University of Massachusetts Amherst

From the SelectedWorks of John R. Mullin

February, 1975

German City Planning in the 1920's: A North American Perspective of the Frankfurt Experience John Mullin, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Available at: https://works.bepress.com/john_mullin/69/

German City Planning in the 1920’s: A North American Perspective of the Frankfurt Experience

John R. Mullin, MCP, MSBA


German city planning has been characterized in most of the Twentieth Century by such words as “authoritarian”, “militaristic”, “megalomania” and “teutonic”. These words accurately describe attributes considered characteristic of the Bismarck-Wilhelmian years (1871-1918) and the years of the Third Reich (1933-1945). Yet, for a brief interlude, between these two eras, during the period of the Weimar Government (1919-1933), the nation underwent an intellectual and spiritual catharsis which rejected the above attributes. New concepts and approaches towards architecture, urban design, and planning flourished. Many of these have had a lasting impact upon the western world.

Nowhere were these new ideas so readily accepted as in the city of Frankfurt am Main. Years of neglect due to war and economic crises, coupled with the strong support of the administration and citizenry, had helped to create an atmosphere which was highly conducive to radical planning measures. The plans that were created were indeed unique and, according to Giedeon and Mumford, the program was of such high quality that the results were among the world’s best during this period. 1 A natural question occurs upon review of this experience: Why did this happen in Frankfurt? This paper endeavors to answer this question by reviewing and analyzing the planning tradition, the social, governmental and cultural setting, and the application of the new planning concepts.


Long before the 1920’s, Frankfurt had an effective tradition of city planning. With home rule powers resulting from the Stein Reforms of 1808, 2 a strong city-state foundation, 3 the Prussian Lines Act of 1875, 4 and Laws against the Disfigurement of Landscape (1902) and Buildings (1904), 5 the city leaders were able to plan for its needs. For example, the one major flaw in national planning legislation at the turn of the century – a lack of comprehensive expropriation powers – was first overcome in Frankfurt

1 Sigfried Giedion, Space Time and Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 5 th ed., 1967), p. 793, and: Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, 1970), photo caption before p. 454. 2 Named after Karl Frieherr vom Stein (1757-1831), the reforms included social, economic, administrative, educational and military elements. Perhaps the most important proposals were those that called for the emancipation of the Prussian peasantry and that established a system of municipal self-government with the participation of the citizens of the town (See Seeley, John R. The Life and Times of Stein . Cambridge: 1878, 3 vols.). 3 Prior to 1866, several cities were, in essence, “independent city-states”. Among these were the cities of the Hanseatic League and Frankfurt. 4 Officially called the Gesetz betreffend die Anlegung und Veraenderung von Strassen und Plaetzen in Staedten und Laendlichen Ortschaften vom 2 July 1875 , a description of it can be found in Michael Hugo-Brunt, The History of City Planning (Montreal, Harvest House, 1972), p. 234. 5 Officially called the Preussisches Gesetz Gegen die Verunstaltung Landschaftlich Hervooragender Gegenden vom 2 Juni, 1902 and the Preussisches Gesetz Gegen die Verunstaltung von Ortschaften in Landschaftlich Hervorragenden Gegender vom 15 July, 1907 , descriptions can be found in Sidney Cohn, Practice of Architectural Control in Northern Europe (Chapel Hill University of North Carolina, 1968), p. 86. through the creation of the famed Lex Adickes (1902). 6 This law enabled Frankfurt to expropriate property for development purposes, to retain 40% of it for municipal use, and to resell the property to the former owners. 7 At the same time as the development of the Lex Adickes, Frankfurt was in the midst of physical expansion. An entire new quarter of the city was developed, 8 a new harbor was constructed, 9 and over ten communities were annexed. 10 The Frankfurt pre-war experience was viewed with great respect by North American planners and reformers, including Dawson, 11 Foulke, 12 Burnham 13 and Olmstead. 14 However, as World War I approached, there appeared to be less and less praise. As Lasky wrote: “The kindly last century image of our ‘German cousins’ gave way to the bitter modern view of the incorrigible Teuton.” 15

World War I and its aftermath inflicted grave hardships upon the German city. Nowhere was this more evident than in the non-availability of housing. 16 Factors such as overcrowding caused by compulsory military billeting, the influx of German citizens from the captured German colonies, speculation, reparations, inflation, lack of manpower, and a shortage of supplies were all contributory. 17 Towards the end of the war (1918), the Wilhelmian government endeavored to improve the housing crisis by passing a law which declared that housing was henceforth a “public utility”. 18 The pressures of speculation were thus removed and housing construction could begin anew. This law prevented the crisis from increasing in intensity. Based upon the principle of “the right of every citizen to a sound dwelling within his means,” 19 the law greatly facilitated the development of building cooperatives which, with funding assistance, were to begin constructing new housing immediately. The collapse of the Wilhelmian Empire occurred not long after the law was drafted. It thus did not have a widespread effect on relieving the housing shortage. However, the planning programs and planning legislation undertaken at both state and local level throughout the Wilhelmian years were quite important in the new era. Most laws remained in effect and the traditions and attitudes towards planning changed little.

