Walter Gropius’ “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations” (1929)

Translated from the German by Roger Banham.

From The Scope of Total Architecture.

(MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).

• • •

The overall progress in housing design during the years following the First World War reveals that development of the minimum dwelling has reached a stalemate, evidently because deep-rooted changes in the social structure of nations which require the establishment of new standards in regard to the type and size of the necessary dwelling units have not received adequate attention.  Determination of these changes in society must be the starting point for any work in this direction.  Recognition of the evolutionary development of man’s biological and sociological life processes must lead to a definition of the task at hand; only after this has been accomplished will it be possible to solve the second part of the problem, the establishment of a practical program for realizing the minimum dwelling.

The history of sociology is the story of man’s gradual evolution from the wilderness through barbarism to civilization.  The late German sociologist Müller-Lyer, whose scientific results are referred to, distinguishes between four major legal eras of human society:

1.  The era of kinship and tribal law

2.  The era of the family and family law

3.  The era of the individual and individual law

4.  The future era of co-operatives and communal law

He establishes these as the successive phases of gradual social refinement.  A detailed examination of these phases is useful because their regularity shows clearly that certain phenomena in modern society which are regarded by many as manifestations of regressive decay are actually evidence of evolutionary progress in a society which is in the process of stratification.


In prehistoric times the individual is only a member of society; his actions are purely social.  The individual is not yet awakened.

The first signs of beginning individualism manifest themselves in the subjugation of woman by man.  The patriarchal family arises and persists up to the formation of our modern industrial state.

The subjugation of woman is followed by the enslavement of man by the ruler.  Stratification of society into lords and serfs liberates the ruling class so that it can devote itself to higher cultural problems.  The masses are trained to labor, but the rights of the individual are suppressed.

Rule by force in the warring state is followed by rule by money in the industrial state.  In both states the propertied class rules, the masses become impoverished.  The industrial state, inspired by increasing scientific knowledge, develops more advanced methods of production.  The exploitation of nature offers the possibility of a life worthy of culture for all.  Egotistical individualism gives way to social individualism.  The fully developed individual becomes the aim of the state and the structure of society the means for its achievement.

Thus the concept of the tribe and the patriarchal family evolves into the ideal of an independent individual and finally into that of a future communal union which transcends the individual.

Inspired by the economic life of nations, the idea of rationalization is today growing into a major intellectual movement in which the actions of the individual are gradually being brought into beneficial relation with the welfare of society as a whole, a concept which transcends that of economic expediency for the individual alone.  From the motive of “reason,” social consciousness arises.

This evolutionary process is paralleled by changes in the structure and significance of the family.

The patriarchal family was characterized by supreme sovereignty of the family head.  The wife lived in intellectual sterility and subjugation, and the children, even when grown up, were subordinated by absolute obedience to the will of the family head.  Relatives and serfs, later the servants, apprentices and journeymen, were members of the larger family.  The [93] family was a self-sufficient microcosm, the unit of production and consumption in the state.

The eighteenth century marks the flight of serfs from the feudal master household to the free cities.  The number of small families with their structure of parental sovereignty increases.

With the spread of the concept of the rights of the individual, the family progressively surrenders its functions to the state and thus the importance of the family unit in the sociological picture gradually decreases.

The invention of the machine leads to the socialization of labor.  Goods are no longer produced for one’s own needs but for the purpose of exchange within the society.  One product of domestic industry after another is wrested from the family and transferred to socialized industry.  The smaller unit, the family, thus loses its character as a self-contained productive unit.

With the progressive emergence of the individual the human birth rate decreases, in a manner analogous to phenomena observed in other forms of life, and it decreases in all civilized countries.  The will of the individual, armed with the means provided by scientific achievements, tends toward voluntary birth control for reasons of predominantly economic nature.  Within the span of one single generation the two-child pattern is established in all the civilized countries.

On the basis of surveys in the European countries and in America, the average family may be assumed to comprise 4.5 members.  This number is averaged over urban as well as rural districts.  The average family size in larger cities is below 4 throughout.

According to determinations by the German census bureau (1928), the birth rate in Germany was 35.6 per 1,000 population in the year 1900, and 18.4 per 1,000 population in the year 1927.  It had thus decreased to a mere half.  Nonetheless, there is still a birth excess of 6.4 per thousand.

In other civilized countries the decline in birth rate and the resulting decrease in family size progresses at a similar pace.  The birth rate in the various countries decreases with increasing industrialization, but there is still an excess of births in them all.


