On the Bauhaus trail in Germany

The Bauhaus Building rises over Dessau, a small, postindustrial city in eastern Germany, like a futuristic message from the past. With its suspended glass facades, exposed steel girding and asymmetrical layout, the three-wing complex feels both modern and familiar. But when it was finished in 1926, it was downright alien.

Like a transparent cube levitating over the town, the building was the crystalline culmination of Bauhaus’ global vision, one so wildly influential that it’s difficult today to find some corner of design, architecture or the arts that doesn’t bear its traces. The tubular chair, the glass-and-steel office tower, the clean uniformity of contemporary graphic design — so much of what we associate with the word “modernism” — has roots in a small German art school that existed for only 14 years.

Founded in 1919 in Weimar by up-and-coming German architect Walter Gropius the Staatliches Bauhaus combined the fine arts, crafts and design under one roof with the aim of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. It existed in three German cities — Weimar, Dessau and Berlin — and under three architect-directors: Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Its development paralleled that of the Weimar Republic, rising from the rubble of the World War I, flourishing in the political, economic and cultural chaos of the interwar years, and ending in 1933 with the rise of the Third Reich. Bauhaus teachers included some of the most important artists of the modern era — Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, to name a few — many of whom fled Germany after the school’s closure under pressure from the Nazis, leading them to pollinate Bauhaus ideas throughout the world, primarily in the United States.

In May, I followed the Bauhaus trail, traveling by train among Germany’s major Bauhaus sites: from Berlin, south to Stuttgart, on to Frankfurt, up to Alfeld outside Hanover, then east to Weimar, Halle, Dessau and back to the capital. Many of these sites are preparing for the 2019 Bauhaus centenary, a three-year program involving at least 10 of the country’s 16 federal states and featuring exhibitions, new museums, events and publications.

The centenary comes at a time when Bauhaus is experiencing a renaissance. Interest among artists is “certainly growing,” said Annemarie Jaeggi, the director of the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, a museum and research center. “I’m astonished how many artists today — and especially young artists — are getting back to crafts and are hooking in Bauhaus ideas,” she said.

The number of visitors to major Bauhaus institutions has been climbing, yet most of them, Jaeggi said, come from outside Germany. Indeed, on my trip, I encountered a historical oddity: Despite its global import, Bauhaus is not widely revered in its country of origin.

This has something to do with the conflation here of Bauhaus and modernism, as well as with the fact that Bauhaus is also the name of Germany’s largest home improvement chain. But there’s a bigger reason, which can be glimpsed through the window of a Deutsche Bahn train hurtling through the outskirts of nearly any German city. The proliferation of cheap, boxlike concrete-slab high-rises that spread like bacteria throughout Germany’s bombed-out cities after World War II is a Bauhaus legacy, for better or worse.

“For many people,” said Jaeggi, “Bauhaus has more of a negative aspect than a positive one.”

Yet a closer look at Bauhaus and the German modernist architectural movement known as neues bauen, or new objectivity, makes clear how little these movements had to do with the prefab obscenities of postwar modernism. Today, many Bauhaus devotees hope the centenary program will sow domestic interest and pride in the movement at a time when Germany is bitterly divided over its reception of refugees and reckoning with its cultural identity.

Although small, Weimar, a leafy, picture-book tourist town about 50 miles southwest of Leipzig, has an outsized cultural significance in the country. Yet as pretty as the hometown of Goethe and Schiller is, there’s something stifling about Weimar’s cobblestone Old Town, with its faux-medieval terrace restaurants full of retirees contentedly eating fruitcake.

Only recently has Bauhaus joined in earnest Weimar’s pantheon of cultural accolades. It was here that Gropius, a handsome 36-year-old architect decorated for valor in World War I, was asked to head a new school formed from the merger of the Weimar state schools of applied and fine arts. When he opened the Bauhaus in 1919, he recruited master teachers and called for artists and craftsmen to create the “building of the future.”

Occupying a suite of art nouveau school buildings, the early Bauhaus was “more than a school,” as Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1981 book “From Bauhaus to Our House.” “It was a commune, a spiritual movement, a radical approach to art in all its forms, a philosophical center comparable to the Garden of Epicurus.”

