Mies van der Rohe: Machine Age Architecture in Stuttgart

The Weissenhof Experiment in Stuttgart

Neues Bauen in 1927

The Nazis, newly in power and early simmering with racist hatred for all things un-German, didn’t know what to make of the shining white city on the hill. So utterly alien to the fascists was the blinding bright geometry of the houses and apartment buildings that they could only cast about to find the most insulting comparison possible–something not European, something “primitive,” something like an “Arab village.” Driven by their overriding desire for Teutonic authenticity, the political party that left no occasion to ridicule modernism unmarked, distributed a postcard of the new architecture. Sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the Weissenhof, a showcase for the efforts and talents of Europe’s most advanced builders was ridiculed in a deliberately misreading of the simplicity, characterizing clarity as ignorance. The project, headed by architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), was marked as undesirable and the Nazis would not forget the affront of the Weissenhof settlement. They had to wait only a few years for the pleasure of closing the Bauhaus, headed by Mies by 1933, and had plans for the Weissenhof which they purchased. Revenge was sweet but brief for the Nazis. Considered a significant landmark in Modernist architecture, the project in Stuttgart was subjected to numerous indignities under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Weissenhof was partially destroyed during the Second World War. Today, the site is considered a World Heritage, its buildings are being slowly restored, the vision of their creators shining through and beyond the dark memories of Nazi projects. It is saying a great deal to note that the functionalist moment for Nazi architecture–its high point of innovation–was the concentration camp, the built environment that was an assembly line of industrial murder, while the Weissenhof was a more modest achievement, an experiment in building modern housing for middle and lower class people.

The Nazi incursion into the Weissenhof: Arabs photomontaged into the streets of Stuttgart

Mies van der Rohr had experienced enough architectural success to realize that in order to transcend his humble beginnings from a working class family, he had to change his name. His new appellation had to be more suited to his elevated status. His real name was Maria Ludwig Michael Mies, a perfectly sensible designation, but avant-garde artists, such as Le Corbusier, often changed their names or gave themselves specific designations, so the stonemason’s son began to reinvent himself. Taking his mother’s last name, Rohr as his last name, he switched his original last name to his first name, Mies, giving the “e” an umlaut: ë, so the word would be pronounced “mee-ess.” The “van” and the “der” was pure Dutch and suggested some kind of vague nobility, reminiscent of the German “von,” adding an air of international distinction. And thus “Mies,” as he was commonly known, was born, as new as the architecture he designed. By the Twenties, Mies was a chancer, a comer in architectural circles, well known in Europe and in Germany. He was part of every significant organization in modern architecture, from the Deutscher Werkbund to the group of ten Berlin architects, known as The Ring, all dedicated to the promotion of the tenets of New Objectivity to architecture. The program, such as it was, for Neues Bauen was relatively simple–functionalism and straightforward matter of fact forms, determined by construction methods and technological advances. Hovering behind the scenes, off stage, was Adolf Loos (1870-1933) of Vienna, whose book, Ornament and Crime (1910), provided the manifesto for New Architecture, which would be stripped of ornament and decoration, and emphasize the unadorned “surface” of a geometrically formed block-like structure. But the road to Modernism was not as straightforward as the design itself.

Aerial View of Weissenhof

After the Great War, architecture in Germany was highly politicized, torn between progressive socialist parties that dreamed of utopian cities in the service of the working class and the more traditional contingent that wanted to honor historical precedents, i.e., middle-class domestic needs. With hindsight, the conceptual link between socialism and modernism could be juxtaposed by the Nazis to years of post-war class unrest and demonstrations in the streets. To the nervous bourgeois, the idea that the built environment could structure society was an alarming one and that perception would ultimately derail modernism in Nazi Germany. Take for example the Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) discussed in January 2017 by Jeff Reuben of Atlas Obscura, who wrote,

Sharp observers will notice something strange about the attractive residences lining Am Fischtal, a bucolic street in the Zehlendorf section of Berlin. On one side, the buildings have flat roofs, while on the other they are pitched: a situation that is less architectural happenstance than the result of a so-called “roof war,” waged in the Weimar Republic and which embodied many of the deeper conflicts that roiled Germany in the years before the Nazis came to power..The two sides met on Am Fischtal, which today survives as a literal and figurative monument to the Weimar Republic’s increasing political divide. The flat roof residences came first, part of a housing development built by a leftist housing cooperative between 1926 and 1932 known as Onkel Toms Hütte, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an unlikely moniker borrowed from a nearby tavern which was named after the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. Across the street, GAGFAH, a housing cooperative supported by conservative white collar unions, built their response in 1928: a community called Fischtalgrund, which consists of 30 buildings with 120 housing units. The roofs, of course, were pitched.