In the patriarchal system the family alone was responsible for raising its children.  Nowadays the state places a portion of the children’s education in the hands of specially trained pedagogues in public schools.  It thus intrudes into the relations between parents and children and regulates them according to the views of society.  It establishes social security laws to provide insurance for old age, disease and physical handicap and thereby gradually relieves the family of its responsibility to care for the aged, the sick and the handicapped.

Whereas the sons in a patriarchal family inherited their father’s trade, this caste system is dying out and the vocational castes which supersede the birth castes promote early departure from the parental home.  The individual’s mobility increases with the increasing transportation facilities, and the family is thereby diffused and diminished.

The patriarchal relationship between the family head and the journeymen, servants and apprentices is replaced by financial relationships as the barter economy is displaced by the financial economy.  The activities of the family have become too limited to occupy all its members.  The family domicile has become too expensive and too confined to shelter and employ the grown-up children permanently.

The former serfs become free servants, but with the progressive socialization of labor their number gradually decreases as more and more of them escape the family yoke to seek personal freedom and independence in industry.  In most European countries today the demand for domestic servants exceeds the supply by a factor of two.  In the United States the shortage of domestic help is already causing families to move into hotels, in which the domestic chores of the small family are economically centralized.

The confined dwelling is also losing its suitability for social intercourse, and intellectual inspiration is sought outside the family circle; the number of restaurants and clubs for men and women is increasing rapidly.

The rented apartment is replacing the ancestral family home, attachment to the home town ceases, and a new era of nomad individuals begins, fostered by the rapid development of mechanized transportation.  The family is losing its home just as the tribe lost its territory.  The cohesive power of the [95] family is yielding to the rights of the individual citizen of the state.  The conditions of socialized production enable the independent individual to change his place of employment at will, and population mobility is increasing tremendously.  Most of the former family functions are gradually being assumed by society, and the importance of the family decreases despite its continued existence, while the state as such becomes institutionalized.

Past development thus shows steadily progressing socialization of former family functions of legal, pedagogic and domestic nature, and thus we perceive the first beginnings of a communal era which might someday displace the era of individual rights.

One further phenomenon has a decisive effect on the structure of the modern family.  As the family era was ushered in by the rise of man, so the individual era is characterized by the awakening and progressive emancipation of woman.  Woman’s duty of obedience to man vanishes, and the laws of society gradually grant her rights equal to those of men.  As the family transfers numerous domestic chores to the machinery of socialized production, woman’s sphere of domestic activity shrinks and she looks beyond the family for an outlet for her natural need for occupation: she enters the world of business and industry.  In turn industry, rejuvenated on basically new foundations by the machine, shows woman the impractical nature of her domestic hand labor.

Recognition of the shortcomings of the individual household awakens thoughts about new forms of centralized master households which partially relieve the individual woman of her domestic tasks by means of an improved centralized organization which is capable of performing them better and more economically than she can perform them herself, even when she applies all her efforts.  The growing shortage of domestic help further emphasizes such desires.  In the hard battle for subsistence faced by the entire family, the woman seeks ways of gaining free time for herself and her children while participating in gainful occupations and liberating herself from dependence upon the man.  Thus the process does not seem to be motivated exclusively by the economic plight of urban [96] populations, but it is the manifestation of an internal drive which is connected with the intellectual and economic emancipation of woman to equal partnership with man.

The organizational structure of such master households for single men and women, for children, widowed or divorced adults, or newlyweds or for ideological and economic communities of various forms is connected intimately with the problem of the minimum dwelling.

It is of course true that even in the present age, for which our practical work is intended, all forms of human society, old and new, continue to exist side by side; it is quite obvious, however, that one form predominates at any given time; the importance of the individual and his independent rights today overshadows that of the family as a sovereign unit.  The rise to independence of the woman dissolved a powerful family bond; the forced marriage of old has practically vanished, and France in the days of the Revolution already considered marriage legally as merely a contract between citizens, which implies the right to divorce; woman finally achieved suffrage and thus political equality with man.  Liberated from the limited horizon of the household, she extends her influence to cultural spheres.

The increasing independence achieved by woman produces modifications of a fundamental nature in the cornerstone of the family, the marriage contract.  Originally a compulsory institution sanctioned by the state and the church, it evolves gradually into a voluntary union of persons who retain their intellectual and economic independence.  Economically speaking, the family is reduced to the functions of reproduction and breeding selection.  The stronger the organization of the social contract, the smaller the sphere remaining to the family.  In its trend toward collective thinking, the institution of individualism is following the path pursued by its forerunner, the institution of family supremacy.

