Revolutionary Reflections | New Frankfurt and the Housing Question

Lack of good and affordable housing for working class people is still one of the major social and political issues facing us today in Britain and across the world. Danny Schultz looks at what we can learn from the achievements of an extraordinary experiment in social housing in the German city of Frankfurt after the First World War.

Siedlung Riedhof West
Siedlung Riedhof West

Housing provision is one of the key questions of the 21st century. It is estimated that over one billion people live in slums.[1] One in four of the global population lack a decent toilet, and one in ten do not have clean water close to the shacks and hovels where they live.[2] The social impact of this is immense. People lack places of safety which are clean, hygienic and comfortable. They lack basic space in which to raise children and to enjoy the company of family and friends.

Housing has become commodified. Even the worst slums are generating profits for land owners who know nothing about those slums except the rents collected there. House building in advanced industrial countries such as Britain is dominated by a handful of large construction companies, land owners, speculators and volume house builders. The main political parties are frozen in the dazzling lights that the capitalist interests shine, seemingly unable to present any meaningful alternative to housing as a never-ending source of profit. Tenants’ rights have been eroded, and rents and mortgages soak up an ever greater portion of workers’ wages. Even the language has changed – a home is now a housing unit. Money pours into city centres in the form of petro-dollar investments, securities for the Chinese Communist Party and money laundering for Russian oligarchs and repressive dictators from around the globe. Ever higher tower blocks stand half empty through “buy-to-leave” schemes as homelessness, overcrowding and housing debt increase. All this exemplifies the workings of capital within a neo-liberal framework. [3]

But this is only one answer to the housing question. There have been several other alternatives proposed. And in the period immediately after the First World War an extraordinary wave of house building took place across Europe which built 4.5 million new homes and re-housed around 16 percent of the people of Europe. This housing was generally of good quality and deliberately built to be affordable for most workers. Much of it still stands, in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, London, Manchester, Hamburg, Amsterdam and elsewhere. It is well worth exploring. And what’s more, between 1919 and 1933 most of it was built by local and central governments which openly declared that they were socialist, with socialist ideas and ambitions.

This article is a case study of the housing and welfare achievements of one such city, Frankfurt am Main in Germany. Between 1924 and 1929 around 14,000 new dwellings were built, in which an estimated 80,000 people were rehoused, while a substantial housing, education and welfare infrastructure was constructed. This article looks at the context for these developments, and then the detail of what was done, how and why, before drawing some conclusions which can act as guides and suggestions for today.

Capitalism and housing

The origins of the struggles for better housing are intrinsically bound up with the development of industrial capitalism, which began to develop in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, involving the emergence of a working class, a huge growth of population, urbanisation and an immense increase in machines and productive power. In the following decades, working class people across Europe developed trade unions and socialist parties, and the ideas of Marxism and revolutionary theory developed as guides to action and understanding. As capitalism increased in size and power, so too did the working class, and as the working class generated its own institutions and organizations, housing became one of its central demands. By the late 19th century capitalism had reached a stage of mass production, which generated the new world of consumerism. At the same time mass socialist parties and large industrial trade unions were formed – the Social Democratic Party in Germany (SPD) being the largest in Europe with a million members.

The expansion of capitalism produced rapid urbanisation, in the first half of the nineteenth century in England and the second half in Germany, including developments which alarmed local rulers. Slums and hovels could become dangerous centres of seditious behaviours. Epidemics of fatal disease could wipe out the middle and upper classes as well as those who laboured. City governments were reformed and began to provide basic infrastructure, such as clean water and sewage disposal. Complicated layers of parishes, churches and charities administering crude and basic welfare were no longer adequate. In addition to the more far-sighted capitalists who hoped to make the system work effectively, workers’ and socialist movements developed, and raised demands for better housing, better education for workers’ children, sick pay and pensions, health care and holidays – first in individual disputes, and then through trade unions, demands taken up by socialist and communist parties as well as anarchists, radicals and well-to-do reformers. Some welfare reform was achieved before 1914, but the trajectory of development was intensely disrupted by the First World War and the revolutions, mass upheavals and movements that swept across Europe as it ended.

