- Interview by
- Uwe Sonnenberg
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000) is best known to the public for her work in the 1920s designing the “Frankfurt Kitchen,” widely regarded as the forerunner of modern fitted kitchens. Yet, the Viennese architect’s long life and storied career consisted of much more than this: she designed everything from Vienna’s iconic suburban settlements to kindergartens and even the headquarters of a large publishing company. She worked on the social democratic housing projects of Red Vienna and New Frankfurt in the 1920s, followed by seven years in the Soviet Union and a number of stays in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the second half of the twentieth century.
Throughout her life, she maintained a deep commitment to peace and women’s rights. She was a member of the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) for more than six decades and spent the years between 1941 and 1945 in Nazi prisons as a result of her involvement in the anti-fascist resistance.
Yet, relatively little about Schütte-Lihotzky’s remarkable legacy had appeared in English until now. That changed with the recent publication of the volume Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Architecture. Politics. Gender: New Perspectives on Her Life and Work. To find out more about her life and work, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Uwe Sonnenberg spoke with the volume’s editors, Bernadette Reinhold and Marcel Bois, as well as contributors Thomas Flierl and Christine Zwingl.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was a prominent twentieth-century figure, yet not everyone is familiar with her. What makes her life so special?
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was an extraordinary architect. One of the first women in Austria to study architecture — attending the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna from 1915 to 1919 — she practiced this profession almost until the end of her life. Her social commitment was always at the center of her work. As an architect, resistance fighter, and activist, she was of great importance, especially for other women.
I first became aware of her in the 1980s while still in the GDR. For us, she opened up Red Vienna, New Frankfurt, and socialist urban planning in the USSR — and thus new international horizons. Later, I did research on the architect Ernst May. Schütte-Lihotzky belonged to May’s group of collaborators first in Frankfurt and then in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and was one of the few foreign experts there. As a contemporary witness, she greatly expanded my horizons and my historical understanding with her projects, buildings, and texts.
She was a very political person throughout her life. Enthused by the developments in Red Vienna in the 1920s, she became a member of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAP). Later, her anti-fascism led her to join the Communist Party (KPÖ). She was imprisoned for her resistance to the Nazis and remained a member of the KPÖ after the war all the way until her death shortly before her hundred and third birthday. Her commitment to peace, against fascism and for women are the basic constants of her life.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky has become a feminist icon through her invention of the Frankfurt Kitchen, her feminist political engagement, and her emancipatory work and thinking. Moreover, her work remains extremely relevant. Until the end, she thought about social and political issues and also about new, participatory ways of living, in order to resolve them. She was always interested in new building materials, and early on she was concerned with problems of sustainability. Last but not least, I think that her commitment to politics, which remained unbroken well into her old age, is also topical in view of the resurgence of nationalism in many countries in Europe and around the world.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky insisted she wasn’t just about the Frankfurt Kitchen — and wasn’t there also criticism of this concept?
In the mid-1920s, Ernst May invited Schütte-Lihotzky to Frankfurt to work at the Central Building Authority. At that time in New Frankfurt [a social democratic public housing project launched in 1925], there were attempts to build in a simplified and typified manner, including kitchens. The workflow facilitated by Schütte-Lihotzky’s design was entirely in keeping with the Taylorist system: the shortest distances and optimized work methods in the smallest possible space. The Frankfurt Kitchen became a design classic.
Nevertheless, her design was strongly criticized for isolating the kitchen within the floor plan of the flat and thus furthering the invisibility of housework. We know from her memoirs that this criticism hit Schütte-Lihotzky especially hard. During the planning process, there had been a long discussion about whether it should have been a single kitchen or a communal one. She would continue to deal intensively with the subject of the kitchen as such — and she would surely have done it differently in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s than in the Frankfurt Kitchen that has since become iconic.
