liberate the housewife from hours of toil every week.

May’s egalitarian housing took the shape of modestly sized apartments, but the space constraints were an advantage from Schütte-Lihotzky’s point of view.  Her tightly fitted design meant that her domestic engineer didn’t spend time walking.  Most things were right at hand and the cook needed to travel, it was more about a turn and a step.  In what was probably the most emblematic design feature, drawers for commonly used staples — flour say, or rice — were cast out of aluminum, with a big grip of a handle on the outside and a spout on the inside of the “drawer.”  All you had to do was remove the entire thing, pour out your measure, and pop it right back into the rack.

Everything got a similar treatment.  There was a cutout in the counter, into which scraps were swept with a flick of the hand or knife.  Door and drawer fronts were painted blue, because research had indicated that flies avoided the color.  Dishes were racked above the drainboard so they could be shelved wet and left to dry.  Aesthetically, it was spare, but in the care and attention invested into every detail, there was luxury.  May installed ten thousand copies in the apartments of New Frankfurt.

Looking back, it’s clear that Schütte-Lihotzky determined the trajectory of kitchen design through the rest of the twentieth century; the “scientific” kitchens of the American midcentury are just as much her descendants as are the customized/prefabricated kitchens of Ikea, albeit with particle board instead of Schütte-Lihotzky’s specified oak and beech.

It was not, however, perfect.  Not every hausfrau cottoned onto to Schütte-Lihotzky’s carefully optimized workflows.  Others complained that the kitchen was too programatic, and not flexible enough.  Ruefully, the signature staple drawer/dispensers turned out to be set at a height which allowed small children to explore their potential for mess-making.  But the most damning problem took decades to finally be spoken of.

The Frankfurt Kitchen was a more rational, more efficient tool for cooking, and it did indeed save time and energy.  But though it bought the woman of the house more time, it did nothing to free her from the fundamental assumption that the unpaid labor of the house was hers and hers alone.  What’s more, the snugly tailored kitchen reduced the time she spent cooking, but also increased her isolation — two adults couldn’t possibly work in there at the same time.

It’s easy, from our remove in history, to regard Schütte-Lihotzky somewhat condescendingly.  The early twentieth century was thick with reformers who were as well-meaning as they were disconnected from the reality of the issues they were trying to reform.  But this would be a mistake in her case.

Schütte-Lihotzky learned, designing larger “Type 2” and “Type 3” kitchens which eliminated the isolation of the Type 1 kitchen.  As Germany began its fatal spiral toward the right wing, Schütte-Lihotzky left for the Soviet Union where whole cities were being brought into existence in what was hoped to be the beginning of a worker’s paradise.  By the late 30s, the real face of Stalinist Russia had revealed itself, and Schütte-Lihotzky moved again, this time to Istanbul, a city-sized safe house for ideological exiles from Naziism.

While she was there, she was simultaneously designing kindergartens based on the theories of Maria Montessori and also working as agent of Austrian resistance to Hitler’s regime.  It was in the latter guise that she slipped into Nazi Austria, only to be arrested by the Gestapo on the day before her 44th birthday.  Sentenced to fifteen years by a Nazi court, Schütte-Lihotzky’s imprisonment was cut short when GI’s liberated her prison in 1945.

The experience didn’t mellow her.  Forty three years later, in 1988, she rejected an award from the Austrian President Kurt Waldheim because of his dubious wartime career.  In 1993, she sued crypto-nazi politician Jörg Haider for calling concentration camps “prison camps.”  And on her 100th birthday, she waltzed with the Mayor of Vienna and wryly commented that it would have been nice to occasionally design a house for a rich man.

In other words, Schütte-Lihotzky was exactly the kind of person you’d want on your side if you were an oppressed, overworked underclass.  So how is it that her most significant work turned out to be a kind of in-house jail cell?  One path to the answer can be found somewhere to the northeast of Frankfurt in 1927.

On the outskirts of Berlin, another Austrian was reimagining what the years to come would bring for the ordinary people, and it looked a lot like an industrialized hell.  I’m not talking about Hitler, but about another tyrant, the monocle-wearing film director Fritz Lang.  While Schütte-Lihotsky was helping to build New Frankfurt, Lang was inside the walls of Studio Babelsburg, forever changing the movies by making the very first one with a robot in it.  The result was Metropolis, a masterpiece of science fiction cinema, epically incoherent, visually indelible.   Diametrically opposed to Schütte-Lihotzky’s arch-rational future, this was a fever dream of a world ruled by the rich, with the masses enslaved both by and in the service of technology.

There’s more than a coincidence of timing, here.  The spirit of the age, or perhaps I should say zeitgeist, particularly expresses itself through the arts that engage people en masse.   Lang and Schütte-Lihotzky were both helpless to resist the signals coming from the society they inhabited.  They could both feel the rumbling, the entire enterprise of a civilization cannonballing forward on tracks barely stapled to the earth and both of them fashioned characteristic responses.

Lang’s was grand, brutal and mesmerizing; Schütte-Lihotzky’s was domestic, empathetic and yet somehow impersonal.  From our distance in time, both carry the curse of quaintness.  Metropolis is clunky, frequently forced and often slow between its moments of incandescence.  But for all the silent film weirdness of Lang’s movie, it still feels ineffably relevant, still enjoys a life astonishing and bewildering people.

But Schütte-Lihotzky’s work?  It has become “art,” divorced from its raison d’être, entombed in cathedrals of upperclassness such as MOMA in New York.  The aestheticization of her work is perhaps an easier response than the clearer eyed one, in which we see the tiny, isolated kitchen, a box for one laboring woman, her movements programmed for her in a literally unending cycle of days.  Schütte-Lihotzky’s commitment to bettering lives was so important to her that she risked her own life in its service, which is why it’s so difficult to reconcile who she was with what she made.

That’s where we need Lang, with his god’s-eye-view of the modern world being born around both of them.  Lang was a monster, but it gave him the ability to recognize other monstrosity and he saw it all around, the power of the rich, the placid enslavement of the 99% and the way in which both high and low were powerless to escape the technology they had created for themselves.  Lang saw madness, and responded with an artful madness all his own.

Schütte-Lihotzky saw injustice, inequity, and crushing burdens of labor and debt and responded by attempting to make the center of the household, the hearth as it were, a refuge, a place where at least this most fundamental labor could ameliorated.  But because she created a thoroughly rational and tailored response to the fundamentally pathological circumstances of modernity, what she ended up creating was a rational and tailored pathology.

At least it had a window.