Henry and Emma Budge Elderly People's Home
Henry and Emma Budge Elderly People’s Home

Revolutions, Reforms and Reformism

Those revolutionary upheavals progressed furthest in Russia and Germany. In Russia the autocratic Tsar was deposed and in the October Revolution of 1917 workers, soldiers and sailors took power through “soviets” – the Russian word for “councils”. In Germany the November Revolution of 1918 deposed the emperor – the Kaiser – and instituted full democracy. Both revolutions were vast, powerful movements from below, in which ordinary people – the workers and their supporters – did extraordinary things. Troops refused to obey their officers; apparently powerful rulers fled; huge cultural changes happened very rapidly.

The process was more thorough going in Russia, where radical socialists came to power. In Germany, the revolution started in the naval port of Kiel in November 1918 and went through many phases – a soviet in Bavaria, attempted right wing coups, general strikes, mass demonstrations, street violence and fascist assassinations. The working class had at times been armed, organising huge demonstrations, general strikes, local strikes, local insurrections. But the revolutionaries and those layers of the working class which supported them failed to dismantle the power of the state, or to break the financial and social power of the owners of land and capital. The revolutionary wave became more controlled by reformist Social Democratic politicians who wished to preserve the capitalist state and come to some accommodation with capitalist interests. By 1923 all sides more or less acknowledged that the prospects for a revolution with the depth and breadth of that in Russia was over.

The war and the revolutionary waves which followed it created a build up of pressure which made reforms a more pressing need. Even though capitalism continued in Germany, those reforms had a great impact on masses of working class people. The 8 hour working day was introduced, leading to a real reduction in working time of up to 10 hours a week for many workers. There were reforms in education, welfare provision and housing. Women were enfranchised and could now stand for political office. Professional and other opportunities were opened up. Local government was reformed and there were moves to professionalize the administration of public services and to eliminate the old practices of nepotism and party favour.

The Social Democratic Party, which emerged as the strongest left force, was unlike any left party in Europe today. The SPD was a mass party with its own newspapers and journals, local branches, subs-paying members, elected representatives at a national and local level and support from the trade union movement. It was not revolutionary, but it was very aware of the revolutionary pressure to its left and the still seething discontent of large numbers of the German working class. The demands for better housing, welfare, education, recreation and much else were live and potentially dangerous unless something was done. Perhaps in Frankfurt more than anywhere else, more of the threads were woven together and the tapestry created makes a fascinating study.


Frankfurt had become a major industrial centre in the nineteenth century, its emerging industrial co-joined to the existing banking and financial sector. It was a cosmopolitan city with a large medieval centre. In 1925, Ludwig Landmann, a liberal and Frankfurt’s first Jewish major, was elected. He centralised the planning and building functions of the city council and recruited Ernst May as the Director. May, himself born in Frankfurt, had lived in England before the war and studied under Raymond Unwin, an advocate of the garden city movement. Unwin had been a friend of the socialist, designer, artist and writer William Morris and a member of the Socialist League. With Social Democratic councillors, a vibrant and lively workers movement and an active trade union movement, Frankfurt was in an interesting position to develop and implement a progressive programme of housing and welfare reform.


The starting point for Landmann, May and the city council was a coherent plan, based on reform, garden city principles, hygiene, “light, air and sun” (“Licht, Luft und Sonne”). The reform would embrace housing, education, health, the provision of open space, culture and more. It was to be an integrated plan whereby housing was integrated with schools and supported by cheap public transport, where community provision would include social facilities and churches. Housing, schools, clinics and hospitals would be surrounded by open space and greenery. Gardens, parks and allotments would provide clean air. The built environment would be designed to support community as well as providing privacy, open space for relaxation, leisure and sports, and an infrastructure of welfare which nourished a healthy mind within a healthy body. This would be an intricate social creation which would support self-realization, spiritual development, personal growth. This was consciously reformist – what might be termed radical reformism. But compared to the conservative thinking of the time – and actually of the present – it was immensely progressive and forward looking, with a strong emphasis on the needs of the working class, of children, of elderly people, of the sick, of disabled people, of people who did not fit neatly into a nuclear family set up.

