Myra Warhaftig

Spotlight on Women Architects – Myra Warhaftig

In our series “Spotlight on Women Architects”, we are introducing the work of female architects to you at regular intervals – such as that of the architect Myra Warhaftig, who has developed new forms of living together and created emancipatory floor plans in response to new models of family living.
by Florian Heilmeyer | 11/25/2022

Architect Myra Warhaftig didn't actually build that much. To be more precise, only one building in Berlin was built according to her designs: A residential building of inconspicuous appearance in a side street near Potsdamer Platz, built in 1993. The building, which has 24 publicly subsidised flats, is not particularly large either. But it is worth taking a closer look at, because Warhaftig was an innovative researcher who spent decades developing new forms of living together and recognised the urgent need to respond to new family constellations with radically changed floor plans. She had already delved into the subject in her doctoral thesis at the TU Berlin, which had the wonderfully complicated title The Obstruction of Women's Emancipation through the Home and the Possibility of Overcoming It. She subsequently produced several studies regarding "Family-Friendly Housing" for the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in West Berlin in 1984. Her apartment building in Dessauer Straße, a quiet side street right next to Potsdamer Platz, is a manifesto of this preoccupation and shows that floor plans can have a direct influence on the way people live with and in a building.

Residential building at Dessauer Straße 38-40 in Berlin-Kreuzberg, view from the inner courtyard, around 1993

But let's take it one step at a time: Myra Warhaftig was born in Haifa in 1930. Her parents had emigrated from Poland to Palestine shortly after the First World War, where they ran a print shop. They had the architect Max Loeb, who had just emigrated from Germany, first build them a new print shop and then their house, so that Myra grew up surrounded by an architecture of classical modernism. In 1950 she became one of the first women to study architecture at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Immediately after graduating in 1955 she went to Paris, despite her parents' misgivings. There she worked briefly with Auguste Perret, then with Candilis Josic Woods. The three former Le Corbusier collaborators had just founded their own office and were soon to cause a sensation with their structuralist designs. Warhaftig worked in the office very early on and was involved in all of its competition entries, studies and housing projects. She later commented on the atmosphere: "At lunchtime we went out to eat together, you were never alone. Candilis, Josic and Woods lived nearby. Parties were often held there; the whole office was invited. ...We also went on excursions together. ...In return, we gave our all for the office. I remember a competition where we worked in shifts day and night. And once when I came out of the office in the morning after such a night shift, the traders at the market were just setting up their stalls. I was exhausted but overjoyed."

Steel cube system in architectural model, M 1:10
Steel cube system in architectural model, M 1:10

In 1963 the office sensationally won an international competition for the design and construction of the Free University in Berlin. They opened a branch in Berlin, headed by the German architect Manfred Schiedhelm. With a few other employees, most of them German, Warhaftig went to West Berlin, where the Wall had been built only two years before. For six years she worked intensively on the construction of the university. The design envisaged a complex system of flat, modular buildings whose elements were to be so easily interchangeable that a building could be rebuilt virtually at any time – the university could look different in the morning than it did in the evening. As attractive as this idea was, its implementation proved to be very difficult: Although the façade was developed with the help of Jean Prouvé, the pope of French engineers, the endless structural problems, especially with the façade made of Corten steel modules, soon gave the building the inglorious nickname of Rostlaube (rust lodge). Although critics agreed that this was the most important structuralist building in all of Europe, the façades simply could not be made watertight. They let wind and water in, making the buildings too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer – and always too wet. Even the radical flexibility of the modules could never be taken advantage of. It wasn't until a renovation in 2007 that the façades' most pressing problems were permanently solved.

Building of the Noah Warhaftig printing works in Haifa by Kassel architect Max Loeb, 1937

Myra Warhaftig was so enthusiastic about the ideas behind modular flexibility, however, that she developed her own system of square residential cubes that could be screwed together next to or on top of each other in theoretically endless rows. She was truly fascinated by the individual freedom of design that this system promised its inhabitants: "The steel cube is a system of the highest variability that meets all requirements," she wrote in 1969 in her book 2.26 by 2.26 by 2.26. Playing with Residential Cubes. "They are easy to assemble and of low weight, so that everyone can determine and change their own rooms. ...What matters here is not so much whether everything is well- or badly built, or corresponds to our ideas as architects, but rather that everyone takes an active part in their immediate environment and shapes it according to their own taste."

