A lot of life in one person
von Thomas Edelmann | Aug 16, 2011

Not only the Wall that has come down is turning 50, so is the huge Bremen housing estate "Neue Vahr" – which still exists, however. It's not a slum, or some elaborate set of beds where the working class overnights, its population don't catch the eye for a below-average level of education, high unemployment rates or an extraordinary propensity to arson or vandalism. Nowhere else in Bremen is life more out in the green. "Fresh air, he thought, that's what they'd always told him, go outside and get some fresh air, but what you're actually supposed to do there, that none had told him," muses Frank Lehmann at the beginning of Sven Regener's novel "Neue Vahr Süd".

Heinrich Klotz, the founder of Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) coined the sweet term "constructionbusinessfunctionalism" to describe a form of apartment construction that focused more on quantity, on standardizing, on turning a fast profit short-term, than on quality. So what is quality in apartment construction? Architecture critics tend to feel it is common sense to consider Neue Vahr (with 10,000 apartments the single largest West German post-War housing estate) not so brilliant an achievement. In 1972, the Gesellschaft für Wohnungs- und Siedlungswesen (Association for Housing and Settlement) studied Neue Vahr and ascertained that "we must doubt whether close social ties or even community can be created among heterogeneous groups simply through the constructed facilities and structures, as if some 'social montage' were enough." Precisely that, however, was one of the goals of the architects and urban planners who sought to create a new cityspace in green surroundings by cleverly combining owner-occupied properties, blocks of flats arranged in rows, new greened and recreational areas, the "Berliner Freiheit" shopping center and good traffic connections for streetcars and autos. The plans for the estate were devised by Ernst May, Hans Bernhard Reichow, Max Säume and Günter Hafemann and the visual highlight was a 22-storey apartment block designed by Alvar Aalto. A current radio program termed Neue Vahr a "monstrous example of social housing construction".

One of the estate's creators saw things differently: Neue Vahr is so open, so leisurely, and above all the life of the inhabitants functions there so brilliantly," May declared in 1963 in an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel "that I absolutely affirm it." At the same time he accepted the criticism made of the small and fairly inflexible apartment footprints, citing as the reason the rigid subsidy guidelines in social housing construction. As early as 1955, the newspaper Hamburger Wochenblatt had featured urban planner May with his characteristic short fringe on its front cover.

Neue Vahr is one of the works May produced in his dotage – he is currently being honored by an exhibition that runs through November 6 at Deutsches Archiktekturmuseum in Frankfurt and is entitled "Ernst May (1886–1970) – New Cities on three Continents"; it commenced on July 27 to mark the 125th anniversary of May's birth. For the first time, thanks to the efforts of the museum and the curator, Claudia Quiring, we can thus enjoy an exhibition that documents Ernst May's oeuvre as a whole. The biographical and documentary show is structured to match stage sin his life. May grew up in Frankfurt as the son of an artistically and commercially gifted manufacturer of leather goods, and the themes in his life are thus explained in a far more vibrant manner than ever before thanks to countless loans, plans, photos, newly-produced models and early sketchbooks from his estate. May's development from someone interested in art to an disciple and then advocate of garden cities is traced across the individual stages of his life. There were the formative visits to England in 1908 and 1910, his days as a student of architecture in Munich, London and Darmstadt, his early activities as an architect in Frankfurt in the 1910s. During World War I, when from 1916 onwards he was commissioned to design and build war cemeteries in Russian Poland, Romania and France, he discovered his talents as an organizer, team leader and communicator in small and large task forces. May's work is characterized less by attention to architectural detail, and more by teamwork that covered a broad variety of themes in parallel. Between 1919 and 1925 he then worked for "Schlesische Heimstätte" and "Schlesische Landgesellschaft" (Silesian rural associations) in Wroclaw, where he started concerning himself with standardization and prototypes and where his team planned countless estates. In this regard, there are major exhibits from the Muzeum Architektury in Wroclaw on show as well as photos of the estates during their construction and today. It was here that May for the first time founded his own journal, called "Schlesisches Heim" (Silesian home), with a design by Hans Leistikow and which was far more than merely PR for the construction work. The leitmotifs in May's life were building his own house, founding a journal that emphasized both planning and social and cultural activities. As was working in his own garden, something that during his time in Africa led at times to his working as a farmer.

