Staatliches Bauhaus commonly known simply as Bauhaus, was an art school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous for the approach to design that it publicised and taught. It operated from 1919 to 1933. At that time the German term literally “house of construction” – was understood as meaning “School of Building”.
The Bauhaus was first founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar. In spite of its name, and the fact that its founder was an architect, the Bauhaus during the first years of its existence did not have an architecture department. Nonetheless, it was founded with the idea of creating a “total” work of art in which all arts, including architecture, would eventually be brought together. The Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential currents in modern design, Modernist architecture and art, design and architectural education.The Bauhaus had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography.
The school existed in three German cities: Weimar from 1919 to 1925, Dessau from 1925 to 1932 and Berlin from 1932 to 1933, under three different architect-directors: Walter Gropius from 1919 to 1928, Hannes Meyer from 1928 to 1930 and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1930 until 1933, when the school was closed by its own leadership under pressure from the Nazi regime. The Nazi government claimed that it was a centre of communist intellectualism. Though the school was closed, the staff continued to spread its idealistic precepts as they left Germany and emigrated all over the world.
The changes of venue and leadership resulted in a constant shifting of focus, technique, instructors, and politics. For instance: the pottery shop was discontinued when the school moved from Weimar to Dessau, even though it had been an important revenue source; when Mies van der Rohe took over the school in 1930, he transformed it into a private school, and would not allow any supporters of Hannes Meyer to attend it.
Bauhaus and German modernism
Germany’s defeat in World War I, the fall of the German monarchy and the abolition of censorship under the new, liberal Weimar Republic allowed an upsurge of radical experimentation in all the arts, previously suppressed by the old regime. Many Germans of left-wing views were influenced by the cultural experimentation that followed the Russian Revolution, such as constructivism. Such influences can be overstated: Gropius himself did not share these radical views, and said that Bauhaus was entirely apolitical. Just as important was the influence of the 19th century English designer William Morris, who had argued that art should meet the needs of society and that there should be no distinction between form and function. Thus the Bauhaus style, also known as the International Style, was marked by the absence of ornamentation and by harmony between the function of an object or a building and its design.
However, the most important influence on Bauhaus was modernism, a cultural movement whose origins lay as far back as the 1880s, and which had already made its presence felt in Germany before the World War, despite the prevailing conservatism. The design innovations commonly associated with Gropius and the Bauhaus—the radically simplified forms, the rationality and functionality, and the idea that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit—were already partly developed in Germany before the Bauhaus was founded. The German national designers’ organization Deutscher Werkbund was formed in 1907 by Hermann Muthesius to harness the new potentials of mass production, with a mind towards preserving Germany’s economic competitiveness with England. In its first seven years, the Werkbund came to be regarded as the authoritative body on questions of design in Germany, and was copied in other countries. Many fundamental questions of craftsmanship versus mass production, the relationship of usefulness and beauty, the practical purpose of formal beauty in a commonplace object, and whether or not a single proper form could exist, were argued out among its 1,870 members (by 1914).
The entire movement of German architectural modernism was known as Neues Bauen. Beginning in June 1907, Peter Behrens’ pioneering industrial design work for the German electrical company AEG successfully integrated art and mass production on a large scale. He designed consumer products, standardized parts, created clean-lined designs for the company’s graphics, developed a consistent corporate identity, built the modernist landmark AEG Turbine Factory, and made full use of newly developed materials such as poured concrete and exposed steel. Behrens was a founding member of the Werkbund, and both Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer worked for him in this period.
The Bauhaus was founded at a time when the German zeitgeist had turned from emotional Expressionism to the matter-of-fact New Objectivity. An entire group of working architects, including Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Taut and Hans Poelzig, turned away from fanciful experimentation, and turned toward rational, functional, sometimes standardized building. Beyond the Bauhaus, many other significant German-speaking architects in the 1920s responded to the same aesthetic issues and material possibilities as the school. They also responded to the promise of a “minimal dwelling” written into the new Weimar Constitution. Ernst May, Bruno Taut, and Martin Wagner, among others, built large housing blocks in Frankfurt and Berlin. The acceptance of modernist design into everyday life was the subject of publicity campaigns, well-attended public exhibitions like the Weissenhof Estate, films, and sometimes fierce public debate.
