Sunday, June 18, 2017

Artists' Berlin 4


Wassili Luckhardt, Imaginary Structure, 1920



Out of the catastrophe of the First World War, artists and designers looked for a new start.  The old 19th century world of early industrial capitalism and all the assumptions that went with it lay in ashes on the battlefields of Europe.  It was time to begin anew.  The Dada and Surrealist artists were social drop-outs who dreamed of the total liberation of impulses and reveled in chaos while looking forward to the destruction of the corrupt parasitic society of the Weimar Republic.  Others were less interested in destruction than in reconstruction.  They wanted to shape a new society and dreamed of rebuilding from scratch.  These were designers and architects who thought of themselves as pragmatic engineers that wanted to build a new world instead of just reveling in the destruction of the old one.  They didn't want to drop out so much as build and lead a new social, political, and moral order.  A new order of the world demanded a whole new aesthetic free from the constraints of a discredited past.  These designers perhaps arrogantly assumed that by changing the look of the environment that they could change people.  Clean rational honest design could shape selfish irrational human beings into healthy clean rational honest citizens, so they believed.
These artists and architects who worked in and near Berlin strike us today as remarkably prescient.  That's because so much of what they conceived would not be realized until after the Second World War, and outside of Germany in the USA.  These designers who lived and worked in the 1920s created so much of the look of the USA and the world that would emerge out of World War II.  While we see them as prophetic, in their own day they were seen as idle dreamers or wild eyed revolutionaries.  Today, many of their designs are popular and in high demand.  In their day, much of the German public saw these designers' work as strange and alienating.


"The Splendor is Absolutely Unimaginable," 
Expressionist Architecture in Berlin


The glass and steel skyscraper that is a hallmark of cities around the world by the end of the 20th century was born in the USA (in Chicago and New York specifically), but it was conceived in Berlin.
The glass skyscraper's Berlin conception was surprisingly romantic and visionary.  We associate the suave shiny glass skyscraper with all things corporate, as much a part of that culture as the suit and tie with a briefcase.  The German visionaries who conceived glass construction dreamed not of practicality and cost-effectiveness, they saw visions of a pacifist utopia.



Wassili Luckhardt, Tower of Joy, 1920


This is a design for an unbuilt monument by the visionary architect Wassili Luckhardt who built relatively little before World War II, but who dreamed great things.  This tower never would have any kind of practical function.  It was supposed to express a kind of collective joy in the form of an immense crystal rising above a surrounding plaza with falls of ruby colored glass tumbling down its flanks.


Manufacturing sheet glass, Toledo, Ohio, circa 1916


Manufacturers invented inexpensive ways to mass produce unbroken sheet glass in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century.  The prospect of large unbroken plates of glass as construction material seized the imaginations of a handful of visionary architects in Berlin.  Glass was clear and shiny like crystal instead of heavy and opaque like stone or brick.  Its transparency and fragility made it a perfect kind of pacifist building material.  No one living in such architecture could or should throw any stones.

The first to articulate a vision of the world remade by glass was not an architect, but a poet, Paul Scheerbart who happened to live in Berlin.  He wrote a kind of fantasy poetry in the tradition of ETA Hoffmann and anticipated the visions of science fiction.  Some of that quality comes through in this passage from his essay Glass Architecture:

The surface of the Earth would change greatly if brick architecture were everywhere displaced by glass architecture. It would be as though the Earth clad itself in jewelry of brilliant enamel. The splendor is absolutely unimaginable. And we should have then on the Earth more exquisite things than the garden of the Arabian Nights. Then we should have a paradise on Earth and would have no need to gaze longingly at the paradise in the sky.

Bruno Taut, an architect who was a friend of Scheerbart, first realized the poet's visions of crystalline architecture in a temporary structure built almost entirely of glass for an industrial exhibition in Cologne in 1914 on the eve of the outbreak of World War I, the Glass Pavilion.




Bruno Taut's Glass Pavilion at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, 1914





Interior of Taut's Glass Pavilion, lower level




Bruno Taut, Glass Pavilion, upper level





Bruno Taut, Glass Pavilion, dome interior

Walking into this building by all accounts was like walking into a kaleidoscope with colored glass, shifting colored lights and pools of colored water.  The effect was breathtakingly visionary.

Taut was something of a utopian visionary all of his relatively short life.  He died in 1938 in Turkey at age 58.  He was a true believing socialist and a pacifist whose practice suffered because of his opposition to the First World War.  He built a number of housing projects for low income families in Berlin and other German cities in the 1920s.  While Taut is mostly remembered for his visionary Glass Pavilion, his public housing was very practical, generous, and humane; especially compared to later public housing projects in Europe and the USA.  His projects had heating, lighting, access to gardens, balconies, and open spaces.  In fact, many conservative politicians criticized his housing projects for being too generous, that they might indulge the poor and make them lazy, arguments that would be very familiar to us today.

One of his most famous projects still stands in southern Berlin and still is in use, the Hufeisensiedlung ("Horseshoe Settlement") built in 1925 around a small pond in a park.