The evolutionary development outlined above is reflected by the following statistics, furnished by the German census bureau:


1900              9,000

1927            36,449

Illegitimate Births

1900                8.7%

1926              12.6%


In addition, according to information from physicians which it is difficult to obtain statistically, the number of abortions has increased substantially:

Individual households

1871                6.16%

1910                7.26%

1927                10.1%

The ratio of the number of gainfully employed women to that of gainfully employed men (1920-21):

United States                               1:4

Belgium                                       1:3

England and Sweden                     2:5

Germany and Switzerland             1:2

According to information supplied by the Prussian district census bureau for Berlin in 1925:

Of 5 women above age 20, only 3 are married.

Of 3 gainfully employed persons, 2 are men and 1 is a woman.

Of 5 married women, 1 is gainfully employed.

Of 5 single women, 4 are gainfully employed.

Of 2 gainfully employed women, 1 is simultaneously a housewife.

In 1927 46% of all dwellings in Germany have only 1-3 rooms.

Policy-making government agencies charged with housing administration find it necessary, first of all, to observe the trends of social development, because the most difficult phase of their activity is the correct numerical estimation of the extent to which these general developments will progress within the population of their jurisdictional area.  Only after formulation of this estimate are they in a position to distinguish between the numerical requirements for resolving both the older, familiar types of housing shortages, wherever they are still pronounced, as well as the newer, more individually differentiated needs, and to assign suitable housing to both groups.  Almost all districts are still basing their policies of urban housing procurement to an excessive extent upon the old familial form of life, a pattern which by itself is no longer capable of describing the actual problems.  It appears, instead, that the combination of a number of apartments in the form of a centralized master household [98] has become necessary in order to lighten the burden of gainfully employed women and thus preserve them for marriage and reproduction.

The sociological facts must first be clarified in order that the ideal minimum of a life necessity, the dwelling, and the minimum cost of its production may be found; in view of the change in underlying principles, the program for a minimum dwelling can naturally not be solved by simply reducing the conventional, larger apartment in number of rooms and effective area.  An entirely new formulation is required, based on a knowledge of the natural and sociological minimum requirements, unobscured by the veil of traditionally imagined historical needs.  We must attempt to establish minimum standards for all countries, based on biological facts and geographic and climatic conditions.  This approach is in the spirit of the impending equalization of life requirements under the influence of travel and world trade.

The problem of the minimum dwelling is that of establishing the elementary minimum of space, air, light and heat required by man in order that he be able to fully develop his life functions without experiencing restrictions due to his dwelling, i.e., a minimum modus vivendi in place of a modus non moriendi. The actual minimum varies according to local conditions of city and country, landscape and climate; a given quantity of air space in the dwelling has different meanings in a narrow city street and in a sparsely settled suburb.  Von Drigalski, Paul Vogler and other hygienists observe that, given good conditions of ventilation and sunlight, man’s requirements of living space from the biological viewpoint are very small, particularly if the space is correctly organized for efficiency; a graphic picture of the superiority of a small modern apartment over an obsolete one is provided by the comparison offered by a well-known architect between an ingeniously arranged wardrobe trunk and a crate.

However, if the provision of light, sun, air and warmth is culturally more important and, with normal land prices, more economical than an increase in space, then the rules dictate: enlarge the windows, reduce the size of rooms, economize on food rather than heat.  Just as it was formerly customary to overestimate the value of food calories in comparison with [99] that of vitamins, many people nowadays erroneously regard larger rooms and larger apartments as the desirable aim in dwelling design.

To allow for the increasing development of more pronounced individuality of life within the society and the individual’s justified demand for occasional withdrawal from his surroundings, it is necessary, moreover, to establish the following ideal minimum requirement: every adult shall have his own room, small though it may be! The basic dwelling implied by these fundamental requirements would then represent the practical minimum which fulfills its purpose and intentions: the standard dwelling.