Bauhaus and Vkhutemas
The Vkhutemas, the Russian state art and technical school founded in 1920 in Moscow, has been compared to Bauhaus. Founded a year after the Bauhaus school, Vkhutemas has close parallels to the German Bauhaus in its intent, organization and scope. The two schools were the first to train artist-designers in a modern manner.Both schools were state-sponsored initiatives to merge the craft tradition with modern technology, with a Basic Course in aesthetic principles, courses in color theory, industrial design, and architecture. Vkhutemas was a larger school than the Bauhaus, but it was less publicised outside the Soviet Union and consequently, is less familiar to the West.
With the internationalism of modern architecture and design, there were many exchanges between the Vkhutemas and the Bauhaus.The second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer attempted to organise an exchange between the two schools, while Hinnerk Scheper of the Bauhaus collaborated with various Vkhutein members on the use of colour in architecture. In addition, El Lissitzky’s book Russia: an Architecture for World Revolution published in German in 1930 featured several illustrations of Vkhutemas/Vkhutein projects there.
History of the Bauhaus
The school was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 as a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Its roots lay in the arts and crafts school founded by the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in 1906 and directed by Belgian Art Nouveau architect Henry van de Velde. When van de Velde was forced to resign in 1915 because he was Belgian, he suggested Gropius, Hermann Obrist and August Endell as possible successors. In 1919, after delays caused by the destruction of World War I and a lengthy debate over who should head the institution and the socio-economic meanings of a reconciliation of the fine arts and the applied arts (an issue which remained a defining one throughout the school’s existence), Gropius was made the director of a new institution integrating the two called the Bauhaus. In the pamphlet for an April 1919 exhibition entitled “Exhibition of Unknown Architects”, Gropius proclaimed his goal as being “to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.” Gropius’ neologism Bauhaus references both building and the Bauhütte, a premodern guild of stonemasons. The early intention was for the Bauhaus to be a combined architecture school, crafts school, and academy of the arts. In 1919 Swiss painter Johannes Itten, German-American painter Lyonel Feininger, and German sculptor Gerhard Marcks, along with Gropius, comprised the faculty of the Bauhaus. By the following year their ranks had grown to include German painter, sculptor and designer Oskar Schlemmer who headed the theater workshop, and Swiss painter Paul Klee, joined in 1922 by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. A tumultuous year at the Bauhaus, 1922 also saw the move of Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg to Weimar to promote De Stijl (“The Style”), and a visit to the Bauhaus by Russian Constructivist artist and architect El Lissitzky.
From 1919 to 1922 the school was shaped by the pedagogical and aesthetic ideas of Johannes Itten, who taught the Vorkurs or “preliminary course” that was the introduction to the ideas of the Bauhaus. Itten was heavily influenced in his teaching by the ideas of Franz Cižek and Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel. He was also influenced in respect to aesthetics by the work of the Blaue Reiter group in Munich as well as the work of Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. The influence of German Expressionism favoured by Itten was analogous in some ways to the fine arts side of the ongoing debate. This influence culminated with the addition of Der Blaue Reiter founding member Wassily Kandinsky to the faculty and ended when Itten resigned in late 1922. Itten was replaced by the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy, who rewrote the Vorkurs with a leaning towards the New Objectivity favored by Gropius, which was analogous in some ways to the applied arts side of the debate. Although this shift was an important one, it did not represent a radical break from the past so much as a small step in a broader, more gradual socio-economic movement that had been going on at least since 1907 when van de Velde had argued for a craft basis for design while Hermann Muthesius had begun implementing industrial prototypes.
Gropius was not necessarily against Expressionism, and in fact himself in the same 1919 pamphlet proclaiming this “new guild of craftsmen, without the class snobbery,” described “painting and sculpture rising to heaven out of the hands of a million craftsmen, the crystal symbol of the new faith of the future.” By 1923 however, Gropius was no longer evoking images of soaring Romanesque cathedrals and the craft-driven aesthetic of the “Völkisch movement”, instead declaring “we want an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars.” Gropius argued that a new period of history had begun with the end of the war. He wanted to create a new architectural style to reflect this new era. His style in architecture and consumer goods was to be functional, cheap and consistent with mass production. To these ends, Gropius wanted to reunite art and craft to arrive at high-end functional products with artistic merit. The Bauhaus issued a magazine called Bauhaus and a series of books called “Bauhausbücher”. Since the Weimar Republic lacked the quantity of raw materials available to the United States and Great Britain, it had to rely on the proficiency of a skilled labor force and an ability to export innovative and high quality goods. Therefore designers were needed and so was a new type of art education. The school’s philosophy stated that the artist should be trained to work with the industry.