The exhibition on the ground floor of the DAM documents the early phases in his work, and the very late ones: the controversially interpreted period as an urban planner in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1933. "I consider my goal in life to be to participate in the rand task of helping to improve the lot of man, with the meager means available to me," he wrote on August 1, 1930 on the front page of the morning edition of the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. Buildings from May's longest creative period, namely from 1934 to 1953 in East Africa (as a farmer in Tanganjika, as a freelance architect and urban planner in Nairobi and Kampala), and likewise the late phase (head planner for West German housing estates and later, as of the 1950s, consultant to "Neue Heimat" until his death in 1970 in Hamburg) are on show here. The upper floor is dedicated in its entirety to the best-known and most innovative phase in his work, when May worked from 1925 till 1930 in his home town.

His largest exhibition is outdoors, has been open daily for over 80 years, and entrance is free: in an extremely short period between hyperinflation and the Great Depression, May and a team of over 50 architects designed a "wreath of new estates on the outskirts", as Walter Gropius once accurately described it. Depending on how you count, he developed between 12,000 and 15,000 apartments in about 23 newly built estates. A tangible contribution to overcoming the housing shortage. Looking back, May summarized things in 1963: "If in our time there has been a successful attempt to persuade a broad swath of the citizenry of a large city to participate more closely in public activities in all areas of culture then in Frankfurt at the end of the 1920s." He reported that people even fiercely debated urban planning issues while on the tram. What was more important was that the city as a whole was modernized. "New Frankfurt" was an urban planning program and also a public lab for Modernist experimenting. Literature and art, education, film, theater and radio: the journal "New Frankfurt" referenced all the conceivable aspects of urban life that related to issues of design or construction practices, not to mention cinema and dance. The estates on the edge of town arose not gradually, but simultaneously.

A broad coalition of social democrats, conservatives and liberals in the city supported him on the municipal council and during everyday controversies. Precisely the fact that the project cut across different municipal departments and meant reporting lines had to be ignored makes it seem very topical. On the one hand, "New Frankfurt" sought a commercial way to standardize apartment footprints, yet on the other the large number of architects involved and their different approaches to design meant that there was a great diversity of built solutions.

May worked with experts from outside Frankfurt, such as Viennese architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who later accompanied him to the Soviet Union after having created the space- and time-saving "Frankfurt Kitchen" that is on display in the exhibition. On May's behalf, Jena-based artist, graphic designer and curator Walter Dexel developed rules for efficient and well-designed neon ads as well as urban advertising and signage systems. That said, local architects such as Ferdinand Kramer, who won the 1925 competition by the city's company Hausrat GmbH and whose plywood unit furniture could be combined at will by inhabitants depending on their needs, played a decisive role in linking up design and architecture. Long before today's unpaid jobs for the unemployed, carpenters who were out of work produced Kramer's furniture in the "Unemployed Center".

However logical the exhibition's biographical format may seem, it does simplify May's oeuvre. That becomes clear the moment the beautiful architectures, plans, models and touching sketchbooks are juxtaposed to the purportedly formless late estates. Here, the urban planner's influence is reduced to strangely blandly appealing images. Viewing May primarily from the angle of art history does not do justice to the reality of the urban society that appropriated his buildings in many different ways. The question how social trends of the 1950s, for example, and above all current issues and controversies relating to how we tackle the built heritage of Modernism could be integrated into such a show invariably gets omitted. Does the impressive, coarse-grained black-and-white image of the high-density Kranichstein estate in Darmstadt, one of May's last efforts and to be found at the end of the show, correspond to the current perception of 1970s housing estates? The inhabitants half derogatorily, half proudly called the high-rises at the edge of the estate "dolomites". The photo was taken in 1970 and shows them standing in the midst of a construction site lunar landscape.

