In 2009 the Bauhaus is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Exhibitions in Weimar, Dessau, Berlin and New York City recall the extremely influential, and in its day fiercely disputed institution which made decisive contributions to the worldwide spread of modern innovation in architecture, art and design. Ninety years is a curious space of time. Not as round as “50 Years of Bauhaus”, an exhibition that opened up the Bauhaus and its ideas to the post-war generation. This was followed by the first repeat editions of Bauhaus furniture which shape our image of the Bauhaus to this day. On the other hand, the art school’s original idea is not yet a hundred years old, so it’s not quite outdated and finished.
How it all began
Ninety years ago, the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) was appointed as director of the former grand-ducal fine arts academy of Saxony in Weimar. He united it with the school of applied arts which had been closed since 1915 and renamed it the State Bauhaus in Weimar. It was founded on 1 April 1919. The Bauhaus Manifesto and the university programme, both written by Gropius, were published the same month: “The complete building is the final objective of all the visual arts!” states the first sentence of the manifesto. It is an emotional text that links up with expressionist movements: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turn to the crafts!”
The model for the new school was to be the medieval lodges associated with cathedral construction, where craftsmen and artists collaborated to create the great Gothic cathedral. The model may have been backward-looking, but Gropius’ vision was unequivocally modern. In his words: “Architects, painters and sculptors must learn to recognize anew the character of a building as a whole, as a combination of its many parts. Their work will then be automatically imbued with the architectonic spirit which it lost in the wake of salon art.” The linking of art and applied arts and crafts, of the workshop and the master class in Weimar was revolutionary. The break with the old concept of the art school, where students had to imitate the methods of their teachers for endless years and modern artistic work was based on historical models, was equally revolutionary. The end of World War I heralded not only the demise of the old political order. The aesthetic strategies and concepts of the 19th century also became abruptly outdated.
At almost the same time as the Bauhaus was founded, the new national assembly was convened in Weimar. Members of parliament gathered in Weimar to write the new constitution, out of the way of the revolutionary unrest in Berlin. In 1919 the conflict between a system of revolutionary councils and parliamentary democracy was settled in favour of a state with a democratic constitution. Compared with the political skirmishes, the street fighting and battles at the barricades, the aesthetic debates that led to the founding of the Bauhaus initially seem harmlessly apolitical.
But Gropius’ ideas were based on strategies which had already been discussed and formulated as a political programme in the Work Council for Art, an association of architects, artists and journalists: “Art and the people have to join forces” was the slogan in one of the leaflets the council distributed in March 1919. “Art should no longer be the luxury of a few, but the enjoyment and life of the masses. The aim is to unite the arts beneath the wings of a great architecture.” Gropius began by appointing three artists as Bauhaus masters: the painter Lyonel Feininger, the sculptor Gerhard Marcks and the painter and art educator Johannes Itten. They were later joined by the painters Georg Muche, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and Wassily Kandinsky. The Bauhaus took up residence in the Jugendstil buildings of the art school that were designed by Henry van de Velde.
A new way to teach art
At first, teaching at the Bauhaus was not organized in master classes but in workshops. The “masters of form”, the artists and architects, were accompanied by “master craftsmen” with qualifications in various trades. Gradually workshops were developed for metalwork, weaving, ceramics, furniture, typography and the theatre. The early Weimar years are regarded as the romantic, almost esoteric phase. In this respect Johannes Itten made a major contribution.
Together with Bauhaus master Gertrud Grunow he invented the foundation course, the key innovation which to this day has continuously influenced the curricula of art and design schools throughout the world. During these courses new students received comprehensive instructions in the foundations of aesthetics and form before specializing in the individual workshops. However, Itten also used his foundation course to imbue students with his obscure pseudo-religious Mazdaznan beliefs. Many students and members of staff turned away from such irrational teaching content.
