Walter Gropius: The Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus

MASTERS’ HOUSES

Walter Gropius, Junkerswerke, and Modern Architecture

Today the architecture of Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and his series of Bauhaus designed domestic dwellings for the Masters, the “Meisterhäuser,” at the art school are considered jewels in the crown of the modern built environment. But for the majority of their lives, these homes and the Bauhaus building itself existed in hostile territory. Less than ten years after the distinctive houses were completed in 1926, the Nazis closed the Dessau Bauhaus in 1932. The Nazis disapproved of modernism in the arts and favored a heavy-handed faux Neoclassicism in architecture, thus the white cubes of the seven pioneering buildings did not please the sensibilities of the followers of Hitler. The city of Dessau, now the owner of the famous Bauhaus building and the cluster of faculty housing, all designed by Gropius, rented the homes until 1939 when the Second World War began. But turning the masters’ unique modern white cubes over to unsympathetic tenants was not the end of the travails suffered by the concrete structures. The city subsequently sold the houses to the Junkers Works, a more careful and concerned owner, which had had a long and mutually satisfying union with the school. It was a former student, Marcel Breuer, who probably sought out Junkerswerke, which crafted metal shapes in steel. Inspired by curved bicycle handlebars, Breuer wanted to bend the base of his new chair from metal, foregoing straight wooden legs. If the proper industrial process could be created, his chair could cantilever and balance itself. In 1925 Breuer worked in the factory, tutored by Karl Körner, a locksmith, who taught him the craft of metalworking. His tubular steel chair, the Cassily, could be produced only by special bending machines, available at Junkers, and was the first of his many furniture designs utilizing curved metal.

By 1926, as a result of the partnership forged between Junkers and the Bauhaus, the school and the industrial manufacturer began a number of projects together, including a set of homes for the Bauhaus Masters. As part of his goal of fusing art with industry through modern design, Gropius arranged for the factory to install a series of what were termed new “thermotechnical” units in the new homes in order to model modern housing and modern living in an “organic” symbiosis. According to the Junkers factory website, the internal luxury items included wall ventilators, “gas appliances such as hot water flow-type calorifiers, gas stoves and gas ovens.” Such experimental conveniences, after the years of deprivation during the Great War, were from the future. The Bauhaus Masters’ Houses were, therefore, test houses, maintained by Junkers technicians, who not only made sure the modern equipment was functioning properly but also tested for technological performance. The association between Junkers and the Bauhaus extended to a rather odd building called the Pump Room or “house.” In Germany, a “pump house” or Trinkhalle is a refreshment stand, and as part of the general modernization of Dessau, a number of these stands were planned and constructed throughout the city. The Pump House with a Bauhaus connection was a modification of the wall built by Walter Gropius around his own residence. Although the austere white wall afforded the Gropius couple privacy, it also had the effect of blocking the view to an eighteenth-century estate built by the princes of Saxony with a Georgium, an English-style landscape garden, complete with fake Roman ruins. This cluster of elegant buildings, a guest house (Fremdenhaus), an Iconic temple (Monopteros) and the Flower House (Blumengartenhaus), all set in the lovely garden, were a strong contrast the white blocks designed by Gropius. His successor at the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe solved the problem of the blank white wall by inserting a window into the side on the corner of Ziebigker Strasse and Ebertallee, floating a roof over the opening for shading. By the simple means of breaking through the wall, a conceptual line of sight to the historical gartenriech was restored. Shortly after the Pump House was completed, the Nazis took over and the Bauhaus houses were sold to the Junkerswerke. Sadly, the only building in Dessau designed by Mies was demolished in 1970.

Mies van der Rohe. The Pump House (1932)