Roofs at War

The Roof War roiled Berlin for four years, from 1924 when architect Bruno Taut, part of The Ring group, was hired and designed flat roofs, to the completion of the dueling dwellings in 1928. Today the rows of contending houses face each other across the street, co-existing in the peace of history. At the time, however, feelings ran too high to attribute the emotions of the opponents to their attitudes towards roofs–the roof was politicized and its slant or lack thereof symbolized a power struggle between left and right. But in the mid-1920s, the forces of the pitched roofs seemed to be fighting a rear-guard battle. Modern architecture appeared to be not just the style of the present but the approach that would also mold the future. The financial situation of the Weimar Republic was at last on a firm footing, America had come through with some aid thanks to the Dawes Plan, and municipalities, convinced of the need to build new urban housing for a new world, now had to means and the will to follow through. Enter Neues Bauen. At last, the new Germany could be built and, in 1927, with the most famous of the inter-war experiments, the city of Stuttgart would be crowned by the “village” (siedlung) of white buildings (weissenhof). The Weissenhofsiedlung was more than a village, it was an exhibition, a showcase for new building techniques, new technological advances in structure, and a strong statement about how people could live in a modern world.

The Weissenhofsiedlung

Presiding over the Weissenhofsiedlung, Mies van der Rohe, who would later become the last head of the Bauhaus, was the vice-president of the sponsoring agent, the Deutscher Werkbund. Mies was the obvious choice to head the project. The proposed site was the top of a hill overlooking the city where a group of buildings would rise on a curved plateau according to the master plan configured by the director. Offending local architects of the somewhat provincial city, Mies appointed sixteen other architects, all modernists, true, but within that designation, he selected architects more or less purist about the rigors of modernism, with a span of generations. To his credit, Mies allowed each architect to design with freedom, stating, “In order to permit each one as much freedom as possible to execute his ideas, I have set neither guidelines nor given programmatic orientation,” as long as his rules of flat roofs and white as the color of all the buildings and, of course, no ornamentation, were followed. He also determined where each building would be sited, giving himself the place of pride–dead center and at the top of the hill–for his own apartment block. As a generous gesture, Mies gave the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) first choice as to where his house would be placed. In his 2002 article, “Re-covering Mies van der Rohe’s Weeisenhof: The Ultimate Surface,” Mark Stankard noted that the architect designed according to the the concept of “rationality” and standardization that led to typification. Like all modernist architects of the period, the artists of the Weissenhof thought in terms of mass housing, where personal statements and non-rational shapes would be inappropriate for prefabricated and predetermined building materials. As Stankard pointed out, while Mies posited the need for Typisierung (the formation of a repeatable type), he allowed for “freedom of usage.” As he said in 1926, “The exterior shell of things, the crystallization of life processes remains standing..and exerts its influence long after its kernel has been hollowed out.” The distinction between inside and outside, the domestic and private and the public and exterior facing aspect of a building was one that Loos had written about at some length. The public face of the modernist building was a series of sharp-edged blocks, free of decoration, painted while and undisturbed by errant roofs, but the interior of these shells, the space Loos considered to be “female,” could be personalized by the owner. In his apartment block, Mies adopted another practice of Loos: the notion of the back of the home as facing a private garden, contrasting nature–private, facing inward–to culture–the unrelenting white wall, rising as a barrier, protecting the owners from the eyes on the street.

Mies van der Rohe. Apartment Building (1927)

The inversion of the Weissenhof, in all its innovation, was, in its time, a prime example of the “shock of the new,” a term popularized by art critic, Robert Hughes. The Great War had interrupted the development of modern architecture, which had been well underway before 1914. The idea of Machine Age architecture, or functionalism, was a credo that can be dated from the practice of Peter Behrens (1886-1940) and his apprentices, which included Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. In his book The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, historian Peter Blake explained that with his famous AEG factory building, Behrens ushered the modern era of architecture as function. As Blake noted, “Corbu and the others were driven to utilitarianism in building, because the doors to polite architecture were closed to them..The important thing to these men was the development of a new aesthetic language, and specifically, a language that could be used to deal with the problems of today. In utilitarian buildings and products, they found the aesthetic vocabulary–cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones, and so forth.” But for the early years of the twentieth century, the architecture of the Machine was more of a dream than a reality. As Blake stated, there were only two modern buildings in Germany when the War broke out. The first and the one that is still extant is the Fagus Factory (1911) by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his partner, Walter Meyer, in Bonn. A factory with a curtain wall of glass, the shoe last factory, was an advance, in terms of modernity, upon Behrens’ Turbine Factory (1908). Sadly the curtain walled building Gropius designed for the Cologne exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund was destroyed during the War, but its precedent loomed large in the architectural community.

