Spatialising the Modern: The Frankfurt Kitchen and its Gendered Work Politics

Blog written by Dr Claudia Kreklau. Dr Kreklau is an Associate Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests include Food History, Modern Germany, and Women/Gender/Sexuality.

Dr Claudia Kreklau

In 1924, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000) designed the modern kitchen. This kitchen was a single room designed for a worker, presumably a woman. As one of few well-explored early-twentieth-century woman architects, Schütte-Lihotzky’s work, politics, and feminism have attracted a good deal of attention, usually of a rather critical nature. She has been accused of relegating the female worker into domestic cooking spaces and enabling their Tayloresque exploitation, having no knowledge of housework, and not being enough of a feminist. A spatial analysis of Schütte-Lihotzky’s design with attention to the prehistory of the kitchen in central Europe in my most recent article suggests, however, that while the Viennese designer could by no means remedy the dominating middle-class gender ideals of her time, her design of the ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ reflects her aim to spatially streamline the labor of the woman worker in the context of the deteriorating political and economic climate of post-war central Europe.

Schütte-Lihotzky was the only woman to join the city of Frankfurt’s design programme ‘The New Frankfurt’, which was tasked with remedying the post-war living-space squalor of Weimar Germany. Her contribution—the kitchen—achieved two things: one, it guaranteed a minimum of sanitation, hygiene, and air quality as well as ventilation and lower humidity for the lower strata of society; two, it provided women working domestically with a room of their own.

Figures 1, 2, 3: Three views of Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Courtesy of the EM Haus Website: https://ernst-may-gesellschaft.de/mayhaus/frankfurter-kueche.html

Schütte-Lihotzky’s design changes were small but significant. The architect built a desk and chair into the centre of the kitchen under the kitchen’s window, allowing the working woman to sit or rest. Until that point, central European kitchens had been largely devoid of permanent seating areas, forcing workers to remain standing. When a worker in a kitchen sat down in nineteenth-century depictions, they did so on a temporary stool for such purposes as plucking a chicken, not to write, read, or rest. She included plumbing, a metal sink with two compartments—one for washing, one for rinsing to support hygiene ideals—collapsible workspaces, and storage facilities for crockery on the walls as well as in fitted cupboards, a standard feature of many kitchens in the twentieth century. Finally, she made space for a removable iron stove that could be easily replaced should technology advance (and was easier to clean than the brick-and-mortar ovens of the previous century). The room was accessed via two doors. The original design still stands, albeit in renovated form, in the Ernst May Haus Museum in contemporary Frankfurt am Main.

In some ways, Schütte-Lihotzky’s design presents the historian with a host of social work specific and politically gendered assumptions encoded in brick and mortar, reflected in the architecture and spatial organisation of her kitchen. Some have noted that Schütte-Lihotzky planned the Frankfurt kitchen ‘exclusively’ as a workspace. Others have associated her design with ‘Taylorism’ and highlighted its prioritisation of effectiveness, comparing the architect’s actions to producing ‘factory’ conditions. Yet others noted that although the lone and isolated housewife’s tasks were varied, in contrast to repetitive Fordist production conditions, Schütte-Lihotzky’s architecture still relegated women to a role similar to that of factory workers. It is finally often pointed out that she had never cooked or managed a household before joining the Frankfurt Housing project; these formulations accuse her of studying and reducing women to exploited labourers in the domestic sphere.

While criticisms of exploitative gendered domesticity are indeed necessary, Schütte-Lihotzky’s critics omit that the architect sought to buttress the difficult everyday life of working women whose economic and political context she could not change. After six decades of a rise in gendered domesticity, the design provided a degree of independence for work—practical and mental—as well as rest for the working woman, within the parameters of contemporary social-democratic economics and gendered politics. Schütte-Lihotzky, argued: ‘My work was based on the idea of women who worked and not in cooking itself’ [emphasis added]. Ample space was a luxury, which meant the designer had to use the reduced available area effectively. The placement of the chair by the window and the two opaque doors in turn broke any hypothetical panoptic supervision by removing the housewife from the outside gaze. Women could sit at a window and gaze outside—the act of seeing in itself an exercise of power and consumption. Having the option to close a door allowed the food worker to control this space without outward supervision.

Schütte-Lihotzky operated under the understanding that leftist party politics would cater to working women’s needs; they did not. The city council for which she worked was tied to the Social Democratic party, which failed to champion gendered egalitarianism and prioritised male workers’ rights. Her kitchen design thus reflects a social democratic feminist negotiation within general party lines at the time: a spatial construction which sought to give the female worker a room of her own, even as it embraced rather than problematised labour from the perspective of a leftist worker. She argued she ‘had never concerned [her]self with cooking in my life. Nowadays this is seen as feminist but it was not feminist at all’. Instead, cooking was a practical necessity, a task which should not be gendered, but instead should foment solidarity among workers across the genders irrespective of spatial location. That the party failed to ratify this silent gendered workers’ contract and recognise women as workers equally was not a dimension for which the architect carried blame. Neither did Schütte-Lihotzky assume that women would not hold professional occupations outside the home. The effectiveness she aimed to facilitate in kitchens aimed less at exploiting women than at helping them survive the demands on their time.

Figure 4: Removable iron stove-top combination in the Frankfurt Kitchen. Courtesy of the EM Haus Website: https://ernst-may-gesellschaft.de/mayhaus/frankfurter-kueche.html

In my most recent article, I examine the gendered prehistory of kitchen work in central Europe—with unexpected findings. In central Europe the kitchen was not always gendered, or even necessarily a room. Elites in the nineteenth century in general preferred to employ men, making the many rooms which castles dedicated for cooking and food preparation preferentially male domains. Workers and poorer rural populations in turn often lived in single-room homes, where kitchen areas were inseparable from living, working, or resting areas—meaning that there was no room to gender the space. It was primarily the middle-class with its gendered domestic ideals after the 1860s and their idealised nineteenth-century Roman architectural designs who championed the idea of gendered domesticity in a single room and successfully spread the ideal throughout society. The notion that women’s work should unfold in a private feminine sphere rather than in a masculine public sphere coincided with a drop in house-staff numbers due to industrialisation, which forced middle-class women to take on more household tasks.

Schütte-Lihotzky’s ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ deeply affected twentieth-century western kitchens which derived modernist spatial design elements from this architectural nexus. I argue that this did not solidify the success of the idea of a kitchen as a gendered room. Politics and society had already solidified this work allocation by 1900 in central Europe and elsewhere. Instead, contemporaries and scholars have been spatially blind to the surreptitious nuances of her work and texts to contest the broken gender relations of her period and its leftist politics through architecture. More recent designs since 1924, in turn, from studios and lofts to open-concept kitchens, continue to renegotiate and destabilise the limits and limitations of our spatial, gendered, public and private ideas, ideals and practices—in the unexpected shape of brick and mortar.


About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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