Junkers, headed by Dr. Hugo Junkers (1859-1935), was an aircraft and engineering works, specializing in the manufacture of steel and airplanes, thus immediately came under the control of the Nazis, who considered the staff to be full of communists and Jews. Junkers himself was arrested was exiled. He died in 1935, never knowing that his aircraft, bearing his name, would bomb Guernica two years later. According to the article, “Bauhaus, Brown Coal and Iron Giants,” Peter Marcuse, by 1932, the faculty and students had been driven from the Bauhaus in Dessau and retreated to their last stand in Berlin. Meanwhile, the Bauhaus building was turned into a girls’ school, where young women could study Kinder, Kirche und Küche, and then men moved in and the facility was transformed into a training center for Nazi officials. The school also provided offices and work space for Junkers personnel and their drafting operations. Even Albert Speer had a construction office on the premises. During the Second World War, Dessau lost three-fifths of its buildings to allied bombing and the masterwork of Gropius himself, the Bauhaus building, was badly damaged on March 7, 1945, right at the end of the War. As the headquarters for an important aircraft manufacturer, Junkers, the town was naturally targeted and almost was almost completely destroyed. In its ruined state, the site and what was left of the building was used as a camp, first for prisoners of war and then for refugees. After the War, ownership of eastern Germany and the town of Dessau was transferred to the Soviets, another regime that disliked anything European and avant-garde.

The Original Bauhaus on its opening day, December 4, 1926

But the communist regime showed more respect for the idea of the Bauhaus than the Nazis who had their own artistic agenda. Immediately after the War, the Bauhaus archives were transferred to Berlin and a new building was commissioned to house the materials. The architect was none other than Walter Gropius. During 1946 to 1948, there were attempts to restore the building. However, unlike West Germany, East Germany did not have the resources to rebuild and it was not until 1961 that another restoration took place, followed by another phase in 1965. In 1974 the building became an official cultural monument, inspiring a yet another restoration in 1976. After the Wall came down, Germany was reunited, and the Bauhaus underwent its final and definitive restoration, a ten-year project, completed in 2002. The Masters’ Houses, being ancillary to the main building, did not have the iconic status of the school, but these houses, in their own way, were unique experiments in living. Collaborating with Junkers, Gropius was re-thinking what the modern home should be like and how modern people should inhabit it. He mused that “the organism of a house evolves from the course of events that have predated it. in a house it is the functions of living, sleeping, bathing, cooking, eating that inevitably give the whole design of the house its form… the design is not there for its own sake, it arises alone from the nature of the building, from the function it should fulfill.”

The forest-like environment for the Masters’ Houses

When the mayor of Dessau, Fritz Hesse, asked the Bauhaus to take residence in his industrial city, part of his promise was not only land for the school but also a site for faculty housing. The city provided Burgkühnauer Allee, quite close to the school itself, in a wooded and quiet area. In this tiny forest, Gropius designed a large free-standing home for himself and three double houses, paired and attached, for the Masters. The group of homes was built in a year, using mass produced materials, such as concrete blocks. Gropius was experimenting with the idea of prefabricated construction–not yet possible–with the post-war housing shortage in mind. The concept of the “large scale building set” can be best viewed in the masters’ homes, which were equal in size, but each structure was a variation on the basic cube, giving the cluster of modern architecture variation and rhythm, ruled by simplicity. As Gilbert Lupfer and Paul Sigel noted in their 2004 book, Gropius. 1883-1969. The Promoter of New Form, “Thus the Houses for the Bauhaus Masters served as a practical experiment with Gropius’s building block principle (Baukasten im Großen)..The building block principle was meant to allow, depending on the number and the needs of the inhabitants, for the assembly of different ‘machines for living.'” Gropius explained, “All six of these houses are the same but different in the impression they make. Simplification through multiplication means quicker, cheaper building.”

The Director’s Home of Walter Gropius

In the end, there were seven homes in all, but the home of the director had a few added features. As the home of the Director, the Gropius building was large, had a garage and rooms for servants’ quarters, all surrounded by a tall white wall. In the kitchen, there was, compliment of Junkerswerkes, a hot water pressure spray. Such a spray would be a standard feature in any home today, but in 1926, such an item would have been a novelty. The Bauhaus-designed furniture in this home included a sofa that opened up and converted to a bed. Next door to Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, his right-hand man, lived with his wife, the Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy. Lyonel Feininger and his wife and two children occupied the other half of the joined homes. The next duo was occupied by Georg Muche and Oskar Schlemmer and their families. Completing the triumvirate of Masters’ Houses, long time friends and close collaborators, Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee abutted one another. The Gropius designed buildings, based upon cubes, were simple, flat-roofed, white faced and marked only by the large black framed windows, touched with markings of bright primary colors. The equality of each duplex was guaranteed by simply rotating the design for the first segment and then building the second half at a ninety-degree angle.

