Urban planning 90 Years of Frankfurt’s Praunheim Estate

Frankfurt’s Praunheim Estate, aerial view 1936
Frankfurt’s Praunheim Estate, aerial view 1936 | Photo (detail): Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt

Frankfurt am Main suffered under an acute housing shortage after the First World War,
as did all major German cities. Therefore, in 1925 Mayor Ludwig Landmann launched “Neues Frankfurt:” an urban development programme that is unique to this day.

He tasked architect Ernst May (1886-1970), who has previously directed the housing company Schlesische Heimstätte in Breslau, with the direction of this programme. As the new director of urban development, Ernst May was not only responsible for all areas of urban construction, but also for all issues related to social reform and aesthetics. For this purpose he was authorised to put together a staff of 50 architects and designers. In addition, Ernst May edited the journal “Das Neue Frankfurt. Monatsschrift für die Fragen der Großstadt-Gestaltung” (i.e. New Frankfurt: monthly journal on urban development issues), which as the voice of the movement, disseminated information on modern concepts in architecture and lifestyle. But “Neues Frankfurt” gained fame above all through the construction of ten housing estates with a total of 12,000 new residences. Praunheim is the oldest and at once the largest of them with about 1,500 homes. 
  Praunheim under construction, 1926 Praunheim under construction, 1926 | Photo: Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt
The aim of this housing estate programme was to create low-cost residential space quickly. This entailed standardised floor plans and industrial prefabrication, but combined with a requirement for rooms with natural light and ventilation. By means of a modified row construction format and adaptation to the topography in terms of form, the architects sought to integrate the estate with nature as closely as possible. Each house was provided with a kitchen garden for food self-sufficiency. The planner was landscape gardener Leberecht Migge, who implemented in Germany the concepts of the English garden-city movement. Together with Max Bromme, Frankfurt’s parks director, he laid out a large-scale green belt between the estates, which more than doubled the green surfaces of the metropolitan area and that exists to this day.

Praunheim as field for experimentation

The Praunheim estate arose between1926 bis 1930 in three construction phases. It was here that the prefab construction method, the so called “Frankfurter Montageverfahren” (i.e. Frankfurt assembly method) was implemented for the first time in Germany. First of all, three-storey single family homes row houses with rooftop terraces were built – in Ernst May’s view the ideal housing format for families. The shell of such a house could be completed by 18 workers in one-and-a-half days. During the second phase, starting in 1927, multi-family dwellings were also built. In the third phase, starting in 1928, the floor plans had to be reduced and standards lowered due to the already-tense economic situation.
  Praunheim, 1926 Photo: Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt
And it was in the Praunheim estate that the “Frankfurter Küche,” (Frankfurt Kitchen), the forerunner of the modern fitted kitchen, was put into service for the first time. It was developed in 1922 by Grete Lihotzky - the first woman in Austria to complete a university degree programme in architecture – based on the model of the railway dining-car kitchen. In addition, each home was provided with a bathroom.
In addition, a central laundry, the tavern “Zum neuen Adler” (i.e. new eagle), a garden centre, an elementary school and numerous businesses were all part of the estate. A community centre was also planned but not realised; estate residents’ gatherings were therefore mostly held in the tavern “Zum neuen Adler.” In 1930, Martin Weber erected the “Christkönigskirche” (i.e. Church of Christ the King) on the grounds of the community centre as a simple timber construction.
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Photo: Institut für Stadtgeschichte Frankfurt | Sunna Gailhofer

The winds were shifting in Germany towards the end of the 1920’s. The political right-wing was gaining influence and Ernst May, his colleagues, and the Frankfurt construction programme, aligned as it was with international modernism, were increasingly discredited. The world-wide economic crisis of 1929 forced a strict austerity programme on German cities. That spelled the end of “Neues Frankfurt.” In 1930, Ernst May and a series of his staff members immigrated to the Soviet Union.

Praunheim today

  Praunheim 2016 Praunheim 2016 | Photo: Sunna Gailhofer
Praunheim is one of the Frankfurt estates whose appearance has undergone the most change. Today, the formerly uniform colour concept can only be guessed at. The house walls facing outwards towards the riverbank meadows of the Nidda were white, the facades facing the interior of the estate red and blue. Most of the facades have been painted in lively colours, windows altered and expanded with various annexes. However, the prevailing colour is a natural green: the slender saplings planted along the streets during the years of construction now tower over the houses. Some facades have also been adorned with greenery, the gardens dense with mature growth. Despite the differences in façade design, the estate appears tranquil and well-tended, and in a few locations attempts are being made to return the houses to their original state. Evidently Ernst May’s ideas still have currency even after 90 years.