Bruno Taut, Hufeisensiedlung, Berlin



Bruno Taut, Hufseisensiedlung, Berlin



Bruno Taut, Hufeisensiedlung, Berlin


Wassili Luckhardt and Bruno Taut were romantic visionaries among a group of Berlin architects now designated by historians as "Expressionist" architects.  Indeed they were heirs of that small group of visionary hippies in Die Brücke who tried to change life and change their small part of the world by re-designing and rebuilding their small corner of it in cheap-rent apartments in working class parts of the city where they lived and worked.  So too did these architects dream of somehow altering history by redesigning its setting, of altering life by remaking its physical environment.

The one member of this group of architects who had a long and commercially successful career in Germany, Israel, and the USA was Erich Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn's career began with an international scientific competition, a race to see who could prove Einstein's theory of relativity first by measuring the effect of the sun's gravity on the light of a star.  The British won that competition, but Mendelsohn gave the Germans a lasting monument to Einstein's work, the Einstein Tower in Potsdam just west of Berlin.  Mendelsohn got the commission through his friendship with Herbert Freundlich, a noted physicist of the day.  The Tower was completed in 1921.



Mendelsohn intended the Tower to be a fully functioning astronomical observatory (which it still is) to play its part in proving Einstein's theory.

A lot of Mendelsohn's designs began with his splendid high speed sketches.  Mendelsohn very brilliantly realized these visions in three dimensional form in fully functional -- and commercially viable -- buildings.





And this beautiful sketch eventually became a fully functional movie theater and restaurant, the Schaubühne, intended to be the centerpiece of a housing complex.  It was finished in 1928.






And the Schaubühne still is there and functional in Berlin today.  Allied bombing heavily damaged this theater.  It was rebuilt and restored to its original function in 1969.

Mendelsohn fled Germany in 1933 for Britain.  As a Jew, his assets were seized and he was stricken from the rolls of all the professional organizations he belonged to.  He struggled to rebuild his practice in Britain, and later in Jerusalem.  He spent the last years of his life in San Francisco designing buildings in the USA for Jewish institutions.  While I lived in Saint Louis, I knew the B'nai Amoona Synagogue in University City.


Erich Mendelsohn, B'nai Amoona Synagogue, University City, Missouri

Mendelsohn's designs from the 1920s influenced styles of commercial architecture in the USA in the 1950s and 60s; Midcentury Modern that is so popular now.




The Bauhaus



The Bauhaus began and ended with the Weimar Republic.  It began in Weimar in 1919 and it ended in Berlin in 1933.  The school of design that we associate with all things clean, rational, and technological got off to a rocky start in Weimar.  In the beginning, it was a very different institution from what the Bauhaus became.  In 1919, the Bauhaus had less in common with other 20th century design movements and looked more like William Morris' Arts and Craft movement in the 19th century, as a romantic rebellion against an over-rationalized technological world.


Lionel Feininger's woodcut of a cathedral illustrating the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto

The Bauhaus was not the first school to invent and promote modern design.  That distinction belongs to the Moscow Svomas and it s successor, Vkhutemas.  In fact, the Bauhaus came late to the whole business of modern design.  It began as a lofty mission to break down the distinction between fine and applied art, and modeled itself on medieval guild systems calling their faculty "masters" and their students "apprentices."  Lionel Feininger adorned the opening manifesto of the school in 1919 with a woodcut of a medieval cathedral, not so much a religious image as a reminder of the collective enterprise of artists and craftsmen together that raised the great cathedrals.  The 1919 Manifesto announcing the creation of the Bauhaus reads in part:

"Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a “profession.” There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.
 Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist! Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith."  


This passionately romantic declaration launched a major experiment in art, design, and education that would have lasting influence around the world.  The Bauhaus was the first art school in Germany to have a curriculum with a limited amount of time to matriculate.  No longer would students park themselves permanently in the shade of a beloved master.  Students would complete a clearly marked course of study and move into professional life.  While the school depended on government funds, the ultimate goal was to design and make things that would be economically self-sufficient, that could be viable and marketable.  The Bauhaus always planned to be self sufficient by designing and contracting out the mass production of cheap consumer goods and housing.  In this it failed badly for a number of reasons, not least was the insecurity and instability of the German economy during the Weimar Republic.  Corporations and governments took a keen interest in the activities of the Bauhaus.  Both had to do business with a huge population of newly poor people; formerly middle class people wiped out by the economic collapse at the end of World War I, and later by the Inflation of 1923.  The Bauhaus promised design for mass production of cheap goods and housing for this very large and restless population.
Another problem was that the Bauhaus was run by visionaries who never really abandoned the Utopian hopes set out in the school's opening manifesto.  Faculty and students at the school set out to design and build a whole new world that owed nothing to the 19th century world obliterated in the First World War.  They wanted to replace a dirty, damaged, and traumatized Europe with a healthy, clean, rational world of clear ideas manifested in clear clean design.  They wanted to replace the angry nationalism of post war Europe with an internationalist future based on social democracy and rational beliefs.
The Bauhaus was very international.  Faculty and students included not just Germans but French, Russians, Swiss, Hungarians, Croatians, Italians, Spanish, and even a few Americans.  That very internationalism made the school suspect from the start with emerging German nationalist movements and right wing politicians.  The Bauhaus' founder Walter Gropius tried hard to keep the school apolitical and to shield it from economic and political crises of the day, but politics forced the Bauhaus to change locations twice, and finally ended it abruptly.






The architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, and in so many ways the changes in the institution reflect the development of his thought and ideas.
Gropius began as a pioneering young architect in the years before the First World War.  His design for the Fagus Shoe Factory in Alfeld just outside the city of Hildesheim is still amazingly forward looking.




Construction on the factory began in 1912, and was completed right on the eve of the start of the First World War in 1914.  The building takes design ideas pioneered in Chicago by architects such as Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham and combines them with the clear simple forms created by the Viennese architect Adolph Loos into something completely new and original.  It is not quite a skeletal frame building.  Brick support piers on the outside hold up the floors and create frames for almost-but-not-quite glass and steel curtain walls.  Unlike a true curtain wall, large frames embedded in the outside supports hold up the windows.  A true curtain wall would hang from a skeletal frame of steel or concrete more like a skin than a wall.  The factory is a foretaste of what Gropius would design and build for the Bauhaus.

Gropius enlisted in the German cavalry and saw fierce fighting in the Somme.  He was badly wounded and awarded the Iron Cross.  The War left him deeply traumatized and shook his earlier optimistic faith in technology.  That same technology that he once believed in to bring a better more prosperous world into being became mechanized industrial slaughter on the battlefields.  A horrified Gropius began to echo the sentiments of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement as he rejected mechanized mass production for a return to some form of hand made economy made up of communities of independent skilled craftsmen instead of underpaid unskilled drones chained to machines by heartless capital.  The Bauhaus in its first manifestation would reflect Gropius' rejection of technology. 






The first official Bauhaus seal designed by Karl Peter Röhl.

The Bauhaus began in Weimar, as did the Weimar Republic.  Weimar is the former capital of the German state of Thuringia made famous by the great Enlightenment poets Goethe and Schiller.
In 1919, it was a small city in a largely agrarian state.  Weimar had little industry, and its politics were quite conservative.

In its first incarnation, the Bauhaus consciously modeled itself on the English Arts and Craft movement under the leadership of William Morris.  Like Morris' movement, the early Bauhaus was anti-technological.  Also like Morris, Gropius and the early Bauhaus faculty believed that mechanized mass production was soul-less, and transformed the work of skilled laborers into the mindless task of minding the machinery that did all the making.  Morris, like Karl Marx, believed that industrial production alienated the worker from his work.  Morris argued that such alienation showed in the work produced by mechanization.  It was cheap to make, and looked cheap.  Where they were pricey, mass produced products used expensive materials and workmanship lavishly to express the high price tag; so that people got their "money's worth," and so that the product could proclaim to the world how much money the customer was willing to spend.  One idea of Morris that stayed with the Bauhaus throughout its existence was the idea that bad morals expressed themselves in bad design.  Another was Morris' concept of total design, that one artist or a group of artists determined the whole look of a building; its architecture, furniture, even the design of the upholstery fabric and wall paper.



The Weimar School of Fine Art designed and built from 1904 - 1911 by the great Art Nouveau designer Henry van de Velde.  During the First World War, the building served as a military hospital.  In 1919, this building became the first home of the Bauhaus.




Johannes Itten, a very strange and brilliant man, became the leading "Master of Form" at the early Bauhaus.  He was a devout follower of one of many sects and spiritual movements that flourished in central Europe in the years before and just after World War I, Mazdaznan.  Mazdaznan was distantly related to Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia and of the Parsees of India.  Like Zoroastrianism, it taught that the world is an arena of conflict between the forces of light and good, and the forces of darkness and evil.  The outcome of that conflict was always in doubt.  Mazdaznan added other features common to a lot of these early New Age movements in Germany such as an interest in physical health and purity.  Mazdaznan demanded a strict vegetarian diet with regular fasting and enemas.  Itten followed these practices with zeal and expected them of his students.  Itten shaved his head, and wore loose robes of his own making.  Itten was hardly alone in spiritual singularity at the Bauhaus.  The great Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who arrived to teach at the Bauhaus in 1922 believed in Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical movement.  Rudolph Steiner and his anthroposophy movement had followers among the Bauhaus faculty and students.
Itten caused a near riot among the students when he demanded that the school dining hall serve only his Mazdaznan required garlic flavored vegetarian mush.  Requiring a strict vegetarian diet is one thing in an affluent society, but in impoverished and shortage-ridden post War Germany, this was a step too far for many students.


A page from Itten's book on color.

Strange and demanding as he was, Itten was also brilliant.  His ideas on how to think about color apart from imitating nature are still taught in art schools around the world.

Itten created the Bauhaus Vorkurs or Basic Course and pioneered new methods of teaching form for art and design.