Traditional German cities, as indeed many European cities, had been built in the Middle Ages with an assemblage of central square often surrounded by a cathedral, town hall and guild halls. The New Frankfurt was going to represent a more egalitarian place, and the distributed working class housing would be its achievement. This fitted with the principles of the garden city movement, many of whose supporters advocated humanistic values to “realize a contemporary urbanity based, not on grand institutions, but on the everyday.” [4]

The Housing Question

Some “public housing” had been built before the First World War, but in small quantities, while a small number of industrialists and philanthropists built for “the workers” but on paternalist grounds – and tied housing is always problematic for tenants. But much working class housing was built and managed by speculators and slum landlords. There were few, if any, controls on housing quality. Rents were uncontrolled and tenants lacked rights. Families could be living in one room, possibly with relatives or a “bed lodger”.[5] Toilets were shared by landing, or perhaps by block. Bathrooms and central heating were unknown. Water was heated over an open fire, which was also used for cooking. Scarlet fever, measles, and respiratory problems carried off large numbers of babies and infants in a constant and grim toll. Flu, rheumatism, TB and the deprivations of poverty regularly thinned out the ranks of the adult population. It is easy to forget that despite the saturation levels of poverty, such places could be enormously profitable.[6] There were many things to be sorted out.

Housing in Siedlung Nonnenpfad
Housing in Siedlung Nonnenpfad


The quality of housing in capitalist society is determined by the costs of land, labour and materials. City authorities in Germany often held some land – the historical roots which were in the complexities of German medieval history [7] and the revolution of 1848. But the majority of land continued to be held by private landlords and companies. [8] For that class, it was the source of a great deal of wealth and power. “Very large companies dominated the situation around most German cities”, writes Catherine Bauer in her classic 1930s book Modern Housing – “they were closely allied with the banks and controlled the middlemen, the lot-developers, and finally the builders.” [9]

Two factors combined to temporarily shift power to the municipality. The first was the hyperinflation of 1922-23 which saw prices rise by a factor of over a billion, which played havoc with pre-existing economic models. Mortgages were wiped out, business collapsed, savings eliminated and land prices fell – sometimes to a fifth of per-war levels. Berlin, for example, bought up 10,000 acres of land for future development and other cities, including Frankfurt, did the same. The second factor was that the municipal authorities attempted active intervention against the power of the land owning class, the speculators and slum landlords. There was a genuine wish to end the whole catastrophic cycle which Bauer described as “building expansion, overproduction, crash, period of inactivity and fear, shortage, higher rents, expansion – and so on”. [10]

If the city could control the land, and the price of land, then it could have much more control over the costs of housing, the type of housing, and where it was built. In 1920, cities in Germany were for the first time given the powers to make compulsory purchase of land for housing purposes. Compensation payments were “to be reasonable” and land was to be purchased at actual and not speculative value. But overall, the purchase and acquisition of land for house building was a difficult and complex process which met with resistance from the land owners, the slum owners and their political representatives. They would feign reluctance to sell, put forward objections, play hard-ball, embark on frustrating negotiations and bargaining. As their real power was never broken, their grievances festered and they would later come back for revenge, with violence.

A major part of housing costs depends on the materials used and the type of construction. In an attempt to control costs, May and his team adopted a number of approaches, many of which originated from changes within the forces of production. Mass production intensified the speed and volume of production and changed the relative positions of machines and workers. Machines began to dominate industrial production and this was accompanied by changes to the organisation of labour. Taylorism and Fordism emerged – management systems whereby each part of the labour process was broken down into a micro level of detail. In this way the worker’s labour could be controlled at each stage and adapted more and more closely to the rhythm and dynamics of machine production.[11] Mass production was predicated on standardization, rationalization and “efficiencies”. What was happening in factories slowly spread into other areas of production, including construction.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with standardization, rationalization and efficient production. It would be impossible to manufacture anything at all on a large scale or create complex infrastructures and built environments without standardization. [12] Rationalization of production, leading to an abundance of necessities with the minimum of labour, should be an ambition of every socialist. An efficient system of production which reduces labour effort and maximises the utility of materials is the only sustainable future. But this is not how these determinants play out in capitalist society. In the context of New Frankfurt, each of these were adopted primarily to reduce costs and this had implications on skilled and organized labour and unskilled and unorganized labour. Rationalization and standardization confronted the workers as a real threat to jobs, demarcations and skilled positions.

