My Trip to the Bauhuas - Dessau
Anyone who follows me on social media will be aware that I took a trip to Dessau to visit the Bauhaus. This was a bit of a last-minute, impromptu trip after buying a book on the Bauhaus. I figured I've spent so much time reading about it, why not visit it for myself? Here I've put together some of the things I learned about the Bauhaus and some things I found interesting.
The history of the Bauhaus has been well documented over the past 100 years so there is plenty to read about and a quick Google search will pull up hundreds of results. However here is a quick rundown for anyone unfamiliar.
The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius. His idea was to bring together art, craft and emerging technologies to create a new, functional modern world.
To achieve this, traditional teaching methods were rejected, with artists, designers and craftsmen learning alongside one another. Interdiceplanery learning is practised in many schools and educational institutions today, I remember in high school studying a poem in English, making a short stop-motion animation of it in art. However, this way of learning was revolutionary for 1919.
In the early years, the school was located in Weimar and was a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar School of Fine Arts and so the Bauhaus was born. In 1925 the city of Weimar could no longer support the running of the school due to political reasons and so a bidding war started between several locations to become the new home of the Bauhaus. In the end, the city of Dessau won with an offer too good to refuse, offering to support the running of the school as well as financing Gropius' realisation of a fit-for-purpose building and houses for the masters. Dessau was an ideal location, being a hub for the technology of the time with the industrial manufacturing company Junkers being close by.
In 1932 the School was closed in Dessau by the imperialist government. Mies van der Rohe tried to privately run the school in Berlin, however, this only lasted a year. The building was repurposed many times during the war. It remained a school building for a short while and was repurposed as a hospital as well. The building suffered minimal damaged during the conflicts of the war but damage none the less. It lay derelict until the 70's when it was restored to its original state. In 1996, UNESCO bought the site and the Bauhaus is now on the World Heritage list.
The building is the brain child of Water Gropius himself and was purposefully designed to enhance and reflect the teaching style and philosophy of the Bauhaus. For example there is no main/front entrance, creating a lack of hierarchy and makes every part of the building equally as important. Similar to the way that art, design and craftsmanship should be equal.
There was no surprise when I was told that the building had mix reviews when it was built. This was something that had never been seen before. People didn't understand it or even wanted to understand it. However being located in a relatively remote area of Dessau allowed those not in favour of the building to stay away from it.
What struck me when first seeing the building what the sheer amount of glass on this thing! There are literally thousands of pains of glass! In 1927 when the Bauhaus officially opened people could not understand how the building could even be physically possible. How can that amount of glass hold up the weight of the roof? How can the main portion of the building overhang from the base without collapsing? These small features that we overlook today because we see them all the time had never been seen before and foreshadowed the never before seen work that was to come out of that building in the subsequent years.
Another main feature of the building was that much of it was open planned to encourage that interdisciplinary philosophy that the Bauhaus was known for. There were no classrooms. There were no lecture halls. It really didn't look like a school at all! Much of the open plan structure of the inside is gone now. I think maybe due to the multiple restructuring phases it went through and that it is now home to the Bauhaus Foundation, but you can still get a feel for it when you are inside.
The students of the Bauhaus lived on site in a building attached to the rear of the school. These rooms are unbelievably simple consisting of only a bed, table, chair and a built-in wardrobe. Bauhausers believed that a clutter-free living style resulted in a clutter free mind and it's true! Think about how good it is to start work in a nice tidy office, room or studio. There was also large windows and a very small balcony allowing for lots of fresh air. Fresh air equals a fresh mind. There was a sink in every room, a luxury in the 20's. But again, a clean body equals a clean mind. Much of the Bauhaus is not only physical but mental as well.
Gropius, being a well-connected man (we'd now say he was good at networking) was able to bring very established famous artists, designers and architects to teach at the Bauhaus. Some of the most famous include Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Each department of the Bauhaus had two Maters. A Master of Form and a Workshop Master. Both were called Masters to stray away from the traditional teaching titles such as Doctors or Professors and to further enhance that there should be no hierarchy between the arts or the crafts.
Just down the street from the Bauhaus are the Meisterhäuser or Master's Houses. These were designed again by Walter Gropius and housed the Masters and their families. The same principles that were used when designing the student's rooms were also used in these houses. Built-in wardrobes, big windows and of course a sink or two in places you would think a sink should be. All to keep life fresh, clean and clutter free.
There are four houses in total. Three Semi-detached houses for the Masters and one detached house for the Director. This was Gropius' experiment with modular architecture. What he did was designed one half of the semi-detached house (obviously) but instead mirroring it on the other side he flipped it 90 degrees an inverted the layout. This results in a uniquely shaped and interesting building as well as a functional one that allowed neighbouring masters to have privacy when they wanted it but also be able to easily interact and communicate with each other. They were friends after all.
Many of the windows are south and west facing to let in as much light as possible into the living areas. The large window on the front is where a large studio is located. This is deliberately north facing so that enough light could enter but not direct sunlight. Direct sunlight was not desirable when choosing colours.
During the war, a bomb was dropped between the Director's house and the first of the Masters Houses the Moholy-Nagy/Feininger House, destroying them. They have now been rebuilt as 1:1 models of the original in the style of the scale models architects use when designing buildings. These are just the shell of the original design, the interior has been redesigned to allow artists from all over the world to exhibit their work.
Impact of the Bauhaus
I went to Dessau thinking it would be Bauhaus central. With all the architecture and furniture and art being inspired by the influential school, but that isn't the case. These building stick out a mile in the 'typically German' town with the exception of the public two small public housing areas designed by the Bauhaus and one or two other buildings clearly inspired it's legacy.
I think this could be attributed by the potential threat that this way of thinking and living had on the imperialist government at the time that they had no choice but to dismiss and people followed suit. Even today I was told that there are people in Dessau who don't like that the Bauhaus is there! They think it's too flamboyant and radical. Today! People still think that! I can only imagine the scrutiny that the masters and students came under during it's time in operation.
I feel more people need to know about the Bauhaus. I don't say that because I'm blinded by my own fascination with it nor do I say that in a way that means to say more people need to learn about art. The Bauhaus was born during a time of oppression, a time of war and a time of financial uncertainty and it made it through all of that. It challenged they way we think about art, design, craftsmanship and technology. It challenged the way we think about how we live. And now we are in a time when politics has not improved, war is not over, the economy is in a state that I am in no way qualified to understand and when people are being judged discriminated against. Maybe the Bauhaus is the medicine that the 21st century needs and keeping it inside the art and design world seems unfair. This movement, this philosophy and this institution does not belong in museums and history books, it belongs in the world. Just like the Masters, students and Gropius himself would have wanted.