6 “Lex Adickes” can be translated as “Lex” meaning law and “Adickes” being the mayor of Frankfurt. It was named in honor of Mayor Adickes because of his persistent efforts in obtaining comprehensive planning assistance from the Prussian Government. 7 R.W. Bryant, Land, Private Property, Public Control (Montreal: Harvest House, 1972), p. 203. 8 Erhard Weiss, Neue Stadtteile. Ruckblick und Ausblick (Frankfurt: Europaische Verlaganstalt, 1966), p. 18. 9 Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968, first published in 1913), pp. 196-198. 10 Gerhard Stoeber, Struktur und Function der Frankfurter City: Eine Okologische Analyse der Stadtmitte (Frankfurt: Europaische Verlaganstalt, 1964), p. 202. 11 W.H. Dawson, The Evolution of Modern (London: Unwin, no date given), pp. 73-75. 12 William D. Foulke. “A German City Worthy of Emulation,” American City , vol. 6, no. 1 (January, 1912), pp. 412- 419. 13 Charles Moore. Daniel H. Burnham: Architect, Planner of Cities (New York De Capo Press, 1968 (first published 1921), vol. 1, p. 154. 14 Frederick Law Olmstead, “Methods of Taxation of Land and Municipal Ownership in Continental Countries,” Proceedings of the First National Conference on City Planning, 1909 (: American Society of Planning Officials, 1967), p. 41. 15 Melvin J. Lasky, “Germany,” Encounter , vol. xxii, no. 4, April, 1964), p. 1. 16 Albrecht Batholdy, The War and German Society (New York: Howard Fertig, 1937), p. 142. 17 Walter C. Behrendt, Modern Building (New York: Harcout, Brace and Co., 1937), p. 201. 18 See Albert Gut, Der Wohnungsbau in Deutschland nach dem Weltkriege (Munich: F. Bruckmann Verlag, 1928). 19 Barbara M. Lane, Architecture and Politics in Germany 1918-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 88. The end of the war brought revolution, financial instability, reparations and the Allied Occupation. 20 Little planning was accomplished. Yet a new spirit had developed. It was a time when the “outsider became insider,” 21 and technics reigned supreme.

Housing shortages, more than any of the many others, were not only compounded by the very serious inflation (1923), but also by a rigid system of nationally imposed rent controls. Private incentives to build were absent. The crisis prompted one director of a municipal housing commission to issue the following warning with some degree of levity:

“Don’t get married! If you do, you will be forced to live with in-laws. You know

what that means. There is no such thing as a ‘home of your own.’ The commission

cannot promise you a place to live alone for eight to ten years.” 22

It was not until 1924, when the Weimar Government enabled local governments to impose a fifteen percent tax on present dwellings, that the housing program, as envisioned in the pre-Weimar “Right to a Sound Dwelling Law”, became operational.

Frankfurt and the Post-War Setting

The first city in Germany to undertake large-scale development under the new financing arrangement was Frankfurt. Two key personnel changes made this possible. They involved the selection of Ludwig Landmann as the new mayor, and his appointment of the architect/planner Ernst May. As a Social Democrat, Landmann was an enthusiastic reformer concerned with public welfare, and, as well, an advocate of large-scale city planning.

Landmann then selected Ernst May as his Director of Municipal Construction. This appointment was to have a lasting effect on the city for he re-designed the total city fabric. Since medieval times, only the destruction of the city walls by Napoleon’s troops had a greater impact than May’s upon the city’s physical development and form.

Ernst May

Prior to coming to Frankfurt, May was responsible for the development of public housing in Silesia and, more importantly, worked with Sir Raymond Unwin on the development of the new English Garden City of Hempstead. He was a member of the Deutsche Werkbund and Der Ring , two prominent architectural organizations which espoused the creation of a totally new approach to design. These groups saw their roles in the context of an amalgamation of “… art and technology performed in a spirit of social concern which would bring forth a new aesthetic.” 23 May explained his philosophy in light of this new aesthetic as follows: “Our new era must create new forms for both its inner and its outer life …