Walter Gropius. Werkbund Model factory building, Cologne, 1914

The impact of Gropius upon the German architects was enormous, destroying the lingering of the influences of the exuberant modernism of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who was far too fond of decoration. After the War, there was a pause in building as Germany recovered, gathered its collective soul and began to move forward. The German artists now had to permission and the financial opportunity to build Machine Age architecture. To the public, unaware of the architectural dialogue which had been thriving for a decade, the Weissenhof project would have been a revelation. The city of Stuttgart, ignoring its local traditionalists, decided to take a modern direction in its Die Wohnung (The Home) Exhibition of 1927. The apartment block of Mies loomed above the works of the other architects, presiding, as it were, over the “colony,” a group of buildings he regarded as “Medieval” in its clustering. The exterior of his horizontal building was uninterrupted, and Mies kept the horizontal ribbon of windows flat to the wall, denying the entryways any emphasis that might break the purity of the line of the flat white wall. In contrast to the unforgiving obdurate exterior, the interior of the building was free and undetermined. His “freedom of usage” could exist, because he used a steel frame for the first time to construct his apartment building, filling in the frame with masonry blocks, covering all these materials with white plaster.

Mies van der Rohe’s ribbon windows

Therefore, the steel structure carried the load, and there was no need for interior load bearing walls. Mies was able to open up the inside space and configure it as an open plan, free of obstructions. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first to open up living spaces, eliminating the enclosed and specialized rooms beloved by Victorians. But Wright used fixed interior partitions, with placement decided by himself alone. Sensitive to the Art Nouveau concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Wright designed the interior space, from stained glass windows to the furniture himself. Thinking of the blueprint as his blank canvas, Wright would often nail the chairs and tables to the floor. Mies gave up the total control of the private space and left decisions to the owners’ needs. Borrowing an idea from the Dutch Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), he installed movable partitions, allowing the resident to shape rooms and spaces as he or she needed. “As you know,” he said, “I intend to try out the most varied plans in this apartment house. For the time being, I am building only the outside and common walls, and inside each apartment only the two piers that support the ceiling. All the rest is to be as free as it possibly can be.” Although much of this pre-war work was still in the experimental stages, Mies had expressed a philosophy of Neues Wohnen or New Living. Because of the plumbing and wiring demands, only the bathroom and kitchen and elevators shaft were fixed on site. Although the other architects in the Weissenhof were tasked with installing furniture in their homes, Mies designed only two areas in his free plan, once again suggesting to the viewer the endless possibilities for furnishings that were personal choices. As Carsten Krohn noted, the apartment building was deceptively fragile, writing in Mies van der Rohe – The Built Work that “Without maintenance and renovation, the building would today be a ruin.” Plaster, rather than stucco, would always be a problem, white walls in a city experiencing pollution would be rarely clean, and, as was pointed out in the discussion on the homes of the Masters at the Bauhaus, the glazed walls let in cold air and the heat of the summer.

Mies van der Rohe interior with furniture by the Brothers Rasch

As soon as the Nazis assumed power in Germany, the thirty-three houses and sixty-three apartments were under threat and the innovative and significant work architects from Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria barely escaped Hitler’s wrath. Writing in 1984 on the occasion of the project’s renovation, James M. Markham said, “In 1933, the year of the Nazi seizure of power, a counterdemonstration project of wood houses with gabled roofs was built nearby. The Nazis announced plans to raze the Weissenhof settlement and its creators slipped into the safety of exile in America and elsewhere.” In 1939, the city of Stuttgart sold the complex to the Nazi who planned to raze the structures and replace them with army barracks. Markham continued, “..the Luftwaffe established an antiaircraft battery on the strategically located hill. A military hospital for infectious diseases was also installed in a four- story apartment block designed by Mies van der Rohe. Allied bombing raids in 1945 destroyed about 40 percent of the settlement.” And the roof wars continued, even after World War II. The architects had intended the flat roofs to be used as gardens, intensifying the experience of terracing that was so consequential to the Weissenhof. However, as Markham pointed out in The New York Times, the inhabitants continued to have problems with the roof lines: “In the hungry postwar years, roaming bands plundered the settlement, stripping its wiring and removing its doors for firewood. As Germany began to rebuild, Everyman did finally settle in Weissenhof. The young West German state placed railroad and customs employees in its apartments. But some of them rebelled against the clean simplicities of the Bauhaus creations, putting pitched roofs on buildings of Behrens, Ludwig Hilbersheimer, and Hans Poelzig. Roof apartments were stuck on top of the double-family house designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.”

During the exhibition in 1927, half a million visitors streamed into Stuttgart to see the novel housing complex. Today there is a handful of surviving buildings which have been restored and pilgrims still come and pay homage to the Weissenhofsiedlung.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Postmodern in Architecture


In America, Postmodernism, as an art form, was first manifested in architecture, arriving as a new discourse about architecture as early as the 1960s. It is important to note that this discourse was architectural and not philosophical, although philosophy enters into the precincts of architecture by the 1980s. In the 1960s, it would be more precise to refer to the new thinking in architecture as anti-modernist or anti-International Style. In a very real way, the reaction against the forced invasion of tall glass buildings into traditional neighborhoods was paralleled by Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration of the urban landscape around Pearl Street and his interest in the “vernacular.”

