Schütte-Lihotzky, Margarete (1897–2000)

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Schütte-Lihotzky, Margarete (1897–2000)

First Austrian woman to become a professional architect, who made important contributions to municipal planning and was particularly known for her laborsaving "Frankfurt kitchen" of the 1920s. Name variations: Margaret Shutte-Lihotzky or Schuette-Lihotzky; Margarethe Lihotzky; Grete Lihotzky; Grete Schütte-Lihotzky. Born Margarete Lihotzky in Vienna, Austria, on January 23, 1897; died in Vienna on January 18, 2000; daughter of Erwin Lihotzky and Julie (Bode) Lihotzky; had sister Adele; married Wilhelm Schütte (1900–1968, an architect), in 1927; no children.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, known as Grete, was born in Vienna in 1897, the daughter of Erwin Lihotzky and Julie Bode Lihotzky . Erwin, of Slavic origins, came from the province of Bukovina; Julie was descended from a Swabian family that had its roots in Germany's province of Hanover. Both sides of the family produced individuals of note, including a famous art historian in Berlin and a mayor of the city of Czernovitz in Bukovina. Intellectually, the Lihotzkys were steeped in the freethinking liberalism of the Viennese middle class in the decades before 1914. Grete's father, although an official of the monarchy, was critical of the hereditary principle of government on which Habsburg rule was based, and he and Julie raised their daughters Grete and Adele with an emphasis on moral choice. Throughout her life, Grete Schütte-Lihotzky would harbor a deep-seated sense of social responsibility, even when faced with life-threatening decisions.

During World War I, Schütte-Lihotzky took up the study of architecture at Vienna's Akademie für angewandte Kunst (Academy of Applied Arts). Brilliant and enthusiastic, she caught the attention of two of the school's most progressive artist-teachers, Oskar Strnad and Heinrich Tessenow, and simply ignored the attitude of her renowned professor Josef Hoffmann, whose dismissive stance was summed up in his remark: "Frauen heiraten sowieso" ("In any case, women get married"). It was Strnad who stimulated her reformist instincts by suggesting that she visit the dwellings of Vienna's working class, where people lived in conditions of over-crowding and squalor, often with nine or more in one airless room. Calling the elegant designs for jewelry, furniture and household furnishings produced at Josef Hoffmann's Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) "applied arts for the upper ten thousand," she rejected his philosophy as "reactionary." Instead, even while a student, she focused her energies on designing simple and affordable dwellings and interiors for working-class and white-collar families, rather than for the wealthy few. In 1917, her design for a modern kitchen won her the Max Mauthner Prize, followed two years later by the Lobmeyr Prize.

In 1923, Schütte-Lihotzky was awarded her architecture diploma from the Academy of Applied Arts, thus gaining the distinction of being Austria's first woman architect. She began working for the noted architect Adolf Loos, with whom she shared an aversion toward emphasizing "stylishness" or "smart elements" as part of architectural designs and plans. Such talk, she believed, revealed nothing more than an elitist attitude toward the pressing social requirements of the day. These needs were immense indeed in post-1918 Vienna, which as a result of defeat in war and subsequent inflation and social chaos had become a metropolis of supplicants; as many as 90,000 were homeless. Consequently, in 1923 Schütte-Lihotzky became a member of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP). By this time, although the rest of Austria was conservative and German-nationalistic in its political allegiances, the SDAP had gained control of the Vienna municipal government. In "Red Vienna," an ambitious program of social reforms was underway, starting in the early 1920s, that would last until the Social Democrats were bloodily suppressed in a civil war in February 1934.

Most impressive of the reforms was a large-scale program of public housing. Schütte-Lihotzky participated in these changes, helping to design the Winarsky-Hof, a pioneering housing project comprising 840 apartments, 40 units of which she, Strnad, and several other architects helped plan as models for the future. She also was involved in the Austrian Siedlerbewegung, attempts to empower workers and white-collar employees to purchase and live in their own homes in the outskirts of large cities. For her innovative work, she was awarded the Bronze Medal of the City of Vienna in 1922 and the Silver Medal in 1923. In early 1926, Schütte-Lihotzky accepted a job offer from Ernst May, who was in charge of public building projects for the German city of Frankfurt am Main. Among the many facets of her work in Frankfurt, she became interested in designing a modern, rationally conceived kitchen. Working with simple and inexpensive materials and a limited space of less than seven square meters (2.9 m. × 1.9 m.), she designed a kitchen that was practical and time-saving.