The same biological considerations which determine the size of the minimum dwelling are also determinative in regard to its grouping and incorporation into the city plan.  Maximum light, sun and air for all dwellings! In view of differences in the quality of the air and the intensity of the light, an attempt must be made to establish a numerically defined lower limit, on the basis of which the required amount of light and air can be calculated for given local conditions.  General quantitative regulations which fail to allow for differences, as they exist at present, are useless in many cases.  To be sure, it is the basic aim of all urban building codes to ensure light and air for dwellings.  Every new building code has surpassed its predecessor in striving to decrease the population density and thereby to improve conditions of light and air.  However, all means employed thus far for decreasing population density are based on the concept of the permanent, close-knit family.  The only ideal solution was thought to be the single detached dwelling, the one-family house with garden, and on the basis of this aim the excessive population density of cities was combated by limiting building height.  However, this aim is no longer adequate today, as sociology shows, because it satisfies only a portion of the public needs, but not the needs of the industrial population, which is the primary object of our investigations.  The internal structure of the industrial family makes it turn from the one-family house toward the multistory apartment house, and finally toward the centralized master household.  The healthy tendency to progressively decrease the population density in cities is in no way endangered by this new form of [100] dwelling, since the population density of a zone can be controlled without limiting the building height by merely establishing a quantitative ratio of dwelling area or building volume to building lot area.  This would pave the way for a vertical development of the multistory apartment building.  Whereas the detached one-family house is more suited to the needs of other, wealthier population classes which are not under consideration at present, the large apartment building satisfies more nearly the sociological requirements of present-day industrial populations with their symptomatic liberation of the individual and early separation of the children from the family.  In addition, the large high-rise apartment building offers considerable cultural advantages as compared to the walk-up apartment house with a small number of floors.  For a comparison in the case of alternating parallel blocks of apartments with north-south orientation and having blocks of varying height (two to ten floors), see (Fig.  40, a, b, c, d.)

The results derived from this comparison ensure that the large high-rise apartment building will have the biologically important advantages of more sun and light, larger distances between neighboring buildings, and the possibility of providing extensive, connected parks and play areas between the blocks.  It thus appears necessary to develop the well-organized high-rise apartment building technically, incorporating in its design the ideas of the centralized master household, i.e., to develop gradually the centralization and specialization of the domestic work associated with the small family.  Such a large apartment house does not represent a necessary evil accompanying a period of regressive decay, but a biologically motivated, genuine residential building type of the future for urban industrial populations.

The objections of one-sided defenders of houses against the idea of the residential skyscraper on the grounds that natural instincts attach man to the ground are without biological foundation.

Modern urban industrial population is derived directly from the rural population.  It retains its primitive standard of living, which frequently even decreases, instead of developing expanded requirements corresponding to its new way of life.  The attempt to adapt its housing requirements to its old form of [101] life appears regressive for the reasons described and altogether incompatible with its new form of life.

Previous experience in the various countries reveals that (here is a gap between the cost of producing dwellings and the average income of the families.  It is thus not possible to satisfy the housing requirements of the masses within the framework of a free economy.  As a result, the state is beginning to relieve the family provider of a portion of his responsibilities in this respect as well and to gradually equalize the discrepancies caused by present rent levels with the aid of subsidies and other measures.  Indeed, the construction of low-cost dwellings offers little temptation to industry and banking, whose natural tendency it is to derive maximum profits from production and investments.  Since technology operates within the framework of industry and finance and since any cost reduction achieved must first of all be exploited for the benefit of private industry, it will only be able to provide cheaper and more varied dwellings if the government increases private industry’s interest in dwelling construction by increased welfare measures.  If the minimum dwelling is to be realized at rent levels which the population can afford, the government must therefore be requested to;

1.  Prevent the waste of public funds for apartments of excessive size, while facilitating the financing of the construction of minimum dwellings, for which an upper limit of apartment size must be established.

2.  Reduce the initial cost of roads and utilities.

3.  Provide the building sites and remove them from the hands of speculators.

4.  Liberalize as far as possible the zoning regulations and building codes.

On the average, one-quarter of the income is considered a tolerable rent.  It will have to be determined whether or not the program to be planned can be realized within the scope of actual rent levels.

However, present-day minimum requirements of apartment hunters, which are a result of impoverishment, should not serve as a criterion for establishing the minimum dwelling if an absolute, biologically motivated result is to be achieved; it would therefore also be incorrect to base the program on the present [102] income of the average family.  Instead, the properly established standard, the “rationed dwelling,” must become the minimum requirement of every gainfully employed person; it then is up to the community to find means for making this “rationed dwelling” accessible to all the employed.

[Originally published as “Die soziologischen Grundlagen der Minimalwohnung,” in Die Justiz, Vol. 5, No. 8 (1929)]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 28, 2010.

3 Responses to “Walter Gropius’ “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations” (1929)”

  1. […] Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, and Gropius, Walter. “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations.”  Translated by Roger Banham. The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  […]

  2. […] Gropius, “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations.”  Pg. […]

  3. […] Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, and Gropius, Walter. “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations.”  Translated by Roger Banham.  The Scope of Total Architecture.  (MacMillan Publishing Company.  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: