We all know that sinking feeling. Trapped by someone at a social occasion who has one topic of conversation; their new fitted kitchen. One must not act out individual rebellion nor be rude, but turn the conversation to the Frankfurt Kitchen and the necessity of good quality housing for all.
Social conditions have changed. While there remain grim levels of poverty in many European countries housing conditions in general are better than they were 100 years ago. Most housing in the richer capitalist states now has hot and cold running water, central heating, separate bathrooms and indoor toilets. But it was not until well into the 1970s that most of these improvements were completed. And that was often a result of pressure from below – workplace and rent strikes, demonstrations, petitions, squatting, occupation, direct action and voting for reformist socialist parties. While there are no records of the fitted kitchen being a central demand, it is certainly a by-product of people fighting for a better world.
At the end of the First World War there were acute housing shortages in Germany. House building in many European countries had halted between 1914 – 1918 and in the immediate post-war period there were significant disruptions to the supplies of raw materials and skilled labour. In Germany the problems were exacerbated by political instability and hyper-inflation. The revolutionary movement of 1918 – 1923 ended in an uneasy class compromise but it was not without the production of reforms. The right to a ‘healthy dwelling’ was written into the constitution of the Weimar Republic.
By 1924 political and economic conditions had changed again and throughout Germany there were plans to build working class housing on a large-scale. In Frankfurt am Main, the newly appointed Director of Building and Planning, Ernst May, supported by Ludwig Landmann, the first Jewish mayor of the city, set out on a ten year plan to house the workers.
There were many influences. Modernism in general, Bauhaus in particular, the resonation of the Russian Revolution, the desire to break with the Imperial past, the expansion of mass production new industrial processes and techniques. There were pressing needs to build as economically as possible and to ensure good quality. Where might the currents of workers’ militancy flow if some reforms were not forthcoming?
Research institutes were set up and university departments recruited, all with the aim of providing housing that workers could genuinely afford while meeting approved standards in terms of quality and access to open space, services and amenities. It was a bold initiative carried out by people who had lived through, and had often taken part in, the revolutionary movement itself. Part of the funding came from taxing the landlords.
Ernst May recruited the architect Margarete “Grete” Schütte-Lihotzky to design a standard kitchen. She had studied the methods of Taylorism and the ideas of Henry Ford. Time and motion, energy and efficiency, scientific thinking, mass production and aesthetics, the design of everyday things, optimum use of space, the use of the right materials for the right purpose. She based her initial designs on the kitchens used on trains to supply the dining cars.
The kitchens had to be functional and hygienic with the aim of reducing ‘house-work’ time. They benefited from being installed in new, modern housing that was supplied with gas and electricity. The latter making it possible to provide a range of domestic appliances which would generate further labour-saving. Some of the ideas were low-tech, but also effective. Drip-racks were designed to save time on drying up the dishes. Left to their own devices they would dry themselves.
A key consideration was costs and then as now that was a political question. The municipal authorities were dominated by reformist socialists who consolidated their political power by activily working to weaken the revolutionary movement. The reformists had acquired some political power but the might of economic power, and a great deal of political power was still with the capitalists. The housing was built within a government of compromise and this set its limitations.
The kitchen designs themselves (there were at least three different ones in Frankfurt and also specific designs in Hamburg, Stuttgart and Munich) generated a great deal of debate (and still do). Did they really liberate women or was this just a more elaborate form of enslavement? Why was the woman in the kitchen, now cut off from the rest of the household by a sliding door? Was the saving of domestic time driven by the need to increase or manage exploitative working-time? Could the clear design form really help to create clear-minded, modern thinking people?
Between 1926 – 1932 over 10,000 kitchens had been installed in the city. Across Germany new housing estates appeared in many cities and towns. Not all modernist, not all influenced by the theory and practice of the Bauhaus, but most at a reasonable rent and of a good standard of building.
The housing projects were instigated by reformist socialists all too aware of the latent power of a mass working class movement which had shown powerful revolutionary tendencies. But they were good projects in their own right and a significant achievement.
Much of that housing continues to work well, and perhaps here and there an original kitchen survives, a carrier of revolutionary memories from a revolutionary time; when kitchens, buildings, production, life, the state and the future of society were all up for grabs.
Perhaps fitted kitchen stories aren’t so bad, particularly when they are linked to revolutions.