Muche-Schlemmer House with an external restoration that retained internal changes done to the homes by subsequent owners

In northern Europe, large expanses of glass, which, at that time, could not be double-paned, would be quite cold. In the winter, these beautiful homes were uncomfortable and the open rooms needed to be warmed by some form of space heaters. Feininger used a coal stove, while Klee and Kandinsky demanded a refund for their heating bills from the city of Dessau. In the summer, the temperatures swung in the other direction and the sun streamed in through the glazed walls, baking the unfortunate inhabitants. These open spaces were the studios where the artists worked, with all the other rooms arranged around the central ateliers. There were even rooftop terraces where the artist could sunbathe in warm weather. The interiors of each home were different. Only Gropius and Moholy-Nagy used Bauhaus designed exclusively, and other Masters brought their own furniture with them. As lovely and as advanced in avant-garde modernist design, the Masters’ Houses were hard to maintain and, in their own way, were fragile, requiring constant upkeep. Although the homes were demanding of their residents, the artists, in turn, attempted to impose their will upon these experiments in modern living.

Interior colors

Klee and Kandinsky used their white-walled homes as blank canvases for the color experiments, painting their interior spaces in almost two hundred colors, an abandonment of the austerity preferred by Gropius that came to light only upon restoration. All of the homes used built-in closets, wardrobes, and cabinets, eliminating the need for all but the most basic furniture. Nevertheless, the Kandinsky home mixed the famous “Vassily chairs” with their own old-fashioned Russian furnishings. For all their exterior simplicity, the luxury of these houses was quite at odds with the Marxist sympathies of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, the original faculty and those who followed them, enjoyed living in these novel experiments in domestic living, but the coming of the Nazis and then the Second World War scattered the Masters, who would never return.

A photograph of the modified Masters’ Houses before restoration

The now hostile city of Dessau, hewing the Nazi line, instructed the new owner, Junkerswerke, to eradicate the “alien” architectural style from the structures, stating that “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” There is little indication that the leaders of the industry were interested in altering the homes, after all, Junkers himself was banished by the Nazis and the corporation had better things to concern themselves with. However, the occupants themselves organically altered the houses to suit their more middle class needs and bourgeois expectations. They bricked up the huge and drafty windows, threw up partition walls to enclose the open spaces, added chimneys, and, over time, the original cubes were swallowed up by modifications. And then came the bombings. The Gropius home was completely destroyed down to its foundation and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex next door was severely damaged and torn down. For years, no one was concerned about the lost work of a distinguished architect, and what was left of the complex was rented out and allowed to deteriorate. The Feininger home became a doctor’s office. Finally, after the Fall of the Wall, the architectural importance of the Masters’ Houses was recognized and restoration began in the early 1990s.

The Klee-Kandinsky Houses

As indicated by the cautious restorations of the Masters’ Houses, recovering the iconic exteriors while retaining interior modifications, the role of history and the meaning of the lost “original” becomes an exchange. The Bauhaus building and the homes of the Masters, as we see them now, are not the original buildings; they are replicas. Philosophical questions arise when considering how to respect the entire history of a building: does one restore/rebuild a replica or does one respect a past, no matter how checkered, and allow historical alterations to remain? The questions are really ones of authenticity versus honoring the original intent of the architect, which are actually, in this case, at odds with one another. To solve these genuinely unsolvable problems, the final restorations of the destroyed home for Gropius and the Moholy-Nagy section of the duplex were reconciled as “ghost houses” in 2014. As Connor Walker explains in Arch Daily, “Rather than restore the buildings to their original appearance, the renovation architects reconstructed the meisterhäuser to re-emphasize the spartan qualities that were championed by Bauhaus Modernists. In addition, the windows of both houses were covered in an opaque wash, giving them an ethereal appearance.” Described as “minimalist arrangement of geometric shapes” by Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen, the “ghosts” of the destroyed homes were reinterpreted by Bruno Fioretti Marquez. The result is a novel solution, resulting in a new building that is both material and immaterial, a memory and a reality, an homage and reconstruction, and, above all, a healing of architectural wounds.

