Lotte Stam-Beese (1903-1988) : from 'Entwurfsarchitektin' to urban-planning architect

Vertaalde titel van de bijdrage: Lotte Stam-Beese. Van 'Entwurfsarchitektin' tot stedenbouwkundig architecte

J. Oosterhof

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The Silesian-born urban-planning architect Lotte Stam-Beese became famous not only in the Netherlands, but also in CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) circles, for her designs for modern post-war housing districts in the Dutch city of Rotterdam.
The path she travelled to get there was a fascinating one, and shows how the course of her life was determined by her training, work, love affairs and relationships during the 1920s and 1930s. This article takes a closer look at her career, with special emphasis on her work at Bohuslav Fuchs’s architectural firm in Brno from 1930 to 1932 and her other activities in Czechoslovakia. It will attempt to show how this period and these circumstances helped shape her personal development and the choices she made in her life. This paper is based on various sources consulted in archives in the Czech Republic, Germany, Ukraine, the United States and the Netherlands, as well as literature research.

Lotte Beese – her maiden name – grew up in the countryside near what was then the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) in a lower-middle-class Protestant family. In those days few girls from such a background received a secondary education.
After doing several minor jobs, she persuaded her parents that a course at the Bauhaus in Dessau was the right choice for her. When she began studying there in the 1926-1927 academic year she was already 23, making her one of the older students. In 1928 the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer had been asked to set up an architecture course at the Bauhaus, entitled die neue baulehre (‘the new way of building’). Inspired by Functionalist design and Marxist thinking, Meyer saw architecture and building as an elementary process, in which people’s biological, mental and physical needs were crucial to the design of housing, and hence of living. Lotte Beese was keen to take the new architecture course. Meyer, who not only set up the course but a year later also succeeded Gropius as director of the Bauhaus, was less prejudiced than his predecessor about the idea of women studying subjects previously reserved for men. Lotte Beese was allowed to take the die neue baulehre course, thus becoming its first female student. Meyer considered her a good student; but he was less encouraging about her future prospects. She could become an architect – provided she married a male architect and worked for his firm. His advice was soon followed almost to the letter – for the two fell in love. Although the Bauhaus was known for its free-thinking attitudes, a conspicuous affair between a female student and the director, who was not only fourteen years older but also married with two children, was simply not acceptable. When their relationship became public knowledge, Meyer told her to quit the course. He found architectural jobs for her, first at his firm in Berlin, later on at architect Hugo Häring’s firm in Berlin and finally in Czechoslovakia, where she began work in 1930 as an Entwurfsarchitektin (‘design architect’) at Bohuslav Fuchs’s firm in Brno – the very bastion of Czechoslovakian Modernism with Bohuslav Fuchs as a leading architect. Here she would continue to work for almost two years.
A surviving certificate that Lotte Beese received from Bohuslav Fuchs shows that she had worked on six projects during 1930: completion of the Vesna industrial school for girls in Brno, the savings banks in Třebíč and Tišnov, the Moravian Bank in Brno, the Morava sanatorium in Tatranská Lomnica, and drawings for steel structures in low-rise dwellings in Italy.
In summer 1930 Hannes Meyer was suddenly dismissed from the Bauhaus, for he was considered awkward and too ‘political’. He moved to Moscow where he was appointed professor at the State College of Building and Architecture and chief architect at the Institute for the Construction of Higher and Technical Schools, both based in Moscow. He asked Lotte Beese to live and work with him there. She gladly agreed, and left for the USSR. But their life together was not a success, and after a few months she returned to Brno where she was able to resume work at Fuchs’s firm. By now Lotte Beese was pregnant, and she gave birth to a son whose father was Hannes Meyer. Although Fuchs had granted her three months’ maternity leave, correspondence with a lawyer reveals that he refused to pay the necessary allowance. Beese took him to court, and appears to have won the case. This did not improve relations between them, and she could no longer return to her job at his firm. Indeed, as an unmarried mother, she was no longer able to find any kind of work in Brno, especially at a time of deepening economic crisis.