20 See David Felix, Walter Rathenau and the (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971). 21 See Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). 22 Germany’s Housing Needs,” Housing Betterment , vol. 15 (May, 1927), p. 46. 23 Wolf von Eckardt, A Place to Live (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1969), p. 5. and this new style must find its first concrete expression in city planning and in housing.” 24 He viewed his assignment as going far beyond the actual planning and development of the physical city. The city plan was to be the agent for creating a new social milieu. Planning was not to reflect the existing attitudes of the citizenry, but was to introduce them to a “new era”. By focusing upon the housing “element”, he hoped to introduce this new concept in man’s most personal environment: the home. It was an attempt to create a new Wohnkultur (concept of living). 25

Unlike North American planners, German planners were not expected to take into consideration the tastes and desires of the citizenry. The German official thought of himself as being a well-trained professional. He knew what was best for the citizenry. 26 This point was noted among North American planners as early as 1915, and was considered as being a major asset in undertaking successful planning! 27 Also, as Toll points out, “In a culture like Germany’s, public controls tended to beget obedience.” 28 May was given broad-sweeping powers. He was responsible for all municipal building projects, the preparation of the city master plan, the granting of building loans, the control of the building police staff, and even the granting of sign permits. He also was an accomplished salesman, as he edited a new magazine called Das Neue Frankfurt which gave substantial coverage and explanation of the new architecture and planning in Frankfurt. 29

The Survey

One of May’s first major tasks upon coming to Frankfurt was to undertake a survey of the housing stock in the city and the available sites for development. This survey was in response to the Weimar government’s authorization for local communities to undertake independent measures to overcome their own individual housing shortages through whatever means possible. The Weimar government also enabled the cities to impose the fifteen percent rent tax (Hauszinsteuer ). This provided a great incentive, for it meant that the cities now had the availability of necessary funds. The decentralization of formerly national powers and the resulting responsibility that was placed on the cities were overwhelming. Most cities were totally unprepared to undertake planning on such a large scale and were timorous in approaching the problem.30 The apprehension of other communities was not found in Frankfurt. It was recognized by the local city planners that through this shift in responsibility ” … the one and only opportunity had arrived for the setting in motion of town planning schemes on a large scale and for the construction of large scale residential colonies on modern lines in

24 Lane, p. 90. 25 The idea behind the concept of “Wohnkultur” centered upon the use of architecture and planning as a vehicle for changing society’s values. As late as 1968 German planners were still discussing the merits of such a concept. See Hans Bahrdt, Humaner Stadtbau (Hamburg: Wegner Verlag, 1968), p. 45. 26 Charles M. Robinson, Modern Civic Art (New York: Arno Press, 1970, first published in 1918), p. 22. 27 A.L. Brockway, “Discussion on City Planning in Europe,” Proceedings of the Seventh National Conference on City Planning (Cambridge: University Press, 1915), p. 164. 28 Seymour Toll, Zoned America (New York: Grossman Inc., 1969), p. 131. 29 Curt R. Vincentz, “Bausunden und Baugeldvergeudeng,” Flugschrift, 1931-1933 , as found in Anna Teut, Architektur im Dritten Reich 1933-1945 (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1967), pp. 55-56. 30 Wohnungswesen in der Schweiz (Frankfurt: Verbandes fur Wohnungwesen, 1931), p. 69. accordance with uniform city planning.” 31 The survey showed that the demand for sanitary housing had increased overwhelmingly as a result of the lack of building during the war, burdensome rent controls, the inflation crisis, and the population increases via natural growth and immigration. It also revealed that the only areas available for large scale immediate development were located in open areas on the city’s fringes, and that the type of housing in existence was being under-utilized. For example, there was virtually no housing available that would fit the direct needs of the two-person family. Thus, these people were forced to pay rent for apartments physically larger than their needs and, on a square meter basis, more costly than they would have preferred to pay. By building units which were tailored expressly for the two person family at comparable square meter costs, these people would move to the new housing and thus release the other units to those in greater need of them. Cognizance of this need resulted in nearly one-half of all new units being designed for the smallest family.

Key Factors in the Development of the Plan

From the research undertaken by the Frankfurt planners, it became quite obvious that in order to construct housing as quickly as possible it would be necessary to build on the fringe. This implied that decentralization of a heavily congested core could begin, that residential areas would be separated from commercial and industrial sectors, and that transportation networks would not add further burdens to already active areas. It also meant that total costs could be minimized. The idea of decentralized building on the fringe was a novel approach in Frankfurt. Prior to May’s arrival, new sections of the city were built immediately adjacent to the most recent preceding development without provisions for greenery or open space. This housing was typically “hollow-squared” with no availability for air-flow and minimal hours of sunlight. It also reflected the same high density as adjacent units.

Once a determination of decentralized sites was reached, the actual location of the particular projects was not difficult. To the east and west of the city’s center were Frankfurt’s sprawling industrial complexes. To the south, only limited sites were available because the famed Stadtwald (town forest) blocked sprawl. The only large scale open plots available were to the north-west in the direction of the Taunus Mountains. Almost half a century later this is still the major directional growth!

