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Europe: 'Communist Kitchen' Designer Turns 100

  • Tom Hagler



Vienna, 30 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Austria's first female architect, who helped build industrial towns in the Urals and Karaganda during the 1930's and who became famous for designing the first so-called "communist kitchen," has celebrated her hundredth birthday.

Still a committed Communist, Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky began her career in the "Red Vienna" socialist housing schemes of the 1920s before designing the world's first modern, mass-produced kitchen, called "The Frankfurt Kitchen."

The poor living conditions in Vienna's working districts influenced all her future work, which centered on mass housing projects and self-help housing. Her philosophy was one of "reform from below," in which "architects design housing and workers build houses themselves."

"There was no water, no electricity, nothing," she recalled. "I sat in a smokey public house with a petroleum lamp and candlelight, and explained the plans to the people."

Her work in Vienna culminated in a project under Josef Frank in 1932, when she built a house based on a 6 x 6 meter cube. In 1926, she was invited by Ernst May to join 40 others in Frankfurt, where she worked on designing pre-fabricated housing with kindergartens and nurseries. It was from this period that the Frankfurt Kitchen, the first so-called "working women's kitchen," was created, something which has stuck with her ever since.

"It really annoys me, because people keep coming up to me and talking about the 'Frankfurt Kitchen,'" she said. The design was based on functionality for the working woman and became the first modern and mass-produced kitchen.

She was invited to join Frank May, Hans Schmidt, Mart Sam, and her husband Wilhelm Schutte to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930's to construct so-called "socialist cities" for compact city dwellings. Upon their arrival, they were handed a contract to build homes for 700,000 people in the Urals and Karaganda.

Heavy industry had been encouraged since 1928, the start of the first five-year plan, and 200 industrial centers and 1,000 agricultural towns were planned. She travelled to Magnitogorsk in 1932.

"It was the first huge city that we planned," she said. "Three years before I arrived there had been nothing, not even a telegraph pole. When I got there, there were 100,000 people there, living in barracks and earth huts, but there were two blast furnaces already functioning. Nothing comparable to Europe."

The team was housed in railway carriages and had 13 months to provide housing in towns of up to 100,000 people, mainly collective flats with communal washing and cooking facilities, and.health and education centers.

Lihotsky designed schools and kindergartens and standardized furniture interiors for nurseries. Building was affected by two major problems: limited use of steel for building initially, because production was just starting up, and later because of the approaching war.

"Men were already working and women were needed to work. Then came the change in the abortion laws: abortion had been available on demand after the revolution, but women were having 15 to 20 abortions each, so they decided to change the law and went in the opposite direction and made abortion illegal," said Lihotsky.

"This, in turn, meant that to get the numbers of women in the labor force that the five-year plan and industrialization envisaged, the state had to provide child-care facilities,"

She studied at the Academy of Architecture in Moscow between 1934-36 before emigrating to Turkey before the outbreak of World War II. There, she joined the Austrian Communist Party and then the Resistance movement.

Later, she returned to Vienna but was picked up by the Gestapo after her group was betrayed. A death sentence was commuted to imprisonment, and she was freed from a woman's prison in Bavaria in 1945 by the Americans.

She worked with her husband Wilhelm Schutte and German Sculptor Fritz Cremer in Vienna on the "Memorial for those who died for a free Austria 1934-1945."

"It gives me great pleasure that I survived the Nazis," she said. "They wanted to kill me. And today, 50 years later, I'm still alive and I am glad to be alive."

Austria's former Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and Vienna City mayor Michael Hauepl both attended her 100th birthday celebrations in Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts.

Divorced in 1951, she lives alone in a Viennese flat with a cat called Schnurli and says: "I'm still a Communist."
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