A century ago, as Germany was still licking its wounds from World War I, the Bauhaus school of design opened its doors in the eastern city of Weimar. The legendary name still resonates: If you have €237,000 ($273,000) in spare change, you can buy yourself a turnkey “Bauhaus” home, all set to be constructed on a piece of empty land.
The ready-made abodes – prefabricated, modern, stylish and typically bright white in color – vaguely reflect the popular conception of the Bauhaus label. But what does it actually stand for today?
The Bauhaus brand has become a compendium of modernist clichés: design classics like the Wassily Chair or, in architecture, clear lines, flat roofs and divided facades. The slogan “form follows function” has somehow become associated with Bauhaus, although it was actually coined in the United States 20 years previously.
Bauhaus did not promote a single formula or style, but an ethos and an educational program. Its founding director, architect Walter Gropius, dreamed of merging art and crafts into a single holistic discipline, with students learning across many different fields, from architecture and painting to weaving and woodwork.
Symbols of a new faith
Gropius outlined a visionary idea of design, mixing practical suggestions with grandiose statements. “The new structure of the future will rise toward heaven like the crystal symbol of a new faith,” he proclaimed in the movement's founding manifesto in 1919.
At a time of great political polarization, many Bauhaus teachers and students were left-wing utopians. They wanted to make well-designed, high-quality furniture and textiles for a mass market. The second Bauhaus director, Hannes Meyer, had his own slogan: “The needs of the people instead of the need for luxury.”
The left-leaning school was deeply unpopular with the stuffy Weimar city council, which shut down the institution in 1925. It found new facilities in the nearby city of Dessau, where the Gropius-designed Bauhaus building still stands, today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once established in its new location, the school had a chance to put its architectural ideas into practice. More than any other city, Dessau became a hothouse of Bauhaus urban experiments. “Gropius wanted to become the Henry Ford of residential construction,” says Wolfgang Voigt, an architectural historian.
In the city’s Törten neighborhood, Bauhaus erected 341 row houses, but there were massive cost overruns and problems with build quality. The development still exists but has been altered out of recognition.
In truth, there was no single Bauhaus style. The school, its faculty and its students drew from several currents of modernist design. Their influence can be found in many places, but remains hard to pin down.
This can be seen clearly in Tel Aviv, Israel. Here, an entire neighborhood is marketed as an authentic Bauhaus urban development, consisting of 4,000 white, flat-roofed houses. This so-called “White City” was built largely by German exiles, some of whom had been involved with Bauhaus. But the link has been exaggerated, and while the design is modernist, it is a stretch to call it Bauhaus, says Voigt, the architectural historian.
Traces of Bauhaus influence can be seen in the prefab apartment buildings of communist East Germany, but also in the postwar skyscrapers of Manhattan. But Bauhaus was an eclectic school, where students and teachers helped to propagate a variety of modern ideas on art and design, from the Dutch “De Stijl” movement to the ideas of “New Building.”
Bauhaus was at Dessau for just seven years before another right-wing town council forced it to close in 1932. After a brief sojourn in Berlin, the Nazis dissolved the institution when they came to power in 1933. Numerous faculty and students went into exile; some knuckled under to the new regime; some were murdered in the death camps.
In its first year, more women than men applied to the Bauhaus, although the balance soon shifted back. In theory, gender equality was a founding principle. In practice, women found themselves nudged towards the textile workshop, seen as a more appropriately “domestic” space. In recent years, that workshop has been belatedly recognized for its remarkable innovations in fabric design.
In exile, the Bauhaus artists had their greatest impact in the United States, where Mies van der Rohe, Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy continued to create modernist architecture and design. Moholy-Nagy even founded the “New Bauhaus” school in Chicago.
Gropius, the school’s first director, was a terrible draughtsman, a major disadvantage for an architect 100 years ago. But he had a genius for communication and propaganda. If Bauhaus remains a powerful brand, it may be down to Gropius’ instinct for slogans and inspirational formulations.
These ideas ultimately hoped for a less divided future. The split between art and crafts would be healed. Beautiful forms and materials would be a medium for spiritual renewal and political progress. The ideas still strike a chord today. “Architecture has a different formal language now, but the holistic idea is still central,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, an architect with Danish design practice Bjarke Ingels Group.
Ironically, one thing Gropius and his successors failed to do was to properly trademark the Bauhaus brand. Today, the name is also used by a well-known German chain of home improvement stores. In the 1970s, a lawsuit launched by the school’s successors tried and failed to protect the label.
These days, the school’s trustees take a philosophical view of the proliferation of unauthorized “Bauhaus” products, some at prices that would have horrified its founders. The director of the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau says the name’s great popularity is proof of the enduring power of the Bauhaus idea.
Matthias Streit is a correspondent for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]