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Bauhaus by Jonathan Bell

11 April 2014

The modern image of the Bauhaus has been co-opted by the resurgence of interest in big ‘M’ Modernism. For many, the name is now shorthand for crisp white-walled architecture or bent metal and leather furniture. It evokes stern-faced architects and monastic, devoted students, but the actual work that came out of the school – whether from pupils or teachers – was actually far broader in scope than its legacy suggests. Despite the school’s name (‘house of construction’), the Bauhaus didn’t just encompass architecture – there wasn’t even a specific architecture department at its founding in 1919. Ultimately, the school had important ramifications for all forms of art, from craft through to painting, typography, sculpture and product design.

Arising from the merger of two earlier art schools, at a time of hugely depressed national self-confidence, the Bauhaus was an explicitly German organisation from the outset. Modern art, in particular the angular abstraction favoured by the Cubists, Futurists and Constructivists, was sweeping Europe. Mechanisation had seized society, expressed not only in new consumer goods and new industrial jobs but also through the machine-driven devastation of World War I. Social structures were changing, skewed by the enormous upheaval of the conflict, the revolution in Russia and emancipation for women and workers. The time was right for something different.

The Bauhaus school’s first director was Walter Gropius, a proto-Modernist who can lay claim to designing one of the first truly modern buildings, the Fagus Shoe Factory of 1913. Gropius was undoubtedly ascetic. He couldn’t draw and rejected all forms of historicist architecture as contrary to the spirit of the industrial age. He had fought for Germany – and been badly wounded – during the War. He was fascinated by the austere forms of purely functional buildings, yet also understood the need for high-quality craft and skill. The great Belgian architect Henry van de Velde recommended Gropius for the post and the school opened, with very little fanfare, in Weimar.

Almost at once, factions appeared. The most dominant figure in the Bauhaus’s early days was Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter who blended abstract work and colour theory with his adherence to a cultish religion called Mazdaznan. Shaved heads, vegetarian diets, deep breathing, colonic irrigation and the copious consumption of garlic featured prominently, and the artist won a strong, if odorous, following among his more devoted students.

The cast of eccentric but talented visiting lecturers and tutors included Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, László Moholy-Nagy, Gerhard Marcks, Max Bill, Herbert Bayer, Lyonel Feininger, Anni and Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer and Marianne Brandt, amongst others. At times, the student body appeared to be little more than willing guinea pigs, eager to embrace the avant-garde as an alternative to the growing turmoil enveloping the world outside the studios.

Politics shaped the Bauhaus’s influence just as much as the art itself. When the nationalists took power in Weimar, they cut funding and Gropius announced that the school would be closing in 1925. In fact, the school moved to Dessau, leaving behind an industrial design course that survives to this day, and started over in a complex of buildings designed by Gropius himself.

Within a few years, Gropius had resigned, leaving Hannes Meyer in charge. Meyer was commercially minded and won significant design commissions for the school and its students. Unlike Gropius, who wasn’t averse to the value of craft or classicism, Meyer was ideologically unwavering: Functionalism or nothing. Tutors who didn’t toe the line were fired, but Meyer couldn’t break the bond between Modernism and socially progressive causes and the student body became increasingly radicalised. It was a dangerous time to be left wing; in 1930 he was fired by the mayor of Dessau.

His successor was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Imposing, dominating but also undeniably pragmatic, Mies played a game of cat and mouse with the German authorities. However, by now the Nazi party controlled the city and the following year they forced the Bauhaus to close. An offshoot opened up in an old factory in Berlin, but the situation for many students and tutors was increasingly untenable. Abstract art and Functionalist architecture in particular were deemed ‘un-German’ and in 1933 the Gestapo closed the school down.

Perversely, the school’s closure sealed its reputation and the creative networks built up across Europe in the 1930s offered a lifeline to artists, designers and architects who might otherwise have been destroyed by the German state. In 1934, Gropius made his way to England via Italy, pretending to visit a film festival. In the UK, he was welcomed by a burgeoning community of home-grown Modernists, all of whom had watched admiringly from afar and were now delighted to have the master in their midst.

In his three years in England, Gropius found time to design Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire (with his friend and close collaborator Maxwell Fry) and an elegant house at 66 Old Church Street for Benn Levy (adjacent to another émigré-designed project by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff). Gropius’s design was recently offered for sale at £45m – the market has its own price for ideas once rooted in social equality.

The UK was a staging post for many others fleeing the German regime, but it was America that benefited the most from the creative diaspora. Mies went direct to Illinois, where his architectural visions were finally made into glass and steel and ultimately promulgated around the globe. Breuer too made his home in the US, joining Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design – his cantilevered steel and leather chairs have never left production. Other architects and designers found homes in Israel, where Tel Aviv is a lasting showcase for the Bauhaus’s architectural ideals.

A strange coda to the story of the Bauhaus sits on Park Lane in London. In the mid-Sixties, at the height of the clubland boom, Gropius was employed, at considerable expense, by the developer Jack Cotton to design the Playboy Club in London. The rigorous simplicity honed in inter-war Germany was filtered through the brash boldness of the American dream, resulting in a rather stubby concrete block sitting lumpenly on the edge of Mayfair.

The Playboy Club closed in 1982 after bunny girls fell out of favour. Modernism too has had its up and downs, but regardless of its physical legacy, the Bauhaus changed the way art was taught. By spanning disciplines and encouraging collaboration, it set the stage for modern creative education. From the luminous textiles of Anni Albers to Mondrian’s dancing grids, or the chromed elegance of Breuer’s chairs and Gropius’s door handles, no single object defines the work of the Bauhaus. Its spirit of creativity and unification of art and manufacturing remains undeniably relevant.


Jonathan Bell is a freelance writer and former architecture editor of Wallpaper*.

  • An incarnation of the Bauhaus Logo: Large Signet 'Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar', by Oskar Schlemmer, 1922. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.
  • Walter Gropius' Monument to the March Dead in the Weimar Central Cemetery. © Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH / Alamy.