Neues Frankfurt

The chronological sequence of German history from 1870 can be described as the rule of Bismark, unification of Germany, development of mass production and consumerism, (first large wave of housing building), autocratic rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II, imperialism, the development of the Social Democratic Party as a mass socialist organisation. That sequence stops with the First World War.

The German Revolution of November 1918 is the beginning of the next sequence. The economic dislocation of war, reparations, hyper-inflation, attempted coups, political assassination, political and social instability, general strikes, workers’ and soldiers’ councils dominate until well into 1923. It is only in early 1924 that the housing question can be addressed in practical terms.

The cultural influences are less easy to track. Art and design movements are always an ongoing synthesis and it is much harder to define start and end dates (although not always impossible).

Are the origins in Biedermeier? This was an approach of elegant simplicity in opposition to the baroque and rococo extravagance of the Absolutist monarchs, particularly the court at Versailles. This was not only a matter of architecture and fine arts, it was also about taste, manners, expressions, deportment of person. That was a European influence.

In England, the eccentric genius of Pugin locked itself on the gothic splendour of the middle ages. One element of the synthesis he created was the concept of the totality of the applied arts. This can still be seen in the House of Commons in which he was involved, the church he designed in Cheadle and his house in Ramsgate.

Ruskin is seen as a key figure, but rather snootily never acknowledges his debt to Pugin (which was vast). Ruskin influences Morris, he in turn has a huge influence upon Arts & Crafts, from which emerges Art Nouveau. Charles Renee MacKintosh is a powerful figure in this mix, as is Gottfried Semper, but in a different way.

There are complex theories about labour and the role of art and craft. This is something which Pugin, Ruskin, Morris and many others share. As of course do Marx and Engels who make human labour central to the whole development of humanity, including the creation of speech and consciousness. (By way of symmetry, Marx and Engels often spent their summer holidays in Ramsgate where Pugin had lived).

The historical graph of ‘events’ and ‘people’ and ‘places’ takes place alongside this denser and more complex graph of the theory and practice of art, architecture and design. But both are drawn upon the background of the development of the forces of production, capital accumulation, the creation of mass production, and consumerism. Mass production begins in the 1850s but only becomes a dominant part of production by the 1880s. There are more goods, in a great variation of shape, size and colour. Advertising emerges and with it the development of design (and to some extent the fine arts) to sell things.

The question of quality had arisen more loudly in the 1850s, partly as a result of the Great Exhibition. This question particularly arose in Germany. There was severe criticism of the quality of goods. Not only were the hand crafts being eliminated by machines, but the machines were producing inferior goods. Design and technical schools, associations and trade magazines were all a response to this.

Another question was in relation to function and form. If one was at a loss as to what a town hall should look like, or a bank, there was always the Greek or Roman temple to copy, or a Renaissance palace. But what should a railway station or an urban transport system, or large office block or large factory complex look like? There were no precedents.

The huge increases in population, particularly towards the latter part of the nineteenth century would have made it impossible for hand-craft workers to keep up with demand. There were simply too many people needing chairs and tables and other household items. What should mass produced versions of these objects look like?

From what I understand (more reading is required) Ruskin and Morris effectively ignored or refused to be drawn into these questions. Ruskin writes eloquently of the impact of industrialisation and Morris devoted huge amounts of labour to weaving and dyeing techniques. But the questions would not go away. This is what the new generation of artists and designers and architects tried to answer. One of the centres was the Bauhaus which was first created in Weimar until right wing political opposition (much of it ‘manufactured scandal’) forced it to move in 1925.

This was around the time that the mass house building programme in Germany really began. It was not only about mass house building but also, particularly in Frankfurt, a whole movement within the city (supported by the Mayor Ludwig Landmann) which was based on a coherent overall plan to provide good quality housing which could be afforded by the working class, which had light and with good access to green space, services and amenities. Even today it compares well with what is currently produced. In the 1920s it was an extraordinary achievement in contrast to the slums of central Frankfurt where the first tenants came from.

Mass production and design came together, but so too did social and political values. It was an attempt to represent a new, modern age. A deliberate break with a past which had produced a super wealthy aristocratic court living in suffocating luxury while whole families lived in one single, damp, vermin infested room. A past in which democratic political freedoms were severely limited while a few unelected monarchs and officials made immense decisions without responsibility or accountability. A break with a past which had sucked most of Europe into the carnage and mass murder of the First World War.

There is still much to be learned from the experience in Germany. Not just in terms of the art and design and the type of housing. But also in how the finances were managed and the land use planned. Over 70 percent of the housing built was through public funds, some of which was raised by taxing the rich, taxing the landlords and introducing controls on how private capital was used.

Further manufactured scandals were created by the far-right. Some of those who were taxed, and some of the owners of private capital who were prevented from making profits out of slums became part of the base which supported fascism.

There is something there to be learned too, in terms of politics.

The housing below is from Rӧmerstadt and Praunheim in Frankfurt am Main.

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