One of the early harbingers of Postmodern thinking was a remarkable book written by Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961. Jacobs sounded the death knell of the Utopian dreams of Modernist architecture in which the architect thought s/he could save the world by razing the organically developed city and building a new urban world. The result of such architectural destruction, however well-intentioned, was a ripping away of urban fabrics and the neighborhoods that made cities live. Jacobs recommended an ad hoc, spontaneous approach to a more natural growth in contrast to urban planning that had paid no attention to the human life of cities. Jacobs began her section on “The Need for Aged Buildings” saying,

Cities need old building so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normla granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year after year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is , therefore, instantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types, This is of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture.

A decade later, in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was published. This work of a trio of architects, Robert Venturi,his wife Denise Scott-Brown,and the late Steven Izenour, called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. His demand that architecture come down out of its ivory tower and to take note of the ordinary urban experience in the 1960s comes at the same time as Pop Art was dominating the art world. Venturi’s preference for the ordinary and his attention to the world—the environment—surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style. As the couple wrote,

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down pParis an d begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another way is more tolerant: that is to question how we look at things. The Commercial Strip, the Las Vegas Strip in particular—it is the example par excellent—challenges the architect to take a positive, non-chip-on-the -shoulder view. Architects are out of the habit of looking non judgmentally at the environment because orthodox modernist architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian and puristic; is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.

In its quest to develop an architectural style suitable for the new materials and new conditions of the new twentieth century, modernist architecture turned its back on the past. Architecture of the nineteenth century had been an architecture of eclecticism, as exemplified by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opèra, dripping with past styles. It was an article of faith that modern architecture had to eliminate all of the surface ornamentation that crusted over the buildings. Austrian designer Adolf Loos famously characterized ornament as “crime.” Therefore, a building by Mies van der Rohre demonstrated that “less is more,” by stripping architecture to acts of construction/structure and by placing stress on the activity of making/building. “God,” as Mies would say, “is in the details,” in the precision of the angles and in the rightness of the materials. Mies was famously focused on corners of his steel-caged buildings.

Modernist architecture followed the thinking of Modernist painting—truth to materials, a focus on intrinsic properties, and an elimination of extrinsic aspects, such as decoration or ornamentation. Modernist architecture, in its pure whiteness ignores the environment and is independent of its surroundings. A building by Le Corbusier, such as Villa Savoye (1928-29), stood alone, aloof from its surroundings, majestic in its reductive purity. The Villa stood alone, surrounded by a green field rimmed with trees and it took in the environment through its long rectangular windows on its own terms. Like a sculpture the building was lifted, as if being placed on a pedestal, on pilotis, or columns. Modernist architecture was designed to make a statement of modernity, of newness, to dominate the aging landscape, to make a statement of difference. Modernist architecture is avant-garde, new, free of the past.

But the utopian dreams of Modernism had to confront the realities of the human inhabitants of the modern buildings. Modernist architecture before World War II was mostly manifested in private domestic homes, designed for discerning clients, such as the Villa or the homes for the Masters of the Bauhaus. However, after the war, modernist architecture became the International Style and there was enough money to build these very expensive glass and steel skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building (1958). Awash in post-war profits, the corporations and their architects could realize the grand utopian dream of modernism—reform of the cities. But here is where Modernism theory began to fail in the face of reality.

Le Corbusier’s mass housing project (1949-1952) in Marseilles, unité d’habitation, was a prototype, not just for post-war mass housing but also for the New Brutalism (brut) style, due to its use of raw concrete. Mass housing was an efficient way to house the large numbers of people who lived in worked in major cities. Rather than leave individuals to their own devices or rather than allow the city to grow organically, the modern city and its buildings must be planned for purpose and located conveniently. Corbu, the master was reportedly dismayed when the people who lived in his exemplary work imposed their own needs upon the pristine building, as manifested by their varying uses of the exposed balconies. By and large, people made their peace with the idea of the roof of unité d’habitation being their outdoor landscape but the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Complex (1954) in St. Louis did not have a happy ending.

