Despina Stratigakos. A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. xvii + 239 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-5322-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-5323-2.
Reviewed by Emily Pugh (School of Art and Design History and Theory, Parsons the New School for Design)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Remapping Wilhelmine Berlin for Women
In recent years, scholars have begun increasingly to concern themselves with the influence of space on the formation of both individual and collective identities. In the studies that have resulted, space is examined not as an absence or volume, but rather, after Henri Lefebvre and others, as a product of social, economic, and political relations. Despina Stratigakos's intriguing but sometimes perplexing new book continues this trend, considering the urban space of Wilhelmine Berlin from 1871 to 1918 from the perspective of gender, social, and class relations. In particular, Stratigakos examines the "visible network of women's spaces," which, she argues, came about as women's material and social circumstances evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Germany (p. x). In her discussion of such spaces, Stratigakos is interested in uncovering a Berlin she argues has been overlooked in most treatments of the period, but also in how women played in active role in shaping the city and its conception.
The book is divided into five chapters, each of which provides an in-depth study of a particular issue related to women, architecture, and urban space in Wilhelmine Berlin. Chapter 2, for example, entitled "From Piccadilly to Potsdamer Strasse," examines the effort to construct clubhouses on the English model for middle- and upper-class professional women in Berlin. Chapter 4, "Exhibiting the New Woman," covers the successful 1912 exhibition "Die Frau in Haus und Beruf," which presented examples of women's labor both in the domestic and professional spheres, including books by female authors, "live" exhibits of female hairdressers, and model dwellings designed by female architects. A recurring theme among the examples in each chapter is the confrontation between those spatial and social realms traditionally associated with men and those traditionally associated with women. As women ventured into skilled professions and the university, their presence in these previously male-dominated spheres raised new issues related to architecture and building. Housing for female university students and unmarried professionals was one such issue, and as Stratigakos recounts, it was women who responded to it. Women such as wealthy patroness Ottilie von Hansemann, activist Helena Lange, and others took it upon themselves to design, raise funding for, and build a class of residences that would meet these new needs and, in so doing, allowed for the continued emancipation of women. Given a "home of their own," these women could continue their studies, or live comfortably in the company of other like-minded and career-focused women.
Just as women began to enter professional and public spheres, men in the early twentieth century were increasingly required to enter the private, domestic sphere as housing inspectors, sent by the city's housing authorities to monitor the living conditions of the lower classes in the modern, industrial metropolis. And, just as women's appearance in professional spheres had raised a new set of architectural challenges, men's presence in the domestic sphere as housing inspectors called forth questions as to the goals of such inspection, and who best could fulfill this role. While some argued that housing inspectors should possess technical skills, including a knowledge of building codes and zoning regulations, others were convinced that the inspector should act instead as a social worker, advising tenants on proper housekeeping skills. The debate, as described by Stratigakos, boiled down to which was more important: inspectors' "ability educate the tenant" or their "technical proficiency" (p. 161). At the root of this issue were questions about the role municipal government would play in regulating the life of the modern city dweller, but also what roles men and women would or even could play in the new metropolis. As the borders between social roles and physical spaces blurred, both the architectural needs of the city's inhabitants and the practice of building reflected these changes. And, as Stratigakos effectively argues, many women took active roles in shaping Wilhelmine Berlin's built environment rather than passively allowing the city to change and grow around them.
In the work, Stratigakos does a very good job of outlining what appear to be key examples of the changing nature of this relationship between social change and architecture in Wilhelmine Berlin. In doing so, she rightly stresses the function of class in helping to blur the lines between previously finite social and spatial realms, thus raising the issue of divided economic realms. Indeed, the function of class in bestowing authority on some women and denying it to others, and in allowing certain individuals greater freedom to violate the various spatial and social codes of Wilhelmine Berlin becomes clear. In her chapter "The Architecture of Social Work," for example, Stratigakos points out the often patronizing relationship between the middle-class women who offered sewing classes or held classical concerts in Berlin's working-class districts, when their students would not have been welcome in their teachers' well-heeled neighborhoods.
Indeed, the examples outlined in each of the chapters seem thoughtfully chosen and are undoubtedly well researched and thoroughly detailed. This is both the book's strength but also, perhaps, its weakness. While the reader ends each chapter with an extensive knowledge of, for example, matters such as the history behind the Lyceum clubhouse or the 1913 guidebook What a Woman Must Know about Berlin, the larger context of these examples is at times left wanting. Often, the reader takes away no sense of whether the examples chosen are noteworthy exceptions to social rules or illustrative of broader trends. For example, it is unclear whether the Victoria Studienhaus provided a model for the construction of other university dormitories in the Wilhelmine era, or whether it remained the lone building of its type. On a more general note, while objections of conservative critics to individual events or issues are noted, one wonders whether attempts by women to assert themselves in the urban space of Wilhelmine Berlin were met with organized resistance by other women, or whether counter-visions of the city's built environment were offered. Was there, for example, a Wilhelmine Phyllis Schlafly, who, in response to social and cultural shifts, attempted to re-assert traditional female roles via an arrangement of urban space that ran counter to those plans offered by Helena Lange or architect Emilie Winckelmann? Further insight into the resistance to and critiques faced by the women featured in the book could help to convey the truly revolutionary and modern nature of the kinds of buildings, spaces, and even social relations these early female activists advocated.
Another avenue for further exploration would be the matter of possible connections between women's experience of Berlin in the Wilhelmine era versus subsequent eras. Given the widespread study of, for example, debates about style and modernity in the German Werkbund and representations of the "new woman" in the Weimar era, the lack of a more extensive discussion of how these issues might relate to the topics in this book seems a missed opportunity to explain the larger impact of the specific people, structures, and events outlined in the book. Certainly the emergence of some women from traditional roles was both precipitated and hastened by the same developments that initiated Werkbund debates over culture versus civilization and Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft. One can imagine that critics' reactions to women's efforts to create their own spaces within the city must have stoked any anxieties they already felt about German design and culture. When, for example, Werkbund member Paul Westheim dismissed designs from the "Die Frau in Haus und Beruf" exhibition as "unconstrucive prettiness" that was both "weak" and too concerned with ornament, he seems to have been dismissing these designs as base and fleeting "fashion," not worthy of designation as "style" (p. 122).
Considering the larger historical and social arcs within which her analysis unfolds, the implications of what Stratigakos uncovers are undoubtedly intriguing and offer new insight into the well-traveled ground of Weimar scholarship. It is interesting, for example, to reconsider the "new woman" of the Weimar era in light of the path-breaking efforts of middle-class women in the Wilhelmine era who established their own types of architecture and urban spaces rather than settling for the rather limited spheres of action to which they had been assigned by their gender. One can see how women associated with modernist architecture and design, like Lilly Reich, who exhibited work in "Die Frau in Haus and Beruf" exhibit, and Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, were, while innovators in their own right, also building on the work of activists, administrators, and architects who had preceded them. Though Wilhelmine Prussia is usually thought of as stuffy, conservative, and tame, Stratigakos's book shows the reader not only an alternative Berlin, but an alternative view of German architecture and design in the modern era.
. Frederic Schwartz discusses the opposing categories of "fashion" vs. "style" in chapter 1 of The Werkbund: Design Theory and Mass Culture before the First World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Emily Pugh. Review of Stratigakos, Despina, A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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