Berlin after World War II. „Blumenstraße“, 1946, photo: Cecil F.S. Newman, Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin
After the end of World War II Germany had to face the consequences of the Nazi regime’s actions – which included millions of homes that had been destroyed or damaged during Allied bombings. According to estimates, there were about 400 million cubic meters of debris. With many men dead or prisoners of war, there were seven million more women than men in Germany. The Allied powers, in both West Germany and East Germany, ordered all female citizens between the ages of 15 and 50 to participate in the post-war clean-up. While this hands-on task fell on the so-called Trümmerfrauen [literally translated as debris women], mainly male architects and designers outlined not only plans for future cities, but also developed idealised concepts of home. The Western Allies aimed to present West-Berlin as a modern, forward-looking city. As part of this effort, the municipality came up with an open-call for ideas Berlin plant [in German Berlin plans], inviting both architects and citizens to participate. One of the questions was: “How can a standard family of 4 live on 65 sqm?”
Collage from a booklet designed by Georg A. Neidenberger for the Internationale Bauausstellung [International Architecture Exhibition] in Berlin, 1957.
The female journalist and writer Alix Rohde-Liebenau (1896–1982) contributed a comprehensive piece of design criticism “Neuordnung des Tagesablaufs und der Inneneinrichtung” [Realignment of the daily routine and the interior furnishings], questioning and challenging the premise of the open-call itself: What is the “norm” of a family after World War II, with so many families torn apart? How shall 65 sqm, no matter the design, ever be enough space for 4 people to “live” in? Now, that there was a chance for a fresh start, why not think radically about completely new concepts, detached from standards and norms? The text is based on the premise that even though there had been more male designers and architects, women were the experts on daily home routine.
“With all due respect to the professional achievements of men, and admitting that the woman has not yet achieved brilliant performance in any field of expertise, it should be emphasised that the only ‘field’ in which the woman surpasses the man, is simply life itself, the daily routine of life. And around this life one has to plan and build.”
„Bei aller Hochachtung vor den Fachleistungen der Männer und zugegeben, dass die Frau es auf keinem einzigen Fachgebiet zu genialen Leistungen gebracht hat, muss einmal gesagt werden, dass das einzige ‚Fach’, auf dem die Frau den Mann übertrifft, eben das Leben ist, der tägliche Ablauf des Lebens. Und um dies Leben herum muss geplant und gebaut werden.“
In order to design a house, one does not only need to know the number of people who are supposed to live in it, one rather needs to know who they are, how they spend their days and nights and what they need in order to live and dwell.
Alix Rohde-Liebenau questioned the “standard family of 4”, which ignores: unmarried and single, couples with no children, or those with more than 2, just to mention a few versions of family. She referred to the 2 plus 2 norm as a temporary state, which even in peaceful and stable times doesn’t last long with children growing up and finally moving out. However, looking at the situation after World War II, one could hardly find any “normal family”. The majority of husbands, sons, and brothers had either fallen in war, were prisoners of war or came back injured and/or highly traumatised. On top of this, women and men had gained completely different experiences during the war and they had drifted apart. Alix Rohde-Liebenau wrote that separate bedrooms, one for each member of the household, could be a way to recognise this situation and to treat each person as an individual. Every member of a household should not only have their own room (or space) but also be able to design it in their personal way, to make it their own. Why not furnish rooms individually, instead of following old traditions that dictate which objects a bedroom should contain? One cannot dwell in tradition, said Alix Rohde-Liebenau. And especially after World War II, when almost everything had been destroyed, people should see the situation as a chance to start anew, from scratch.
In order to ensure their own space for each member of the household, rooms needed to be used in a more efficient way than in the past. Any bed, for example, could easily function as a sofa and therefore allow people to use a bedroom both during the night and the day. Alix Rohde-Liebenau not only addressed practical questions like where to keep the blankets, the cushions, and the pyjama during the day but also gave hands-on tips for how to build DIY furniture.
“How to transform beds into couches has already been shown in different ways. Usually a bed frame with coil springs is sufficient or, if nothing else is available, a frame with linen or leather stripes. Just look at the old junk as raw material which parts can be reused as needed.”
„Wie man aus Betten Couchs umbaut, ist oft in den verschiedensten Varianten gezeigt worden. Sonst genügt auch ein Rahmen mit Sprungfedern aus einem Bett oder, wenn überhaupt nichts da ist, ein Rahmen mit Leinen- oder Gurtenbespannung. Man seh doch das alte Gerümpel als Rohstoff an, dessen Teile sich beliebig verwerten lassen.“
“The pillow can stay on the couch during the day; covered with a ‘day outfit’ made of nice cotton or silk with the stitched monogram, it becomes a sofa cushion (always dusty sofa cushions will be used as raw material for mattresses, and in this way the germs usually living on them will disappear). The nightgown does not belong under the pillow anyway, it should rather hang just like the other clothes […].”