Bruno Fioretti Marquez. Ghost of the Walter Gropius House (2914)

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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Bauhaus: The Fate of the Bauhaus

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

The Fate of the Bauhaus Buildings

The decline of the school probably began in 1928 when the founding Director, Walter Gropius departed but the last two directors were under pressures that Gropius escaped. Mies was able to do little more to save the Bauhaus than to turn it into a vocational school, training people for trades. Clearly he was trying to be as circumspect as possible in an increasingly hostile political climate. The Nazis won a political majority in Dessau and immediately took aim at the Bauhaus and its “cosmopolitan rubbish” and withdrew all public funding. Architect Paul Schultze-Naumberg took over at the school to restore pure German art and architecture and purge the Kisten or the boxes of Bauhaus furniture. The Nazis were unique among the fascists in their hatred of modern architecture, for, in Italy, the government appropriated modernism for its own purposes. However, the Nazis reverted to imperial architecture inspired by Rome and it is fortunate that Schultze-Naumberg limited his destruction to the curriculum of the school.

Perhaps the most malicious act of vandalism befell the Master’s Houses, built for Gropius, Kandinsky, Klee, Schlemmer, Feininger, Miuche and Moholy-Nagy. Gropius had designed a group of modernist semi-detached and single-family homes, the famous houses for the Bauhaus faculty. Built according the to the designs of Gropius, these houses included a revolutionary modern concept for the kitchen, replacing traditional kitchen furniture with hanging cabinets and counters. The homes were furnished with Bauhaus furniture, lamps, fabrics, weavings, and other accessories. Kandinsky and his wife, Nina, were photographed sitting in a pair of “Wassily” chairs, designed by Marcel Breuer.

When the Bauhaus moved to Berlin, the city of Dessau, which owned the property, sold the houses to the Junker factory and ordered that the “the outer form of these houses should now be changed so that the alien building forms are removed from the town’s appearance.” The houses were greatly altered with the wide window walls closed in for conventional openings and chimneys sprouted from the flat roofs. During an air raid, the houses for Gropius and for Moholy-Nagy were destroyed. The other homes are still standing and have been lovingly restored to their original condition. The mark of the influence of De Stijl architecture is strongly felt with the crisp white exteriors, trimmed in black with an occasional jolt of a red line. The interiors were colorful in the Bauhaus fashion of using color to demarcate space. Starting in 2000, these houses were restored by the city of Dessau and today they on the list of UNESCO’s historic buildings. The question of whether or not to rebuilt the remaining two houses is still under discussion.

The Bauhaus building itself was damaged by bombing in 1945 and was partially restored in 1976. The building was located in East Germany and the reconstruction was not precise or historically accurate, perhaps due to lack of funds. For example, the curtain wall of the workshop wing was destroyed and the original steel window frames were replaced with aluminum. It was thought that the frames were lost but they were relocated as part of a greenhouse and placed back where they belonged. Extensive restoration of the original restoration began in the early years of the twenty-first century. Few documents exist about the original building and the restorers took every effort to preserve the original elements of the building, from the innovative plastic floors to the brightly colored walls, painted in accordance to the plan of the wall-painting department, headed by Hinnerk Scheper. In 1996, the building was registered as a World Heritage site and today it receives two hundred visitors a day.

When Adolf Hitler became dictator in Germany, any intellectuals and artists who remained left the nation…if they could. It has been said, “Hitler shook the tree and America got the apples.” The diaspora of the Bauhaus architects were but a fraction of Germany’s creative capital that was drained out of the country’s system. Albert Speer replaced Walter Gropius as Germany’s most celebrated architect. Gropius, Breuer, Mies, Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers all came to America with enormous impact upon art and architecture in New York and Chicago.

In a free and prosperous society, they were able to build significant modernist buildings and the Bauhaus lived on in buildings and in countless copies of Bauhaus objects for modern life. Sadly, Walter Gropius did not live to see the restoration of his Gesamtkunstwerk and he died in 1969. His American home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, built in 1938, was very similar to his home within walking distance of 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

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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]

 

 

Bauhaus: Modern Design

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Bauhaus and the Modern World

In the beginning, the Bauhaus was founded upon the precedents of arts and crafts, deeply rooted in a Romantic and Germanic notion of a return to a medieval way of life. The founding image of the Bauhaus was the Cubist-like cathedral designed by Lyonel Feininger for the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto. Indeed it was the intention of the newly appointed director, Walter Gropius to end the academic distinction between the fine arts and crafts by reestablishing the culture of the workshop. There would be a master of craft, the Handwerkmeister, and the master of form, the Formmeister, who, between them, would join handwork and aesthetics. Indeed the idea of making things, of getting back to the direct experience with materials which were manipulated with the hands was the basic idea of the early Bauhaus. The ideal sought by Gropius was the mythic and spiritual collective memory of the Bauhüten or the masons’ lodges. The idea of the cathedral and the Bauhaus was the Einheitskunstwerk or the total work of art translated into the collective needs of a modern society. But this idea of collectivity was easier stated than achieved.