Although many of her ideas were based on years of experience, much of Schütte-Lihotzky's inspiration came from the 1921 German edition of American author Christine Frederick 's The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management. Frederick's book, inspired by contemporary principles of scientific management, became the bible of household rationalization, domestic efficiency, and kitchen reform in the 1920s. In her foreword to the German edition, translator Irene Witte noted that Frederick was the first woman "to transfer the principles of scientific management, which had until then only been introduced into the factory, workshop, or office, into the home." Schütte-Lihotzky was able to transform Frederick's ideas into a practical reality that would benefit the working people of Frankfurt am Main. Her kitchen design was immensely successful from the start, and in Frankfurt am Main alone over 10,000 would be installed in the next few years.

In 1927, Grete married the architect Wilhelm Schütte, with whom she would share a productive partnership of more than a decade. She lived with her husband in one room with a Frankfurt kitchen attached, noting: "No children and a small flat, those are very favorable conditions, and also a man who from the beginning agrees to share the work, sometimes shopping or throwing a couple of eggs into the frying pan." Grete, who suffered from tuberculosis throughout her life, was advised against having children, though she endured two miscarriages.

In 1927, the Frankfurt Spring Fair further validated the importance of Schütte-Lihotzky's innovative kitchen design. "The New Apartment and Its Interior Fittings," an exhibition designed and realized by her, was held in the main exhibition hall. Attached to it was a special show, "The Modern Household," sponsored by the Frankfurt housewives' association. Its goal was to bring together women, architects, and industry, all striving for more modern and rational interior designs and conveniences. Of particular interest to many professionals at the show was the kitchen of a Mitropa railroad dining car, an example of the economy of movement that could be made possible through modern design. The entire kitchen was the same size as Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt kitchen, and when used in an actual situation, it enabled the staff to prepare meals and drinks for over 400 passengers over a 15-hour train journey, with no change of personnel.

But in 1930, as the reverberations of the previous year's stock-market crash continued, Schütte-Lihotzky fell victim to a growing global campaign to pressure working women out of their jobs. Although May had argued that his Frankfurt program would collapse without her, she was dismissed, the pretext being that she had a working husband. The Utopian vision of the Frankfurt housing project had virtually collapsed as a result of draconian cuts in its budget. Indeed, the overall situation in Germany and Austria, rapidly descending into economic despair at the onset of the world depression, and with ominous clouds of fascism on the horizon, was grim. That year, when May accepted an offer to design and build housing projects in new industrial cities for the Soviet government, which was then involved

in its first Five Year Plan to rapidly industrialize and modernize the USSR, Grete and Wilhelm became part of his team.

During these busy years, Schütte-Lihotzky had become more attracted to the militancy she believed was the essence of the Communist movement. In the summer of 1927, after bloody riots in Vienna had demonstrated to her that the SDAP leadership was unwilling to risk a revolution in Austria, she submitted her resignation, convinced that socialism could never be achieved in Central Europe if a similar lack of resolve continued to characterize the party's course of action. She chose, however, not to join the minuscule and ineffective Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) at this time.

Despite the difficult living conditions Grete and Wilhelm encountered in the Soviet Union, Grete designed schools, kindergartens and public-housing developments. The fact that fascist regimes seized power in Germany and Austria in 1933 and 1934, easily eradicating the achievements of the Social Democratic movements in those nations, only strengthened her beliefs in a more militant form of socialism. Even the start of the Great Terror initiated by Joseph Stalin, which would devastate the USSR and cause the deaths of countless Soviet citizens, did not discourage Schütte-Lihotzky, whose work in the design and construction of projects in Magnitogorsk and other newly created industrial centers consumed her energy. By 1936, however, it was becoming only too apparent to both Grete and Wilhelm that official paranoia over alleged foreign spies and domestic "wreckers" had made it impossible for them to continue their work in the USSR. After much difficulty, both were able to leave Moscow voluntarily in early August 1937—only weeks before the remaining members of the Ernst May group were arrested and expelled from the country. For the next months, Grete and Wilhelm lived as insecure refugees from Nazism, first in Paris, then in London. Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, and several of Grete's colleagues either were arrested or had to flee. Work on French children's clinics and schools gave her a sense of purpose in an otherwise terrible time.

In 1938, Grete and Wilhelm were invited to fill positions at the Turkish Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul. A sizable colony of German refugees from Nazism had settled in Turkey in the 1930s, and the young republic was moving rapidly toward economic, social, and cultural modernization. It was in 1939, while she was in Turkey, that Schütte-Lihotzky finally decided to join the KPÖ. Founded in 1918 as one of the first Communist parties outside Soviet Russia, the Austrian Communist movement had always existed as a small sect in the shadow of the large and successful Social Democrats. By 1933, however, the failure of the SDAP to maintain itself as a viable alternative to Austro-Fascism had strengthened immensely the appeal of Communism to Austrians, both those at home and those living in exile like Schütte-Lihotzky. Being a Communist was largely a theoretical matter for an exiled Austrian architect living in Turkey, at least until 1940; then her party superiors confronted her with the need to send an agent to Vienna. This dangerous assignment was to assist in the rebuilding of an underground network gravely weakened by several years of Nazi infiltration and persecution. She accepted.

