When Margarete “Grete” Schütte-Lihotzky was released from a German Nazi political prison in 1945, all she wanted was to return to her native Vienna and resume her career as one of Austria’s most innovative architects. Instead, she was dispatched to a sanatorium to be treated for tuberculosis, which she had contracted in jail.
Eventually returning to Vienna in 1947, she arrived only to discover that at fifty—an age when most accomplished architects are considered to be in their prime—she was, as she put it, “a persona non grata.” One obstacle was her gender, as there were very few women architects of Schütte-Lihotzky’s stature in Austria or anywhere else at that time. Another was her politics, as she was a communist, feminist, and peace activist who had worked in the Soviet Union for seven years before World War II and participated in Austria’s anti-Nazi Resistance until her arrest by the Gestapo in 1941.
Schütte-Lihotzky remained a persona non grata to Austria’s architectural establishment until her eighties. Undeterred, she focused her energies on political and social activism and making the most of her rare commissions, such as the seemingly mundane design of a kindergarten on Vienna’s Kapaunplatz during the early 1950s. It was one of only two public commissions Schütte-Lihotzky secured after the war, yet she designed the Kapaunplatz Kindergarten so smartly and sensitively that it has served as a global standard ever since.
Demeaning as it might have seemed for an architect who had worked on major public housing programs across Austria, Germany, and the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s to be reduced to such a modest project, the kindergarten synced neatly with Schütte-Lihotzky’s politics and her past experiments in social design. The daughter of wealthy, progressive parents, she was the first woman to study architecture at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts (thanks to a family friend who persuaded artist Gustav Klimt to plead her case). After graduating in 1923, Schütte-Lihotzky designed social housing in Vienna before joining a team of radical architects working on a mass housing program in Frankfurt. As the only woman on the team, she was given supposedly appropriate projects such as kitchens (her most famous design, the modular Frankfurt Kitchen, was copied worldwide for its ergonomic efficiency) and kindergartens. Neither a housewife nor a parent, Schütte-Lihotzky had no practical experience in either field and railed against the gender cliché of being chosen to design “that damned kitchen,” as she called it. However, she became fascinated by kindergartens and their potential to improve the well-being and prospects of the children who attended them.
Schütte-Lihotzky continued her research on kindergarten design in China, France, and the Soviet Union into the 1930s, later expanding her studies to Bulgaria and Cuba. From the outset, her focus was on creating clean, light, airy spaces that would stimulate childrens’ imaginations while they enjoyed learning and playing.
Her design scheme for the Kapaunplatz Kindergarten was the culmination of these years of research and experimentation. The outcome was a single-story brick building with an H-shaped floorplan and a central entrance that offered an immediate view through a window into a playroom which, like all the large spaces intended for group activities, opened directly on to the garden. The windows were positioned to maximize the flow of fresh air across the rooms, thereby cooling the building during the hot Viennese summers and dispelling airborne germs year-round. The garden sported a paddling pool, a playground, and little pergolas where children could nap outdoors.
Even though the Kapaunplatz Kindergarten was acknowledged as “an important milestone” by the mayor of Vienna at its official opening on June 7, 1952, Schütte-Lihotzky’s struggle to win design commissions in Austria continued. Notably, her proposal in the mid-1960s for a national network of children’s day care centers was rejected. Not until 1980 were the achievements of this exceptionally talented, determined, courageous, and resourceful woman finally celebrated by her compatriots when, at the age of eighty-three, she was awarded the City of Vienna Prize for Architecture. The Kapaunplatz Kindergarten remains in use today.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon.