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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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4. Life in the Settlements 203


4Life in the Settlements New people make new buildings, but new buildings also make new people.1 —Fritz Wichert, “The New Building. Art as Educator” Reacculturation was implicit in the concept of the New Life. The architect’s means were limited; Wichert’s quip that “new buildings make new people” could only be partly true. Other means—education, propaganda, regulation, and leisure activities—were the major tools in the reforming arsenal, particularly in address- ing the non-material aspects of culture and experience. The administration of culture was both a fact—embodied in Frankfurt in the Office of Culture (Kul- turamt)—and a strategy of modernization. From the choruses to the sports teams that formed the basis of partisan working-class social life in the inter-war period, a single, communal, and ecumenical entity would evolve. A nascent and ide- alistic effort, city officials shaped institutions to fill workers’ leisure hours with self-improving activities—it was the popular partner to the more exalted aspect of Landmann’s Kulturstadt campaign.2 Instead of sports and cultural club networks with their political and confessional ties, the Landmann administration spon- sored a municipal network of social organizations, clubs, and associations devoted to culture and continuing education.3 As Adorno observed, “to speak of culture is to speak of administration, whether one wants to or not.”4 The cultural roots of the New Life lay in nineteenth-century social reforms instigated by company town patriarchs, churches, and political parties, by the gar- den city and the life reform movements. An important contribution was made...

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