Architecture Misfit #25: Ernst May
[July 1886 — September 1970]
New Frankfurt [in German, Neues Frankfurt] was an affordable public housing program in Frankfurt started in 1925 and completed in 1930. The mayor of Frankfurt hired Ernst May as general manager of the project to bring together architects to work on it. The goal was housing that could be rented for no more than 25% of a person’s monthly income.
May’s developments were remarkable for their time for being compact. The 60 sq.m. area of a typical three-room apartment was fifteen sq.m. less than the standard for the time. Economic pressures led to two-room apartments for four people having an area of 40 sq.m. These were known as transitional minimum subsistence dwellings. The plan was to later combine them into larger units.
The housing units were semi-independent, well-equipped with community elements like playgrounds, schools, theatres, and common washing areas. This is admirable.
May used simplified, prefabricated forms for the sake of economy and construction speed. This shows a comprehension of the scale and urgency of the problem.
The settlements were planned to have new ideals such as equal access to sunlight, air, and common areas. This was most progressive.
The settlement layouts and the dwellings and their spaces were highly functional. This was not the pursuit of functionalism as a style, but a means of not wasting space and the building materials to enclose it.
May was responsible for the production of approximately 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932. This is a huge achievement for any person in any country in any era, but was in Germany during a period of INCREASING POLITICAL TURMOIL – a period that, as it happened, coincided with the heyday of the Bauhaus.
Here’s what happened.
Johnson & Hitchcock have nothing to say about May, save for this parenthesised reference on p233 of The International Style.
Others however noticed. May’s achievements were recognised at the 1929 CIAM conference. This brought him to the attention of the Soviet Union.
In 1930 May took virtually his entire New Frankfurt-team to Russia. … The promise of the “Socialist paradise” was still fresh, and May’s Brigade and other groups of western planners had the hope of constructing entire cities. The first was to be Magnitogorsk. Although May’s group is indeed credited with building 20 cities in three years, the reality was that May found Magnitogorsk already under construction and the town site dominated by the mine. Officials were indecisive, then distrustful, corruption and delay frustrated their efforts, and May himself made misjudgements about the climate. May’s contract expired in 1933, and he left for Kenya (then British East Africa).
May’s reputation thus went the same way as Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer and Architecture Misfit #23: André Lurçat. May isn’t mentioned much in the history of modern architecture. It’s not just because he went to the Soviet Union when other German architects were busy brushing up their English. May was a professional who, when given the problem of providing housing for the country’s population, didn’t see his role as developing prototypes for mass production, but to actually make it happen. And he did. 15,000 of them. And they’re still lived in.
Despite existing from 1919–1932, the Bauhaus contributed little to solving Germany’s housing problem. Gropius’ Dessau-Törten Estate of 1926–1928 provided 317 dwellings with areas of 57–75 sqm but it was a job on the side, independent of his 1919–1928 stint as Bauhaus director. Gropius put the experience to good use and, immediately upon leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, won a competition for the design of Dammerstock Colony. In 1934 he was to leave Germany and its mass housing problems behind him forever.
For the period 1926–1928 at the very least, Gropius was involved with both architectural education and the solving of real-world housing problems but, for a person renowned as an educator, the thought that education might be about training people to solve real-world problems never seems to have crossed his mind. He kept education and real-world problems very separate. It didn’t do his career any harm but, if we were to ask when the rot set in, it would be here. I use the term architectural education loosely, as Gropius must have on his CV, for it was Hannes Meyer who added architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum. And it was Meyer who connected architecture with the solving of real-world problems, only for Mies to separate it again. What happened afterwards – and, unfortunately for us – is not history.
It’s often said Hitler’s preference for pitched roofs was responsible for the dissolution of the Bauhaus. Perhaps it was, but Ernst May still managed to get 15,000 flat-roofed housey things built before leaving Germany in 1930, four years before Gropius and eight years before Mies. May’s leaving was the greater loss for Germany. In 1954 he was invited back and began work again at the planning department of the City of Hamburg.
• • •
for knowing what had to be done in order to deliver,
and doing it.
misfits salutes you!