The Bauhaus student body was definitely a mixed bag, unemployed men looking for something to do, old and difficult veterans, and students who were unprepared for the lofty goals of the Bauhaus. Gropius brought in a sterling faculty with pre-war credentials, starting with Lyonel Feininger and continuing with Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Johannes Itten from Vienna. Itten quickly remedied the problem of the lack of student readiness for an art school by creating a “foundation” course that would teach the basics to all students to create a foundation for the more advanced courses. Classes taught by Kandinsky and Klee complemented this “preliminary course”. Although Itten would be forced out along with the lingering sentiments for Expressionism in 1922, the idea of providing a year of basics in the arts still lingers in art schools a hundred years later. After Itten’s departure, László Moholy-Nagy took over the Preliminary Course, which would later be taught, most famously, by Josef Albers.

Despite their philosophical differences, Itten and Gropius established significant ideas that would leave their mark on twentieth century design and architecture. Itten, who was a hippie before his time, taught his students the fundamentals of the body through yogi or stretching exercises that would get them in touch with their own physicality. This emphasis on the senses was part of the need to give primacy to experience and an awareness of life through exercises in quick sketches in drawing class. Gropius did not consider that the Bauhaus was engaged in “making art” but in conducting “experiments” in a “laboratory.” At the Bauhaus, “abstraction” took on a different meaning as a search for fundamentalism. Abstraction did not stand in for “something else,” but was the process of distilling art making down to the essentials.

This basic core that the post-war artists were seeking initiated a search for artistic forms stripped of any cultural “baggage.” The idea of a tabula rasa was not just a quest for the visual arts; philosophers also turned their attention to the epistemology or the grounds of perceptual knowledge and linguistic understanding. Edmund Husserl wrote extensively of “bracketing” reality and attempting to discern the essentials of perception. Fernand de Saussure proposed a system where in the structure of language could be determined, breaking down linguistics into the “sign,” the “signifier,” and the “signified.” Certainly the thinking of De Stijl was crucial in the Bauhaus’ process of stripping down to a basic code of line and color. As Yves-Alain Bois pointed out in his 1985 book on De Stijl the “elementarization” which narrowed composition to the primary colors, white and gray, and the ruled line at right angle, and “integration,” which binds the resulting forms into a unified whole were the basis of De Stijl philosophy.

What had to be unlearned were outmoded and outdated aesthetic conventions and received ideas of beauty as taught by the academy. The artist of the twentieth century needed to have a mind cleansed of received wisdom and to return to a tabula rasa from which new and clarified forms would emerge. Gropius sought basic modules as elemental building units. Having achieved that level of creative clarity, the artist could be redefined as “a builder of systems.” The emphasis on experience over knowledge meant that communication between viewer and maker should be pre-linguistic and immediate due to the eloquence of “fundamental forms.” In his influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911, Vasily Kandinsky asserted that a form of “psychic shock” would result when the viewer encountered these strong forms. Key to the idea of gaining experience, which would replace conventions was the idea of “play.” The importance of play at the Bauhaus was inspired by the foundational work of Friedrich Froebel who invented the “kindergarten” or the “children’s garden” where children played and learned from their play.

By 1923, Gropius was ready to announce the new philosophy for the Bauhaus. This “reversal of values” moved the school away from the reform of arts and crafts to an engagement with the industrial world. Clearly, the Bauhaus had been profoundly impacted by the art and design done by the De Stijl movement in Holland and by the example of “laboratory work” done in the new Soviet Union. De Stijl founder, Theo van Doesburg, moved to Weimar and gave individual lessons to Bauhaus students but was never a professor there. In Berlin, German art audiences go their first look at the new art of the Soviets at the Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1922. The world had changed and the Bauhaus reacted with alacrity. Gropius, speaking at a 1923 exhibition of faculty and student work, announced that the Bauhaus had moved into the present and had a new slogan, “Art and Technology: A New Unity.”

