Ernst May’s “Flats for Subsistence Living” (1929)
Do we need flats for subsistence living?
Objections against the building of smaller flats are frequently raised. The usual arguments are trotted out; the smaller the living space, the more expensive each unit of this space becomes; flats below a certain size are later impossible to let. Questions of hygiene and mental health are raised and contribute to the final recommendation of larger flats, of about fifty square meters living area, should be built. The old ones would then be passed down to the lower paid.
Who makes these recommendations?
Are they voiced by the hundreds and thousands of homeless who lead a wretched existence in attics and cellars or lodge with friends and relations? No, these are the recommendations of complacent householders who cannot begin to understand the problems of the homeless. So we do not take their recommendations seriously. If the host of rejected workers who hope and strive for adequate shelter were asked to choose whether a small minority of them should have large flats whilst the majority continued to live in misery for years and decades,  or alternatively that the evil of homelessness should be quickly removed by their taking smaller flats (which in spite of being compact provide adequate facilities for modern life) we know that the unanimous response would be: Build us flats which although small, are still healthy and comfortable to live in. Above all, offer them at reasonable rents.
Before the war hundreds of thousands of city flats were built well below the standards laid down by the building regulations. The poor quality of this housing was one of the main causes of deterioration in the health of city dwellers. Flats built since the war are generally of a higher standard but are usually let a rent that lower paid workers cannot afford. So we need enough flats of sufficient quality to meet the needs of the poor and homeless. We need flats for subsistence living.
Who should build flats for subsistence living?
The state of the building index in relation to the average interest rate on loans is one of the major factors which can hinder any adequate building program in different countries. In Germany at present companion is unfavorable. For with the building index at 192.8 in the interest on loans has risen from a level of 4.51%, to 11.15% in 1929. This means that a worker’s flat of 50 square meters living area which would have cost him 30 reichsmark before the war, has risen to a level 118 reichsmark. So even if we make use of all available resources we shall not be in a position to lower the rents of newly built flats to a reasonable level without a simultaneous reduction interest rates on loans. That is why the public authority must organize the building of flats for the lower paid workers. Otherwise there is no guarantee that the financial assistance provided by the State reaches those for whom it is intended intact. For the monies which have been set aside to subsidize lower rents are for the use of the general public and should only be employed to aid the building of non-profitmaking flats for the people or to help prospective owner-occupiers. On no account should they be used to stimulate speculative flat building.
How shall these flats for the lower paid be built?
It is impossible to give a positive answer to this question: a negative response is easier. They should be designed to avoid all the past misery that flats for lower paid workers have inflicted on their inhabitants. Whilst the far-reaching field of engineering technology has been developed through exact scientific methods, until now, building has usually developed along intuitive lines.
Even today many architects find it extraordinarily difficult to realize that the core of the problem in designing a block of flats is not its shape and the design of the façade, but the integral structure of each living cell based on the principles inherent in modern living. He must also think as a town planner and integrate the sum of these living cells into the town plan in such a way that suitable amenities are provided for each new community. If this general requirement is only met slowly, then the technical isolation of each flat is more deeply felt. Even if a large number of rooms in a normal building are ranged above each other in rows, correct insight into the numerous individual problems is of immense significance to the community as a whole. In the case of flats for the lower paid workers, a more or less successful solution to each technical problem will help decide whether, and to what extent, the living space can be further reduced. The architect alone cannot be solely responsible for solving the hundreds of issues relevant to this problem. Especially, as so frequently occurs, if he abuses the umbrella of science and resorts to more subjective aesthetic judgments, and tries to utilize every available opportunity to impose his own lifestyle and priorities on the numerous families of lower paid workers who are his clients.
So much unnecessary paperwork and so many failures would be avoided if every architect involved in building small flats were obliged to spend a few weeks in a working class family before he began to plan and build. If flats for lower paid workers are going to be realized we will not be able to do without the help of hygiene experts, engineers, and physicians.
In this case man himself is the measure of the importance of this issue. Otherwise the difficulties ahead would seem almost insurmountable. Only respect for the biological and social status of the man which is threatened by the problem of flats for the lower paid workers keeps in from fruitless theorization and draws us nearer to our goal. We shall build flats which, although let at reasonable rents, will satisfy the material and spiritual needs of their inhabitants.
The exhibition mounted together by the International Congress of Modern Architecture [CIAM] and the Architect in Chief of the city of Frankfurt am Main could contribute. It offers the possibility of furthering the cause of this eminently important task of peacefully uniting the people of the world, encouraging them to aim for the desired goal.
— Originally published in Die Wohnung für Existenzminimum, 1930. Pgs. 10-16.