The key to success for the Frankfurt planners was the transportation network. Any development on the fringe would have to be connected to the Strassenbahn (street car system), for only then could the residents of these new settlements be integrated into the existing industrial-commercial- recreational fabric. Further ties would have to be made with the highway system. The cost factor was particularly critical, for all dwellings were to be municipally funded from inception to implementation. The availability and use of cheap land, standardized designs, and municipal contractors were critical. The complicated procedure of buying open land through expropriation and through the real estate market had three favorable results: existing housing stock was not diminished by demolition while construction was being undertaken, the costs of acquisition were far less than for built-up land, and the opportunity for large-scale development “packages” was present.

31 Wohnungswesen , p. 70. By integrating the factors of economy, decentralization, access and large-scale development with the desire to create a new “Wohnkultur”, the foundation of the Frankfurt Planning Program was formed.

The Plan

A ten year housing program was developed in 1925 with both immediate development projects and long-range proposals. Within one year of the start of the program, 2,200 units were developed while only 1,200 were anticipated. Within two years of the start, an additional 3,000 were developed while only an additional 1,400 were expected. By 1933, the program had resulted in more than 15,000 new units divided among fifteen separate sites. This figure represents 90% of all housing units built in the city between 1926 and 1933. 32

The principles which were determined as a result of the survey were employed in the development program. All sites were decentralized, built of standardized construction using standardized designs, and integrated into the city fabric by highway and mass transit systems. “Garden City” types of settings were used as sites. Facilities for habitation, shopping, schools, community activities, gardening, and recreation were provided. However, fewer than 20% of the residents could be employed within the projects themselves. These projects could not be considered as being “garden cities” in the British use of the term, 33 because they were tied economically to the parent city. One can perhaps more clearly note the relationship between the new projects and the center city by May’s reference to them as “daughter towns.” 34

The First Projects

The first developments built by May were, indeed, radically different from those which had ever been built in Frankfurt. Called the “Bruchfeldstrasse” and the “Hoehenblick”, they were flat-roofed and bare-faced. Windows were placed without regimentation, and a three-color paint scheme was employed. The site planning provided for allotment gardens adjacent to the units and the development of a “U”-shaped courtyard with housing placed on the external fringe. The most visible structure was a community center which was intended to be both the key design feature and the social focus of the developments. Most of these features were employed in all of May’s works.

May intended that each of the small communities would be separated from the city proper and from each other by parks and cultivated fields. However, this concept was not fully implemented as the projects were placed on sites too close to built-up areas. This mitigated against any feeling of “community” or uniqueness from the city and precluded any inter-project relationships. 35 The only area where the scale was large enough to develop a separate identity and where there was minimal

32 See Ernst May, “Housing Policy of Frankfurt am Main.” A Lecture, January 12, 1929. Proceedings of the International Housing Association (Frankfurt, 1929). 33 C.B. Purdom, The Building of Satellite Towns (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1949), p. 486. 34 May, p. 9. 35 Lane, p. 96. interference from the existing city fabric were the contiguous “Praunheim”, “Roemerstadt”, and “Westhausen” settlements.

The Roemerstadt

The Roemerstadt was located in the north-west section of the city in the Nidda River Valley. The land was swampy and, thus, was neither prime farmland nor dry enough to build inexpensive private homes on the open market. However, the city was able to acquire it by expropriation and begin preparation for development without obstacles. Like Bruchfeldstrasse and Hoehenblick, the settlement was designed to provide low-density suburban living in a natural setting. Architectural features such as the flat roof, irregular window pattern, and brightly-painted exteriors were similar to the earlier projects.

One of the key features of the site planning was the inclusion of the allotment gardens. The desire of every urban German to “cultivate” a piece of land has been a strong tradition since industrialization took them from their farms. Wherever open spaces existed within large cities, one could note that the land had been divided into small plots. By placing these plots adjacent to individual units, the planners created a positive input toward the creation of “community.” 36 The gardens also insured that the greenbelt surroundings of the site would continue to exist; and they provided a practical means for each family to contribute to its own food supply. After the Third Reich gained power and was endeavoring to establish a national land policy, the allotment garden was considered an essential part in all housing proposals. Indeed, Hermann Rauschnig went so far as to give it the highest of priorities: “One of the most elementary needs for the pacification of the German people is to enable everyone as nearly as possible, to have a house and garden to live in. This is simply indispensable for the spiritual balance of the Germans and would give them better guarantees for the future than all the political frontier demarcations and sanctions.” 37