Weimar was in the German state of Thuringia, and the Bauhaus school received state support from the Social Democrat-controlled Thuringian state government. The school in Weimar experienced political pressure from conservative circles in Thuringian politics, increasingly so after 1923 as political tension rose. One condition placed on the Bauhaus in this new political environment was the exhibition of work undertaken at the school. This condition was met in 1923 with the Bauhaus’ exhibition of the experimental Haus am Horn. In February 1924, the Social Democrats lost control of the state parliament to the Nationalists.The Ministry of Education placed the staff on six-month contracts and cut the school’s funding in half. On 26 December 1924 the Bauhaus issued a press release and setting the closure of the school for the end of March 1925. At this point they had already been looking for alternative sources of funding. After the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, a school of industrial design with teachers and staff less antagonistic to the conservative political regime remained in Weimar. This school was eventually known as the Technical University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, and in 1996 changed its name to Bauhaus-University Weimar.
Gropius’s design for the Dessau facilities was a return to the futuristic Gropius of 1914 that had more in common with the International style lines of the Fagus Factory than the stripped down Neo-classical of the Werkbund pavilion or the Völkisch Sommerfeld House. The Dessau years saw a remarkable change in direction for the school. According to Elaine Hoffman, Gropius had approached the Dutch architect Mart Stam to run the newly founded architecture program, and when Stam declined the position, Gropius turned to Stam’s friend and colleague in the ABC group, Hannes Meyer.
Meyer became director when Gropius resigned in February 1928, and brought the Bauhaus its two most significant building commissions, both of which still exist: five apartment buildings in the city of Dessau, and the headquarters of the Federal School of the German Trade Unions (ADGB) in Bernau. Meyer favored measurements and calculations in his presentations to clients, along with the use of off-the-shelf architectural components to reduce costs, and this approach proved attractive to potential clients. The school turned its first profit under his leadership in 1929.
But Meyer also generated a great deal of conflict. As a radical functionalist, he had no patience with the aesthetic program, and forced the resignations of Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, and other long-time instructors. Even though Meyer shifted the orientation of the school further to the left than it had been under Gropius, he didn’t want the school to become a tool of left-wing party politics. He prevented the formation of a student Communist cell, and in the increasingly dangerous political atmosphere, this became a threat to the existence of the Dessau school. Dessau mayor Fritz Hesse fired him in the summer of 1930. The Dessau city council attempted to convince Gropius to return as head of the school, but Gropius instead suggested Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies was appointed in 1930, and immediately interviewed each student, dismissing those that he deemed uncommitted. Mies halted the school’s manufacture of goods so that the school could focus on teaching. Mies appointed no new faculty other than his close confidant Lilly Reich. By 1931, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was becoming more influential in German politics. When they gained control of the Dessau City Council they moved to close the school.
In late 1932, Mies rented a derelict factory in Berlin to use as the new Bauhaus with his own money. The students and faculty rehabilitated the building, painting the interior white. The school operated for ten months without further interference from the Nazi Party. In 1933, the Gestapo closed down the Berlin school. Mies protested the decision, eventually speaking to the head of the Gestapo, who agreed to allow the school to re-open. However, shortly after receiving a letter permitting the opening of the Bauhaus, Mies and the other faculty agreed to voluntarily shut down the school.
Although neither the Nazi Party nor Hitler himself had a cohesive architectural policy before they came to power in 1933, Nazi writers like Wilhelm Frick and Alfred Rosenberg had already labeled the Bauhaus “un-German” and criticized its modernist styles, deliberately generating public controversy over issues like flat roofs. Increasingly through the early 1930s, they characterized the Bauhaus as a front for communists and social liberals. Indeed, a number of communist students loyal to Meyer moved to the Soviet Union when he was fired in 1930.