Conceived of as a place to house lower class populations, the buildings were unloved and were subjected to physical assault on the part of the residents. Remarkably the architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki had won awards for their work. Today the buildings remain as a potent memory, standing for the failure of modernist architecture and modernist arrogance that good architecture was good for society. According to architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe was the death-knell of Modernist architecture and its attempt to wipe out human nature and the vestiges of the past and the history of architecture. As Jencks stated, in a famous proclamation,

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, bring to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

The age of Postmodern architecture was brief one, dating roughly from 1970 to 1990 or from 1980 to 2000, depending on your source. In one of the most ironic and tragic coincidences of the modern era, the total destruction of another set of buildings is said to have closed the postmodern era when the World Trade Center—once again with Minoru Yamasaki as the architect—was destroyed. Precisely why Postmodernism lay beneath the ruins is two-fold. First, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers ended the sense that the West was the impervious center of the world and ushered in a realization of global conditions. Second, the modernization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan by city planner Robert Moses and the Rockefeller brothers and the building of the World Trade Center was the quintessential act of Modernist arrogance and disregard for the organic city. As architectural critic, Paul Goldberger pointed out, after the site was rebuilt,

…it was Jacob’s via of the city, not Yamasaki’s or Austin Tobin’s or Robert Moses’s, that eventually prevailed in New York and in much of the rest of the country. It had become common wisdom, long before the towers were destroyed—so ouch so that it is hard to believe that he twin towers could have been built as they were had the project begin only a few years after it did. It is unlikely that all the streets in the sixteen-acre site would have been eliminated; it is unlikely that the efforts to preserve Radio Row would have been so completely ignored by public officials; an fit is unlikely that Yamasaki’s design would have been considered exempt from public reviews.

But whenever Postmodern architecture ended, it did end and today these buildings bear the distinct marks of what Postmodernism refuted—a signature style. In addition to a particular look that emerged over time, which will be discussed in the next post, Postmodernism in architecture was also an attitude or a particular approach to the built environment. Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism which broke firmly with the past. A building by postmodern architects would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to time period or consistency.

Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins, and creating an allegory, which is Postmodernism’s major characteristic. Even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure, each element of the allegory re-found by the architect retains its historical meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text for a knowledgable audience. Steeped in irony, bereft of idealism, Postmodernist architecture was an insider’s theoretical architecture and it was precisely that ironic attitude that collapsed with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

See also Charles Jencks. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism. 2002

Paul Goldberger. Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. 2005

(Link to Learning from Las Vegas: http://www.tenbyten.net/vegas.html Ironically the Las Vegas that the architects wrote about no longer exists)



Bauhaus: The End

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

The Decline of the Bauhaus

The town fathers of Weimar disliked the high number of Jewish faculty, the surprising presence of too many women as students, and the supposedly left-wing politics of the school and its insistent modernity. In a move that was prophetic of the regression shown in the Nazi movement a decade later, it was made clear to the Director, Walter Gropius that the Bauhaus was no longer welcomed in Weimar. The school moved away from the capital of the Republic and to an industrial town, Dessau. It was here that Gropius built one of the quintessential expressions of modern architecture, the Bauhaus building of 1925-6. All glass wall and strict rectangles, the new building was a huge step into the modern world when compared the arts and crafts style of the now-destroyed home for Adolf Sommerfeld just a few years earlier in 1921.

When the architect Mies van der Rohe invited him to participate in the now famous Werkbund project of modern building in Stuttgart, the Weissenhof, conceived to integrate art and craft with industry. Gropius was able to pursue the idea of prefabricated architecture. Joining with other important architects, such as Le Corbusier, who was given the most land and the most money, Gropius built two single-family homes with flat roofs and a roof terraces in this 1927 housing estate. Compared to the works of other architects, such as J. J. P. Oud and Peter Behrens, the houses built by Gropius were stark, simple and pared down, largely due to the use of prefabricated parts that did not allow for embellishment. The German critics who favored tradition level harsh charges against the development, seeing it as “foreign” and not “German” and did not reflect the national “identity.” The complaints of these buildings as being too “utilitarian” and severed of Germanic roots were harbingers of things to come from the Nazis.

A year after the famous Weissenhof project, Gropius resigned from the Bauhaus, taking many famous faculty and important students with him. The successor of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, a Swiss architect wanted to take the Bauhaus further down the road of industrial design, meaning a final break from the lingering taste for craft and any remaining fine art-ness. When Meyer, who had been the head of the architecture program, took over as director, he narrowed the focus of the school to architecture and industrial design and more students departed. The school had changed considerably since the departure of Gropius and his vision. As the old idea of respect for craft eroded, so too had the respect for the Handwerkmeisters and by 1926 “workshop” terminology faded and “masters” became professors.

“As a ‘university of design,’ Meyer stated, “The Bauhaus is not an artistic but a social phenomenon.” Indeed, Meyer had something new and interesting to say about building, which he saw as a social act. The built environment should be functionalist in terms of the occupants and the psychological needs and reactions of those who used the structure. Meyer, a dedicated and articulate Communist, put the needs of the society in the foreground and reduced the role of the architect’s ego as a creator. This was the Bauhaus dream…supposedly, to create an anonymous object for the modern world.