Site Considerations

The Roemerstadt site planning provided a variety of settings for housing. Some faced main streets, others faced neighborhood streets, and still more were placed perpendicular to the street. Although the siting did not provide for long-range vistas for all the structures, most were able to view the Taunus Mountains in the distance. In all cases, however, at least one side of the unit was adjacent to greenery. It was during this time period that German planners were moving away from the massive “hollow square” design of the pre-war years with its airless, sunless spaces toward smaller blocks which allowed some air and light. Ultimately they achieved the Zeilenbau , or superblock, which gave a free flow of air and hours of sunlight. Much of the credit for the transition belongs to Ludwig Hilberseimer, who urged the change in his writings while working for the .38 May’s work reflects the ideas of Hilberseimer, particularly in his later projects. For example, Praunheim, the first section of the

36 Talbot Hamlin, Form and Function of Twentieth Century Architecture (New York: Columbia University, 1952) vol. 4, p. 793. 37 Hermann Rauschnig, The Conservative Revolution (New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 1941), p. 138. 38 Franz Roh, German Art in the Twentieth Century (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1968), p. 385. Roemerstadt to be built, made maximum use of open space by placing the low-profiled dwellings on each side of the street. The result was that the center of each block was a wide tubular expanse of greenery. Provision for maximum sunlight in selected rooms was not a major design consideration. Later sections of the Roemerstadt included the wide expanse of greenery and also the design inputs of maximum winter and spring sunlight. Based on Frankfurt’s microgeographic site, it was determined that housing should be placed in a row from north-north-west to south-south-east. Called “heliotropic housing,” 39 this innovation soon became commonplace in the siting of housing throughout Germany. One can note, as the work progressed in Frankfurt, how the siting of housing became increasingly sophisticated. The design of housing changed from the massive hollow square, to the segmented sub- square, to row housing on the street, to ginger housing perpendicular to the street, and finally, to finger housing perpendicular to the street based on heliotropic principles. Most of these changes occurred in less than ten years!


The most controversial aspect of the entire development program centered upon the architectural design. May, a member of the Der Ring , was a believer in the principles of Bauhaus design. He incorporated the goals and objectives of these modernists in his program in Frankfurt and hired other architects with similar views to design the individual projects. The results of their work represented the first widespread application of the new concepts in reference to the architectural design, site planning and settlement philosophy. 40

Within the parameters of an extremely low budget 41 and a short time period in which to build the units, May turned to standardization to find the key to success. In this regard, he was following the urging of Herman Muthesius and the Deutsche Werkbund. 42 In discussing the fact that people have approximately identical wants, incomes and spatial requirements, May commented: “Would it not just be wasting the national fortune to act differently, to draw up plans for every small habitation, to make separate calculation for quantities, to buy the material according to separate estimates, and to carry out separate architectural plans for each individual case? 43 Few could debate this statement in a philosophical sense. However, in terms of application, the position is open to question, for there is a great desire for variety in housing concerning the shape, form, size and setting. Perhaps a more crucial question would have been: Is it desirable for people to live in standardized housing units? Even today, over forty-five years later, the “proper” role of standardized housing is still undefined. However, May does state, by way of comparison, that: “The same people who in their workshop or factory are striving after the elimination of the slightest chance of idle running with a view toward obtaining a maximum of output with a minimum of effort, think they cannot follow that economic principle in the field of

39 Catherine Bauer, Modern Housing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), p. 182. 40 For a summary of these principles, see Walter Gropius, “Principles of Bauhaus Production” in Ulrich Conrads, Programs and Manifestos on 20 th Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), pp. 95-97. 41 A smaller application was used by in his Siedlung Italienischer Garten in the city of Celle (1923). 42 May, p. 3. 43 “Muthesius/van de Velde: Werkbund theses and anti-theses” in Conrads, pp. 28-31. housing.” 44 If one views housing in a utilitarian sense, May’s views have a degree of merit. However, is not housing different from the factory? Is there no room for whimsy, oddity or uniqueness in house design and construction? May thought not: “We hold that the collective element, which is so strong in the life of modern mankind, in work, sports and politics, must logically be reflected also in housing.” 45

The End of the Interlude


The impact of the Frankfurt housing program upon other cities was noted within two years of the program’s beginning. In some cities, the influence was merely reflected in the absence of ornamentation upon facades while in others, like Celle, Dessau, and Berlin, the experimentation was equal to that of Frankfurt. One reason for the fast response to the new designs was the adroitness of the architects and planners involved in the new concepts to obtain financial grants and to publicize their own efforts. Indeed, May’s Praunheim project received a large grant for its experimental nature from a special agency called the Reichsforschungsellschaft fur Wirtschaftlichkt im Bau und Wohnungswesen (RFG) as did the Weisenhof Colony with its structures by, among others, Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The RFG also published several works by the above designers which, coupled with the writings and magazines published by Taut, May, Gropius, Mies, Mendelsohn, Haring and the Werkbund ,46 resulted in a high profile image of the works and their designers. The intellectual and artistic discussions centering upon the merits and demerits of the culture raged across the country and resulted in widespread attention from the National Socialist’s propagandists. However, by 1930, “ … the new style was regarded as a kind of national accomplishment; in its travel guides the national railroad urged foreign tourists to visit the Bauhaus buildings, and when radical architects held exhibitions abroad, the German press held their work as a national triumph for German culture.” 47