The Frankfurt Kitchen cannot be considered in isolation. It was part of the entire housing program and was built into all apartments — in the standard apartment connected by a sliding door, in the small apartment as an alcove to the living room. In this respect, I don’t think that this criticism, some of which would reemerge in the feminist literature of the 1980s, is accurate. Schütte-Lihotzky had already dealt extensively with basic questions regarding the rationalization of housework in Vienna and had analyzed the subject in detail. In the Viennese homes, there was a combined kitchen and living room, because the stove, which was also used for heating, still determined the connection between cooking and dwelling.
As a product of her time, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky did not question the concept of the kitchen as a feminine workplace. In her conception of the Frankfurt Kitchen, she was indeed strongly influenced by Taylorism, but also criticized it as a method designed to exploit workers’ labor even more effectively through rationalization. She wanted to reverse this relationship. In doing so, she was inspired by political economist Otto Neurath, who was her personal friend, and his essay “The Converse Taylor System.” With the Frankfurt Kitchen and its short working distances, women would have more free time and thereby an improvement of their domestic situation.
Just as Schütte-Lihotzky is often reduced to only the Frankfurt Kitchen, she is also canonized as “Austria’s first female architect.” This is perhaps also because she was forgotten for a long time after World War II.
But why was she forgotten?
After the war, she returned to Austria as an internationally recognized expert in social housing. However, in the anti-communist climate of the 1950s, she received almost no public housing commissions. Her ostracization not only owed to the fact that she was an open communist, but also that she was a woman. Moreover, her professional networks had collapsed: the figures who had supported her in the 1920s had either left the country or died in the following decades.
By 1947 at the latest, the anti-fascist consensus in Austria had been dissolved. From then on, victim and reparation laws largely sidelined individuals persecuted on political and racial grounds as well as resistance fighters. The Austrian resistance to the Nazi regime was very limited and mostly emanated from the KPÖ and certain sections of the Catholic Church. Of almost seven million Austrians, roughly half a million were members of the Nazi Party. So, there was a basic tenor in society from the Nazi era that extended far beyond 1945. But it is astonishing how long and comprehensively it was ignored.
How did her rediscovery come about, then?
Starting in the 1970s, there was an intensive reexamination of Red Vienna, New Frankfurt, and Ernst May’s group in the Soviet Union. In addition, during this time, second-wave feminism was actively searching for female traces in the past and for its own role models, i.e., for strong and politically minded women. And when there was a shift to the right in the late 1980s, Schütte-Lihotzky — as an anti-fascist resistance fighter — became a figurehead.
That’s right. Another important aspect was that she came back to Austria at all, unlike many other earlier women architects who had emigrated in the 1930s.
I think almost more decisive is the fact that she became old enough to be rediscovered at all — and because she was a living witness of the 1920s. After all, she knew all the famous male architects, had written about them, and was interviewed about them. I would almost suggest that Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky would not have become so well known again if she had died at the end of the 1950s.
Her popularity was probably also due her memoir, Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand.
Yes, when the book was published in 1985, it played an important role in the discourse about remembrance in Austria. Unlike in Germany, a paradigm shift regarding historiography about the Nazi era did not take place until the late 1970s in the universities, and then in the mid-1980s more generally. It was now acknowledged that Austria had not only been a victim of Nazism, but an active accomplice in it. When the campaign for the presidential election of 1986 focused on the fact that former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim had been a member of the Nazi SA, it made a huge difference in the politics of remembrance. With her book, Schütte-Lihotzky quite deliberately addressed historians just as much as pupils and students, as well as artists and filmmakers. It was also intended as didactic material from a contemporary witness.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky had already begun to reach out to the youth in the 1960s with anti-fascist film screenings at the Urania in Vienna [a public educational institute and observatory], which were organized by an independent women’s committee. The importance of passing on her own experiences and their lessons emerged during this period. But it’s true that the opportunity to act as a contemporary witness on a larger scale did not come until the 1980s.
Yes, she was urged to write down her memories then. In that context, she consciously decided to write her memories from the resistance first, and only afterward to write about the other periods of her life. This again shows how important it was for her to come to terms with the Nazi era.
You have pored over Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s very extensive estate and have also published from it on various aspects and periods of the architect’s life. Recently, many new questions have been asked about it. What are they?
The reception of Schütte-Lihotzky has focused on architecture and specifically on the Frankfurt Kitchen for a long time. It has also secondarily focused on her time in the resistance. This focus, of course, has to do with her own publications, which primarily cover the 1920s and the Nazi era. In interviews she was also above all asked about this time. Accordingly, research has so far dealt comparatively little with her life after the war — both her architectural work and her political activities.
Recent research, for example, attempts to understand Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s socialization from within Austrian society, from the context of a conservative society of orders. Through unique finds such as her correspondence with her sister and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, but also from Russian holdings, we can now also reconstruct her life in the Soviet Union (1930–37) or her activities in the anti-fascist resistance much better.
In light of these new sources, have you found out why Schütte-Lihotzky joined the KPÖ in 1939 — the year of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? At that time, more people were leaving communist parties than joining them. How do you explain the timing of her membership?
From a German perspective, her path does seem unusual. Many of her age group who joined communist parties did so in the early 1920s. The fact that Schütte-Lihotzky did not take this path can be explained by the specifics of the political situation in Austria. Here there was a very weak Communist Party and a Social Democratic movement that was clearly to the left of its German counterpart. It was responsible for the radical reform project of Red Vienna. Excited by its prospects, Schütte-Lihotzky chose to throw her lot with the Social Democrats. But after moving to Frankfurt, she separated herself from the party again.
In her memoir, she wrote that in this step she was influenced by Carl Grünberg, the founding director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Soon she began to approach communism culturally. She studied Communist literature, saw the films of Sergei Eisenstein, and then lived in the Soviet Union starting in 1930. But the fact that she joined the Communist Party in 1939 has a lot to do with the role it played in Austria’s anti-fascist movement. We can’t forget that a year earlier, Austria had been annexed by the Third Reich — and that the Communists were one of the few political forces to take a hard stand against this.
Exactly. Until 1943, the Social Democrats actually propagated annexation by a revolutionary Germany. Other than that, only the monarchists opposed the Anschluss, but of course for completely different motives than the communists.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky always emphasized that she did not become a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union (CPSU) and only became one in Turkey. Even though she and her husband were not formally members of the CPSU, they naturally had ties to the political structures of the Soviet Union. She herself reported that she had sought contact with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the KPÖ even before she left the USSR. She also stated that the decisive criterion in choosing a place of exile was to find a connection to the broader anti-fascist resistance, in order to promote the restoration of Austrian statehood.
Other international resistance structures than the Soviet-dominated ones were not even conceivable at that time. On their departure from the Soviet Union, the Schüttes stopped in Istanbul and met their colleague Bruno Taut, who offered them an attractive post. Nevertheless, they traveled on to London and Paris, where they had few professional opportunities — but both were important places in the anti-fascist resistance movement.
But then they ended up in Turkey?
Right. They really couldn’t gain a foothold professionally in Central Europe — and then received a renewed offer from Taut to come to Istanbul. There they soon met the architect Herbert Eichholzer, with whom they then built up the communist resistance group. However, Schütte-Lihotzky by no means wanted to make only a courier trip to Vienna at the end of 1940. All the documents I’ve reviewed indicate that the Schüttes’ social existence in Istanbul had ended by then. Schütte-Lihotzky had already been unemployed since June 1939. Both apparently wanted to go permanently to Germany to enlist in the resistance. The unexpected opportunity for Wilhelm to stay in Istanbul and Margarete’s arrest ended their life together for years. The “Berlin Option” thus remains a question for researchers.
In any case, while in Vienna in 1941, she was arrested, narrowly escaped the death penalty and was sentenced to fifteen years in penitentiary…
…of which she fortunately only had to serve four. In prison, she received tremendous solidarity from women that she had not previously known. But she also had to witness the execution of many of her comrades. This made a lasting impression on her. After she was freed in 1945, the Communist Party helped her return to Vienna and probably represented something like a family to her. Party members were her reference people in the 1950s. It was in the party that she experienced connection and received support.
