Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Wilhelm Schütte in their apartment in Istanbul, ca. 1939 | © University of Applied Arts, Collection and Archive, F 151

by Denis Heuring

“Architecture has a complex relationship to histories of resistance“

Princeton University Assistant Professor S.E. Eisterer on Spatial Practices of Dissidence during the Nazi regime

The Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky is widely recognized as one of the most significant female figures in interwar design culture. In her research, S.E. Eisterer focuses on her work as well as other architects who joined the communist resistance against the National Socialist regime – and asks how one can pay tribute to dissidents’ memory.

Denis Heuring: S.E., in your research you focus on the resistance against the Nazi regime from an architectural history perspective. What is the relationship between architecture and resistance for you?

S.E. Eisterer: Architecture as a field, has a complex relationship to histories of resistance. The creation of most architecture – if we think of its conventional definition as edifices, urban schemes, and built landscapes – requires a lot of resources including money, materials, trained personnel, and legal frameworks etc. Architectural history has consequently long relied on evidence that stems from these modes of producing the built environment. Typically, we work with blueprints, plans, and photographs to document these works.

But when it comes to the role of architecture for or of resistance, it is necessary to trace spaces as they are inhabited, utilized, and socially and politically produced; this requires looking to different sets of historical documents and artefacts. For me, one of the necessary interventions to excavate histories of resistance against the Nazi regime therefore requires studying what I call spatial practices of dissidence rather than architecture with a capital A to center perspectives and voices of the victims.

What do you understand by “spatial practices of dissidence”?

Overall, I work with a definition that is similar to art historian Pnina Rosenberg’s ideas of resistance art. Rosenberg, who has worked predominantly with art produced in conditions of internment, writes that individual creative works such as drawings served three main functions: art as protest, art as documentation, and art as biological continuation of life by means of “transmitting inmates’ and fighters’ experiences.”

Spatial practices of resistance can have all of these three characteristics, but as a practice they can also be collective, embodied, and part of seemingly everyday actions. While in some cases artefacts and artistic objects can be the result of spatial practices of resistance, I understand these practices as processes and strategies between multiple individuals, to resist, document, and imagine beyond a reality of totalitarianism.

S.E. Eisterer is an Assistant Professor in Architectural History at Princeton University and a Humboldt Senior Fellow with the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism and the Chair of architecture theory at Karlsruher Institute of Technology (with Anna Maria Meister). S.E.’s research focuses on spatial histories of dissidence, feminist, queer, and trans* theory in architecture, as well as housing and labor histories. Currently, she is working on the interdisciplinary history and translation project Memories of the Resistance: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and the Architecture of Collective Dissidence, 1918–1989 under contract with Leuven University and Cornell University Press.

Photo: Denise Applewhite

How do you locate these resistant spatial practices within the domain of architecture?

The practices I am describing predominantly do not fall within a definition of architecture – as an “art of building”, although they do sometimes. Rather they are about imagining, creating, and crafting beyond material realities. Moreover, the fundamental capacity to envision shared safe houses or utilizing one’s knowledge of the city, its urban fabric, and infrastructure for dissident labor is a deeply spatial act.

Hannah Arendt is not an uncontested figure in Holocaust and resistance studies today, but her definition of resistance as “imagining beyond a reality of totalitarianism” in Notes on Lessing has always stuck with me. I can only say that imagining social relationships and spatial possibilities beyond a reality of totalitarianism, is a creative act, as is refusing these realities.

Could you give an example to illustrate the role of creativity and imagination for spatial resistance?

Imagination plays an important role. An example that explains the link between imagination and spatial resistance is the so-called “illegal minute.” The “illegal minute” was a literal time span of only a few moments at the beginning of a clandestine meeting when, for instance, two resistance fighters had to establish a joint background or relationship in case they were apprehended, and then interrogated by the Gestapo or other terror organizations of the Nazi regime; during this brief moment in time, people exchanged pseudonyms or what they called their “illegal names.” They established an imagined story of how they knew each other, and what the nature of their relationship was – where they friends, co-workers, lovers, or relatives. In many cases they even discussed where they had first met and other places they had visited before on that day.

These moments, relied on the invention of fictitious names, a fabricated relationality, and an imagined shared psychogeography. In making these connections the seemingly simple directive to conceal one’s true identity prompted the reinvention of selfhood and its link to others; the “illegal minute” put into practice a common story of covert friendship, a way out, and a literal moment of shared collective imagination. Inventing stories together reaffirmed mutual realities against the Nazi regime and a space of disassociation from the actual precarious and deeply dangerous work.

In your research, you deal intensively with the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. What forms of spatial resistance did she deploy?

In her memoir, 'Erinnerungen aus dem Widerstand' – Memories of the Resistance – Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s describes how Austrian resistance fighters in Vienna used the Baroque architecture of the Habsburg’s summer residence at Schönbrunn for dissident labor against the Nazi regime. In hopes they would not be followed or to lose a tail, she remembers, they would leave to areas on the outskirts of the city, and to parks with avenues or boulevards at times of day that were less travelled.

This required a certain familiarity with the daily rhythms of the city to know when streets and trams would be empty. Walking in the middle of the large axes of the park in Schönbrunn, Schütte-Lihotzky writes, she could ensure she was not being followed. In this way – although she did not make it explicit quite in those terms, the monumental Baroque architecture that had explicitly supported and consolidated systems of power and Empire was turned against the Nazi regime.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky: “The first female architect in Frankfurt at the building construction department”, drawing by Lino Salini, 1927 | Wikimedia Commons

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky is widely recognized as one of the most important female architects and designers of the interwar period. However, she was also an activist. In your opinion, is Schütte-Lihotzky's lifelong political commitment sufficiently recognized?

The short answer is no, or at least not in the English literature and historiography. My project actually begun with the simple question why architectural historians had never taken up the deeply political facets of her work. The easy explanation, that her political work was just not architectural enough is not accurate, because her memoir contains many instances with careful descriptions of landscapes, and buildings, as well as small spatial interventions.

But Schütte-Lihotzky is not the only figure whose role has received little attention so far. Other trained designers such as the Chilean architect and resistance fighter Victoria Maier Mayer, as well as the Austrian architects Julius Kornweitz and Herbert Eichholzer were Schütte-Lihotzky’s close and important allies in dissident work. Based on the idea of cultural resistance – which can include everything from maintaining religious practices to preparing meals for others – it becomes possible to tell another type of architectural history of the period and honor these people’s lives. 

In order to bring these biographies to light, you were also in close contact with the descendants of these resistance fighters. What role do these people play in your research?

If this book begun with Schütte-Lihotzky, families I have worked with in England, Chile, and Switzerland over the years are the reason why I want it to be in the world. Speaking with families, allows me a glimpse into how people lived, what they enjoyed, how they worked, and who they loved.

In these conversations, many of the families have also opened their personal archives and have shared rare documents, images, artifacts, and stories. Many of these stories have never been substantially considered or written about. These silences are compounded by histories of exile, internment, and modes of belonging that defy nationalist projects of reclamation today. And they are accompanied by extreme anguish, grief, and loss that is and remains always palpable.