By this time Warhaftig already had two daughters and lived as one of West Berlin's many single mothers. She was barely able to reconcile both work and family, so she worked more as an assistant at universities than as an architect. And this is also how she found the subject of her dissertation, which she completed in 1978 at the TU Berlin under Julius Posener: What would a residential floor plan have to look like so that it also allowed for other, more emancipatory family models? To this end, Warhaftig developed principled floor plans in which the kitchen no longer remained closed off from the rest of the flat as an enclosed, minimally efficient work space, but instead formed the heart of the flat as an open, central space. Among other things, she drew on the concept of the "hallway-less flat" as developed by Alexander Klein, one of her professors at the Technion in Haifa. And she vigorously opposed the ideas of the extremely rationalised "Frankfurt kitchen" designed in 1926 by the Viennese architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky – which is still considered the mother of all fitted kitchens.

Architectural model of the emancipatory flat with living room-kitchen, M 1:25, 15 x 73.3 x 54.8 cm

The International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Berlin then suddenly presented Warhaftig with an opportunity to implement her concept in a new building, as a pilot project. In fact, at the beginning of the 1980s, the director of the IBA's new building programme, the Berlin architect Josef Paul Kleihues, was under great pressure because so few women were involved in the exhibition. As Warhaftig had published her dissertation in 1982, she was just in time to be included in the circle of candidates. In 1986, the IBA finally awarded three designs for three adjacent plots on Dessauer Strasse to three women: Christine Jachmann, Zaha Hadid and Myra Warhaftig. Warhaftig's building unjustly received little attention during its construction. For one thing, it was built in the shadow of Hadid's first built project worldwide, which attracted attention with its bronze façade and acutely angled corner. And secondly, it was built in the shadow of German reunification. For by the time the first tenants had moved into Warhaftig's apartment building in 1993, the divided dual capital city had become the capital of a united Germany – and although Dessauer Strasse was no longer a peripheral street near the Wall but in the centre of the city, there were now other debates about how the new Berlin should be designed and planned. Who was still interested in Warhaftig's small, quiet residential building, even if it had innovative and evolutionary floor plans?

Perhaps the time for a closer look has finally come: The four-storey building has a brick façade facing the street and a simple plaster façade facing the green inner courtyard. Two entrances and the deep loggias in the centre of the building give the envelope a fairly conventional appearance. The unusual location of the different window formats is the only clue of the power the floor plans within have. She divided all 24 flats into three zones: Living rooms and office space/studies face the street, while the bedrooms face the garden courtyard. In between, instead of a hallway, there's a central connecting zone whose centre is always the Wohn-Raum-Küche ("living room-kitchen") in all of the flats, despite their different sizes. This term, invented by Warhaftig, defines a space that can be used for everything, and which begins immediately behind the entrance door and can be combined with all the other rooms in various constellations. Warhaftig cleverly countered the darkness in this central zone with loggias cut in from both sides, which allow daylight to reach far into the interior.

Possible visual axes and corridors in a conventional "family-friendly" three-room flat of social housing from the perspective of a mother, drawn by Myra Warhaftig, 1978
Floor plan drawing of the emancipatory flat with living room-kitchen and individual rooms without allocation of use by Myra Warhaftig, 1986

In endless diagrams Warhaftig showed how differently life can be lived in these flats. Single parents, for example, can prepare meals, work at their desks or watch television while still being able to see their children, due to the rooms being so well connected. And the children, in turn, also have great freedom to look for their own play areas within the flats. The rooms are all relatively similar as well, so that residents can choose for themselves where to sleep, where to eat and where to work. It is an emancipatory living concept in the strictest sense of the word: A liberating concept that is completely gender neutral, because the question of who does the work in the kitchen or who is in the flat with the children during the day remains completely open. Almost incidentally, Warhaftig put food preparation and childcare at the centre of the flat, but childless flatmates of the same age or even of different generations would also be comfortable living in these flats. It is perhaps the first comprehensively emancipatory floor plan in architectural history – and certainly one of the most well thought-out.

Another house was not built by Warhaftig. She moved with her two daughters into one of the flats in Dessauer Straße and lived there happily until her sudden death in 2008. Until then, she had again devoted her working life to research, especially on the life and work of German-Jewish architects. Not only did she turn this research into extremely lively guided tours of the city, but also into two books, which she published in 1996 and 2005 and which are now considered standard works. She never expressed any regret that she had not built more than this one residential building in Dessauer Strasse in her life. Perhaps this one clear statement was enough for her - now others have to pick up the ball. In a recent interview, for example, the theoretician Jörg Gleiter pointed out that Warhaftig's floor plans also offer a fairly ideal solution for the home office, which is so popular right now in times of pandemic, and for that reason alone are worth studying more closely. So perhaps Warhaftig will soon have her place in architectural history.

The architect and construction researcher Myra Warhaftig, around 1991