There is still a great need for research on these women’s networks. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was, after all, also the chairwoman for more than twenty years of the Union of Democratic Women, a KPÖ-affiliated organization founded in the late 1940s. At present, an increasingly differentiated view of the history of the KPÖ in postwar society seems to be gaining ground. Partly responsible for this are the works of Schütte-Lihotzky.
I work at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Our archive contains the estate that Christine and her research group sorted and edited while Margarete was still alive. To this day, it is the most requested item in our collection. It’s interesting that very different questions are asked of it, especially by younger generations of researchers. Planning for subsistence living plays a role here, as does design for children. Schütte-Lihotzky was already working on this in the 1920s — together with progressive educators.
Schütte-Lihotzky stood for a very inclusive and democratic conception of architecture. So, she was concerned with transmitting through architecture a society that integrates all its various population groups. This can be seen, for example, in the importance she attached to the task of building for children and, of course, in her quest for everyday and women’s emancipation through design. The themes of sustainability and ecology were additionally important to her: the connection between housing and nature came from her experience in Vienna.
The transnational reference points also seem to me to be particularly important. Schütte-Lihotzky lived and worked outside of Austria for more than twenty years; she left a trail not only in Europe, but also in Japan, China, and Cuba, and even in her time in the Soviet Union she designed kindergarten and primary school buildings from Moscow to Magnitogorsk.
This applies not only to her architecture, but also to other areas of her life, especially politics. Her frequent stays in the GDR, where she had friends and acquaintances, also played an important role for her. Ingeborg and Samuel Rapoport were important contacts for her, as were Walter and Violetta Hollitscher and, last but not least, Hans Wetzler, with whom she had been involved since the 1960s. They were all likewise party members. So, her transnationality also had a very personal dimension.
Her life undoubtedly had a transnational dimension, but the transcultural aspect is also very important. Turkey is a good example of this. For Kemal Atatürk’s reform projects, experts were brought into the country from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other Western countries. Hence a cultural transfer also took place in architecture. Village schools were to be built as part of a literacy campaign.
Schütte-Lihotzky planned these in modular construction using regional building materials. She thus tried to adapt her concepts to local conditions. In spite of all rationalization and typification, she was above all concerned with the aspect of building to suit people — for children and for an Anatolian village just as much as for a gigantic industrial city that was being torn out of the earth as a “test-tube city” in the Soviet Union.
Her achievements in terms of transcultural translation are a very important point. Unfortunately, Schütte-Lihotzky didn’t have the time or the partners with which to reflect on this experience in more detail. She relatively quickly broke away from an abstract conception of modernism and faced the challenge of a Soviet cultural situation in which there were no homogenous social structures, but where civilizational and cultural ruptures went hand in hand. Probably throughout her life Schütte-Lihotzky would have refused to understand the socialist project in Central Asia as a variant of internal colonization. For her, it was a kind of civilizational leap.
In her substantive work, she always advocated the idea that all people are equally entitled to a healthy and livable design that is nonetheless rooted in their cultural traditions. Not without reason, both Wilhelm Schütte and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky became heavily involved in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) after the war. Internationalism was important to her — as an aspiration of modern and egalitarian societies. There is still a lot left to discover in her work.
These achievements in cultural translation by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky must indeed be given greater consideration. What she brought with her to Austria is basically the world as she saw it. The postwar period in Vienna was a rather limited and very, very narrow world — I say that because I grew up in it. Schütte-Lihotzky was impressive in the way she looked back while simultaneously providing a perspective for the future.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky lived an entire century, and not only because she literally experienced every year of the twentieth century. What does her life tell us about that century?
Her life consists of the experience and ideals of social modernity, a designed environment in which social equality and self-determination are possible. In this respect, the utopia of the reform movements and socialism is a century-long experience, but also an unredeemed one. At the same time, such a project is always fraught with political contradictions, chasms, and challenges. You can’t separate the one from the other. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s status as an architect and her political engagements must also be considered together in this way. In a similar vein, it is also time to revisit the cultural history of European communism.