Even before the Nazis came to power, political pressure on Bauhaus had increased. The Nazi movement, from nearly the start, denounced the Bauhaus for its “degenerate art”, and the Nazi regime was determined to crack down on what it saw as the foreign, probably Jewish influences of “cosmopolitan modernism.” Despite Gropius’s protestations that as a war veteran and a patriot his work had no subversive political intent, the Berlin Bauhaus was pressured to close in April 1933. Emigrants did succeed, however, in spreading the concepts of the Bauhaus to other countries, including the “New Bauhaus” of Chicago: Mies decided to emigrate to the United States for the directorship of the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago and to seek building commissions. The simple engineering-oriented functionalism of stripped-down modernism, however, lead to some Bauhaus influences living on in Nazi Germany. When Hitler’s chief engineer, Fritz Todt, began opening the new autobahn (highways) in 1935, many of the bridges and service stations were “bold examples of modernism”—among those submitting designs was Mies van der Rohe.
The paradox of the early Bauhaus was that, although its manifesto proclaimed that the ultimate aim of all creative activity was building, the school did not offer classes in architecture until 1927. During the years under Gropius (1919–1927), he and his partner Adolf Meyer observed no real distinction between the output of his architectural office and the school. So the built output of Bauhaus architecture in these years is the output of Gropius: the Sommerfeld house in Berlin, the Otte house in Berlin, the Auerbach house in Jena, and the competition design for the Chicago Tribune Tower, which brought the school much attention. The definitive 1926 Bauhaus building in Dessau is also attributed to Gropius. Apart from contributions to the 1923 Haus am Horn, student architectural work amounted to un-built projects, interior finishes, and craft work like cabinets, chairs and pottery.
In the next two years under Meyer, the architectural focus shifted away from aesthetics and towards functionality. There were major commissions: one from the city of Dessau for five tightly designed “Laubenganghäuser” (apartment buildings with balcony access), which are still in use today, and another for the headquarters of the Federal School of the German Trade Unions (ADGB) in Bernau bei Berlin. Meyer’s approach was to research users’ needs and scientifically develop the design solution.
Mies van der Rohe repudiated Meyer’s politics, his supporters, and his architectural approach. As opposed to Gropius’s “study of essentials”, and Meyer’s research into user requirements, Mies advocated a “spatial implementation of intellectual decisions”, which effectively meant an adoption of his own aesthetics. Neither van der Rohe nor his Bauhaus students saw any projects built during the 1930s.
The popular conception of the Bauhaus as the source of extensive Weimar-era working housing is not accurate. Two projects, the apartment building project in Dessau and the Törten row housing also in Dessau, fall in that category, but developing worker housing was not the first priority of Gropius nor Mies. It was the Bauhaus contemporaries Bruno Taut, Hans Poelzig and particularly Ernst May, as the city architects of Berlin, Dresden and Frankfurt respectively, who are rightfully credited with the thousands of socially progressive housing units built in Weimar Germany. The housing Taut built in south-west Berlin during the 1920s, close to the U-Bahn stop Onkel Toms Hütte, is still occupied.
The Bauhaus had a major impact on art and architecture trends in Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Israel in the decades following its demise, as many of the artists involved fled, or were exiled by, the Nazi regime. Tel Aviv in 2004 was named to the list of world heritage sites by the UN due to its abundance of Bauhaus architecture; it had some 4,000 Bauhaus buildings erected from 1933 on.
In 1928, the Hungarian painter Alexander Bortnyik founded a school of design in Budapest called Miihely (also “Muhely” or “Mugely”), which means “the studio”. Located on the seventh floor of a house on Nagymezo Street, it was meant to be the Hungarian equivalent to the Bauhaus. The literature sometimes refers to it—in an oversimplified manner—as “the Budapest Bauhaus”. Bortnyik was a great admirer of Moholy-Nagy and had met Walter Gropius in Weimar between 1923 and 1925. Moholy-Nagy himself taught at the Miihely. Victor Vasarely, a pioneer of Op Art, studied at this school before establishing in Paris in 1930.
Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy re-assembled in Britain during the mid 1930s to live and work in the Isokon project before the war caught up with them. Both Gropius and Breuer went to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and worked together before their professional split. Their collaboration produced The Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, Pennsylvania and the Alan I W Frank House in Pittsburgh, among other projects. The Harvard School was enormously influential in America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing such students as Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Lawrence Halprin and Paul Rudolph, among many others.