National Socialist Views

With the rise of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) came the first vitriolic outbursts against the proponents of the new Wohnkultur . The flat roof design, prefabrication, standardized sections, and the principle of “economical building methods” were most often attacked on the grounds that the structures represented impermanence, were shoddily constructed and were constructed of untried materials. The flat roof became a symbol of all which the NSDAP considered wrong with the new culture. It represented to them a decline in the artisanship of the housing industry. It was faddish and, perhaps most importantly, was considered to be foreign.

May’s work at Prauheim was called impractical and each construction failure, however slight, was reported with fanfare. 48 His housing designs, it was written in the Munchener Zeitung , were

44 May, p. 20. 45 May, p. 10. 46 May, p. 10. 47 Lane, p. 125. 48 Lane, p. 128. “intended for geometric animals” and were built as part of a “bolshevist conspiracy.” 49 At a meeting of the National Committee on Cities of the Deutsche Nationale Volkspartei , Herman Schluckebier, in a keynote speech, described May’s housing as a product of a “Socialist Utopia” where “there are no more family dwellings. Married couples are to keep house in a sort of hotel with a great central kitchen. The children are to be entered and educated in institutions.” 50 With the increased power of the NSDAP in Frankfurt, the May-Landmann program ceased. Landmann was replaced as Mayor, and May first moved to Russia and then to Kenya. With the establishment of the Third Reich, the major members of the Bauhaus and other “radical” architects moved from Germany and brought this artistic interlude to an end.


Although the Frankfurt program was not fully implemented, there is much to be gained from an analysis of the approach and intentions of the plan and planners. Indeed, one little-known fact is that the plan was a key contributor to the formation of the Athens Charter of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). 51 This charter was one of the first attempts in an international forum to determine the functions of city planning which were concerned with the work place, housing, recreation and culture, and transportation networks. 52

It was because of the uniqueness of the Frankfurt experience that the city was selected as the site for the CIAM congress on “Dwellings for the Lowest Incomes.” 53 After reviewing the work of May and others, a report was prepared which was considered to be a revolutionary approach to the problem of contemporary housing. 54 This report, plus one written a year later at the Brussels conference of CIAM, where Gropius presented an analysis of the German experience relating housing to town- planning, were the two key background reports preceding the creation of the Charter. The influence of the Charter on the functions of city-planning lasted for over twenty years. 55

Expectations, Values and Icons

Of all the elements involved in the planning process, the sensitivity of the planners in terms of expectations, values and icons of the people is quite notable. The overwhelming need of that period was for shelter. Given this problem, the planners, without creating “rising expectations” or developing “Burnhamesque statements,” 56 endeavored to create new housing within the limit of resources at hand. There is a grave tendency among planners to propose more than they can ever possibly achieve. This

49 Lane, pp. 134-135. 50 Lane, p. 143. 51 Lane, p. 143. 52 Oscar Newnam, CIAM 1959 in Otterlo (London: Alec Tisanti, 1961), p. 11. 53 For an analysis of these findings see Jose Luis Sert, Can Our Cities Survive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944). 54 See Gerd Albers “West Germany” in Arnold Whittick, ed. Encyclopedia of Urban Planning (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 1974), p. 468. 55 See Ernst May, “The Dwellings for the Living Income Earner” in Dwellings for the Lowest Income edited by the International Congress for New Building (Stuttgart: Julius Hoffman Verlag, 1933), pp. 29-31. 56 Reyner Banham. The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966), p. 70 ff. creates rising expectations among their clients and, at times, when the planner realizes the proposals cannot be met, contributes to the negative image of the planner. The Frankfurt planners deserve credit for placing their program in a context which was “realistic” in an implementation sense, while endeavoring in a “spiritual” sense to contribute to the new order of the time.

