The Dessau building of the Bauhaus displayed many controversial markers of modernist architecture, betraying liberal socialist thinking that would make it a doomed institution for the up and coming Nazis. The “Battle of the Bauhaus” had begun in Weimar when attacks by right-wing nationalists condemned the designs as being not just modern but also non-German. Arguments against modern art that would be used by Nazis were rehearsed in the German press, making the art school famous. During the 1920s, the so-called “radical” architects, and there were many in Germany, were determined to move architecture into the twentieth century by using modern materials and modern building assembly line techniques for pre-fabricated construction of mass housing. Gropius was neither alone nor was he a particularly extreme—he and the Bauhaus were just visible.
Pushed into action by the large numbers of people coming into the cities from the country, Frankfurt and Berlin did large scale housing projects for the new residents. Governments all over Germany needed the new Constructivist ideas of modular buildings that were cube shaped, geometric and clean lined. Swift and simple to erect with steel and concrete these buildings eschewed any signature style to concentrate on Function. If the modern approach to design and construction was so efficient and so necessary, then how did architecture become a political football? Although there were prominent modern architects who were considered “radical,” they were not in the majority and many of the architects in Germany were traditionalists, as were the German people. It was a fair debate—should architecture in Germany reflect the Germanic and Nordic traditions or should practicality rule?
One of the main opponents of modern art and architecture was Paul Schultze-Namburg, a traditional architect who argued that a “national” architecture was the expression of people “rooted” in “blood and soil,” as he put it. In contrast to Germanic native architectural styles, the “nomadic” or modern style was rootless and international and therefore was linked to the rootless culture of Jews and the nomads of color in the middle east and Africa and to the international philosophy of Communism. In 1928, he published Art and Race, in which he argued that modern artists produced distorted art, that is not a classical art of beauty, but an art of ugliness revealing the distorted souls of artists bent on destroying the soul of Germany. Modern architects paid little attention to what were witless ramblings of an unbalanced mind but ten years later, the ideas of Schultze-Namburg would be the organizing principle for the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich.
However, in 1926 when Walter Gropius began building the Törten Housing Estate outside Dessau, mass housing was less a signifier of international Communism and more a signifier of a problem that needed to be solved. Dessau was a company town and designing and building the Törten Housing Estate was the quid pro quo of the school being allowed in the city. Gropius designed an “estate” of three hundred and forty-one homes, each with a small kitchen garden for growing crops and raising animals. Although kitchen gardens and small farmyards sounds comfortingly traditional, the interiors of the homes themselves were furnished and designed with efficiency in mind, for the middle-class family without servants, which needed to have a modern labor-saving high tech home of machines.
These homes, set one next to the other lining uniform streets, were simple cube modular designs, devoid embellishments and details. The white walls were opened by rows of simple windows set into the structure in horizontal or vertical strips. Doorways were just as simple, barely marked and set back into the expanse of white walls. The flat roofed two story attached dwellings march in regimented uniformity down the paved street, relieved only but the occasional multi story multifamily building with cantilevered terraces. The houses were prefabricated on site, erected swiftly in a matter of months, and lived in by workers who were not pleased with the stark facades and unadorned interiors. The modern homes were “rationalized,” as Gropius put it, by the swift assembly of identical rectilinear units and through their rationalized method of construction methods.
The traditional details traditional Germans yearned for, like pitched roofs and chimneys and window sills or door frames, took time and money and hand fabrication. Over time, the homeowners took it upon themselves to modify these clean classic examples of modernist architecture, these pioneering and famous examples of mass housing, cluttering them up with desired incidentals. Around 2010 enough time had passed so that modern architecture was—a century later—finally accepted and certain homes were restored to their original purity by the city of Dessau. And some of the owners began to follow suit, gradually returning the Törten Estate to the concept imagined by Walter Gropius.
Acceptance of the New comes very slowly. Traditionally people like tradition and recoil at the shock of the new. The debate over estates and housing complexes such as those in Törten was intense. Critics pointed out, correctly, that the flat roofs leaked, the medal frames around the doors and windows rusted, and argued, once again correctly, that for the climate of Germany which was in northern Europe a place is rain and snow, a peaked not a flat roof was best. And it would have also been accurate to point out that mass housing needed to be built quickly and cheaply and that the modular cubes eliminated costly and time-consuming hand work and expensive traditional details.
For most intelligent people the racist and anti-Semitic philosophy of Paul Schultze-Namburg and his cohorts were grotesque but there was a lively debate in the German press between the radical architects and the traditional architects. The architectural discourse of the 1920s was linked to nationalism and local pride in local traditions which were threatened by the rising tide of modernity and the lynchpin of the discussion was the roof—should the roof be flat or peaked? The problem of modern design, according to its opponents was its lack of soul. Nothing modern could evoke feelings of warmth and domesticity and heritage. The radical architects such as Walter Gropius argued that modern architect would evoke spiritual feelings of community and a sense of being part of a new world for a new society. Soul or no soul, the buildings of the Bauhaus, for the school and the staff, would encounter the great Roof Debate.
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. 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. 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. The Cassily was the first of his many furniture designs utilizing curved metal. As part of his goal of fusing art with industry through modern design, Gropius designed the Masters’ Houses to be the most modern possible inside and out. Working with Junkers, he arranged for the factory to install a series of what were termed new “thermotechnical” units in the new homes 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, many 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.