The Weissenhof Estate – Architectural vision or political blueprint?

The Weissenhof Estate – an early exemplar of modernist architecture – is striking in its banality.

An aimless wanderer in Stuttgart’s gently terraced northern suburbs may be unaware she has stumbled across a UNESCO World Heritage site were it not for a discreetly hung plaque.

To the untrained eye, the dozen or so white, cube-like structures built by leading architects in 1927 under the aegis of the Deutscher Werkbund are basically indistinguishable from neighboring apartment complexes.

And herein lies the paradox: The architectural style promoted at Weissenhof was so staggeringly successful that it has become invisible to us. The insurgents re-made the world in their own image.

What is treated as a matter of course today was considered a radical proposition in the inter-war years, a means of weaponizing art and design for political change. In 1933, the same year Hitler seized power, concerned citizens of Stuttgart alienated by the Weissenhof even organized a counter-exhibition, this one featuring the beau idéal of Germanic architecture: wood homes with pitched roofs. Teutonic authenticity, in other words.

So why did reactionaries in Germany feel threatened by Weissenhof? As Bauhaus historian John V. Maciuika has pointed out, debates about art in the Weimar Republic were proxies for debates about the political direction of travel:

“Since the arts had long been understood as partly constitutive of society, and since Germany was rebuilding along modern, democratic lines, the types of art encouraged by the state signaled the type of modern society post-war Germans were setting out to create.”

The counter-exhibition (and others like it, such as the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937) was in part guided by the aim of blotting out impurities from a noble Germanic tradition. It tapped into the wider aesthetic debate in Germany whose political contours had been set by Kaiser Wilhelm II, an amateur artist himself, who declared in 1901 that art had to help “guard and perpetuate German ideals.” In his eyes, art that failed to do this was not merely bad art but a “sin against the German people.”

The Weissenhof’s detractors, royal hangers-on, and the nervous bourgeoisie understood correctly, perhaps instinctively, that the built environment could structure society in ways that threatened the status quo.

To borrow a concept from media theorist Marshall McLuhan, this is “the medium is the message” applied to physical spaces: A medium is not merely a neutral vehicle for content – the medium invariably has its own intrinsic effect on the content; the medium introduces new patterns.

To quote McLuhan:

“The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern (emphasis mine) that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.”

Analogously, the architectural designs espoused by the Weissenhof were not merely neutral, apolitical spaces in which life would go on as before. They were new built environments that patterned and re-ordered interactions in the home, and by extension, in society.

What the reactionaries opposed to Weissenhof viewed as a threat, the coterie of modern architects involved in the project regarded as an opportunity. The re-ordering of society through modern design was often a central aim rather than an incidental outcome.

Drawing on the reform-minded ambitions of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, the architects involved in the project (a veritable Who’s Who, from Deutscher Werkbund founder Peter Behrens to Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier) viewed themselves as midwives to a new society. They espoused designs and architecture that were consonant with a modern and technological society – in contrast to the historicism, political conservatism, and obsession with ornament popular at the time.

In retrospect, the guardians of the status quo thus had every right to be alarmed. The modernist designs exemplified by Weissenhof were political dynamite in the foundations of traditional German society. Modern architecture in its design posited a relationship between the individual and technology on the one hand and between the individual and society on the other hand that questioned old verities and social hierarchies at their very core.

The architecture at Weissenhof re-made the world in its own image not just visually, but also politically. In Germany, it did so in two ways in particular that rattled the old guard: It facilitated the emancipation of women and supported the political emergence of the middle class.

Disrupting the recursive grammar of traditional kitchen designs

First, by transforming the kitchen and its relationship to the rest of the home, Weissenhof architecture facilitated a new role for women.

The “bolshie” epithet preferred by reactionaries to denigrate modernist designers was not necessarily far off the mark. Many architects in the wider Weissenhof circle explicitly invoked social theories developed by Marx, Engels, and their acolytes in their reforms to modern dwelling.

Communist theorists postulated that the traditional roles of women were in the process of being upended by modern economic conditions. In the wake of industrialization, women were increasingly likely to be sewing garments at the factory and darning socks at home. The notion of the husband as breadwinner and his wife as a homemaker no longer reflected economic conditions.

