Better than demolition
by Thomas Edelmann | Jan 6, 2016
It all comes back to Ferdinand Kramer. With the exhibition “Line Form Function”, Frankfurt’s Deutsches Architekturmuseum is presenting a show that is really worth seeing on Kramer’s architectural legacy.
Photo © Privatarchiv Kramer, Horst Trebor Kratzmann, 1970

Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) is devoting the entire first storey of its exhibition space to the life and work of Ferdinand Kramer. Which is by no means too much space, considering Kramer’s sheer output, which first blossomed in 1920s Frankfurt and continued right on into the early 1970s. The architect’s biography was punctuated by the kind of vicissitudes typical of 20th-century life. And a very special life it was, one that was anything but typical and yet, more than anything else, exemplary. The City of Frankfurt has an ambiguous relationship with its famous scion. Kramer himself is more present than ever in the museum and media worlds. E15 has brought out various re-editions of his furniture designs, and his work fetches exorbitant prices on the market for period Modernist furniture. Recent literature on the architect would fill some 50 centimeters of book shelving. Not long ago, Fabian Wurm devoted an extensive monograph to a Kramer design modernized by architects Schürmann Spannel – the present-day “Forschungszentrum Biodiversität und Klima” (abbreviated to BiK-F) in Frankfurt – on the basis both of the original blueprint and the rejuvenated edifice. Now, DAM is the second museum to devote an exhibition to the life and work of Frankfurt’s great architect within the space of a single year. As not long ago Museum für Angewandte Kunst just down the road highlighted Kramer’s “designs for variable uses”. Yet the City of Frankfurt is planning to bulldoze Kramer’s magnum opus, his university buildings. Ostensibly because Frankfurt University, for whom Kramer devised the plans between the 1950s and the early 1960s, is vacating its old premises on the edge of the Westend district. But also, if truth be told, because Kramer’s no-frills approach and his roots in the New Frankfurt movement are far too sophisticated for present-day expectations.

By focusing the exhibition on a single floor of the DAM, the show is duly concentrated, and includes ground plans, sober photographs taken when the buildings were still at the planning stage, new dramatically staged shots by Norbert Miguletz, as well as countless documents, letters and catalogues from the Kramer family’s private archive. The original models produced by the university’s building authorities and the six new ones purpose-created at Kaiserslautern’s University of Technology are on show. They are joined by a number of fittings connected with the university – a wall-mounted ashtray, for instance. It is worth taking time over the exhibition and focusing alternately on the past and the present, the details and the bigger picture. There are noticeable certain gaps in the presentation of the architectural works. In part this has to with a lack of materials but sometimes results from the weighting chosen by the exhibition makers. Architect and deputy DAM director Wolfgang Voigt, who is retiring at the end of the Kramer exhibition, and the young curators, political scientist Philipp Sturm and interior architect Peter Körner, have focused on many new aspects and taken an unusual approach to the material.

The original models produced by the university’s building authorities and the six new ones purpose-created at Kaiserslautern’s University of Technology are on show. Photo © Fritz Philipp

This makes the accompanying catalogue well-worth reading and transforms the exhibition into an event. The essays by Claudia Quiring on how Kramer became an architect as of 1922 and Philipp Sturm’s critical account of Frankfurt University’s early years offer a good chronological introduction. The main article was penned by Voigt, who recently organized solo shows on Paul Bonatz and Ernst May. Voigt centers on Kramer’s exile and his return in 1952. Here, Kramer’s friendly relations with the protagonists of the “Frankfurt School” were of fundamental importance. For the articles and evaluations of specific Kramer designs the authors have, for the first time, consulted the correspondence between Kramer and his first wife Beate. It was Beate and her uncle, Berlin-based art collector and cultural scientist Eduard Fuchs, who introduced Kramer to staff at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. Moreover, Kramer had been friends with Theodor W. Adorno since his youth, and was later also a good friend of both Siegfried Kracauer and Leo Löwenthal.

The very beginning of the exhibition tells of an end. It starts with the residential buildings with their leafy walkways on the Westhausen housing estate that Kramer designed as of 1929, together with Eugen Blanck. They arose at the end of Ernst May’s extremely productive period in Frankfurt. Between 1925 and 1930, Kramer was a key member of May’s team at the Municipal Building Department. One of his most important roles was to devise standardized furnishings and footprints for these buildings. With the financial squeeze of the Great Depression on the horizon, in 1929 costs and groundplans had to be minimized. The apartments in the above-mentioned terraces were no more than 50 square meters in size, each kitchen a mere two square meters. Kramer took on the challenge of making this living space attractive (something that incidentally still applies today). The compact sitting bath he had previously invented was just one of the fixtures. The boiler house which supplied the estate with heat and warm water, was simultaneously a central baths and an important meeting place for everyone. Kramer was to return to this idea of a central heating plant at a later date. One of the first buildings he designed for the university, in 1953, was a boiler house, enabling each institute building to get by without a separate basement boiler room and boiler. This saved space and, more importantly, slashed construction and operating costs.