Under Meyer the Bauhaus actually began to find a way to bring modern designs produced by the school to the industrial market place and the school made a profit. Regardless of the capitalist profits of the Bauhaus, the presence of a Communist head of the school could not be supported in such a politically turbulent world. Meyer stepped down and Mies van der Rohe took his place as director in 1930. Under Mies, the school became very conventional. The priority was still that of architecture and a new emphasis was placed on interior design. Space, rather than structure, became the major focus. The Preliminary Course was eliminated and the Bauhaus became downright academic with written exams appearing for the first time.

These changes could be seen as an attempt to make the Bauhaus seem more conventional to satisfy the authorities. Originally, the Bauhaus had been dedicated to collective housing for workers and favored flat roofs, use modern building materials, steel, glass, stucco, with sheer walls painted white or gray or beige, trimmed in black. As the critics of the Weissenhof made clear, this styeless style was un-German. Pinned down by such regressive attitudes, Mies had no choice but to retreat to interior design. But the days of such a progressive school were numbered. In a last ditch attempt to save the school, Mies privatized the Bauhaus and moved it to Berlin in 1932 where it fought against its fate. But nothing could save the Bauhaus from a regime that hated all things “modern,” except, of course for weapons of war. In April 1933, the Nazis closed the Bauhaus.

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Comparison of Dada and Surrealism




Although Surrealism supposedly grew out of or outgrew Dada in Paris, the two movements come from very different time periods and cultural contexts. Dada was a wartime movement, founded in the midst of an international slaughter of young men, led by a deluded and incompetent class of elites. Although the Dada artists advertised themselves as being “anti-art,” the exiles in Zurich were against traditional art and its vaunted ideals. Far from being opposed to the basic idea of art, the Dada artists strove to find new ways to make new art in a new ways.

Being deliberately anti-authoritarian, Dada could not, by definition, have leaders. The movement had spokespersons but no one took a position of guidance. Aside from philosophy, Dada artists scattered across Europe after the Great War ended. None of the many centers of Dada had a leader and Dada, perhaps as a result, dissolved in a few years into other movements. Surrealism had a leader, indeed, a “Pope,” André Breton. It was possible for Surrealism to be led simply because the group was self-contained in Paris. Breton was somewhat iron-fisted for a leader of an avant-garde movement, expelling members who displeased him, but he held the group together for twenty years, an astonishing longevity.

The lack of deference to commanders of any kind on the part of Dada came directly out of a world un-made by the Great War. As Robert L. Herbert pointed out in “The Arrival of the Machine: Modernist Art in Europe,” the Great War brought about a belated acceptance of modern technology. After this war, the artists reacted to machines as benign and beneficent. Le Corbusier called the home “a machine for living.” But Dada’s swerve to impersonal means of making art could be linked to the way in which impersonal machines were killing young people at random. Chance and randomness decided the fate of civilians and soldiers alike—all were at the mercy of a cultural clash between Old World notions of heroism and New World technology. There is a defiance and anger to Dada practices that links the artists and their attitudes to the War.

Surrealism, on the other hand, emerged in a decade of peace and prosperity. The wounds left behind by the War were either ignored—as in the neglect of the surviving veterans—or celebrated—as in the erections of many memorials. Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

The extent to which the Surrealist artists understood the theories of Sigmund Freud is debatable but their interest in Freud should be distinguished from Dada’s anti-rational stance. Although Surrealism supposedly celebrated the irrational, their ideas were based upon Freud’s very rational model of the human mind, bisected into the conscious and the unconscious mind and mapped into the id, the ego, and the superego. Surrealism also rejected the Dada disgust with self-indulgent expressionism but returning to individual vision, but the site of this vision was the untapped unconscious mind. In contrast to the deliberately disruptive and antagonistic tactics of the Dada artists, the Surrealists sought what they called “the Marvelous,” or that magically unexpected encounter when the ordinary suddenly became extraordinary.

Dada and Surrealism were both movements of writers and poets, with visual artists as being part of the larger intellectual group, but in Surrealism the artists were somewhat less innovative than those in the Dada movement. Paul Delvaux and Salvador Dali and René Magritte all painted in a very traditional manner, using old-fashioned techniques and subverting realism by painting dreams as if they were real. That said, both movements work with Chance. Dada’s use of chance was radical, a complete giving over of the artist to the oxymoronic “laws” of happenstance. Whether it is throwing pieces of paper to (not)create a collage by chance or assembling random word and reconvening them as poetry, Dada artists were anarchic when it came to giving up the creative thought process for process itself. In contrast, Surrealist artists deployed a variety of games, from automatic writing or the exquisite corpse, to approach chance from another position.