Standardization and rationalization in practice were used to enforce economies of scale and reduce “costs”. The construction of building was standardized. Pre-fabrication was used (for the first time) which meant that panels could be constructed in factories and assembled on site. Work could now continue in the winter months, traditionally a time when outside building work might be stopped because of bad weather. If panels could be produced in factories, then that production could be scaled up to become mass production and the rate of production could be speeded up by further automation. But this approach raised tensions with the existing artisanal building trades workers and the small capitalist builders. A perennial limitation of reformism is that it does not – and cannot – control developments within the forces of production (themselves driven by competition and the needs of capital accumulation). In a general process of trying to “reduce costs” the building industry was slowly moving from being a labour intensive industry to a capital intensive one.[13] This presented a fundamental problem which reformism could not solve, then or now.

The next question was to determine how those costs were going to be met. This was something which a courageous reformism could attempt to address. Throughout the programme around 70 percent of the costs were met by public funds. In addition, a wide range of taxes were introduced. Landlords were taxed. Wealthy home owners were taxed. Luxuries were taxed. Slums were compulsory purchased. The profits of private landlords were regulated. State loans were provided at low interest. Rents were controlled and tenants’ rights introduced. The idea which underpinned this approach – which seems extraordinary and revolutionary from the viewpoint of Britain in the 21st century – was that housing should be a public utility and created by an investment of public funds. Housing was not to be simply a cash-cow for management companies and rich investors. Rents were to pay for maintenance, not as a source of profit, and any surplus would be re-invested in more housing, thereby increasing the housing stock over time.

The Siedlung Movement

A great deal of the housing was organised in settlements (Siedlungen) in a mix of styles. Some of the housing was low-rise apartments, others were row housing, occasionally semi-detached [14]. The major settlements, which include Römerstadt, Praunheim, Westhausen, Bornheimer Hang, Riederwald and Hellerhof, were built on the outskirts of the city where land was cheaper and existed as brown field sites.[15] All of the settlements were built with water, electricity, gas and central heating. Quality standards – based on extensive research – were implemented. Some of the housing was provided with a telephone network from inception and others were built with a cable-radio network pre-installed. Public transport was planned for ease of access, but with cheap tickets so as not to “punish people” who could not afford to live in the centre or closer to their work places.[16] But the separation from workplaces was also deliberate in trying to provide cleaner and healthier living spaces for people. As well as introducing controls on smoke-stack industries, the aim was to separate living space from centres of production.

Siedlung Römerstadt
Siedlung Römerstadt

For the first time mass working class housing was built with indoor toilets and separate bathrooms with baths, showers and hot running water. Central heating was provided by innovative district heating systems. The very layout of the working class living space was re-configured. Previously a working class family might consider themselves “lucky” to have the sole use of a kitchen and a general room for sleeping and “living” in. The home was now reconfigured to include separate living and sleeping areas and as much provision as possible was made for working class children to have separate bedrooms assigned by gender. Instead of working class teenagers sharing their sleeping space with their siblings and parents, they now often had their own space. A separate kitchen was created and a fitted one at that.

The inventor of this astonishing development was the rather brilliant Margarete (Greete) Schütte Lihotzky. She had been the first woman to graduate as an architect from the University of Vienna (made possible by the reforms of Red Vienna). She had a great sense of the double oppression of women – who were exploited as wage-earners within capitalist production and exploited in the wage-free environment of domestic labour. As an architect and designer she considered those issues from the perspective of a working class woman. Schütte-Lithotzky designed and implemented what became known as the Frankfurt Kitchen.[17] The rationale was to reduce space in the kitchen to create extra space in the living areas (remember the god of costs). To do this effectively she studied the dining cars and kitchens on trains and the galleys of ships, made exact measurements between items, arranged sinks and cupboards to minimise movements, and experimented with colour schemes and materials. Everything was created so it could be easily cleaned and kept hygienic.

Education Reforms

If there is one thing the nineteenth century is not famous for it is the provision of adequate education for working class children and teenagers. It was a central demand from the very beginnings of the workers’ movement across Europe and decent education was only won after a hard fight which went on for decades. The constitution of the Weimar Republic included the right of every individual to an education. In 1919 the first universal law in German history was passed, which included equality between the education of girls and boys and the development of schools as integrated systems defined by quality standards. In 1920 legislation was passed that every child should have access to a neighbourhood school. The housing settlements therefore all had schools built close by.

