Frankfurt am Main was, next to Berlin, perhaps Germany’s most important center of
20th-century architectural developments. Its attempts to initiate an era of “New Building”
with innovative social housing programs and extensive public works construction in the
1920s and its impressive post-World War II rebuilding program that culminated with the
creation of a publicly funded “Museum Mile” in the 1980s have given Frankfurt an
architectural prominence that far outweighs its modest size. The building of dozens of
Europe’s tallest skyscrapers has made Frankfurt’s skyline similarly distinctive.
Located on the Main River at the edge of western Germany’s densely populated
Rhein-Main industrial area, Frankfurt is the capital of the German state of Hesse and one
of Europe’s most important banking, commercial, industrial, and transportation centers. It
began the 20th century as a province of Prussia under the guidance of Mayor Franz
Adickes (1846–1915), who initiated a series of reform-minded urban-planning policies.
Before World War I, visitors and professionals from the nascent field of urban planning
flocked to admire Frankfurt’s new streets, boulevards, parks, housing projects, public
transit system, sanitation, and land development schemes. The unique brand of municipal
socialism created by Adickes gave the city government broad powers to create a beautiful
and well-ordered city that planning officials throughout Germany, England, and the
United States envied and sought to copy.
Despite these reforms, Frankfurt, like most other German (indeed European) cities,
suffered a tremendous housing shortage at the end of World War I in 1918. Although
some remedial reforms were implemented immediately after the war, major
improvements did not come until the enactment of the Dawes Plan and the infusion of
American money and loans in 1923 and the election of Social Democrat Ludwig
Landmann as mayor in 1924. Landmann further reorganized the city government and the
tax laws to allow for more efficient planning and construction of housing and public
works and hired the young architect Ernst May from Breslau in Silesia to take control of
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all building and construction departments in the city. Although May did not solve the
housing crisis he inherited, he initiated an unprecedented program of innovative research,
planning, and construction that once again drew the attention and participation of many
of the Europe’s leading architects and planners.
May’s program called for the greater part of the population to live in a series of new
decentralized satellite cities clustered around the old city core, to which they would be
connected with high-speed roads and public transit. Based on older ideas of the Garden
City movement that May had learned as a student of Raymond Unwin in England, the
new housing estates provided high-density low-rise housing for middle-income workers
both in large blocks and in long row houses. Whereas early satellites developments such
as Bruchfeldstrasse (1926–27, E. May), Römerstadt (1927–28, E. May), and Praunheim
(1927–29, E. May) were often laid out with more traditional curved streets and
courtyards, the latter ones, such as Westhausen (1929–30, E. May), Hellerhof (1929, M.
Stam), and Am Lindenbaum (1930, W. Gropius), were laid out in rigid, uniform rows
oriented north to south to maximize the solar orientation of each apartment and allow for
greater standardization of building components.
To realize his ambitious plans, May reorganized the municipal construction industry,
making the process faster, cheaper, and better. Through the help of some national
building research grants (RFG), he rationalized the municipal production of materials and
standardized building components, including the lightweight, prefabricated-concrete
panels that were assembled into cubic, flat-roofed housing. May and his team, including
Grete Schütte-Lihotsky, Martin Elsässer, Adolf Meyer, Emil Kaufmann, and Ferdinand
Kramer, worked hard to define an “existence minimum”—the optimal and most efficient
apartment layout for a given family size. The floor plans, the furnishings, and especially
the “Frankfurt Kitchens” were completely redesigned and mass produced according to
the latest American efficiency theories of C.Frederick, Frederick Taylor, and Henry Ford
in order to minimize costs and work for the housewife. The resulting “New Building”
was, like engineering, striving to be completely objective, rational, and efficient not only
in its construction system but also in its aesthetic and social organization.
The housing program was complemented by an ambitious school-building
program, new libraries, parks and recreation areas, new wholesale markets
and electrical substations, and the implementation of a whole series of
social and cultural reforms to help transform Frankfurt into a more modern
home of the proverbial “New Man.” May publicized Frankfurt’s reforms
in the avant-garde magazine Das neue Frankfur t (The New Frankfurt), which circulated the
innovative ideas to Europe, the United States, Japan, and the rest of the
world. Frankfurt’s successes led the Congrès Internationaux
d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) holding its second congress in Frankfurt
to inspect, admire, and share May’s achievement of building over 10,000
new apartments in five years. Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter
Gropius, and many other avant-garde architects of the Modern movement
marveled at the new housing, infrastructure,advertising graphics, and schools in the “New Frankfurt” and modeled many new
standards on the Frankfurt prototypes.
