Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky (January 23, 1897 - January 18, 2000) was the first female Austrian architect and an activist in the Nazi resistance movement. She is mostly remembered today for designing the so-called Frankfurt Kitchen.
She was born Margarete Lihotzky into a bourgeois family in Vienna. The daughter of a liberal-minded civil servant whose pacifist tendencies made him welcome the end of the Habsburg Empire and the founding of the republic in 1918, Lihotzky became the first female student at the Kunstgewerbeschule (today University of Applied Arts Vienna), where renowned artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Anton Hanak or Oskar Kokoschka were teaching. Lihotzky almost did not get in. Her mother persuaded a close friend to ask the famous artist Gustav Klimt for a letter of recommendation.
In 1997, celebrating her 100th birthday and reminiscing about her then decision to study architecture, she remarked that "in 1916 no one would have conceived of a woman being commissioned to build a house, not even myself."
However, studying architecture under Oskar Strnad, Lihotzky was winning prizes for her designs even before her graduation. Strnad was one of the pioneers of sozialer Wohnbau in Vienna at the time, designing affordable yet comfortable council housing for the working classes. Inspired by him, Lihotzky understood that connecting design to functionality was the new trend that would be very much in demand in the future. After graduating, she, among other projects, worked together with her mentor Adolf Loos, planning residential estates for World War I invalids and veterans.
In 1926 she was called to the Hochbauamt of the City Council of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, by the legendary architect and city planner Ernst May. May had been given the political power and financial resources to solve Frankfurt's housing shortage. He and Lihotsky, together with the rest of May's assembled architectural staff, successfully brought functional clarity and humanitarian values to thousands of the city's housing units.
Lihotsky continued her work by designing nurseries, students' homes, schools and similar community buildings. It was in Frankfurt that she met work colleague Wilhelm Schutte, whom she married the following year. In 1926 Lihotzky also created the Frankfurt Kitchen, which was the prototype of the built-in kitchen now prevalent in the western world. Based on the scientific research by U.S. management expert Frederick Winslow Taylor and her own research, Lihotzky used a railroad dining car kitchen as her model to design a "housewife's laboratory" using a minimum of space but offering a maximum of comfort and equipment to the working mother. The Frankfurt City Council eventually installed 10,000 of her mass-produced, prefabricated kitchens in newly-built working-class apartments.
When the political situation in the Weimar Republic began to further deteriorate and unduly favour the political right, Schutte-Lihotzky joined a team of seventeen architects, the "May Brigade", led by architect Ernst May and including her husband and Erich Mauthner, also from Vienna. In 1930 they travelled to Moscow by train. There the group of architects was commissioned to help realize the first of Stalin's five-year plans, for example by building the industrial city of Magnitogorsk which, situated in the middle of nowhere in the southern Ural Mountains, Russia, on their arrival only consisted of mud huts and barracks: It was to have 200,000 inhabitants in a few years' time, the majority of them working in the steel industry. Although the May Brigade was credited with the construction of 20 cities in three years, the political conditions were bad and the results mixed. May left Russia in 1933 when his contract was expired.
With the exception of brief business trips and lecture tours to Japan and China, Schutte-Lihotzky remained in the Soviet Union until 1937, when Stalin's Great Purge made life there intolerable and dangerous as well. She and her husband moved first to London and later to Paris, France. Also, in 1933 Schutte-Lihotzky had presented some of her work at the Chicago world's fair, Century of Progress.
In 1938 Schutte-Lihotzky, together with her husband, was called to Istanbul, Turkey, to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts, and to reunite with exiled German architect Bruno Taut. (Unfortunately Taut died soon after their arrival.) Lihotzky also designed kindergarten pavilions based on the ideas of Maria Montessori. On the eve of World War II Istanbul was a safe meeting place for many exiled Europeans, a common destination for exiled Germans, and the Schuttes encountered artists such as the musicians Bela Bartok or Paul Hindemith.
In Istanbul Schutte-Lihotzky also met fellow Austrian Herbert Eichholzer, an architect who at the time was busy organizing Communist resistance to the Nazi regime. In 1939 Schutte-Lihotzky joined the Austrian Communist Party (KPO) and in December 1940, of her own free will, together with Eichholzer, travelled back to Vienna to secretly contact the Austrian Communist resistance movement. She was arrested by the Gestapo on January 22, 1941, only 25 days after her arrival. While Eichholzer and other "conspirators", who had also been seized, were charged with high treason, sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof and executed in 1943, Schutte-Lihotzky was "only" sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment and brought to a prison in Aichach, Bavaria, where she was eventually liberated by U.S. troops on April 29, 1945.
After the war
After the war, she went to work in Sofia, Bulgaria, eventually returning to her native Vienna in 1947. However, her strong political views - she remained a Communist - prevented her from receiving any major public commissions in post-war Austria, despite the fact that innumerable buildings all over the country had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt (Wiederaufbau).
Consequently, apart from designing some private homes, Schutte-Lihotzky worked as a consultant in China, Cuba and the German Democratic Republic. In 1951 she separated from her husband, Wilhelm Schutte.
Belatedly, her accomplishments were recognized by the official Austria. She received the Architecture Award from the City of Vienna in 1980. In 1985 she published her memoirs, Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand. Further awards followed but, always true to her convictions, she refused to be honoured in 1988 by then Austrian Federal President Kurt Waldheim on grounds of the latter's dubious wartime past. In 1995 she was one of a group of Austrian Holocaust survivors who sued Jorg Haider after, in a debate in the Austrian parliament on bomb attacks on Romanies, Haider had referred to Nazi concentration camps as "prison camps".
She celebrated her 100th birthday in 1997 dancing a short waltz with the Mayor of Vienna and remarking, "I would have enjoyed it, for a change, to design a house for a rich man."
Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky died in Vienna on January 18, 2000, five days before her 103rd birthday, of complications after contracting influenza. She was interred in an Ehrengrab (memorial grave) at the Zentralfriedhof, Wien-Simmering.
The award-winning Australian singer, writer and director Robyn Archer has written a play based on Schutte-Lihotzky's life.
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