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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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Introduction 1


Introduction Within the irregularities and overlaps of any cultural history—its repeated co-presence of various forms of the emergent with forms of the residual and the dominant—that definition of period and type has a working usefulness.1 —Raymond Williams In November 1918, Germany achieved its belated revolution. German soldiers were exhausted, impoverished and starving, frustrated by an autocratic state that required unquestioning allegiance and yet afforded few of the reforms of its Euro- pean neighbors. A demonstration in Kiel of sailors and workers marching under banners of “Peace and Bread” ultimately set off a nationwide revolt. The Novem- ber Revolution unleashed the frustrated energies of the working class, the troops, the unions and the parties of the left, and, with them, a political storm of violent rhetoric and violent acts. Created under these conditions, the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) was a fragile proposition. Yet, Germany had at last achieved a parlia- mentary democracy, and, in 1919, it enacted a new constitution, one of the most liberal ever written, with numerous passages that reflected even socialist ideals. It established the franchise for all men and women, abolished aristocratic titles and privileges, and outlawed the banning of political parties. The new Reichstag was free to assemble, legislate, appoint ministers—all powers previously vested in the Kaiser. Of civil rights, it declared equality before the law, regardless of class, gen- der, race or religion; it guaranteed the right to assembly, to the formation of clubs and societies; and the eligibility of every citizen...

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