With their long hair and androgynous clothing, Bauhaus students lived together, worked together and held wild, legendary parties, built around themes (Lantern Festival, Kite Festival) that in later years became increasingly high-concept (Metal Festival, Beard, Nose and Heart Party).

Life at the Bauhaus was in many ways a precursor to the bohemianism that took hold in America’s liberal arts colleges half a century later. The student body was international and diverse, with women making up about half. Although this was outwardly encouraged, Gropius internally asked that all women be funneled into the weaving workshop, with pottery and bookbinding as alternatives. Nevertheless, several women made names for themselves, including metalworker Marianne Brandt whose slick, otherworldly teapots became icons of industrial design.

The school’s early expressionist direction was shaped by eccentric Swiss painter Johannes Itten, who taught Bauhaus’ famous required course on the fundamentals of color, form and material. A self-styled mystic who shaved his head and dressed in robes, Itten was the school’s resident mad priest. He was a strict vegetarian and a follower of Mazdaznan, a Zoroastrian fire cult that originated in the United States.

Itten’s studio was in the Tempelherrenhaus, a mock-Gothic tower designed by Goethe that was damaged in World War II. Its ruins today look out on the spot where Itten required his first-year students to do yoga, chanting and breathing exercises before class.

Today, the former campus is once again occupied by an arts academy, which since 1996 has borne the name Bauhaus University. Current and former students lead “Bauhaus Walks” through the studios where the “Bauhausler” attended workshops, categorized by craft — woodworking, painting, weaving and such — applying an interdisciplinary approach aimed at creating a new functional living environment.

Visitors can also see reconstructions of fantastic wall murals (the originals were destroyed by a Nazi-appointed administration): Oskar Schlemmer’s stylized human figures, a clear influence on Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis,” and geometric abstract compositions by Herbert Bayer, a member of Kandinsky’s workshop after the Russian painter joined the faculty in 1922. That year also saw the temporary appointment of Theo van Doesburg the founder of the Dutch de Stijl movement, who influenced Bauhaus’ aesthetic shift toward constructivism.

Only on a tour can visitors enter Gropius’ faithfully reconstructed office, which was a showpiece for the first official Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. Like an anti-gravity Rubik’s Cube, the entire room is defined by a square-within-a-square concept based partly on Renaissance ideas of proportion, from the seemingly floating arms of the rectangular wood-and-canvas armchair to a lighting system made of tubular bulbs affixed to aluminum rods by wooden linking cubes.

The exhibition also included the nearby Haus am Horn, the school’s first test house. Designed by Georg Muche then the “form master,” or artistic director, of the Bauhaus weaving workshop, the house, with its flat roof and white facade, reflected the latest technical standards and industrial materials: cinder block walls, notoriously faulty Torfoleum insulation and opaque glass skirting boards. All were part of a shift from craft to industry. In his introduction to the 1923 exhibition, Gropius announced the school’s revised motto: “Art and technology — a new unity.”

Although the 1923 exhibition was an art world sensation, it failed to pacify the increasingly conservative government of Thuringia, which had been funding the Bauhaus. Germany was buckling under economic hardship, which, together with the ideological aftershocks of World War I, had made it a breeding ground for nationalist ideas. With its avant-gardism and leftist leanings, Bauhaus had never been popular in Weimar, but when the Nazis joined the Thuringian parliament in 1924, the Bauhaus knew it was time to ship out.

Before leaving, Gropius, a master shaper of public image, donated workshop objects to Weimar’s State Art Collections, which today form the core of the 10,000-piece collection of the Bauhaus Museum at Theaterplatz, the oldest Bauhaus collection in the world. Although the objects mostly predate the great breakthroughs of the mid-1920s, there are worthy highlights, such as a reconstruction of Itten’s glass “Fire Tower,” meant to epitomize the unity of artistic disciplines. The centenary will see the collection transferred to a new museum in Weimarhallenpark.

In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to the rising factory town of Dessau and work began on its new,

radically modern headquarters, which would house everything from workshops to student accommodations.