There would now be a radical attempt to introduce the education reforms which had been in existence, but without power, from before the war. The old system which drummed into the heads of working class children a rudimentary learning based on the fear of God and rote learning was to be dismissed. The radicals proposed schools which were to be classless, secular and co-educational. Rote learning would be replaced with experiential methods, designed to develop inquisitiveness and discussion, “the modern teacher would be a friend and leader” and “the classroom environment would encourage spontaneity and independent thinking”.[[18]] The purpose of education was to be self-realization. In 1919 the Frankfurt Teachers’ Union produced a manifesto demanding self-government, “the replacement of ‘dictatorial’ rectors and the election of school advisory boards”. These demands were supported by parents through school strikes against the old order.

The school curriculum was designed to include sports, dance, crafts, music, studio arts with access to gardens, playing fields and gymnasia. Local history and the topography of the city would be taught on day trips, natural sciences and gardening would be taught outdoors in school gardens, parks and forests. Laboratory experiments, growing plants and field study were seen as central to learning. One school constructed a mini-Frankfurt kitchen with which to teach home economics. Special provision was made for children from poor and overcrowded homes, or whose parents had to work late. They could stay after school and use worktables and craft equipment. The Haenisch School, near the Riederwald settlement, was built with a hall – equipped for theatre, films, concerts and lectures – which both the students and local community could use.

As Susan R. Henderson points out in her comprehensive history of New Frankfurt the architects responded with schools designed to embody democratic principles, self-realization and hygiene. [19] Schools were designed so they could be opened up and where possible teaching was outside. But they were also designed as landmarks, central places in the community and part of the distributed pride and achievements of the city, in contrast to the previous regime’s triumphal arches of wars and military campaigns. Instead of pictures of the Kaiser hanging in every classroom, the artist Max Beckmann was invited to come and paint murals on the walls.[20] All was built to the idea of the slogan, “New Buildings Make New People”. [21]

Schools were built with kindergartens attached and after school provision. There were no disputes about “free” school meals. Where it was needed, the children were fed not once but three times a day.[22] Nap rooms and sleeping terraces were provided. Infants were regularly bathed, a response to the fact that many working class families still lived in miserable poverty. Schools were deliberately designed to be light and airy with large windows and glass walls which could be opened in the summer. Appropriate colours were used (“each sequence of rooms had evolving colour moods”) [23] and everything designed and built so it could be easily cleaned. Municipal branches of the offices of public health and child welfare were established in the schools and each child received a medical examination once a year. They were all taught personal hygiene and how to brush their teeth.

For the younger children classrooms were designed so that the walls could be drawn on. Classroom furniture was designed to be lightweight yet strong, so that it could be easily moved around “to follow the sun”. The children could be sat in rows, or for a change, the teacher might suggest that all the tables were moved into a semi-circle or from which they could be read a story. Furniture for infants was kept plain as a counterpoint to bright coloured toys and their own drawings and paintings. Infants too had access to gardens where they could cultivate and learn about plants. For entertainment they had wading pools, sand and grass play areas and “lawns for tumbling”.

Health and Culture

Substantial reforms were also carried through in health and welfare provision. A “hygiene” movement developed and “light, air and sun” were recommended for cure and restoration and general health benefits. Building on the work of earlier pioneers, the concept of “more-active therapy” was developed for psychiatric patients and those suffering from mental illness. Gardening was encouraged and was observed to have radical improving effects. Patients were encouraged to “work with their therapists, assuming an active role in their own fate”. [24]

Here too, in the reform of health, architecture was to play an active supporting role. A children’s isolation ward was designed with floor to ceiling glass to provide the maximum of sunlight. Windows were installed which could be raised so that a child’s bed could be easily moved from the ward to an outdoor terrace. A new x-ray unit was described as “best equipped and most beautiful in Europe”. And in a neat development, the principles of labour efficiency used to design the Frankfurt kitchen were used to optimise the space and ergonomics of technicians, clinicians and patients.


There is one other area of reform which deserves mention, and that was in the realm of culture. In Frankfurt there were several initiatives which certainly made some difference to working class lives. The library service was reformed and a deliberate effort was made to move library services into the community, in halls, social rooms, through mobile services. In 1925 the Workers’ Olympiad was held in the city and a special stadium built in the forest. In 1927 Landmann declared that Frankfurt was a city of culture and a “summer of music festival” was organized, part of which was broadcast on the new radio network.