This was one of the first examples of conflict within the school. More were to follow, but meanwhile the school also extended its profile: Itten was followed by László Moholy-Nagy who integrated typography and photography into the classes. In 1923 the Bauhaus staged the first exhibition of work from the courses and workshops. The Haus am Horn, an unadorned show house with a simple cubic exterior and functional interior designed by Muche, was regarded by the majority of people in Weimar as an irritating foreign body. The painter Oskar Schlemmer headed the Bauhaus theatre and focused on the movement of humans in space in his Triadic Ballet. In a text about “House construction and Bauhaus!” he called for a break from the ideal of crafts: “The crafts of former times are now performed by industry, or they will be: typified, robust, purpose-designed consumer goods for physical needs, born out of external necessity.”
Opposition and new beginnings
A change in direction set in. Gropius now started propagating the idea of “the unity of art, technology and science”. At the beginning of the 1960s he looked back at those days. After reading a diary of 1923 to 1928 he remarked that 90% of the incredible energy invested by all participants in this enterprise was devoted to fending off hostilities at local and national level, and only 10% was left for the actual creative work.”
But this didn’t stop them: “We didn’t doubt for a moment in our ability to overcome the opposition.” Despite this, the Bauhaus met with increasing animosity in Weimar. Each year the state school had to worry about the approval of its budget. The weakening of liberal-democratic forces in the Thuringian parliament in favour of nationalist-reactionary circles forced a change in location. The Bauhaus in Weimar had to close in 1925. The city of Dessau enabled the move and sponsored a new building.
The building of the Bauhaus
On the outskirts of Dessau Walter Gropius designed a steel skeleton construction with a curtain wall; masters’ houses, a housing area and further individual buildings followed. After the architect and critic Julius Posener first visited the Bauhaus building in 1992, he described his impressions: “Since all of the constructive and spatial aspects are constantly palpable and understandable, you soon feel at ease; you gain a sense of belonging and inspiration in this house which, at that time was seen as a signal, a veritable trumpet blast.”
Whereas the word Bauhaus had so far been highly charged and had triggered controversy, the school, now named “University of Design” had its first own premises, a programmatic building which attracted young people from around the world to be part of a project for renewal.
Finally, in 1927, Gropius appointed a master for the new architecture department: the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer who held left-wing socialist views. In 1928 he succeeded Gropius as the Bauhaus director. “The people’s needs instead of luxury needs!” was the slogan Meyer propagated ahead of the world economic crisis.
The Hannes Meyer era signalled professionalization and politicization at the Bauhaus. In 1930 the city of Dessau dismissed Meyer because of his communist tendencies. His successor was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), who had caused a sensation with his Weissenhof residential complex in Stuttgart in 1927 and the German Pavilion at the 1929 World Exposition in Barcelona. The architect streamlined the courses, whilst the workshops and their designs for industry declined in significance and a new emphasis was given to architectural studies.
The National Socialist Party enforced the closure of the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1932. The German Communist Party voted against the closure, the Social Democratic Party abstained. Mies van der Rohe then moved the Bauhaus to Berlin. Financial difficulties, but above all repressive measures taken by the National Socialist state, led to its closure and self-dissolution in 1933.
Despite this, teachers such as Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who emigrated to America, as well as many students and graduates, carried the ideas and teaching concepts out into the world. For a while, the New Bauhaus then existed in Chicago. After the war the mayor of Dessau, Fritz Hesse, tried to initiate a Bauhaus revival in its old location. But the aesthetics of modern art didn’t suit the concept of the East German government.
In the West the new middle classes embraced the Bauhaus designs when they reappeared as new editions in the 1970s. However, research has shown that the original Bauhaus was far more colourful, the forms were far more lively and contradictory than the select impressions we have today. In 1979 the Bauhaus-Archiv opened in Berlin containing the largest and most important collection of objects and documents on Bauhaus history.
“There is a desire to seek orientation in Bauhaus design,” says Omar Akbar, director of the Bauhaus Foundation until March 2009. To this day numerous schools, designers and artists make references to the inventive laboratory of modern art. They include such diverse people as the architects Meinhard von Gerkan or Daniel Libeskind.
The Bauhaus concept shaped by Gropius is ideally suited to absorbing constantly new ideas and projections. Some of Wolfgang Sattler’s students at the Bauhaus University in Weimar have dubbed one of their projects “My Bauhaus is better than yours”. Whereas design, architecture and art schools have tended to demarcate their subjects since the 1950s, recent trends have been inspiring crossovers with related disciplines. It’s almost like 90 years ago.