At this time, when many planners are increasingly questioning their roles in terms of leadership and the determination of values, there appears to be a loss of common direction in the community as a whole. This was not the case in the Frankfurt experience. Indeed, the planners were serving as agents advocating change in community values. Several reasons can be noted why this approach existed. First was the fact that the city planner in Germany was viewed as a professional who could best determine the needs of community. Secondly, the planners through the survey did determine what the people required. Thirdly, they endeavored to sell their product through such periodicals as Das Neue Frankfurt (which May edited). Given these conditions and given that the government does meet the needs of the citizen, is there a need for participation? Perhaps not. This need has become prominent owing to the inability of government to know what is best for its people, both collectively and in sub-groups, and because of its inability to meet the performance standards set by the citizen and its ineffectiveness in operation. Even though the German citizen has a strong tradition of subservience to government officials, one can still argue that an effective government and an effective planning program which meets the needs of the peoples will, by these factors alone, greatly reduce the alienation and fragmentation of the people, and, consequently, will remove the need for the constant, active voice of the citizen. Frankfurt was one example where the need was not present.

With a “throw away” attitude in our cities today and the lack of uniqueness in our urban environments, there is little regard for community icons. This lack of concern is a shortcoming among today’s planners, which must be overcome, particularly in settings which have a strong community tradition and mythology. The Frankfurt planners sensitized themselves to the community icons. This deserves praise. For example, any attempt to undertake urban renewal in the central city would have met with major resistance from the citizens. As is known, Frankfurt’s center city was one of the most complete centers of mediaeval structures in existence. Regardless of the inefficiency, health menace, overcrowding and poor traffic network, this area could not possibly have been changed in a visual sense, for it was considered “sacred” by the people. Its monuments, churches, meeting halls and shops created a sense of community and a semblance of order (one knew where one was) in the citizenry. As Nash has stated: “A citizen of Frankfurt wants to see the Hauptwache each day to reassure himself that this icon is still there.” 57 The Hausfrau is thus able to sense that the turf still belongs to her as part of the commonwealth, and a degree of comfort ensues. Frankfurt chose to build elsewhere for the above reasons, among others. In fact, other “icons” such as sunlight, green spaces, gardens, privacy and natural vistas were all noted and included in the planning programs.

Identification of Critical Factors

57 Based on Daniel H. Burnham’s call to planners to “make no little plans …” In every planning program, there are critical factors which represent formidable obstacles to be overcome. The Frankfurt planners, upon undertaking the survey, isolated these factors: the cost of the unit to the consumer, the availability of land, and the formation of the settlements in terms of design and site planning.

It was realized that the “working man” was the person most in need of new housing. It was also noted that because inflation eliminated the savings of this person and because there was a limited supply of housing available to him, he could not possibly afford to obtain new housing without subsidy. To this end, approximately 15,000 units were built. Few North American planners can point to a similar undertaking in which they were responsible for the determination of needs and of inhabitants, the planning criteria, the detailed design work, and the construction.

Perhaps one can explain this by the fact that, in Germany, city planners were called Stadtbauer ,58 that is, “city builders.” Indicative in the term is an orientation of total involvement from inception to implementation. Given the free market capitalist system with its strict controls on what governments can undertake in North America, the advocacy of such an approach would most likely result in chaos and protest. However, one is fully aware that the end results in Frankfurt were in the best interest of city and citizen and met the important criteria of economy.

The second critical factor was the scarcity of land. Densities in Germany then and now far, on the whole, outstrip those of the United States and Canada. Urban areas are quite compact and open space available for building is virtually non-existent. Frankfurt solved its problem by purchasing land both outside the city limits and on its fringe. Further, in an area where farmland is critical, the planners selected sites which, for the most part, were not suitable for agricultural purposes. The Frankfurt experience was notable in this instance because of the powers of the city to purchase land both through direct real estate dealings and the more time-consuming eminent domain (expropriation) proceedings.

The form of the community represented the third critical factor. The Frankfurt planners deserve both praise and criticism for their results. Every conceivable need and requirement was included in the development of the plan. Schools, shops, meeting areas, recreation space and gardens were included. Auto, bus, train and pedestrian traffic needs were provided. Work areas were noted and made easily accessible. Yet spontaneity, the unplanned, and the “spin-off” were not present. To a degree, the planners had “overdone” their job, for they left little to individual or collective imagination. The same errors were later committed by the English new town planners as they ignored the spontaneous, the unplanned and the parasitic.

Housing should be considered as the haven of the individual and a place of complete privacy (if so desired). Within this haven and its immediate surroundings, the dweller must find meaning for his acts and existence. In a planned area that is totally assembled and formed, the search for individual meaning becomes all the more difficult, for individual initiatives and preferences are hindered. We must be able to achieve a sense of well-being just by being physically located in a settlement. Planners must be cognizant of this requirement and, while planning for the collective good, must consider the

58 Interview with Peter H. Nash, October 9, 1973. individual “personal” good. The Frankfurt planners did not consider the needs of the individual to a necessary extent.