Forget Bauhaus: Go New Frankfurt!

Today, Villa Erlenbach, dating from 1930, with its flat roof and staggered volume, is one of the most coherent examples of “Neues Bauen” in Frankfurt. Initially, the authorities tried to prevent it being built, considering it an eyesore for the neighborhood and at one point even had construction halted. But Kramer managed to get his own way. Today, both the public and estate agents tend to call buildings of this type Bauhaus architecture. They could not be more wrong. Kramer’s flirtation with the Bauhaus was but brief. “We wanted to build, to deal with the housing shortage and to recover the time we had lost through the War,” Kramer commented, looking back.

Today, Villa Erlenbach, dating from 1930, with its flat roof and staggered volume, is one of the most coherent examples of “Neues Bauen” in Frankfurt. The right photo shows the present condition of the building. Photo left © Elisabeth Hase, photo right © Thomas Edelmann

His architecture professor Theodor Fischer, one of the major minds behind Modernist architecture, had given him a letter of reference to present in Weimar to Walter Gropius. However, there was not yet an Architecture course on offer at the Bauhaus. When Gropius heard about Kramer’s departure he wrote to him saying that the focus was on “leaving everything undecided” and “in a state of flexible order, so as to avoid our common ground immediately becoming something rigid and overly academic.” In Weimar, he soon made contacts and all manner of friends, as was the case everywhere. After completing his studies in Munich he returned to Frankfurt. So forget Bauhaus, focus on “Neues Frankfurt”. Kramer looked for and found a new setting. In 1925 he joined Ernst May’s team of young architects and designers at Frankfurt’s Municipal Building Department, responsible for standardizing furnishings and groundplans, and perfecting his efficient ovens, which went into mass production by no less a company than Buderus. He was soon publishing in authoritative periodicals, had forged links with the likes of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, and took part in the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition, where buildings featured his door and window handles. He likewise became a lecturer at Frankfurt’s “Kunstgewerbeschule”, a designer of the municipal carport, of kindergartens and retirement homes. And was clear in his social commitment: Kramer was always driven by a social conscience, and soon rejected that attitude so many seem to prefer today, namely impressing people, claiming to be more. Kramer’s philosophy instead: to make good use of what was available and use it as well as possible.

The road to freedom

Kramer had to leave Germany. As early as 1933 he resigned from the conformist Deutscher Werkbund. Only a few designers followed his lead. In September 1937, the Nazis prohibited his employment, both as “the spouse of a ‘non-Aryan’ and because of his architectural and cultural beliefs”. This is how his first wife Beate described it in interview for an early exhibition of his work. She left Germany at the beginning of 1938. He struggled with himself for a long time – “I still can’t work out how on earth I might gain a foothold there,” he wrote to Beate, after she had arrived in New York. But only a few weeks later, he followed. However, Kramer was not able to come to terms with the American approach to design or the sales methods employed there.

The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research also relocated to the US, as did many of its staff members. Kramer helped develop and market the institute’s extensive real estate in Port Chester, northeast of New York City. The proceeds from the sale helped shore up the institute which was henceforth attached to Columbia University.

House in Grey Rock Park, Port Chester, Westchester County, New York. Photo © Private Archive Kramer, Photo: John Gass, ca. 1940

Kramer divided up the plots of land and designed low-cost houses with standardized footprints which were then built as American timber-frame structures. Kramer was now in charge of the “Alden Estates Home Development”, moving into a house on the estate he had converted himself. During his time in the United States he made a name for himself developing furniture and furnishings systems for department stores rather than for architecture. Yet, excerpts from letters to Beate quoted in the catalog makes it clear just how much initially on return to Frankfurt he felt he had been cast adrift in a foreign country.