The Vorkurs was a first year class where students studied a little of everything.  It combined training in basic skills in craft with new and unconventional methods of teaching form that emphasized playful innovation with rigorous intellectual understanding.  Critics of the Vorkurs then and now describe it as a kind of brainwashing, to purge the minds of art students of previous teaching and replace it with a new ideology of design.  That's not quite fair.  Itten designed the Vorkurs for students who already had previous training in the classical figurative art taught by most art schools of the time.  Itten did not intend to purge that teaching so much as to suggest that there were other ways to think about form that were not bound by the figure or perception.  There were ways to think about color, line, materials, and texture that had nothing to do with making an image.  The program demanded a large measure of intellectual discipline and self-criticism.  Students learned to sharpen their judgment about what worked and what didn't and why.  But the Vorkurs also encouraged students to play, to experiment, and eventually gravitate to specialties that they found gratifying and suitable.
Throughout its existence, the Bauhaus retained the Vorkurs in some form.
The Vorkurs formed part of the Bauhaus' continuing ambition to break down the distinction between fine and applied art.  The basic course taught a way of thinking about form common to both fine art and design, from which furniture design, architecture, typography, painting, and sculpture could emerge and work together in concert.
The Bauhaus Vorkurs is the direct ancestor of every first year foundation course in every art school in the USA.

The early creations of the Bauhaus emphasized hand craft, with all the accidents and singularities peculiar to handwork retained and valued.  This is especially apparent in early Bauhaus ceramics.


A jug by Max Krehan



Bowls by Theo Bogler

Each of these ceramic pieces was one of a kind.  The early Bauhaus rejected the standardization of mass production.   These wares have far more in common with local craft potteries that sprang up everywhere in Europe and the USA at the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th than they do with what the Bauhaus produced later.

The Bauhaus in its first years did not produce much that couldn't be found in any other craft movement in the world.  There was still nothing yet like a Bauhaus style because a vision of what the school wanted to achieve had yet to appear.

Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus worked together to produce a work of architecture, and it's not what we would expect from the Bauhaus, the Sommerfeld Villa in Berlin commissioned by a timber magnate Adolf Sommerfeld. 




Completed in 1921, the Sommerfeld Villa looks nothing like what the Bauhaus would build later.
It is built entirely out of wood; and in a time still plagued by shortages, much of that timber was recycled, a lot of it from salvaged ships.  It looks less like a building looking forward to the future than one looking back to traditional wooden rural structures like chalets and barns.





The house in its details proclaimed not industrial production, but very old fashioned ideas of handcraft, even by the standards of the early 1920s.  The Sommerfeld villa is an Arts and Craft house by way of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style houses in the USA from the beginning decade of the 20th century.






Other modern movements in Europe were not in the least impressed by any of this.  If anything, they poured scorn on the Bauhaus for the stark contrast between the loftiness of its goals and the paucity of any truly original or distinctive achievement.  The Dutch artist Theo Van Doesburg visited Weimar for the design magazine De Stijl in 1921 and published an edition of the magazine from there.  Vilmos Huszar wrote a scathing review of the school based on Van Doesburg's reports:
Where is there any attempt to unify several disciplines, at the unified combination of space, form, and color?  Pictures, nothing but pictures...graphics, and individual pieces of sculpture...Itten's emptily pompous daubing aims only for superficial effect...In Weimar cemetery stands an Expressionist monument by director Gropius; the result of a cheap literary idea...In order to reach the goals aimed for by the Bauhaus in its manifestoes other masters are required, masters who know what the creation of unified work entails and can demonstrate their ability to create such work.
Criticism like this stung, and began a process of rethinking and re-assessment of the school's mission.

Gropius fired Johannes Itten in 1923 and hired the Hungarian designer Lazlo Moholy-Nagy as the new director.  The Bauhaus under Moholy-Nagy took a sharply different direction with Gropius' blessing.  Art would be less a matter of aesthetics and more like the problem-solving processes of engineering.
We can see that change in the new official school seal designed by Oscar Schlemmer; clean simplified lines with a mechanical precision.




In 1923 with the departure of Itten and the arrival of Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus became the institution that we remember most, a school dedicated to creating and promoting clear design for a technological age.




The city center of Dessau today.


In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to the city of Dessau about 77 miles south of Berlin.  The state government of Thuringia that financed the Bauhaus evicted them by cutting their funding.  There was always a lot of serious town-versus-gown tension between the Bauhaus and the conservative city of Weimar.  Dessau's government under the control of the Social Democratic Party, together with the Junkers Aircraft Corporation which had a factory in the city, invited the Bauhaus.  The Bauhaus now had far more financial support than it ever did before, and was funded by the city of Dessau and Junkers together with other manufacturers.
Dessau was a larger city than Weimar and an industrial city whose manufacturers took a keen interest in the Bauhaus' work.  Another advantage was that Dessau was a short 2 hour train trip away from Berlin (probably about one hour now on today's trains).