Today, the glass-steel-and-concrete Bauhaus Building holds a research and teaching institution dedicated to furthering Bauhaus ideas. The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation hosts exhibitions, residencies, student exchanges and events, in addition to its permanent collection, the second-largest after Berlin.

In recent years, the number of yearly visitors has grown to around 100,000, and the foundation has become “more and more geared toward tourism,” said a spokeswoman, Helga Huskamp. Dessau, too, will receive a new museum, a low-lying glass structure with a raised steel exoskeleton designed by young Spanish firm González Hinz Zabala.

Daily guided tours explore the Bauhaus Building; the nearby Masters’ Houses, a suite of partly reconstructed residences where Gropius, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Albers and the other Bauhaus masters lived; and a workers’ housing project on the edge of town. Designed by Gropius, these structures were constructed by his private firm.

It’s impossible to experience the prismatic, cinematic effect of the Bauhaus Building without moving through and around it. The building looks out at itself, glass-and-steel grids that layer into lattice, creating ever-new angles and futuristic vistas.

Glass curtain walls extend to transparent corners. Large panels of steel-framed glass windows open with the pull of a chain. The Gropius-designed metal door handles became the prototype that Germany essentially adopted en masse (Gropius tried, unsuccessfully, to sue for copyright infringement).


It’s not hard to trace a thread between the Bauhaus Building and the layered transparencies and light play in the work of the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy, who joined the Bauhaus in 1923 at age 28, replacing Itten, who had quit in protest of the school’s shift toward industrial design. Moholy-Nagy, the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, quickly became Gropius’ most influential colleague.

For visitors who want an immersive experience, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation offers overnight stays in the Studio Building, which once housed junior masters and promising students. For 35 to 60 euros per night (about $40 to $67), you can rent a room featuring a vertiginous railed balcony. There is no Wi-Fi, and historical authenticity extends to the communal bathroom on each hall, but for the Bauhaus pilgrim, there’s no better way to spend the night.

Lying in a studio room, looking out huge paneled windows over the pitched red roofs of Dessau, I wondered what it must have been like for students inside this futuristic laboratory while, outside, a poverty-stricken Germany churned with reactionary chaos. What seems spartan today felt to many Bauhaus students, according to their written recollections, like paradise: a room and three meals a day, served in the Studio Building’s first-floor canteen, which today offers hearty, no-frills German fare.

The canteen connects to the auditorium, which features an expanded version of the geometric tubular ceiling lighting system that debuted in Gropius’ Weimar office, and an extraordinary linked system of tubular steel chairs, designed in 1926 by a 24-year-old Hungarian named Marcel Breuer. Many of the furniture pieces made famous later by Le Corbusier and Mies owe much to the bicycle-handlebar-inspired creations of Breuer.

In the auditorium, Oskar Schlemmer, head of the Bauhaus theater workshops in Weimar and Dessau, put on his phenomenal avant-garde stage productions, including his masterpiece, the Triadic Ballet, first performed in 1922. Dancers in Schlemmer’s rigid, voluminous, geometric costumes became living sculptures moving mathematically, like marionettes, over fields of color — a plastic metaphysical vision that would haunt the performance art of Robert Wilson, David Bowie, Lady Gaga and others.

Seven of Schlemmer’s original Triadic Ballet costumes sit on a raised pedestal in a low-lit room of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The museum also holds paintings by the native Stuttgarter, many of which were purged during the Nazis’ degenerate art campaign, as well as the Oskar Schlemmer Archive, including letters, drawings, notes and photographs.

In Stuttgart’s outer hills is another important piece of the Bauhaus story: the Weissenhof Estate, built in 1927 as an international showcase of workers’ housing, curated by Mies. Featuring 21 buildings by Gropius, Peter Behrens, Dutch architects J.J.P. Oud and Mart Stam and Swiss-French modernist pioneer Le Corbusier, among others, the exhibition helped establish the so-called international style of modern architecture.

Weissenhof became a kind of world’s fair for the architectural aesthetic championed at the Bauhaus: flat roofs, sheer walls, industrial materials, stripped-down ornamentation. The Weissenhof Estate, a museum since 2007, is one of many German sites that attest to the fact that color — particularly primary colors — was an essential aspect of early modernist architecture.