Thus the philosophy of the Bauhaus passed beyond the Werkbund spirit that the artist should be a craftsperson first and any aesthetic must be based upon sound craft. The whole notion of “craft” and making had to get beyond the medieval mystique and into mass manufacture. 1923 was the year that Walter Gropius invited the Hungarian artist, László Moholy-Nagy to join the faculty. Moholy-Nagy embodied the new industrial spirit of the new Bauhaus. A photographer, painter and typographer, Molholy-Nagy pioneered in what his called “New Vision,” his version of “the grammar of modern design” sought by Gropius. Like many designers, Moholy-Nagy knew that the visual forms of the nineteenth century had to be updated for the new century. Most importantly, he understood that the modern mind perceived the world in a fundamentally different fashion.

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]

 

Bauhaus: The Founding

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Founding the Bauhaus, 1919-1923

Historically as an art school and as a design movement, the Bauhaus stands as a counterweight to the solipsism and Surrealism in Paris and the anger and turmoil in Berlin. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus can be linked to New Objectivity in its rejection of Expressionism, but the school set itself apart from the mainstream art world in Germany by redesigning the world for the twentieth century. The goal of the Bauhaus was to create the kinds of design that would lend itself to mass production and that would be accessible to the masses. To a certain extent, the Bauhaus also shared the post-war utopianism that clean modern design would have a beneficial impact on society, but the goals were more practical than dreamy. From the beginning the school was split among factions—art versus craft—and individual creation and corporate ownership—hand work verses factory production. The school also reflected the tensions in early twentieth century society, controversies over the Jewish members of the faculty and the dis-ease over having so many female students. Divided at its heart, the Bauhaus nevertheless created the “modern.”

As an art school, the Bauhaus was the continuation of a long-held dream of reforming the bad design and bad taste unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Its precedents were the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements in England and the Art nouveau styles in Europe and America and, more locally, the Deutscher Werkbund, founded in Munich in 1907. In their desire to return to the integrity of medieval craft, these predecessor movements were flawed in their core, for the products, hand-crafted by artists, were far too expensive and rarified for the ordinary person to afford. Only the Werkbund, fully engaged in the twentieth century, was positioned to join art and craft and industry. In contrast, the nineteenth century reform movements, for all their good intentions, were expressions of luxury, and the Werkbund established the most immediate precedent for the Bauhaus.

In fact, it was one of the founders of the Werkbund, Henry van der Velde, who was head of the School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, and it was his post that Walter Gropius took over. Van der Velde was forced to leave Germany and return to this homeland of Belgium, but, after the war, it seemed clear that his medieval sensibilities had become obsolete. By the time the Bauhaus was formed by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimer it was clear that it was impossible to return to an imagined medieval paradise and that design needed to express the modern industrial world that had come so horribly into fruition during the Great War. Gropius combined arts and crafts into one school, under one roof, combining all the arts under one roof in the name of architecture: Bauhaus or “house of building.” Gropius stated,

“Let us collectively desire, conceive and create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one structure: architecture and sculpture and painting, which, from the million hands of craftsmen, will one day rise towards heaven as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.”

Although we tend to think of “the Bauhaus” as an organic unity that created a “look” that is read as “modern,” the school actually went through numerous stages. Existing during the span of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, the Bauhaus lived a precarious existence, and, like the wider German art world, evolved out of Romanticism and Expressionism into the modern era. Far more than any other movement in the period between the two wars, the Bauhaus was actively engaged in an attempt to redefine “art” and “artist” for the modern period of mass production and mass communication for mass audiences.

The school went through its founding phase from 1919 to 1922, shifting to a more rational and less medieval approach to design, only to be disrupted by the move to Dessau in 1925, where Gropius brought in László Moholy-Nagy, who had a profound impact on the philosophy of the Bauhaus. Gropius was succeeded by Hannes Meyer in 1928, but he was considered politically unsuitable and was removed in favor of Mies van Der Rohe in 1930. After that final transition, the Bauhaus went into survival mode and Mies presided over its final demise in Berlin in 1933.

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]