Anyone interested in these issues can simply turn to the vast body of literature on Ernst May and his plans and designs – it easily fills a whole library. The lavishly illustrated catalog with its comprehensive list of his works can be recommended here. An article by Wolfgang Pehnt on the image of man adopted by New Building opens up new horizons. David H. Haney explains how even May's green-belt planner Max Bromme and Leberecht Migge opted for controversial concepts. What the exhibition and catalog both fail to pay enough attention to is the aspect of how architecture and design permeate May's oeuvre as a glance at the editorial and design concepts for his journals and for the advertising media for his urban development projects shows. And there are a few annoying things, too. For example, Eckhard Herrel, Chairman of the Frankfurt Ernst Society, suggests in his otherwise instructive essay on May's own homes, that May's last house in Groß Flottbek in Hamburg has been torn down. Actually, it is still standing, albeit with an additional floor and a different color on the outside walls. An article on photography does not include May's own work in this field, something that is however marvelously presented in the exhibition with his impressive stereo-photos from his time in the Soviet Union. Why not? And the suggestion that in post-War Germany May played down his involvement in the Soviet Union is nonsense. For example, in 1961 the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt, hardly political suspect, reported that in 1930 May "was in charge of Russian residential planning per se." In a 1962 study of "The Future of Communist Society" by totalitarianism expert Walter Laquer, May contributed a chapter on "Cities of the Future" that is based on his memories of the 1930s and a 1959 visit to some of the estates he had planned in the Soviet Union.

Since Ernst May has always played a major role in German and international urban planning debates, and has been the subject of controversy, there is actually little new to discover that has not been touched on in an article somewhere or other. Yet the extensive original materials the DAM and the curator have assembled is definitely praiseworthy.

At the end of the day, many questions go unanswered, though: How can May's buildings be taken further? Are there important examples from all the phases of his life and work? Must we elide what we no longer like today? The inhabitants of many cheap estate buildings are now older than the average inhabitants of the rest of the city. How can we preserve the cheap living quarters? What is the relationship, or so an architecture museum could for example ask, between May's concept of satellite cities and construction today?

Ernst May (1886–1970). New Cities in Three Continents
From July 28 thru November 6, 2011
Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt

New books on the topic:

Ernst May 1886–1970
Edited by Claudia Quiring, Wolfgang Voigt, Peter Cachola Schmal and Eckhard Herrel
Hardcover, 336 pages, German / Englisch
Prestel, Munich, 2011
49,95 Euro

Neues Wohnen 1929/2009
Edited by Helen Barr
Softcover, 176 pages, German
Jovis, Berlin, 2011
29,80 Euro

Standardstädte – Ernst May in der Sowjetunion 1930–1933
Edited by Thomas Flierl
Softcover, 300 pages, German
Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2011
16,00 Euro

Estate Bruchfeldstraße, Frankfurt am Main, 1927 © Ernst May Gesellschaft
Estate Bruchfeldstraße, Frankfurt am Main, 1927 © Deutsches Kunstarchiv, Nürnberg
Estate Riederwald, 1929 © Historisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Estate Bornheimer Hang, Frankfurt am Main, 1929 © Ernst May Gesellschaft
Front part of the building in Hadrianstraße, estate Römerstadt, 1928 © Ernst May Gesellschaft
Estate Darmstadt-Kranichstein, 1970 © Darmstädter Echo
Estate Neisse in Silesia, 1920 © DAM
View from the May residential House, Frankfurt-Ginnheim, 1926 © Institut für Stadtgeschichte
Armchair by Ernst May from the Deutsche Baukalender, 1929
Ernst May in Ostafrika, 1937 © DAM
Competition-draft "Trabanten" in Breslau, together with Herbert Böhm, 1921, photo: Nancy Jehmlich
Ausstellungsansicht im DAM, Foto: Nancy Jehmlich
Exhibition-view, photo: Nancy Jehmlich
Estate Neu Vahr, Bremen, 1961 © Hamburgisches Architekturarchiv
Ernst May on the cover of the magazine Spiegel published on 4th May 1955
Urban district Neu-Altona in Hamburg, 1958, Sketch by Ernst May
Urban district Neu-Altona, Hamburg © Hamburgisches Architekturarchiv
Reprint of the cover of the magazine „Das neue Frankfurt“, Design: Hans Leistikow
View into the Frankfurter Kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky © Deutsches Kunstarchiv, Nürnberg
Marriage-picture Ernst and Ilse May, 1919 © DAM
Own House by Ernst May in Nairobi-Karen, 1938 © DAM
Ilse May with sons Klaus und Thomas, May residential house, Frankfurt-Ginnheim, 1928 © DAM
House in Nairobi © Eckhard Herrel
Sketch-book, current exhibition at DAM, photo: Nancy Jehmlich
Frankfurter Kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, photo: Nancy Jehmlich
Frankfurter Kitchen exhibited at DAM, photo: Nancy Jehmlich