Humanism in Mechanical Technique

The importance of the lowest possible price per unit in the Frankfurt housing experience has already been noted, as has the fact of standardization. A point must be made which relates these two points to the spirit of modern planning, for, by implementing the projects within the guideline of economy and the technique of prefabrication, the planners bridged the gap between the spirit of the machine and its application. It is common knowledge that the radical architects saw their work in terms of the industrialization of buildings. In fact, Zlatko Newman, for example, writing in Der Sturm (1927), stated that the modern house is a “machine”. “This clear purpose is the reason behind modern architecture.” 59 However, one rarely found an application which involved both industrialization as technique and the house designated as a machine. Frankfurt was the exception. Capturing the spirit and refining the techniques, the Frankfurt planners created what was the first widespread application of this process. Few cities in North America as a public enterprise have been able to undertake such an involved program even to date. In fact, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, as late as 1969, through its “Operation Breakthrough” Program, was still endeavoring to find techniques of standardized housing based on modern requirements which could accomplish the same sort of success as occurred in Frankfurt.

There is a thin line between the creation of totally new communities, geographically separated from the remainder of the city, and developments which can be viewed as appendages or logical extensions. It is known that May through his plans was endeavoring to establish a new “cultural spirit” which would be derived in large part from the radical architecture of the new developments and, to a lesser degree, as a result of the geographic isolation. Although some of the concepts could be readily accepted, the idea that a culture of community could be created entirely different from its neighbors merely because of a new form of architecture and geographic separation is questionable. This was particularly true in Frankfurt where the transportation links to the center city, older neighborhoods and work areas were in existence. A mixture would have been necessary.

One of May’s key roles was essentially that of a social reformer whose goal was to change the life style of his clientele. In this regard he must be considered an anachronism. What practicing planners could independently undertake such a comprehensive task today? The duties of most planners are so carefully defined that no one man or office could have the powers that were May’s. Smithson, a member of Team Ten, supports this notion: “The planner is no longer the social reformer but a technician in the field who cannot rely on community centers, communal laundries, community rooms, etc., to camouflage the fact that the settlement as a whole is incomprehensible.” 60 There was also a Utopian streak in the planners influenced by the Bauhaus which can be extracted from their writings.

Smithson supports this view as well:

59 Von Eckardt, p. 13. 60 Zlatko Neumann, “Das Kleinhaus” Der Sturm , vol. 18 no. 1 (1927-1928), p. 1. “If you think back to the pioneer days of modern architecture you will see that the

Hilberseimer’s and the Le Corbusier’s and the Gropiuses were producing ideal towns

In the Renaissance sense, in the sense that their aesthetic was in fact the classical

Aesthetic, one of fixed formal organization.” 61

May’s attempt to establish a new culture in new communities surrounding an old city, at least in part, could be interpreted as a pursuit of this Utopian ideal. Although his endeavors fell far short of the ideal, one cannot discredit the results, for, in terms of planning as a professional field and academic discipline, the whole of the endeavor has created a much larger impact than any of the parts.


The work accomplished in Frankfurt represented the arrival of a new concept of city planning: which included the rejection of the street as an architectural element; the return to the ideals of light, air and greenery; and the functional simplicity of the structures and siting. The promise of Frankfurt was not met with any concerted long-range, large-scale application in other communities in Germany (except for Berlin). Within a few years after its implementation, the freedom of design and rights of community self-control were drastically curtailed by the coming of the Third Reich. The concepts of the Bauhaus and the Werkbund were not acceptable to the NSDAP government, and the holders of the “new” planning concepts soon left for other areas of the world where they could work without interference. Count Harry Kessler, after viewing the recreational life of Frankfurt and taking the French sculptor Maillol to Roemerstadt in 1928, wrote an entry into his diary which perhaps best summarizes the success and the promise of the Frankfurt experience in this period:

“Another example of this new feeling for life is the new architecture and the

new way of living. To show him what I meant I drove with him and Mlle.

Passavant to the Roemerstadt. Maillol was practically speechless with

astonishment. I explained to him once more that this architecture is simply

an expression of the same vitality which impels youngsters to practice sport

and nudity. It lends warmth in the same way as medieval buildings gained

such from the Catholic interpretation of life. This German architecture cannot

be understood unless it is visualized as part of an entirely new Weltanschauung.” 62

The new Weltanschauung , new Wohnkultur , new designs, and new spirit of “outsider as insider,” did not exist for more than five years after Count Kessler’s revealing experience. 63 The

61 Alison Smithson, ed. Team Ten Primer (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1968), p. 79. 62 Smithson, p. 85. 63 Count Harry Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), p. 347. centralizing controls of the Third Reich rejected the modern concepts, and life reverted to a Prussian-like atmosphere. Much was lost, little was gained, but a great deal should be remembered.