A change of plan every year

“Essentially civic society has ceased to exist in Frankfurt,” Kramer wrote in July 1952. Before the War, with his middle-class background, Kramer moved in circles where people like museum directors and artists, revolutionaries from the worlds of dance, theater, music and politics, all interacted closely. He noted now that “I find the country incredibly attractive + beautiful but the people, by contrast, are with a few exceptions cynical, nasty and vicious.” The correspondence of a number of members of the Institute of Social Research who also returned contains similar comments. Nevertheless, Max Horkheimer did come to the decision that, in the context of further education, he would like to enable young Germans “to devote themselves to bringing out the best in themselves and pursuing the joint objective of creating a world as befits human beings on a lasting basis”. Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, was rector of the university from 1951 through 1953, and played an active part in persuading Kramer to return as well and take charge of the institution’s building department. Collaborating with curator Friedrich Rau, Kramer came up with a masterplan, albeit one he had to revise almost every year. The reason: plots of land promised to the university were suddenly no longer available or were then used for totally different buildings. The actors involved, namely the professors, the city, the state and the university building department could not agree on where and how to expand the university. Despite this chaos Kramer successfully built 23 university facilities within the space of only a few years, despite an extremely tight budget, because the post-War university, originally established by private patrons, became the financial responsibility of the city. And the latter had already embarked on other infrastructure projects, for instance, housing developments and, as of the beginning of the 1960s, the subway. When Kramer retired from the university building department at the end of 1964 there was a noticeable slowdown in decision-making and turnkeys.

Kramer's main entrance to the University of Frankfurt an der Jügelstraße: a delicate, transparent entrance is a symbol for a new zeitgeist after the WW II.
Photo ©© Wikipedia, Rolf Unterberg

Both in the catalog and the exhibition Enrico Dunkel makes a noteworthy, although not really convincing attempt to further expand the list of Kramer buildings on the university campus. For example, he credits the latter with designing, among other things, the law school building and the university sports club, two buildings completed long after Kramer’s retirement from the building department. He did most undisputedly pave the way for the relevant buildings’ construction. However, the in-depth design work for both façades and details has, to date, been attributed to Kramer’s successor Heinrich Nitschke. As Dunkel sees it, the use of catwalks to connect the various cubes is characteristic of Kramer. Dunkel bases his hypothesis on plans initialed by Kramer and states, citing existing documents, that even after his retirement Kramer acted in an advisory capacity to the university. As experience shows, however, in architecture, copyright to the extent that such exists has something to do with deciding the details then realized. And whether it was Kramer or, at the end of the day, Nitschke who took those decisions is not been conclusively proven by the material presented at the DAM.

Rather too short little space in the exhibition is given to Kramer’s private work as an architect, both projects between 1933 and 1937 and, in a considerably more modest capacity, after his official retirement in 1964. Examples would be the modernization of Comödienhaus Wilhelmsbad and the extensions involved. There, in 1968, Kramer painstakingly restored a heritage building, adding a modern wooden annex to it as an artists’ dressing room. Such endeavors are only mentioned in the list of works.

Biological Camp, auditorium. Photo © Norbert Miguletz 2015

Most of the academic buildings designed by Kramer between 1952 and 1964 consisted of reinforced concrete skeletons filled in with clinker brickwork. Since this led to “functional, low-cost buildings almost delicate in shape” (as reported by filmmaker Alexander Kluge back in 1958) these structures require careful maintenance. Kramer was precisely not a dogmatic functionalist and therefore tended to factor into his plans possible changes and alterations later on. Since his constructions had hardly any internal load-bearing walls there were practically no limits to their flexibility. This means that Kramer buildings can be almost anything users want them to be.

As Oswald Mathias Ungers stated in 1988, in justification of his entry for the planning competition for the former university grounds: “Treating the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s with consideration, even though this is not without technical difficulties, is worthwhile. After all, the coherency of the designs is of historical importance and should be given pride of place over demolishing it and erecting something new in its place.” At the time, Ungers was awarded first prize. The jury is still out as far as preserving Kramer’s oeuvre is concerned.

Line Form Function – The buildings of Ferdinand Kramer
Deutsches Architekturmuseum (D.A.M.), Frankfurt/Main
November 28, 2015 thru May 1, 2016
Opening: November 27, 7 p.m.
Tues, Thurs to Sun 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wed 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The catalog accompanying the exhibition:
The Buildings of Ferdinand Kramer
edited by Wolfgang Voigt, Philipp Sturm, Peter Körner, Peter Cachola-Schmal
176 pages, hardback, German/English
Ernst Wasmuth Verlag, Tübingen, 2016
ISBN 978 3 8030 0797 1
38 euros

One of Kramer's residential buildings: The house Albert von Metzler, 1957. Photo © Ferdinand Kramer archive, FFM
Weekends and holiday home Albert von Metzler in Arnolshain/Taunus. Photo © Private Archive Kramer