Now unemployed, she had more time to take part in Brno’s left-wing political and cultural life. She was a member of the Czechoslovakian communist party KSČ (Komunistická Strana Československa) and the cultural organisation Levá Fronta. She attended Levá Fronta meetings and she went to discussion evenings on modern literature and lectures by left-wing writers and thinkers. As a member of the KSČ, Lotte Beese helped to organise ‘proletarian evenings’ and campaigns. By now the city council had banned KSČ assemblies, demonstrations and public meetings. On 30 October 1931, to mark the fourteenth anniversary of the USSR, the party organised a pro-Russian demonstration followed by a public meeting at the Workers’ House in a district of Brno called Tuřany. Beese gave a speech at the meeting, and was reported to the police. No longer feeling safe in Brno, she told Meyer she wanted to join him with their child; but he was no longer interested. Now Lotte Beese needed an alternative. With the rise of national socialism in Germany, returning there was hardly an option. Working and living in Russia seemed a better idea. In April 1932, probably with help from her friends in Prague, the left-wing architecture critic, publicist and graphic designer Karel Teige and the Modernist architect Jaromír Krejcar, she set off for the Ukrainian city of Kharkov to work as an architect. She left her son Peter with Krejcar and his then wife, the journalist Milena Jesenská.
Lotte Beese worked in Kharkov for Giprograd, the Ukrainian section of the State Institute of Town Planning, and made ground-plan drawings for the sotsgorod (‘socialist town’) KhTZ – a large, linear housing district on a railway line ten kilometres from the city centre of Kharkov. Built from the late 1920s onwards, the district was intended for employees of the nearby, newly-built Kharkov Tractor Factory.
In September 1932 she went to collect her son from Prague and take him to Kharkov. The relationship with Hannes Meyer gradually came to an end.
In spring 1933 Lotte Beese ran into her former Bauhaus teacher, the Dutch Functionalist architect Mart Stam. Stam had a responsible position in the ‘May Brigade’ (led by Frankfurt’s former city architect Ernst May), as project manager for the construction of the industrial city of Magnitogorsk in the Urals. Their encounter turned into a love affair. Lotte Beese joined Mart Stam and worked on various urban planning projects, including the renovation of the town of Orsk. Following Mart Stam’s refusal on principle to build a new city in an inhospitable area near Lake Balkash that was polluted with copper ore, they had to quit the USSR. After marrying in Moscow, they left for the Netherlands, where they lived and worked in Amsterdam. But their marriage eventually broke down.
By then, aged 37, Lotte Stam-Beese – she kept the name ‘Stam’ after her divorce – was taking a course in advanced and higher architectural teaching in Amsterdam, and she graduated in 1945. She realised that as a qualified architect she had more chance of finding a job in her favourite profession – and she succeeded. In 1946 she was appointed as an urban-planning architect in Rotterdam, which had been devastated in a German bombing raid on 14 May 1940. In 1955 she was promoted to chief architect, and was given the assignment of designing new, modern housing for the whole city. Her designs included three large housing districts developed in a Functionalist style.

While working at Bohuslav Fuchs’s architectural firm in Brno, Lotte Beese became well acquainted with Modernist architecture. There she also met like-minded people, made friends and was politically active. All this encouraged her to go and work in the new Soviet state and it sharpened her political consciousness.
It was not the architecture of individual buildings – the main focus of her work in Czechoslovakia – but social housing in an urban environment that truly appealed to her and would become her specialist field. She designed large estates in green surroundings, where she hoped people would assist and cooperate with their neighbours. In her lectures she regularly used the following quote about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s posthumous book Citadelle: ‘car je suis d’abord celui qui habite’, which she interpreted as ‘you can only be a human being if you truly have a home.’
Vertaalde titel van de bijdrageLotte Stam-Beese. Van 'Entwurfsarchitektin' tot stedenbouwkundig architecte
Originele taal-2Engels
Pagina's (van-tot)94-105
Aantal pagina's12
TijdschriftArchitektúra & Urbanizmus
Volume51
Nummer van het tijdschrift1-2
StatusGepubliceerd - mei 2017

Trefwoorden

  • female architect, city planning , functionalism

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