In 1930, May and his team of architects left Frankfurt because of increasing pressure
from Germany’s radical right, who labeled May’s modern brand of architecture
“Bolshevik” and unGerman. They went to the Soviet Union, where they had even greater
experimental planning projects. Construction on the “New Frankfurt” continued until
1933, when Hitler’s Nazi regime took over political power of Germany and championed
a more traditional, handcrafted, pitched-roof architecture. Although architectural
development slowed, Frankfurt’s banking, transport, and industrial base made it an
important center for Nazi wartime production. Two of the world’s largest chemical
companies, Hoechst and the former I.G.Farben, makers of the gas used in Nazi
concentration camps, had their headquarters in new buildings in Frankfurt, the former in
a brick Expressionist building by Peter Behrens (1924), the latter in a monumental, stoneclad,
10-story curved building by Hans Poelzig (1931). After World War II, Poelzig’s
office building was used as headquarters for the U.S. Army, and after 1995, it was slowly
converted into university facilities.
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From the fall of 1943 to September 1944 and especially on the night of 22 March
1944, the historic center of Frankfurt was almost completely destroyed by Allied
bombings: of 47,500 buildings, fewer than 8000 survived at least in part. After the war,
expecting to become the headquarters of Allied occupation forces, Frankfurt’s planners
elected to reconstruct their city based primarily on considerations of efficient traffic
arteries and large building lots rather than restoring the original medieval city fabric.
After rubble removal in the late 1940s, rebuilding started in the 1950s alongside West
Germany’s economic recovery. The modern, International Style buildings designed by
May’s colleague Ferdinand Kramer as well as well-known younger architects, such as
Egon Eiermann, Sep Ruf, and Gottfried Böhm, still dominate downtown Frankfurt. With
the relocation of the West German Central Bank to Frankfurt in 1957, the city grew
rapidly into the largest banking and stock exchange center of Germany, the home of one
of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant convention centers, with exhibit halls
by F.V.Thiersch (1907), O.M.Ungers (1984), and Helmut Jahn (1989), and home to
Europe’s largest and busiest train station, one of the busiest airports in the world, and
some of Germany’s busiest Autobahn crossings.
In the late 1970s, citizens began to demand more spending on cultural affairs and the
creation of a more humane cityscape. They voted to restore and reconstruct their war-torn
central Römer Square with its surrounding 16th-century merchants’ houses, using
traditional half-timber framing techniques. The city also began the creation and
construction of a series of worldclass museums, most of which were located on a short
stretch of riverbank across from the downtown in the more traditional Sachsenhausen
neighborhood. Unger’s German Architecture Museum (1984) and Richard Meier’s
Museum of Applied Arts (1985) added on to early 20th-century villas, whereas the
German Postal Museum (1990, G.Behnisch), the Museum of Modern Art (1991,
H.Hollein), and the Schirn Kunsthalle (1985, D.Bangert, B.Jansen, S.Scholz, and
A.Schultes) are completely new structures.
Although the tall banking towers had already earned the city the nicknames
“Bankfurt,” “Mainhattan,” and “Chicago on the Main,” during the final decade of the
century Frankfurt added a whole series of Europe’s tallest and most innovative new
skyscrapers. The trend started with Ungers’ Torhaus (1984) and Jahn’s Messeturm (1991)
at the convention center. On the skyline, the blue-glass twin towers of the Deutsche Bank
(1984) downtown were soon joined by the DG Bank “Crown” tower (1993) by Kohn
Pederson Fox and the Commerzbank Tower (1997) by Sir Norman Foster, which
contains large multistory atriums every eight floors with trees to help condition the
building’s air. Frankfurt’s recent designation as the home of the European Union’s new
central bank has only fueled the construction boom—the Landesbank Hessen is planning
a tower by Peter Schweiger, and German Telekom is planning a skyscraper by Richard
Rogers. The second “New Frankfurt,” created alongside the new museums and banks, has
once again become a fertile ground for architectural innovation and admiration.

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