Grete and another underground agent, the engineer Herbert Eichholzer, arrived in Vienna in the last days of December 1940. Although the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were technically allies and at peace, she knew only too well that the Hitler regime's relentless war against Marxists and socialists had not stopped. Many of her colleagues had been arrested, and some had lost their lives in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. The Gestapo and other Nazi intelligence branches had become past masters at ferreting out "subversives," and in this instance their expertise was revealed. On January 22, 1941, after only 25 days' stay in Vienna, Schütte-Lihotzky's luck ran out. She and another member of the underground, Erwin Puschmann, having been betrayed by a Nazi agent in their midst, were arrested by the Gestapo in Vienna's Café Viktoria. Both were taken to the dreaded Vienna headquarters of the Gestapo, in the Hotel Metropol on the Morzinplatz.

After harsh interrogations, she was found guilty of "preparation for high treason" and "treasonous assistance to the enemy" and sentenced by the Nazi Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) to 15 years at hard labor. Nazi officials remained largely ignorant of Schütte-Lihotzky's important role in the organization, as a result giving her a "mild" sentence. Almost all of her ill-fated colleagues in the resistance network were sentenced to death and executed. She was taken to the notorious Nazi penitentiary at Aichach, Bavaria, where she managed to survive for four years before being liberated in the spring of 1945.

When Schütte-Lihotzky arrived back in Vienna that April, she found the beautiful city profoundly disfigured from years of bombings and the final, meaningless defense of its Nazi rulers. Still, she looked forward to many active years in which she would be able to contribute to Austria's physical and moral reconstruction. This was not to be. Schütte-Lihotzky had rejoined the KPÖ upon her return to Vienna, and by 1947, with the Cold War in full bloom, to be a Communist in Austria was legal but virtually guaranteed professional, and personal, marginalization. Austria's Social Democrats were deeply hostile to Soviet Communism, which since the 1930s had meant Stalinism and oppression. Schütte-Lihotzky was effectively blacklisted. As a result of this unofficial but highly effective Berufsverbot (professional boycott), she would receive only two commissions in Vienna—the design of two municipal kindergartens—for the remainder of her career. As well, her marriage ended in 1950. Despite disappointments, Grete kept busy in the postwar decades. She was president and a key member of the Austrian Federation of Democratic Women, served on the board of the Austrian organization of victims of Nazism and Fascism, and was active in the Austrian Peace Council. She also ran an anti-fascist film distribution organization for a number of years. Although professionally frustrated in Austria, she carried out a number of successful kindergarten projects in Sofia, Bulgaria (1945–46), and made extended trips as a consultant and lecturer to several nations, including the People's Republic of China, Cuba, and the German Democratic Republic.

As the Cold War began to be viewed as history, Schütte-Lihotzky gained the public recognition and respect she had long been denied. In 1980, she received the City of Vienna Prize for Architecture. Special documentary programs dedicated to her life were screened on Austrian television in 1984 and 1987. In 1985, a German publisher released her memoirs of the Nazi years, a book that so impressed a growing number of admirers it would appear in a second edition in Vienna in 1994. To a younger generation of architects and planners, her work in kitchen design and town planning became known again when a book on the Frankfurt kitchen appeared in 1992. She was now universally recognized and revered as the Grand Old Lady of Austrian architecture and municipal planning. But Grete remained as stubbornly independent as ever; in 1988, she had refused to accept an important decoration from Austria's Minister of Instruction as long as Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president burdened with a shady Nazi past, remained in office.

For her 100th birthday in 1997, she was awarded the coveted Ehrenring der Stadt Wien (Ring of Honor of the City of Vienna). In Vienna's 21st district, a new public-housing structure on the Donaufelderstrasse was named the "Margarete-Schütte-Lihotzky-Hof," a cluster of buildings officially designated as being "by women, for women." On that same evening, Frankfurt's German Architecture Museum opened an exhibition on Schütte-Lihotzky's now-classic Frankfurt kitchen. "I have become a persona grata," she remarked. Grete Schütte-Lihotzky—known by Austrians simply as "die Schütte"—died in Vienna only a few days short of her 103rd birthday, on January 18, 2000.


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related media:

"Das neue Frankfurt, part 2: Die Frankfurter Küche," shown on WDR-Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne, 1985.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Schütte-Lihotzky, Margarete (1897–2000)

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