Lazlo Moholy-Nagy appears here in this photo as a sharply different character from Johannes Itten with his robes and shaved head.  Moholy-Nagy in his appearance with his nickel rimmed glasses and mechanic's over-alls looks like an engineer only more hard-nosed and rationalizing.   His teaching took on the character and methods of engineering.  He would try to merge practicality with aesthetics in his work and in his teaching at the Bauhaus.
Under his direction and influence, the Bauhaus went from making candelabra in the metal shop to making fixtures for electric lighting.



Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Yellow Circle, 1921


A painting by Moholy-Nagy showing the influence of Russian artists like Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky.  It is entirely abstract with no references to any perceived reality.  The paint surface is smooth, bland, and impersonal.  Like paintings by the Russian modernists, Moholy-Nagy's work generated forms for graphic art and industrial design.  They were not about any transcendent spiritual world as were Kandinsky's abstractions.

Moholy-Nagy brought the influence of Russian Constructivism, of the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky to the Bauhaus.  Moholy-Nagy was largely self-taught, yet turned out to be a brilliant and popular teacher (despite his heavily accented German that students made fun of), much to the consternation of other masters.  Some like Kandinsky considered Moholy-Nagy's equations of art and engineering to be a threat to their more spiritual concepts of art.
Like the Russian Constructivists, Moholy-Nagy thought that the customary way of thinking about art as self-expression was a wasteful indulgence.  Art, they said, should be practical and serve the common good.  The artist should be a maker and designer for a new technological rational society that was already coming to pass.  Art was not about "making visible the invisible," but about forming the visible here and now.  As Moholy-Nagy wrote in 1922:
The reality of our century is technology:  the invention, construction, and maintenance of machines.  To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century.  It has replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras...Everyone is equal before the machine.  I can use it, so can you.  It can crush me; the same can happen to you.  There is no tradition in technology, no class consciousness.  Everyone can be the machine's master or its slave.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that Moholy-Nagy was a true believing communist, as were a lot of the faculty and students at the Bauhaus.





Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Berlin from the Radio Tower, photograph, 1928


Moholy-Nagy brought to the Bauhaus the influence of Rodchenko's photography that emphasized the abstract visual aspects of subject matter.  Moholy Nagy made a series of photographs in 1925 from a radio broadcast tower in Berlin.  It is no accident that these compositions look a lot like his paintings.



Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Le Pont Transbordeur, Marseilles, photograph, 1929






Laszlo Mohly-Nagy, poster advertising tires, 1924

Under the influence of Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy applied much of the same form vocabulary in his paintings and photography to graphic design, combining photography and typography in strikingly original ways that still shape graphic design to the present day.

Education at the Bauhaus changed as well from an emphasis on aesthetics to one on problem solving.



Josef Albers' class in 1928

A scene that could be from any art school in the USA today.  All that has really changed is the clothing and hair styles.  Josef Albers critiques projects before visibly anxious students.  Albers entered the Bauhaus as a student under Itten.  Walter Gropius asked this son of Westphalian craftsmen to join the Bauhaus faculty to teach stained glass, and part of the Vorkurs.  Albers taught a freshman course that combined engineering with aesthetics, having students build free-standing objects out of just any material he gave them.  He once gave students stacks of old newspapers and told them to build a free-standing structure out of them.  I remember doing a similar assignment when I was a freshman in art school in 1977 taking what was then called "foundations," the descendent of the Bauhaus Vorkurs.




Student work from Albers' class in 1928.

The quality of this work is remarkably high.  These student projects are very intelligently thought out and beautifully made.  These are free standing structures made out of paper, and I think out of a single sheet.

As part of the continuing Vorkurs, students would sample a little of everything before settling on a specialty.



The metal workshop in the Bauhaus, Dessau, ca. 1928 - 1929




Alcar Rudelt on the right moves his architecture class outdoors at Dessau, ca. 1929 - 1931


I think that a big difference between American art students now and the Bauhaus students then was that American art students are usually (though not always) very young, straight out of secondary school.  I would guess that the average age of the Bauhaus students was somewhere around 25 to 35 with some younger or older.  Almost all of the Bauhaus students had extensive prior art educations in various art academies from Dusseldorf to Berlin, from Paris to Moscow.  Some even had professional experience before they arrived at the Bauhaus.  Most American art students come into art schools and art departments with relatively little formal art education or experience.
The Bauhaus curriculum was created with experienced older students in mind.  It was never intended to be a beginner's course, but one for those already well trained in conventional aesthetics and techniques of the time, and to suggest to these students other alternative ways of thinking about form.
I think it's this aspect of the Bauhaus curriculum that American art programs modeled on it miss.

Something else that I find very different from current American art schools is a lot of the Bauhaus faculty were recruited from within the student body.  In American art schools, this is very rare and exceptional in my experience.



The Bauhaus faculty in 1926
Left to right:  Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper,  Georg Muche, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lionel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer


Two of the most influential and durable teachers at the Bauhaus were neither designers nor architects, but painters, both veterans of The Blue Rider movement of expressionist artists based in Munich before World War I.  Both of them were pioneers of abstract painting, and of ways of thinking about form that had no ties to imitation of visual perception.