To put this into Marxist nomenclature: the ideological superstructure no longer corresponded to the material base. Committed communists aimed to accelerate economic conditions putting women at parity with men, but this could only be achieved by freeing women from their bonds in the home.

In Engels’ words:

“[T]o emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”

The design corollary was clear: female emancipation would require liberation from frivolous domestic obligations.

This impulse was given additional weight by a parallel development: the quest for rationalization, one of the major focal points of the Weissenhof project.

For Erna Meyer, an apostle for rationalization in the home and Marie Kondo-like figure of her time, the kitchen was the logical starting place for designing the home of the future:

“How many absurdities could we spare ourselves, if we insisted that the pre-condition for a functional home is its organization as an ideal workplace for the housewife!” (Meyer thought that impractical kitchens had persisted for so long only because the men who designed them didn’t have to suffer the consequences).

Meyer designed two kitchens at Weissenhof that imitated factory workstations and introduced new labor-saving devices, optimizing the number of steps a woman would have to make to prepare a meal.

She even commissioned a video of Grete Schütte-Lihotzksy’s much more hyped kitchen in Frankfurt a year later. A text that appears towards the end of the video summarizes: “The goal during housework – as in the factory or the office – should be the greatest performance combined with the least expenditure of energy.”

Meyer codified her method in a set of “10 commandments” to improve the kitchen as a place of work, admonishing housewives to keep all utensils within easy reach, reduce the number of movements needed to use them, and take frequent breaks.

But Meyer also recognized that liberating women in the home involved more than ergonomics in the kitchen; it was also related to the architecture of the home itself. Her first commandment called for layouts that minimized the distances women had to cover to fulfill their domestic responsibilities.

This involved an important innovation: In 1927, most homes had basic floor plans with a central hallway that branched off into different rooms, with the kitchen invariably as the last room.

Kitchens were service areas that were strictly off-limits to guests. In the new floorplans, such as Meyer’s design for J. J. P. Oud in Stuttgart, the kitchen communicated directly with the living room, creating a more permeable membrane between the spaces for cooking and for socializing. (A precursor of contemporary open plan kitchens, in which the kitchen dissolves seamlessly into the living room, in the same way that family and career seamlessly dissolve into each other).

Admittedly, modern architectural designs were only modern up to a point, of course. The new designs may have improved life in the kitchen, but ultimately, the assumption that it would still be a woman in the kitchen went uncontested – even among the most progressive practitioners of the day.

And yet, in both the design of the kitchen and the layout of the home, the modern architecture found at Weissenhof laid the foundation for a silent evolution. By breaking with the recursive grammar of traditional kitchen design (each traditional design carrying within itself the seed of traditional gender roles and thus ensuring their transmission), modern designs both anticipated and reflected the evolving role of women in society. The medium was the message.

Fueling the rise of the political middle class

A concurrent aim of the modernists at Weissenhof was to ensure a minimum standard of living for everyone – regardless of class background.

Ostensibly, the city of Stuttgart made land and financing available to construct cheap, serial dwellings to alleviate the housing shortage facing Germany after the war and the hyperinflation that followed. But beyond these merely material needs, the Weissenhof project was one of several launched in the inter-war years with more overt socio-political aims.  

The issue was not simply the lack of shelter, but the lack of homes. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who also contributed at Weissenhof, clarified, “By ‘the crisis in housing,’ we mean not only a quantitative crisis but as qualitative one as well.”

For Le Corbusier, Gropius, and other architects that participated at Weissenhof, the minimum standard of living was both biological and sociological. In Gropius’ words, “The problem of the minimum dwelling is that of establishing the elementary minimum of space, air, light and heat required by man in order that he be able to fully develop his life functions without experiencing restrictions due to his dwelling, i.e., a minimum modus vivendi in place of a modus non moriendi.”

This was rather unique in history. Until the late 19th century, there was no such thing as architecture for the hoi polloi. Art and architecture had traditionally been patronized by kings and the Church. Architects were employed by the nobility or by aristocrats to build country homes or public buildings.

Of course, even despots of yore may have built lodgings for the destitute, if only as a means of cementing their grip on power. But what was fundamentally new about the Weissenhof is that it envisioned the creation of minimum dwellings that were intended for everyone – independent of their place on the social hierarchy.

Inherent in modern architecture was thus the belief in equality, which finds expression in a minimum dwelling – designed for universal adoption. In this way, the designs at Weissenhof both anticipated and reflected the growing self-assertiveness of the working classes in German politics.

Like other modernists of his era, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius thought that architecture needed to be adapted to new technologies. He viewed the “industrial mass production problem of our living requirements” as a paramount concern.

In the slim book, “The New Architecture and the Bauhaus”, Gropius wrote towards the end of his career that humanity had been so pre-occupied with the transition from manual to machine production that it “remained content to borrow styles from antiquity and perpetuate historical prototypes in decoration.” Gropius wanted to advance from the “vagaries of mere architectural caprice” to the “dictates of structural logic”, which would allow us to “seek concrete expression of the life of our epoch in clear and crisply simplified forms.”

Johannes Itten

Gropius and the Bauhaus, of course, went through a few mutations before arriving at the design philosophy summarized above.

For the few first years, the Bauhaus was a hub of Expressionism, with students in thrall to Johannes Itten, a charismatic professor who can be best be described as a resident mad priest who wore long robes, shaved his head, and adhered to a Zoroastrian fire cult.

The focus was on channeling emotions uncorrupted by social expectations. In 1922, however, with the traumas of the war receding, Gropius changed tack, proposing that the Bauhaus “fit into the rhythm of the competitive world … and come to terms with … the machine, … locomotives, airplanes, factories, American siloes and mechanical gadgets for daily use.”

Over time, the Bauhaus students ditched the monastic robes for the welder’s frock, focusing less on inner angst and more on serial re-producibility. This development culminated in 1923 in the new slogan for the Bauhaus: “Art and technology: A new unity”.  

The Weissenhof in 1927 was a case study of this new unity – bearing not just Gropius’ signature but those of other modern architects affirming the same creed. At Weissenhof, Gropius employed a method of dry assembly using pre-fabricated component parts in a modular system to build homes “just like machines.” The Zeitgeist demanded it: Architecture needed to be adapted to the modern world of machines, radios, and cars. In Gropius’ words, “the will of the epoch must be translated into space.” Le Corbusier wanted to create a “machine-à-habiter” – a machine to live in.

As with the kitchen designs explored earlier, live-able machines were not merely new homes in which life would go on as before. By proposing to standardize homes across all classes of society, modernist architecture implied that citizens had the right to no more or less than their neighbors, strengthening the self-consciousness of the emerging middle class.

At Weissenhof, the norming power of production was intended to have the effect of forging a new collective spirit. In the provocative words of the Hungarian Bauhaus avant-garde artist Lazslo Moholy-Nagy: “Before the machine, everyone is the same. The machine knows no tradition and no class distinctions.”

Viewed in this light, the form-follows-function injunction was not merely a stylistic convention but a democratizing imperative. The Weissenhof homes that appear to us today as strictly utilitarian and apolitical were thus, at the time of their construction, radical affirmations of egalitarianism.

As Bodo Rasch, a German interior designer affiliated with Weissenhof put it, “We saw our task in creating, by means of solidly manufactured furniture adapted to the new manufacturing methods, a piece of everyday equipment that would satisfy even the simplest worker’s needs – freeing him from the ballast with which he repeatedly surrounded himself by squinting at upper-middle-class prestige furnishings.”

By creating new forms for living, the designers at Weissenhof were putting a red X through the designs bequeathed by tradition. The homes and the interiors that they designed were intended to provide more than just shelter. The working class welder needed a home to protect him from squinting into the sun or the rain, but also to protect him from squinting at the Jones’ (or in this case, the Müllers’) gilded sofa.

The potential for conflict with reactionaries who wanted to preserve the social status quo is apparent, which in part explains why architecture became a proxy for the ideological battle that ensued when the Nazis took power.

And it also explains why the Nazis were so adamantly focused on closing the Bauhaus and stalling modernism – because they recognized correctly that it was more than an architectural vision; it was a blueprint for a new society.