Female Badasses in History: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000)
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was outstanding in so many ways: she was the first woman to graduate an Austrian university with a degree in architecture, a famous architect with the Bauhaus movement, designed what is essentially the prototype of every modern kitchen, and was part of the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance as well as an outspoken critic of Austrian post-war politics.
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was born in Vienna in 1897 in a bourgeois family. Through hard work, ambition, and help by artist Gustav Klimt she became the first female student admitted to the K.K. Kunstgewerbeschule (today: University for the applied arts), which at the time was already one of the most exclusive and prestigious school in all of Central Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad who was a pioneer in the filed of sozialer Wohnbau (i.e. the building of affordable and comfortable council housing for low-income families and singles – a program that continues on a great scale in Vienna until this day) and Margarete took over his views that architecture had to be functional in the way that it affords comfort and affordability at the same time rather than looking grand. Even before graduating Margarete was already awarded several prizes and after graduating one of her first jobs was to design residential estates for World War I invalids together with star-architect Adolf Loos.
Many people where highly impressed by her work and in 1926 she was offered a job at the housing magistrate of the city of Frankfurt, which at the time was due to a huge campaign dedicated to creating new housing in the city was one of the forefronts of modern architectural design. Margarete accepted and during her work, she created what basically changed housing and is until this day the prototype of the modern fitted kitchen that probably most us have in our apartments: The Frankfurt Kitchen. The Frankfurt Kitchen was a design that acknowledged the change in society. It was designed not with a big apartment for a family of four in mind (albeit it could work for them too) but with singles or a couple living in an apartment and its purpose was to facilitate kitchen work, mainly for the working woman. Inspired by an assembly line principle and the special design of railroad kitchens, the Frankfurt Kitchen combines special effectiveness with an architectural design that aimed at rationalizing workflow in the kitchen. It introduced the sink-cutting board-stove combination, as well the integrated yet removable garbage drawer, and an organization system with labeled bins and conveniently placed cupboards and drawers. It also was very cost-effective: The kitchen came fully furnished (a novelty at the time) and ran for about 100 Reichsmark (which at the time was more than it sounds, yet not a lot. Comparatively it is cheaper than fitted kitchens today). Feminists have criticized her concept in the 70s and 80s stating that her design isolated women from the rest of the household due to its small-size, which can be viewed as a valid point. However, in the 1920s it was an innovation with working women in mind aimed at providing them with a fully equipped, cheap housing space and – as Lihotzky put it – “allowing them to have more free time and relax”.
Maragrete stayed in Frankfurt until the early 1930s continuing her work and also designing for other cities such as Vienna where she for example designed two apartment blocks with only 35 m2 of base area. With the political situation in the Weimar Republic and Austria deteriorating – Margarete identified as a socialist from her student days on – she and a couple of her colleagues went to Moscow on a program designed to attract foreign architects to help build in the Soviet Union. Margarete helped design for the industrial city of Magnetogorsk and stayed until her pass expired in 1937. Subsequently she and her husband, Wilhelm Schütte, moved to London and then Paris but had trouble finding work there. In 1938 she moved to Istanbul where she met several other Austrian communists who tried to build up a resistance network in what by then had become part of “Greater Germany”. Lihotzky decided to join them and traveled back to Vienna. After some initial success in establishing contact with the small communist underground, the Gestapo arrested her and her companions in 1941. Initially sentenced to death, her husband managed to save her by stealing stationary from the Turkish government and intervening on her behalf. Margarete spend the rest of the war in a prison in Bavaria.
After the war and despite her anti-Nazi activity, the Austrian establishment shunned her by denying her publicly funded work because she was a communist. She was forced to take jobs consulting for housing projects in the GDR, Cuba and China. Only in the 80s did the Austrian establishment decided to honor her for her work but Margarete caused another uproar by refusing an award by then president of Austria Kurt Waldheim because of his past in several Nazi organizations. She was also one of the most outspoken critics of Asutrian far-right politics in the 90s, especially Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party. For her 100th birthday the city of Vienna awarded her the highest honors. She died in 2000 just 5 days shy of her 103rd birthday.
Maragrete Schütte-Lihotzky can be remembered as an architectural pioneer, the influences of her design extending until this day as well as a staunch anti-Nazi activist and one of the most remarkable Austrian women of the 20th century. Modern architecture would do well in taking some lessons from her, especially concerning her ideas about the social function of modern architecture.