The Surrealist poets and artists sought a new way of writing “automatically,” without conscious control and a new way of finding unexpected images or ideas that would occur with collective group contributions. One could use the term “objective chance” to characterize and distinguish Surrealism because these artists use the already there, the already seen and then de-familiarizes the familiar through juxtaposition and metamorphosis. Note that the Dada photomontage may have used the technique of putting one randomly found image next to another, but the intent was to undermine meaning. Surrealism seeks new meaning, another meaning, an unexpected meaning, a sur-real meaning, but always, Surrealism wants live to mean something. And here it the crucial difference between Dada and Surrealism. For Dada, life has no meaning, no reason, no purpose, and no logic. For Surrealism, life has meaning; one has to find its logic by unlocking visual and verbal codes secreted in the chambers of the unconscious mind where one finds Freud’s “uncanny.”

The Found Object, or the oject trouvé, was the special domain of Marcel Duchamp who was preceded the Dada artists in his rejection of traditional art. Duchamp’s appropriation of anonymous factory made items was narrow and programmatic to his specific intentions, but the Surrealists were more open to the found object. Like Duchamp, the Surrealists bent the concept of a supposedly ordinary item to their own purposes, which was the search for the “Marvelous.” For Duchamp, the found object was “encountered” randomly and viewed with detachment and indifference, but for the Surrealists, the found object was the object of passion. Indeed, the object was poetic; implying a metaphor, indicating the item in question meant more or something else—-“the Marvelous.”

Duchamp’s rigorous intellectualism was hermetic but because of the theory of the “talking cure” based on hearing clues and reading codes, Surrealism expected audience participation. Duchamp himself had no aesthetic intentions, even when he “assisted” or “rectified” his Readymades, but the Surrealists returned to the aestheticism of art, making desirous and desiring works to be looked at and into. Although inherently conservative, Surrealism dominated the Parisian art scene until the next war broke out, scattering the already dated movement to distant shores where, like Dada, Surrealism would find a different and new destiny. As André Breton said, “Surrealism existed before me, and I firmly believe it will survive me.”

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De Stijl Architecture

The Search for the Absolute: The Architecture of De Stijl

Beyond the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the other manifestation of De Stijl that has imprinted the memory of the art world is its distinctive architecture. Indeed, it was architecture that caused the most disagreement among the artists. From 1922 on Theo van Doesburg devoted himself to the cause of a modern architecture appropriate to modern times. With the primary painters, Bart Van Der Leek and Mondrian, drifting away, van Doesburg sought to promote De Stijl primarily in terms of the built environment. In fact it was through architecture that De Stilj finally became known in Europe through exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Associated with the Bauhaus, van Doesburg made sure that his architects were presented as part of a wider effort in Germany and in Russia to revolutionize architecture. Sadly, the efforts of all of these architects would be halted by the Second World War. Still the De Stijl architects managed to build a few private homes and two notable attempts at small public buildings.

The absolutism inherent in De Stijl could be linked to the practical in architecture, that is, mass-produced elements allowed architecture to achieve a uniform, stripped-down reduced look. The idea of a modern architecture, or what we would call “modernist architecture,” was already in the wind. In his book, Art in Vienna, Peter Vergo stated, “Only in the buildings of Adolf Loos, with his disdain of elaborate ornament, does one find he beginnings of a wholly modern style in architecture…” Loos himself insisted in his famous 1908 manifesto, “Ornament and Crime,”

It is easy to reconcile ourselves to the great damage and depredations the revival of ornament had done to our aesthetic development, since no one and nothing, not even the power of the state, can hold up the evolution of mankind. It can only be slowed down. We can afford to wait. But in economic respects it is a crime, in that it leads to the waste of human labor, money, and materials. That is damage time cannot repair. The speed of cultural development is hampered by the stragglers. I am living, say, in 1912, my neighbor around 1900, and that man over there in 1880.

Loos, as Le Corbusier remarked, “…swept the path before us. It was a Homeric cleansing: precise, philosophical, logical. He has influenced the architectural destiny of us all.” From Vienna to Paris, Loos waged war on architectural eclecticism and the baroque assemblage of meaningless ornamentation torn from its original context and piled into a mass of decoration. Clearly, architecture in the nineteenth century was mired in the past and it was the task of modern architects to define modernist architecture. Van Doesburg had long been concerned with relationship between painting and architecture.

“When everything has been expressed on the present level of painting, new aesthetic potential will emerge therefrom for extending the scope of expressive possibilities,” he stated and continued, “…a monumental cooperative art is what the future holds. In this new form, various spiritual means of expression (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature) will be universally realized…”

While Van Der Leek rejected any such connection between painting and architecture, the idea of applying absolutism to both art forms seems logical. In fact, although he insisted that painting had to be an independent medium, Mondrian could envision that with NeoPlasticism “…the abstract real…or picture will disappear as son as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into color areas…” Van der Leek made the distinction between the powers of NeoPlaticism in painting to dissolve the materiality of “naturalism” and architecture, which was characterized by “the space-restricting flatness…” Without debating whether or not the characteristics of the De Stijl style could be applied to architecture or not, it is more helpful to understand that the artists were trying to create a new form of architecture for a new world.