Radio had an interesting history in Frankfurt. A significant electrical engineering industry developed, making not just machines but household goods including radio sets, encouraging purchase. A cable radio network was created, and this was built into much of the housing where people could listen by attaching a speaker or headphones. The person who took a lead in broadcasting was Hans Flesch who has been described as “the most innovative programmer in German radio history”. [25] Plays were commissioned from socialist author Bertolt Brecht, children’s stories from the philosopher Walter Benjamin and music from the avant garde composer Paul Hindemith. The writer Theodor Adorno and others were invited to deliver lectures. An audio montage entitled Radio Magic “mystified its listeners”. Outside broadcasts “painted the colours and the people for their listeners, and sent the sounds of the city and the crowd, live over the airwaves”. [26] What must this have sounded like and how vibrant and alive the city might be?

But within a short space of time, this extraordinary project of housing, education and health reform, city wide planning and city wide aesthetic considerations was over. The Weimar Republic, created out of the November 1918 revolution, ended with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.


The evidence suggests there was a great deal of support for much of what New Frankfurt was trying to achieve. Those who have analysed the press commentary of the time describe how the vast majority of it is favourable.[27] There were certainly many elements of New Frankfurt which had cross party support – certainly in the early days of house building – including from the conservative parties. Later the conservative right started claiming that reforms undermined society. Kindergartens encouraged indolent mothers. Housing for single women encouraged promiscuity and sexual experimentation. It was all very well the working class having hot water and central heating but who was going to pay for it? There were also mutterings that the housing was not to improve living standards at all but to create red bases of social democratic voting workers.

From the left, the KPD (the German Communist Party) argued that it was not possible to deliver reforms within capitalism [28] and that besides, the rents were too high. This raised (and continues to raise) important questions about revolutionaries and reform – what is the balance between fighting for reforms in the here and now, and fighting for revolution to create real and lasting change?

There were wider criticisms too. Was this really an experiment in social engineering and social control? Where was the individual and “creativity” in all of this? It was all very well having radical architects but what about the traditional building trades? Would a society dominated by machines and machine production created a heartless society dominated by technology?

The criticisms intensified with the development of the economic crisis from 1929 onwards and the rise of the Nazis. Their criticism followed the familiar miserable fascist tropes. New Frankfurt was all about “the Jewish domination of the city”. It was “cultural Bolshevism”. “Socialism” and “communism” were used as words of abuse, free of content or context. They decried the “destruction of German building heritage” – though ironically the Nazis’ strategies of racism and war did more to destroy the building heritage of Germany than anyone in 1930 would have thought possible.

The Nazis used racist language and metaphors to criticise the use of flat roofs. These had been controversial to some extent, but not to the extent of the faux-scandal the Nazis sought to make of them. Many people liked the flat roofs which provided a space for sunbathing and socialising. And the nostalgic, nationalist imagery that the Nazis invoked of half-timbered houses resembled something very few, if any, of the urban residents of the city had ever lived in.


By 1930 the impact of the Wall Street Crash had caused severe economic dislocation around the world. In Germany, a divided working class was unable to prevent deep cuts in welfare spending and the unsettling rise of the fascists. The building programme didn’t quite stop but it was clear that any new housing would be basic in quality, service provision and size. The teams who had worked so hard were dispersed, the energy dissipated and the publications closed. Slowly, and then suddenly and all at once, the vibrancy of the 1920s were replaced by the violence and horror of fascist reaction. The political history has been told many times and deserves careful study.

But what of the achievements of New Frankfurt itself? Over 14,000 units of housing were built, generally of high quality and low cost. The creation of a harmonious city-image was attempted which embraced the architecture of housing, schools and hospitals; a cohesion of styles included even the development of the city’s own font, Futura. Parks, gardens, allotments and market gardens were created. Large settlements were built, but care and attention was also given to the design of milk-kiosks for children and fountains in the park. It remains an extraordinary achievement and fantastically rewarding in terms of study and exploration.

In Modern Housing, her classic study, Bauer argued that the innovation itself, in planning, architectural design and housing standards was not the result of “capitalist competition” but because a serious attempt was made to remove these activities from the domination of speculative land use. This is an extremely important point. For once, people’s health and well-being and working class interests were put at the centre of urbanization even if it was in a limited and partial way for a short space of time. This raises many ideas and questions as to what the dynamic potentials of cities might actually be if free of capitalist property relations and capitalist relations of production. Where cities might breath, free of corruption, competition and the pressures of capital accumulation.

