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In Perspective: Ernst May

Ernst May

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Frankfurt – the smallest metropolis in the world, is home to impressive urban designs, such as New Frankfurt, Ernst May’s greatest achievement. A pioneer in urban planning, May championed dozens of forward-thinking suburban spaces and settlements during a time of economic and political uncertainty. When viewed in the content of his era, the 20th century architect’s contribution to the social masses, is all the more impressive. Let’s look back at the legacy of Ernst May.

In 1908, May made his first foray into the world of architecture. He moved to London and studied under the apprenticeship of Raymond Unwin. Under his guidance, May learned the lessons and principles of the ‘garden city’ movement, a method of urban planning. The training he received directly influenced May’s vision, as he integrated the ‘garden city’ concept in the New Frankfurt project. Raymond Unwin was one of the most influential architects and town planners of his time. He always strived to improve urban housing with an emphasis on gardens, something that left a clear impact on May. After finishing his studies in Munich, followed by a short stint in the military, Ernst May began working as a freelance architect.

His 1921 Breslau housing development highlights his sustained focus on multi-family housing and interest in methods of prefabrication, as well as standardisation. He wanted to design minimal, unfussy spaces with the highest efficiency. He brought this concept with him, when he was selected as the principal city planner and architect for a large-scale housing development in Frankfurt. From 1925 to 1930, May proved to be ahead of his time in his planning of New Frankfurt, as his developments of semi-independent and compact suburban communities, were ground-breaking for their time. The main reason May’s designs were so highly regarded, was due to their reflective, egalitarian properties at a time of political instability. These settlements allowed equal access to sunlight, air and communal areas, consolidating May’s vision for creating an urban space that primarily responds to the needs of its citizens.

All May’s settlements were designed for ‘wohnkultur’, the idea of a sense of community. May planned twenty-four settlements and placed them along the Nidda Riva, to separate the older city from expansion, and to use the area for agriculture purposes. On the main project, May and his team of architects also designed various garden colonies with the aim of connecting citizens to the environment. Most of all, he envisioned New Frankfurt as a place of community, or ‘wohnkultur’.

One of May’s most idiosyncratic and strong works is the Frankfurt Kitchen. It was considered the forerunner of modern kitchens in German cities, but it wasn’t designed by Ernst May. It was designed by the first Austrian architect, Frau Gete Lihotsky, however it was overseen and commissioned by May. It was a mass-produced kitchen, designed specifically for May’s housing project.

By the time of his death in 1970, May had left a lasting impression on urban planning. May and his team had successfully provided functional housing, that boasted easy access and green spaces. His designs set the benchmark for urban development. Many of the houses have been demolished, but the estates and settlements were protected as landmarks in the late 1970s.

What Ernst May has achieved is a challenge that many cities still face today. He will always be remembered as a visionary town planner, having produced more than 5,000 building units. He also received international recognition in 1929 for his accomplishments, at the Congres International d’Archictecture Modern. A pioneering figure who believed in the transformative and cohesive powers of town planning.

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