Like Adolf Loos, who had traveled to New York, the De Stijl architects were impacted by architecture in America, a new country that was erecting new kinds of buildings. Some of the architects associated with De Stijl were followers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Anti-monumental anti-ornamental architecture had to be in keeping with character of city streets and new building materials, both of which were geometric for the sake of efficiency. Architects such as Van’t Hoff were inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in America. In fact, Robert van’ t Hoff had worked for Wright and his Huis-ter-Heide, in its turn, inspired Gerrit Rietveld. Wright’s Prairie Style of flat roofs over long low structures seemed especially suitable for the flat landscapes of Holland. But, most importantly, Wright opened up the closed spaces of the Victorian structure into what is called today “the open plan.” He also made sure that his early work was responsive to the surroundings and this is where Wright and De Stijl would ultimately separate. De Stijl sought, not the local, but the absolute, and its buildings make no concession to their environment.

As architect J.P.P. Oud said, “Though the importance of a work of art can only be judged from an absolute point of view, the significance of an act can only be appreciated according to a relative standard.” For his part, Oud proposed use of mass production for limited number of standard types that would be a new urban architecture with a “form follows function” philosophy. However, the most famous De Stijl work of architecture was the well-known Schröder House by cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld, and this home was thoroughly individual. Still, the Schroder House uses certain elements of mass architecture to its advantage: reinforced concrete over steel. Rietveld collaborated with his client, Madame Truus Schöder-Schrader and completed her Utrecht home in 1924. Thanks to modern construction, this house could fulfill van Doesburg’s 1924 Manifesto on architecture, demanding the “elementary, economic, functional, formless, unmonumental, asymmetry, afrontality, and anti-decorative.” According to van Doesburg,

“The new architecture has broken through the wall and in so doing has completely eliminated the divorce of inside and out. The walls are non-load-bearing; they are reduced to points of support. And as a result there is generated a new open plan, totally different from the classic because inside and outside space interpenetrate.”

Therefore, architecture is anti-cubic, anti-symmetrical and anti-gravitational, the elements float and hover. Despite the connections between van Doesburg and the attempts in Russia and Germany to rebuild the world, De Stijl architecture is uniquely Dutch, ironically, because it translated Mondrian’s principles into architecture. In distinction to the uniformly whiteness of Weisenhofsiedlung, De Stijl buildings were white, with the floating exterior white planes augmented with red, yellow, blue and black trim. The weightlessness of the floating sections is countered by the grey stucco on other segments. The bold use of blocks of color is even clearer inside the Schröder House compared to the all-white interior of its contemporary, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusiner. Rietveld, the furniture maker, absorbed furniture into the house with built-ins and fashioned sliding panels to close off the open spaces into “rooms.” Walls, floors, furniture—all were dissolved into disconnected sections of red, blue, yellow, or black that mobilized the space. Daringly, in this cold climate, the walls were opened to expanses of glass, making the house seem even lighter weight.

In keeping with the idea of an interior space being a total work of art, Rietveld invented new furniture for his new design. Wright had seen the necessity of such control, if only because of the unsuitability of existing furniture for the modern interior. The most famous of Rietveld’s furniture for the Schröder House is the Red/blue Chair, which had yellow tips, like full stop periods, on the blunt wooden ends. Utterly without padding or comfort, countering Victorian upholstery, this chair is a pair of floating planes, red and blue, held together by black posts and lintels. Inspired by William Morris’s groundbreaking recliner, the bare wood design became the Red/blue Chair of 1918 and fit beautifully into its new home, where it became one of the most famous chairs of all time.

In his article, “The Furniture of Gerrit Rietveld. Manifestoes for a New Revolution,” Martin Filler showed a number of illustrations that showed the designer’s evolution and struggle to keep his furniture simple. His Beachwood Sideboard of 1919 anticipates Art Deco, but it is fussy compared to his Berlin Chair and his Side Table of 1923. Filler made the case that the Red/blue Chair was more sculpture than furniture and one could also add, more painting than chair. Indeed, other examples of De Stijl architecture indicate how tempting it is to devolve into decoration. As seen in Café de Unie of 1925 and Café Aubette of 1927, when the De Stijl colors are used in small planes, rather than for large architectural areas, then the interiors become irritating and betray a certain nostalgia for fin-de-siecle Art nouveau. Destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, Oud’s design (now restored) was far more successful than the collaborative work of van Doesburg and the Arps, Jean and Sophie-Taeuber. Although the Café is considered today (by some) to be a success, van Doesburg’s architectural statement and the artists’ interior was unpopular with the clients and was wiped out in 1928, perhaps because of the rather dizzying array of blocks of bright color. De Stijl architecture would come fully into its own after World War II as a kind of national style of Holland.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]