„Das Kopfkissen kann auch tagsüber auf der Liege bleiben; es bekommt ein ‚Tageskleidchen’ aus nettem Waschstoff oder aus Seide mit dem gestickten Monogramm und ist zugleich Sofakissen (und dafür werden diese Mikrobenzüchtungen von immer, aber auch immer staubigen Sofakissen verschwinden, man kann sie zur Matratze verarbeiten). Das Nachtgewand gehört sowieso nicht unters Kopfkissen, sondern auf einen Bügel wie die anderen Kleider auch […].”
“Books can be stored on the wall–mounted shelves along the walls and underneath the windows and therefore they become walls themselves, without scattering the space.”
„Bücher können überall auf Regalen längs der Wände, unter Fenstern angebracht werden und sind dann Wand, ohne den Raum zu zersplittern.”
Rooms could be used more efficiently if not occupied by big wall units, huge desks (that are hardly used) or pianos (that no family member can play on). Like many of the Werkbund architects and designers, also Alix Rohde-Liebenau advocated the paradigm “less is more”. But she did not just follow her male colleagues and simply copy the idea. Observing closely the situation and condition of people who lived through the Nazism and the World War, and were trying to rebuild their lives, she came to conclusions on the look of the ideal home.
Some people had to flee (as a result of the Potsdam Agreement signed by the Allies, during the post-war period, German citizens and people of German ancestry were expelled from the former eastern territories of Germany and sent to the remaining territory of Germany and Austria), others had to move in order to find a job or a new home. In these cases, it made absolute sense to have as little belongings as possible – only a few well-chosen, precious things – so that one could easily carry the most important and valuable things to the next location.
A human being works and eats in order to live, emphasised the author. “One does not live in order to work”, said Alix Rohde-Liebenau. And dwelling is, in her view, as important as eating.
“The National Socialism wanted to turn the nation into armament workers who are fed by day out of casernes and chased to sleep into the bunkers at nights. This ‘on behalf of the people’ and the common good. On behalf of the people the happiness of each individual was completely destroyed. Instead, if one builds the well-being of many truly existing individuals, the ‘wellbeing of the people’ will follow inevitably. […] The wellbeing of each human being starts and ends with the house (or private flat). Dwelling is not less important than eating. Our master builders have the power to provide us a dignified life.”
“Der Nationalsozialismus wollte aus dem ganzen Volk Rüstungsarbeiter machen, die man tags aus Kantinen fütterte und nachts zum Schlafe in die Bunker trieb. Das ‘im Namen des Volkes’ und des Allgemeinwohls. Im Namen des Allgemeinwohls wurde das Glück jedes Einzelnen bis zum letzten zerstört. Baut man hingegen das Wohl von lauter tatsächlich existierenden Einzelnen, so ergibt sich daraus zwangsläufig ‘das Wohl des Volkes’. […] Mit dem Haus (oder der abgeschlossenen Wohnung) beginnt und hört das Wohl des einzelnen Menschen auf. Wohnen ist nicht weniger wichtig als essen. Unsere Baumeister haben es in der Hand, uns ein menschenwürdiges Leben zu verschaffen.”
Everyone needs a place in which they can not only retreat from work but actually be themselves – a place to call home. However, since a home is also a place of work – housework – it should at least be possible to do these inevitable tasks in a pleasant way. Alix Rohde-Liebenau suggested that the kitchen could be reduced to a trolley equipped with electric hotplates, a working surface and enough storage space for cooking utensils. Everything that exceeded the daily cooking of simple, but good meals, was according to Rohde-Liebenau, a hobby. (She made this point also regarding the barely used office desk that many men had in their homes.) The mobile kitchen that she imagined could be moved into the garden or onto a balcony, so that one could not only enjoy the sun and the fresh air but also live a less isolated life. The dirt and dust (from vegetables) would stay outside, kitchen waste could directly go to the compost and dishes could be cleaned with the help of the garden hose.