Paul Klee on the left and Wassily Kandinksy having tea together in Dessau in the Master Houses of the Bauhaus campus.


The great Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky knew Walter Gropius from before the First World War, and both men followed each other's careers closely.  When Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus faculty in 1922, he was already an established artist in mid-career.  He was widely acknowledged as a pioneer of abstract painting making some of the first truly abstract paintings as early as 1910.  He was a leader of modern art movements in Munich, especially of the Blue Rider.  He returned to Moscow by way of Scandinavia when the outbreak of World War I made him an enemy alien in Germany.  He supported the Russian Revolution enthusiastically and founded a number of pioneering art schools in Russia that promoted modern design, including the influential Moscow Institute of Art and Culture (INKhUK).
Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1921 disillusioned with the increasingly authoritarian direction of the new Soviet State.

Kandinsky was among the best educated of all early 20th century modern artists with degrees in law and in physics.  He was a formidable intellect, and his presence in the classroom as a Master of Form was also formidable.  He was a greatly respected teacher, if not always well liked.  He tended to speak in dogmatic utterances that brooked no dissent.  Despite being domineering in his classes, students greatly respected him, and there are many accounts by Bauhaus veterans of how effective a teacher he could be.  Some of his utterances were hard to decipher, as a lot of his writing on form and aesthetics still is.  But, his emphasis on form created out of "inner necessity," and on how color and form work together continues to influence design in thinking and practice to this day.

He continued to paint while he was at the Bauhaus.  I must admit that I find his paintings from these years more admirable than lovable.  As intelligent as they are, they have none of the poetic power and missionary urgency of his paintings from 1910 to 1914.  After 1918, I think Kandinsky's best and most influential work was as a teacher and not as a painter.



Wassily Kandinsky, Composition 8, 1923



Wassily Kandinsky, Several Circles, 1926



Paul Klee was a very different character from Kandinsky.  He arrived at the Bauhaus in 1921 at the beginning of a late blooming career.  The Swiss artist did not have his first serious notice and exhibitions until he was in his 40s.  Klee was something of a polymath.  He was an accomplished musician, a violin virtuoso who performed professionally.  He was very well read in musical theory and history.  He was also ambidextrous and dazzled students in his classes by drawing with colored chalks in both hands simultaneously.  Gropius took something of a gamble hiring this struggling artist who had never taught before.  Klee turned out to be a brilliant and very influential teacher at the Bauhaus.  His teaching, like Kandinsky's was long on theory; but for Klee, theory came out of practice.  In many ways, Klee's teaching methods were very traditional; lecture followed by practice in the studio.  What was different was his very scrupulously undogmatic approach to teaching.  Klee could be very warm and informal with his students, taking their ideas and insights very seriously.  Klee was a very popular teacher among the Bauhaus students.
Klee always taught students to learn from nature, and in that he was not different from any other art teacher since Leonardo.  What was different was what he meant by that.  He did not mean imitating the appearances of nature, he meant understanding something of how nature grows and changes and applying something like that to form (a way of thinking that really is close to Leonardo's ideas on the subject).  He taught students to think of art and design as their own universes with their own life forms that grow and change (something like his own paintings).  As in nature, so in the work of art and design; an ecology of multiple relations working together.

As an artist, Paul Klee blossomed in his 10 years in the Bauhaus from 1921 to 1931.  He painted some of his best work there, some of it inspired by work done by his students.




Paul Klee, Ancient Sounds, 1925

A painting supposedly inspired by a student project, and among the earliest of his grid paintings.





Paul Klee, Fire in the Evening, 1929




Paul Klee, Eros, 1923




Paul Klee, Carnival in the Mountains, 1924



Morale was high among students at the Bauhaus.  They knew that they were involved in something very new, very brave, and very important.  Many would go on to lead in their fields of art and design, especially after World War II.



Bauhaus boys letting off steam.

Students at the Bauhaus worked hard and they played hard.  The Bauhaus student body was famous for partying and practical jokes.  Their pranks sometimes created a lot of tension between the school and its neighbors, especially in Weimar.  The Bauhaus was the first art school to pioneer that fixture of art schools all over the Western world, the in-house school band (and I don't mean a marching band).


The Bauhaus Band; before there was The Talking Heads from the Rhode Island School of Design, there was this.





Bauhaus women on a staircase in the Dessau campus.

I would imagine that the young women who studied and worked at the Bauhaus scandalized more conventional German women of the day, who at the same time probably envied them.  With their make up, bobbed hair, short stylish dresses, and pants (!) they appeared to be the ultimate in independent modern womanhood, the "Weimar Woman." The clothes that we see in a picture like this almost certainly shocked many people in 1920s Germany.  To us, they look uncannily familiar.  I could easily imagine similarly dressed young women riding the L train in New York, or walking the campus of any art school in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Japan, or Europe.  I think the familiarity is a bit of an illusion.  Remember, it was the Bauhaus that created much of the look of the Post War world, especially the USA.  These women were very much an exception.

