It was true that closing the Bauhaus was not the first political act by Hitler once he finally gained power in March of 1933. He opened concentration camps that month, stocked with political opponents, organized a day of boycotting Jewish goods, and then in April he dissolved the art school, now located in Berlin, before holding a festive book burning in May. The closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis shows an extraordinary animosity towards an art school, of all things. What made these designers so dangerous, so feared, that the city government of Dessau should move to expel faculty and students, who then fled to Berlin? The way art and design history usually tells the tale is that despite all the odds, the designs of the Bauhaus, many of which were by students, became embedded in our everyday lives. The In fact, the story usually ends there, with a coda explaining how the diaspora of the faculty and students and disciples to America and Israel. But there is a gap to this narrative of the triumph of modern design, leading to two questions: first, how did an art school become politicized and second, what happened to the Bauhaus buildings after the Nazis slammed the doors shut?
The problem with the Bauhaus can be summed up with one comparison—between the façades of the now famous Bauhaus building in Dessau and the much older art school in Düsseldorf. One glance and the debate of the early twentieth century becomes apparent. Today the venerable art school in Dûsseldorf belies its appearance, producing cutting edged artists, but one hundred years ago, the calm neo-classical building carried on age old tradition. As it should.
In contrast to repeating the obvious, Walter Gropius, well-known architect and head of an art school in disgrace, asked new questions. What should an art school look like in the 20th century? Should the institution bow to tradition and reference the long past of the beaux-arts? Or should an art school speak the language of its own time? Few art schools had to opportunity to ask much less answer such questions, but Walter Gropius was handed the opportunity to re-envision an art school for the new century. But this creative gift followed on the heels of the school being forced to leave its first home in the inhospitable town of Weimar Germany.
Weimar, like Düsseldorf, was an old city, renowned for its history, full of traditional German architecture. Home of Göethe and Schiller, the capital of the Weimar Republic, was not, despite its invitation to an advanced architect and designer like Gropius, an open-minded town. The officials assumed Gropius would merge the fine arts and the crafts, separated into two establishments into one, retaining the academic artists that had been the staff. When Gropius brought in avant-garde artists and introduced non-traditional ideas, not at all fooled by his vision of a modern cathedral community, the town became displeased—too radical, too many women, too many left-wing Communists.
Unmollified by a very successful exhibition of the work of the art school’s students and faculty in 1923, suspected of being too left wing in a right-wing town, the hounding of the Bauhaus was a harbinger of things to come in ten years. Weimar wanted the old ways back and the new ways had to leave town. The school was forced to find a new city as a design partner. Dessau, the site of the Junkers Works, gave the school the best offer. Moving the school to Dessau forced the Bauhaus to shake off any lingering Medieval associations and enter fully into an industrialized age. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy took the place of Johannes Itten as the head of the Vorkus or preliminary course that set the mood and tone for the young designers. Moholy-Nagy brought with him the international impulse towards Constructivism, a Soviet direction which had swept over Germany thanks to the lectures given by Theo van Doesburg from Holland.
It was here in Dessau that the Bauhaus entered the machine age and could engage directly with the industry in Dessau. Eager to work with the Bauhaus designers, the city provided land for the school so that Gropius and his architectural firm could design and buildings so that the students and staff could live and work in buildings that were fitting for its mission.
In the factory town of Dessau, far away from the older city of Weimar, the Bauhaus art school was more at home than in the capital of the Republic. The Bauhaus building, designed by Walter Gropius and completed in 1925, looked nothing like an art school should. Defying the local horizon of expectations, the main studio wing with its wall of windows, looked like a factory. And in looking wrong, in looking away from the past and into the present with an eye to the future, the Bauhaus signed its own inevitable fate—it would be closed by the hostile Nazi government in 1933.
The 1920s in Germany was a decade in which two major political currents fought for dominance, socialism and fascism, and entire cities or regions could be dominated by one current or another. As a working-class town, Dessau had a Social Democrat as a mayor, presiding over laborers, engineers and scientists, working in the aircraft and mechanical engineering enterprises of Junkerswerke, along with I. G. Faben employees. Mass housing was desperately needed and Bauhaus style architecture seemed ideal to fill the void. Gropius agreed to build a housing project for the town, now bursting at the seams, and Dessau gave the school a segment of open territory which allowed the architect to spread out into a campus.
With plenty of room to experiment with a signature architectural style that was an advertisement for the school’s design ethic, Gropius made a surprising choice, he connected the various specialized units of the school into one connected shape, composed of three segments. This tripartite shape was not visible from ground level: one walked from unit to unit, but, from the air, the geometric form became a striking logo for the school. It seems possible that the careful consideration of the bird’s eye view as an homage to the Junkerswerke facilities where airplanes were made.
Although there seems to be a main building—the famous studio façade or the workshop wing—there are other areas of the art school gathered together under one continuous roof, separate but connected at sharp and unexpected angles. The modernist trademark for architecture, the flat roof, was ideally suited for the famous bird’s eye view, and the dark geometric design existed in contrast to the open and light window wall and the white paint that covered over the concrete and brick structure of a building that was so modern it was meant to be read from the air.
Waving a red flag at a particularly nasty bull, Walter Gropius turned an art school, traditionally the protected zone where the elite males of the middle class worked for the benefit of the state to spread the message of the government through the Beaux-Arts—painting, sculpture, architecture, into a factory for the arts and industrial design. By transferring the window wall from his Fagus Factory, Gropius and his private architectural firm seemed to be removing the artist from the gentleman status and lowered him or her to the level of a worker.
As a bookend, the end wall of the studio wing was painted gray, highlighting the white letters that spelled Bauhaus, in a modern sans serif font. Made famous by the distinctive photographs of Lucia Moholy-Nagy, the building for the students with its cantilevered balconies became one of the most iconic signifiers of not just the Bauhaus but of all things modern in architecture. The projecting balconies, supported by invisible steel beams, seemed to float, fixed at 90 degree angles to the plain upright rectangular building punctured by plain windows, unrelieved by any surrounds. The extreme simplicity of the cubic buildings was offset by projections over doorways but mostly by the drama of the glass wall of the workshops. The glazing, composed of a delicate grid of small windows, was continuous from the entry level to the roof top.
By day the wall glinted in the sun and subsided in the shadow. By night, the distinctive front glowed like a sheet of golden light, silhouetting the figures of students hard at work—laborers in a factory of design. Class distinctions were mocked in ways that were particularly distressing for conservatives, who did not like the idea of leveling the classes. Nor did the conservative factions approve of serving the needs of the masses.