Hot Spot: The Bauhaus city

One hundred years ago architect Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus in Weimar. As teaching got underway there, Modernist architecture was already starting to take physical shape in Frankfurt. In the footsteps of Ernst May.

“While we, Ernst May’s colleagues, were essentially only able to work on the new theories and only on paper, May succeeded in boldly exploiting the power conferred on him by his public position in order to put the new ideas into practice,” Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, once said about the Frankfurt architect and urban planner. And indeed from 1925 to 1930, while Municipal Building Councillor in Frankfurt, Ernst May created something that can be deemed one of the most significant examples of Modernist architecture alongside the Bauhaus in Dessau, the Bruno Taut estates in Berlin, and the Weissenhof estate in Stuttgart.

In the mid-1920s, May wielded extensive authority and had a large team of architects and designers working for him. In 1925, he launched an ambitious housing programme aptly entitled “New Frankfurt” providing modern, practical and affordable apartments. May even had the components standardized to speed up the building process. Consequently, around 15,000 new apartments were created within five years – many of them exist to this day and are easily recognizable for their clear lines: The houses are mainly cubes, mass-produced and have a flat roof. Prime examples include the estate in Römerstadt, which snuggles up to the course of the Nidda river, or the so-called Zig-Zag housing in Bruchfeldstrasse (photo). Staggering the houses means that the individual apartments receive more daylight.

Architect Martin Elsässer was an important colleague of Ernst May. In 1925 the latter appointed him as the Head of the City Building Department. Elsässer designed various buildings in the period when they were both in office. Arguably the best-known of these was the Grossmarkthalle or Wholesale Market Hall, which today forms the part of the section of the European Central Bank Tower in Frankfurt’s Ostend that is open to the public.  However, “New Frankfurt” was not only about housing construction programmes. Affiliated designers also created plain, affordable furniture. In effect, the self-assembly furniture items are the predecessors of Ikea flat-pack systems. The famous Frankfurt Kitchen, practical and conceived along the lines of an industrial workplace, was also realized at this time. It can be considered the prototype of the modern fitted kitchen.

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