Does it show that reforms are possible within capitalism? Of course, but only if they are fought for. Does it show that town planning can work? That good quality housing can be built on a mass scale? Yes it does. Does it show that rents can be in proportion to wages? Well, yes. And if reformism is delivering – housing, health, education, reduction in working hours – then that is worth defending and criticism needs to be thoughtful, philosophical and political. Revolutionaries need to link arms with the reformists and say “this is good stuff, let’s stand together to defend it and in unity, fight for more”.

Housing struggles today tend to be defensive – to try to protect existing tenants’ rights, to gain some control over rent, to protest conditions. The good quality, well designed, low-cost housing that was built on a mass scale across Europe between the wars is simply not happening. Housing is dominated by immensely powerful capitalist interests. Central and local government are dominated by neo-liberal ideas and opposition is weak and fragmented. But none of this is set in stone. Housing is not just a key determinant of city infrastructure, it is not just about profit – it is something which is essential to us all. Rents may continue to rise, quality and standards are under constant pressure to be degraded. Grenfell has demonstrated that not even basic safety can be guaranteed. The forces of capital create tensions and pressures, conflicts and contradictions, and through this struggles and opposition can arise.

Let’s leave the last words to Catherine Bauer, the author of Modern Housing, who continues to be a first class guide and teacher. These words should be inscribed on the banners of all who fight for better housing, better education, better welfare and the maximum of quality and opportunities for the working class, not just for self-realization, but for self-emancipation. She started her book Modern Housing with these words and we shall conclude our story with them and use them to start our practice. They were a call to action when she wrote them, and they are a call to action now: “Housing is more than houses”.


[1] – accessed 18 March 2021

[2] – accessed 18 March 2021

[3] There is an excellent overview here

[4] Susan R Henderson, Building Culture: Ernst May and the New Frankfurt Initiative, p. 43

[5] Someone who just rented a bed for the night. Beds were sometimes rented out on a shift system to maximise the profits of three shifts over 24 hours.

[6] For an excellent overview of the economics of slum housing, there is no better place to start than Sarah Wise’s book The Blackest Streets. It is about London rather than Frankfurt but the dynamics of slums and profits are universal.

[7] “Land purchase policies go back to the Middle Ages, and there are many small towns and villages which own so much property that their inhabitants pay no taxes.’ Bauer, p.ii

[8] “Land is a very peculiar commodity, and ‘real estate’ is in some ways the most unreal and purely relative notion in our psyche” Bauer, p. 17

[9] Bauer, p. 25

[10] Bauer, p. 26

[11] Harry Braverman’s book Labor and Monopoly Capital is a good introduction.

[12] And yet the only time many people appreciate standardization is when they realize they have several phone chargers, none of which fits their phone.

[13] Just look at any major construction site to see how this tendency has continued to develop since the 1920s.

[14] Am Teller between Frankfurt and Offenbach is a small development of 20 units of this nature. It was specifically designed to support market gardening.

[15] It is also easier to construct pre-fabricated buildings on clear sites with wide access but I’ve not been able to find any references as to whether this was a factor – the main issue was land costs.

[16] Contrast with Britain having the most expensive public transport in Europe and where the vast majority of workers cannot live anywhere near the centre of cities, the inner city or even the suburbs.

[17] There were also “Berlin” kitchens, “Hamburg” kitchens and so on.

[18] Henderson, p. 318

[19] May argued that existing schools bring forth only “dullness and defeat” in the children, “a sense of hopelessness and monotonous routine”. (Henderson, p. 321)

[20] The Bornheim Reformschule

[21] Henderson, p. 318

[22] By 1928, “90 percent of the children received food free of charge; others paid on a sliding scale. For many, school meals comprised their only food for the day.” Henderson, p. 282

[23] Henderson, p. 323

[24] Henderson, p. 307

[25] Henderson, p. 218

[26] Henderson, p. 219

[27] Erich Fromm organised a two year research project across Frankfurt from 1929-1931 which studied the psychological responses of the working class to a large number of questions. This was under the auspices of the Frankfurt School but had a troubled history. There was resistance within the school itself and a great deal of documentation, including around half of the completed interviews were lost as a result of the fascist seizure of power. A great deal had changed in the city between 1925 when New Frankfurt had started and 1929 when it was beginning to implode under the pressures of global recession, national economic crises and increasing political instability.

[28] This is not the place to describe the history of the KPD other than to say that the increasing dominance of Stalinism distorted their ability to act rationality in relation to the reformists.






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