“[…] the ‘mobile kitchen’: A solid moving table with a linoleum cover; on it the hotplate, immersion heater, portable stove. […] The woman can move the mobile kitchen next to the desk, next to her sewing, yes, she can take it into the garden or onto the terrace. […] In terms of the kitchen it should be noted that we can store the whole kitchen equipment inside our new kitchenette or mobile kitchen. Until now the kitchens were so crammed with ‘practical’ things that one lost oversight of time and tidiness! But one actually only needs: 3 or 4 pots, one pan. In addition, in the main drawer: one sharp knife, wooden board, ideally also funnel, sieve, colander, grater […]”
„[…] die ‚fahrbare Küche’: Ein solider Fahrtisch […] mit Linoleumplatte; darauf die elektrische Kochplatte, Tauchsieder, Kocher. […] Die fahrbare Küche kann die Frau neben den Schreibtisch rollen, neben ihre Näharbeit, ja sie kann damit in den Garten oder auf den Terrassenplatz ziehen. […] Zur Küche wäre noch zu bemerken, dass wir in unserer neuen Kochnische oder dem fahrbaren Kochtischchen auch die ganze Kücheneinrichtung unterbringen können. Bisher standen die Küchen so voll von ‚praktischen’ Dingen, dass man die Übersicht, Zeit, Ordnung, darüber verlor! Man braucht aber praktisch nur: 3 oder 4 Kessel, eine Pfanne. Dazu an Geräten in der Hauptsache ein scharfes Messer, Holzbrett, allenfalls noch Trichter, Sieb, Durchschlag, Reibe […]”
“I don’t understand why the housewife until now, even if she had a garden, a terrace, a balcony, was seldom seen outside doing her chores, that can just as well be done in the garden; because ‘one’ wasn’t supposed to do that?”
„Ich verstehe nicht, warum die Hausfrau bisher, auch wenn sie einen Garten, eine Terrasse, einen Balkon hatte, so selten mit den häuslichen Arbeiten, die sich doch ebenso gut im Garten ausführen lassen, draußen anzutreffen war; weil ‚man’ so etwas nicht tat?”
For baking, doing the laundry, sewing, and other tasks that require more space and also bigger machines or special tools, she proposed a room shared by several households – especially since these tasks are not part of the everyday routine. Rohde-Liebenau’s mistrust in kindergartens and state institutions (stemmed from the experiences of the Nazi regime), led her to believe, that children should be kept at home – to avoid state brainwashing mechanisms. Therefore, rearing children at home and being able to always take care of them was of the utmost importance. Since women were the ones performing the house labours (such as raising children) Rohde-Liebenau saw it as crucial that they are always able to take care of their children.
Alix Rohde-Liebenau’s contribution to the open call impressed German architect Hans Scharoun, who was appointed by the Allies to the building council of West-Berlin. He invited her as an “expert on dwelling” to take part in several evening discussions broadcasted by German radio. Still today she is hardly known for the work that she accomplished within the design discourse. Rohde-Liebenau was born into a privileged family that nurtured her talents and enabled her to first work as a secretary and later on to become a professional writer, translator, and broadcaster. However, she had no official education as a designer or architect – and history (especially in a patriarchal society) tends to remember only those (men) with titles and networks. Design criticism was not yet a field of its own and it was in general hard for women to study or even to become fully respected members of organisations like the German Werkbund. Her name, like the ones of so many women thinkers, disappeared from the collective (design) memory. Therefore, we need to actively research female voices within the field of design, a discipline that was and still is very much dominated by men and functions within the patriarchal frame. We need to rewrite the design history and include women designers and thinkers, not in the context of their sex to mirror the past and the existing imbalances, but in order to shake up the dominant masculine ethos which has been prevalent ever since the beginning of the discipline.
We can learn from Alix Rohde-Liebenau by revisiting her ideas and her way of thinking, and by introducing them into current discussions. She went to the foundation of our society, looked at the daily struggles of people, and especially the end-users, analysing to what extent the design in question actually followed their needs. She questioned norms and standards, but she also gave constructive feedback, imagined and proposed practical tools and ways to create a framework that allows people to be the individual that they are. In order to achieve this, she put herself in the shoes of both the end-consumers and the designers.
Alix Rohde- Liebenau´s contribution is a piece of gender-focused design criticism, and we should remember her not only as a writer but also as a female design critic, for whom the gender context of design was a very important one. In order to reclaim the design discourse and to re-write the history of design which until now mostly focused on male designers, the exhibitions like the recent one in the Museum der Dinge [Museum of Things] in Berlin are an important part of the broader process. “gern modern? Living Concepts for Berlin after 1945”, curated by Nicola von Albrecht and Rose Epple (it was on the show until 26 June 2017) presented Alix Rohde-Liebenau’s text juxtaposed with models made by (male) star architects and famous Werkbund members. Her text got needed exposure and attention.
Portrait of Alix Rohde-Liebenau, shown within the frame of the exhibition “gern modern? Living Concepts for Berlin after 1945” at Museum of Things, Berlin.
Anja Neidhardt is a design researcher, writer, curator and educator based in Berlin, Germany.