And yet, how exceptional was their status really?  Even though the Bauhaus eagerly recruited women, it would certainly not pass our standards of gender equality.  That Walter Gropius said that he wanted to admit to the Bauhaus members of both the "strong" and the "beautiful" sexes reveals a lot.  There was certainly sexual exploitation of female students by male faculty at the Bauhaus, but also at every other art school in Germany at the time (and in my student days, this was very common in American art schools).   Female Bauhaus students were implicitly expected to gravitate toward traditionally female crafts such as weaving and ceramics.  Many women students did exactly that.  However, women like Gunta Stölzl, Anni Albers, and Otti Berger would transform the weaving workshop from the "ladies' shop" into one of the world's leading fabric design schools and into one of the Bauhaus' most successful programs.  Some, like Marianne Brandt, managed to find their way into traditionally more "masculine" fields such as metal shop and product design, and excel at them.
Given the limitations of the time, the Bauhaus attracted a lot of women, to the point where women frequently outnumbered men among the student body.  Women went through the same Vorkurs as the men in the first year.  Compared to most other art schools of the day that admitted women reluctantly if at all, the Bauhaus probably seemed like a beacon of opportunity to many young women of the time.

The Bauhaus attracted many talented people and produced outstanding designers and artists who would go on to shape the Post War world in graphic design, architecture, fashion design, and product design.  But first, they had to survive the Second World War, and not all of them did.



Otti Berger

The Croatian born Otti Berger had already studied art extensively in the Royal Academy of Art in Zagreb.  She excelled in the weaving department of the Bauhaus so much that she was invited to join the faculty.  As a teacher, she was a widely respected and supportive mentor to younger students.  She joined Guntha Stölzl and Anni Albers in the effort to transform weaving into a major art form by applying principles of painting and design taught in the Bauhaus.  She made contacts with other industrial weavers and designers across Europe and started her own company.
The Nazi government forced her to close her businesses and flee to London because of her Jewish ancestry.  Her attempts to enter the USA and join her husband, the architect Ludwig Hilberseimer failed, as did her attempts to rebuild her career in London.  She returned to Croatia to tend her ailing mother in 1938.  She and her family were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where they all perished.




Otti Berger, rug, 1930








Alfredo Bortoluzzi

Alfredo Bortoluzzi was born in Karlsrühe to Italian immigrant parents.  His first language was German.  He arrived at the Bauhaus after studying painting in his native Karlsrühe and in Venice.  He studied under Albers and Klee.  While at the Bauhaus, he met Oskar Schlemmer and became a dancer and choreographer under his influence.  In 1936, Bortoluzzi moved to Paris where he studied classical ballet and eventually became a principal dancer at the Paris Opera.  He toured throughout Europe in the company of such musical greats as Herbert Von Karajan and Karl Orff beginning in 1938.  His fortunes plummeted with the outbreak of World War II as a German man with an Italian surname.  In 1943, soon after the fall of Mussolini, the Gestapo arrested Bortoluzzi and sent him to a concentration camp near Auschwitz where he did hard labor by day and was forced to entertain the SS with his dancing in the evening.  He and a friend successfully escaped from the camp and survived the War in hiding.  
After the War, Bortoluzzi returned to his native Karlsruhe to begin a long career as a choreographer and set designer for companies throughout western Germany.  He continued to paint, eventually ending his days in Italy in 1995.  His fellow escapee from the concentration camp, Fritz Lang (not the movie director, but a tenor) became his lifelong partner.




Alfredo Bortoluzzi, Amanti, 1940








Florence Henri

Florence Henri was a native of New York, the daughter of a French immigrant and a Polish mother.  Before she enrolled in the Bauhaus in 1927, she already had a long background in music as early as age 9.  She decided to pursue art at the Academy of Arts in Berlin where she studied figure and landscape painting.  She entered the Bauhaus already with extensive experience in avant-garde music and art from her contacts with the Futurist movement in Rome.  While at the Bauhaus, she took up photography using mirrors and fragmentary compositions to apply something of the Cubist break up of spatial distance in her work.  She became a noted avant-garde photographer in France.  During the German occupation, she returned to painting when photographic materials became scarce.  She continued painting until her death in 1982 at age 89.




Florence Henri, Still Life, photograph, 1929






Max Bill, seen here in his Bauhaus student ID card.


Max Bill was a Swiss painter, sculptor, designer, and architect.  He studied at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 1929 under Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee.  Max Bill was most influential as a graphic designer and typographer in the years following World War II.  From his firm in Zurich, he applied Bauhaus ideas about rational composition and clean mechanical forms to commercial graphic work.  Bill created clean elegant sophisticated page designs that were in high demand and continue to influence graphic design down to the present day.




