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Building Culture

Ernst May and the New Frankfurt am Main Initiative, 1926–1931


Susan R. Henderson

This book is a history of the initiative, its projects and actors, notably the architect and planner Ernst May, and its achievements, set within the turbulent context of the Weimar decade. It chronicles its many accomplishments: the construction of housing settlements, innovations in construction and materials, the parks and garden colonies program, innovations in school, medical facility and church design, reforms in woman’s sphere, and a crafting of New Life culture. It examines the New Frankfurt am Main in light of the social and political debates that shaped it and the works it produced, and describes the relationship of work and theory to contemporary reform movements. Finally, the narrative underscores the gulf between the idyll of modernity and the political and social realities of life in a Germany on the brink of collapse.


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Epigraph xvi


Epigraph My goal went far beyond what was then generally considered the duty of an urban designer: the image of the New Life, one of harmonic consistency, pressed upon my imagination with irresistible force . . .1 —Ernst May, 1963 In one of the most publicized images of the program called the “New Frankfurt” (1926–1931), a husband and wife relax on the roof terrace of their apartment in Bruchfeldstrasse. (0.01) Young and childless, they while away their leisure time, a freedom achieved with the establishment of the eight-hour day only eight years before this photo of 1927. One imagines that it is a Sunday that finds them not at church, but reading the newspapers in luxurious privacy. They are clearly work- ing people and urbanites. She exhibits the style of the New Woman, with her bobbed hair, loosely-fitted clothing and short skirt. Though there was little land near the factories of the Hoechst paint manufacturies for the construction of a garden suburb, the terrace of their new home is awash in sparkling sunlight and clean air, those ubiquitous life-giving elements that inhabit the poetic of so many major landmarks of modern architecture, from Duiker and Bijvoet’s Zonnenstraal sanatorium to Le Corbusier’s pastoral, the Villa Savoye. The “New Life” (“Neue Leben”) portrayed here was a chief promise of the Weimar Republic, a “third way” solution to the turmoil of the previous decade; a boon its citizens for having survived the war, years of deprivation and political crises. Both slogan and campaign, the...

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