Under the motto “Licht, Luft und Sonne” (light, air and sun), designing the living space of the future became the highest purpose of Bauhaus and neues bauen.

Germany is sprinkled with innovative early modernist housing projects that will fascinate architecture obsessives. Highlights include Bruno Taut’s 1926 Hufeisensiedlung, or Horseshoe Estate, on the southern edge of Berlin’s Neukoelln district, known for its expressionist doors and redbrick facades, and the Roemerstadt Estate in Frankfurt, part of the revolutionary New Frankfurt large-scale housing development program headed by architect and city planner Ernst May.

Those interested in New Frankfurt can visit the Ernst-May-House, a small museum in a historically reconstructed residence within the Roemerstadt Estate. There, visitors can step into the famous Frankfurt Kitchen designed in 1926 by the prodigious Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky, Austria’s first female architect who was later active in the Nazi resistance. Inspired by railroad dining cars, Schuette-Lihotzky set out to devise a “housewife’s laboratory,” offering maximum efficiency and hygiene within minimum space. Some 10,000 of her prefabricated kitchens were installed in new working-class apartments, becoming the prototype for the built-in kitchen now ubiquitous in the West.

The construction of low-cost prefab housing became increasingly important to Gropius, who resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928 to devote himself to it. Moholy-Nagy left the same year, lamenting in his farewell speech the decline of the artist within the school and saying Klee and Kandinsky were there only “to create atmosphere.” Gropius’ successor, Meyer, a radical functionalist, reorganized the school, yet his staunch Communist affiliations led to the rise of a large Communist cell within the school.

The press attacked, and Meyer resigned in 1930, heading to Moscow with a “red Bauhaus brigade.” His pragmatic replacement, Mies, transformed Bauhaus in its latter years into a full-fledged school of architecture.

When the Nazis took control of the Dessau City Council, the Bauhaus was forced to move yet again. In 1932, Mies set up the school in an abandoned factory in Berlin, financing it with his own money. But in 10 months the Gestapo shut the Bauhaus down for good as Hitler rose to national power.

Although the Bauhaus existed in Berlin for less than a year, the city is filled with remnants of the movement — from the Bauhaus-Archiv, housed in a building along the Spree River that was one of Gropius’ last designs, to the Museum Berggruen’s collection of around 60 Klee paintings and the Kandinskys of the Mies-designed Neue Nationalgalerie, which is expected to reopen for the centenary.

Berlin’s most substantial Bauhaus building is the ADGB Trade Union School in the suburb of Bernau, a zigzagging functionalist complex of brick, steel and glass surrounded by pine forests and the autobahn that was built in 1930 by the second Bauhaus director, Hannes Meyer.

With the Bauhaus-Archiv, an organization called Art: Berlin runs Bauhaus-related Berlin tours (in German, except by advance request for groups) that visit places like the Mies van der Rohe House, his last architectural project in Germany before he fled the Nazis, and Erich Hamann Bittere Schokoladen, a confectionary housed in a 1928 factory complex built by Bauhaus’ mad priest himself, Itten.

After Bauhaus’ closure, the Nazis continued to persecute its former members, accusing them of “cultural Bolshevism.” Some died in the camps, but many escaped to western Europe and the United States.

Gropius and Breuer were hired by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where they reshaped the curriculum. Moholy-Nagy founded Chicago’s New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design. Mies also settled in Chicago, where he became a celebrated architect. And Josef and Anni Albers set up an art school in the hills of North Carolina called Black Mountain College, a tremendous incubator of the American avant-garde that helped launch the careers of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, among others. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art cemented the influence of the Bauhaus with a major exhibition.

The great irony of Nazi persecution of the Bauhaus is that driving it out of Germany only served to spread its ideas.

“Today remembering the Bauhaus is more important than ever,” said Huskamp of the Dessau Foundation, referring to the refugee crisis and Germany’s internal conflict about how to respond. “In these times — especially in Germany, where a lot of people want our society to close itself off more and more,” she added, “it’s important to be aware of what it means to be open-minded, what it means to be international as a matter of course, of what it means to be modern.”