In the late 1930s, Mies van der Rohe re-settled in Chicago, enjoyed the sponsorship of the influential Philip Johnson, and became one of the pre-eminent architects in the world. Moholy-Nagy also went to Chicago and founded the New Bauhaus school under the sponsorship of industrialist and philanthropist Walter Paepcke. This school became the Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Printmaker and painter Werner Drewes was also largely responsible for bringing the Bauhaus aesthetic to America and taught at both Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis. Herbert Bayer, sponsored by Paepcke, moved to Aspen, Colorado in support of Paepcke’s Aspen projects at the Aspen Institute. In 1953, Max Bill, together with Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher, founded the Ulm School of Design (German: Hochschule für Gestaltung—HfG Ulm) in Ulm, Germany, a design school in the tradition of the Bauhaus. The school is notable for its inclusion of semiotics as a field of study. The school closed in 1968, but the “Ulm Model” concept continues to influence international design education.
The influence of the Bauhaus on design education was significant. One of the main objectives of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology, and this approach was incorporated into the curriculum of the Bauhaus. The structure of the Bauhaus Vorkurs (preliminary course) reflected a pragmatic approach to integrating theory and application. In their first year, students learnt the basic elements and principles of design and colour theory, and experimented with a range of materials and processes. This approach to design education became a common feature of architectural and design school in many countries. For example, the Shillito Design School in Sydney stands as a unique link between Australia and the Bauhaus. The colour and design syllabus of the Shillito Design School was firmly underpinned by the theories and ideologies of the Bauhaus. Its first year foundational course mimicked the Vorkurs and focused on the elements and principles of design plus colour theory and application. The founder of the school, Phyllis Shillito, which opened in 1962 and closed in 1980, firmly believed that “A student who has mastered the basic principles of design, can design anything from a dress to a kitchen stove”.
One of the most important contributions of the Bauhaus is in the field of modern furniture design. The ubiquitous Cantilever chair and the Wassily Chair designed by Marcel Breuer are two examples. (Breuer eventually lost a legal battle in Germany with Dutch architect/designer Mart Stam over the rights to the cantilever chair patent. Although Stam had worked on the design of the Bauhaus’s 1923 exhibit in Weimar, and guest-lectured at the Bauhaus later in the 1920s, he was not formally associated with the school, and he and Breuer had worked independently on the cantilever concept, thus leading to the patent dispute.) The single most profitable tangible product of the Bauhaus was its wallpaper.
The physical plant at Dessau survived World War II and was operated as a design school with some architectural facilities by the German Democratic Republic. This included live stage productions in the Bauhaus theater under the name of Bauhausbühne (“Bauhaus Stage”). After German reunification, a reorganized school continued in the same building, with no essential continuity with the Bauhaus under Gropius in the early 1920s. In 1979 Bauhaus-Dessau College started to organize postgraduate programs with participants from all over the world. This effort has been supported by the Bauhaus-Dessau Foundation which was founded in 1974 as a public institution.
Later evaluation of the Bauhaus design credo was critical of its flawed recognition of the human element, an acknowledgement of “…the dated, unattractive aspects of the Bauhaus as a projection of utopia marked by mechanistic views of human nature…Home hygiene without home atmosphere.”
The White City
The White City of Tel Aviv refers to a collection of over 4,000 Bauhaus or International style buildings built in Tel Aviv from the 1930s by German Jewish architects who emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine after the rise of the Nazis. Tel Aviv has the largest number of buildings in this style of any city in the world. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed Tel Aviv’s White City a World Cultural Heritage site, as “an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century.”
Established in 2000, The Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv is an organization dedicated to the ongoing documentation of the architectural heritage. In 2003, it hosted an exhibition on preservation of the architecture that showcased 25 buildings. To further the architectural culture in the city, a Bauhaus Museum opened in Tel Aviv in 2008, designed by Israeli architect Ron Arad
The Bauhaus was not a formal group, but rather a school. Its three architect-directors (Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) are the names most closely associated with it.
Furthermore a large number of outstanding artists of their time were lecturers at the Bauhaus: