New Human – New Housing
Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt/Main
–18 August 2019
An exhibition on Frankfurt Modernism 1925–1930 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt
This review could have been written earlier, however for a long time this author hoped in vain that the forgotten and incorrect information received on the opening day might soon be corrected. However, this did not happen until the beginning of July, and so I must also add indifference to other failings. For instance, the exhibition does not even mention Hans Leistikow as the designer of much printed matter such as the poster “Die Wohnung für das Existenzminimum” (The Dwelling for Minimal Existence), and claims instead, that the cover of the Russian driver's issue of the magazine “Das Neue Frankfurt” 9/1930 is by Willi Baumeister. In fact it is Leistikow's, and Leistikow's brother-in-law Werner Hebebrand can be seen on it with a strangely photomontaged leg and his characteristic hat. This could have been followed up by an investigation into Leistikow and Baumeister's different views on design and how this was reflected in the design of the magazine. But then that's the way it is, historical literature like the magazine “Gebrauchsgraphik” or relevant monographs on Leistikow and Baumeister have been ignored, and apparently museums can do without journalistic know-it-alls anyway, after all, they have museum positions.
Such ignorance and complacency is characteristic of this exhibition as a whole, however, in spite of some beautiful individual finds - such as a caricature of Neues Wohnen (New Living) and a contemporary painting of the Roman city - whereby the exhibition reduces, even in its title Wohnen (the act of dwelling, a complex process) to Wohnung (a mere place). Furthermore, the subtitle “Die Bauten des Neuen Frankfurt” (The Structures of New Frankfurt) does not use the terms “Gebäude” (buildings) or “Bauen” (building, construction)and thus also contributes to an art-historical classification that was perhaps intended by Martin Elsässer, but hardly so by Ernst May.
New Frankfurt is hardly the place for this. It was, after all, all about apartments for broad sections of the population, about hygiene, light, air and sun, about open spaces and functional divisions within urban environments and about democratic equilibrium. Further still, the Frankfurt kitchen was about moderate female emancipation within the limits of what was legally permitted of course, and, ultimately, about the pacification of economic and political opposites by means of rationalisation. Not least, it was also about new, rationally produced designs, directed against representation. Hence the many settlements with the Roman city billed as the ideal, and hence the magazine Das Neue Frankfurt with its thematic booklets on traffic, or Max Taut's trade union building. And therefore also, no thematic booklet on the Trutzburg that belonged to IG-Farben group, whose city-crown-like building today houses the university, and which thus has nothing to do with the open society strived for in the New Frankfurt.
It is precisely this that the show ignores. It does not showcase the New Frankfurt, although it occasionally anticipates it through the example of the massive first building that housed the Institute for Social Research, for instance. Yet it unites what was in fact separate at the time, and is regarded as a contradiction even by the most demanding histories of architecture. What is more, contrary to the catalogue's claim, the building designed by Alois Giefer and Hermann Mäckler, built after the original building for the Institute for Social Research, is not in the same place as the original building, as the exhibition claims, but diagonally opposite. It is not the construction of the New Frankfurt, its achievements and influences that the exhibition celebrates, but buildings in Frankfurt from the 1920s onwards. It includes Huth-, but excludes Ostpark, it shows the housing estates and villas, but not the former private house of the painter Hanns Ludwig Katz, a classic example of a sophisticated private house built within the framework of the New Frankfurt, and frequented by none other than the sociologist Siegfried Kracauer. Also missing is the war-damaged building of the Social Democratic People's Voice designed by J. W. Lehr, a building influenced by Le Corbusier with pre-brutalist elements such as exposed pipelines. In its place today is Ferdinand Kramer's University Library – a later response to the openness of the New Frankfurt – but now facing an uncertain future. However, the exhibition does include a large section on the “New Man”,following Friedrich Nietzsche and homoerotic aesthetics around 1900, but which misapplies the human image of literary expressionism and its influence on modernity after 1920, or androgyny around 1925, and comradeship marriage and Soviet models, as described by Sergei Eisenstein in the film “The General Line” (1929). Here, the DAM sacrifices historical perspective in favour of the forthcoming exhibition on homosexuality and architecture planned for 2020.
The exhibition sees itself as a contribution to the Bauhaus anniversary, which the New Frankfurt does not need. Its graphics completely misunderstand Hans Leistikow's black (partial) frames of the New Frankfurt and are reminiscent of a dilettante-modernist photo album with superimposed photographic corners that ignore the documentary nature of photographs. The selection of the exhibits is questionable, and it presents a depoliticised view of the New Frankfurt through a collection of almost arbitrarily arranged buildings. It is not a question of choice, but of duty, and in itself is highly questionable. Do not be deceived when you visit. What will stick in people's minds is less of New Frankfurt and its increasingly perceived good qualities, but more the sense of an antiquated Beautiful New World.