Max Bill, cover for USA Baut, 1945




Herbert Bayer

Walter Gropius hired Bayer in 1925 to teach advertising, graphic design, and to take charge of the Bauhaus printing press.  Bayer was a former Bauhaus student from 1921 to 1923 studying mural painting under Kandinsky.  He already had a background in architecture, painting, and photography before he arrived at the Bauhaus.  While his politics were always left, he left Germany relatively late, in 1937, as did so many artists who found their work included in the Degenerate Art show.  Bayer arrived in the USA where he had a long flourishing career as a graphic designer and architect.  He lived and worked for many years in Aspen, Colorado.






Herbert Bayer, design for a newspaper kiosk, 1924

Bayer applied ideas from the Russian avant-garde; big bold clean typography with no serifs combined with large areas of bright primary color.  This maquette combines watercolor and photo-collage.






Herbert Bayer, poster for Kandinsky's 60th birthday






Herbert Bayer, "Universal Typeface,"  his proposed all lower-case phonetic alphabet.  This is the basis for the font Bauhaus




Joost Schmidt

Another very great graphic designer at the Bauhaus was Joost Schmidt who was an early student from 1919 to 1925.  He was invited to stay on teaching graphic design and photography from 1925 to 1931.
During the First World War, he was a prisoner of war, and was released in 1918.   He remained in Germany through the years of the Third Reich working with great difficulty.  He died in 1948.





Schmidt's most famous work is this poster for the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition.





Schmidt's design for a catalogue of Bauhaus designed wallpaper samples, 1931





One of Schmidt's designs for an instruction book on Bauhaus stage design and mechanics.







Oskar Schlemmer

Among the most remarkable and influential of the Bauhaus polymaths was Oskar Schlemmer, a painter, sculptor, and choreographer who designed the second Bauhaus seal, and ran the Bauhaus theater department.
It seems odd that the Bauhaus, a craft and design school would have a theater department.  But theater is a public art form combining many different arts into a single production; acting, stage design, lighting design, costume design, fabric design, choreography, music, drama, painting, architecture, etc.  It was the perfect medium to express and to publicize that very Bauhaus insistence upon the fundamental unity and equality of all the arts and crafts.  Schlemmer's touring Bauhaus productions were perfect public relations and advertising for an institution whose place in larger German society was never quite secure.
Schlemmer, like Kandinsky, was already a mature and accomplished artist when he arrived at the Bauhaus.  Also, like Kandinsky, he already had a long professional relationship with Walter Gropius that predated the First World War.




Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932

Schlemmer was a painter, and especially a figure painter.  He was less interested in the human form as a free living being than he was in the human figure as a formal entity embedded in a larger architectural vision.  That certainly is the case with the painting of Bauhaus students above.
Those central ideas about the human figure placed in a larger matrix of form found even more striking expression in Schlemmer's choreography.




Slat dancer from a ballet by Schlemmer where dancers wore costumes that completely altered the design architecture of the stage every time they moved.

Schlemmer's most famous and celebrated Bauhaus ballet was the Triadic Ballet.


A group photo of the dancers in a performance of the Triadic Ballet on the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, 1926 - 1927


The Triadic Ballet premiered not in Dessau, but in Stuttgart in 1922 where Schlemmer already worked as a theater designer.
The Triadic Ballet is based on the number 3 as the name would suggest.  There are three acts, Act I Yellow, Act II Rose, and Act III Black.  No more than 3 dancers appear at a time in each act.  There is no plot, and the dancing is definitely not the fluid movements of classical ballet.  The movements are more like marionettes, and that is deliberate.  Schlemmer designed the costumes not to reveal, but to conceal the human form within abstracted versions of it.
Paul Hindemith wrote the music for the original production.

Here is a 1970 reconstruction of Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet.







The products of the Bauhaus -- graphic design, architecture, furniture, fixtures, fabrics, metal smithing, ceramics, theater design, clothes, all of it -- have an Apollonian quality about them that still appeals powerfully to us 90 years later.  The vision created by the Bauhaus out of eager utopian design experiments from the beginning of the 20th century in France, Italy, Russia, Holland, and Germany was of a sunlit world of health, cleanliness, rationality, pluralism, science, and technology.  It was a vision of a peaceful enterprising world full of tanned athletic people with no bad habits, from many different nationalities holding rational beliefs, enjoying an egalitarian democratic society, well read and well educated, and freed from the baggage of past prejudices.  It's a vision of a perfect world that is not far from our own.  We can see something like it every time we turn on a television or any electronic device and log on.  Advertising and corporate culture daily and hourly present us with happy sunlit visions of health and happiness in a similarly well ordered well reasoned world.  It's a vision promoted by Google, Apple, Microsoft, and just about all of Silicon Valley.  It's a vision genuinely shared by millions of people around the world in their heart of hearts.  Millions work hard to attain that ideal of health, order, and physical beauty at their jobs, in their homes, in their diets, and at the gym.  People will forego every fleeting pleasure in order to attain this happiness.  The clarity, harmony, order, forward-looking ahistorical quality of Bauhaus design uprooted from local traditions and prejudices speaks very directly to us in our pursuit of cosmopolitan rational material happiness.
That vision even crosses the hard lines of political conflict in our time from the Beloved Community of Social Democracy to the heroic individualism of extreme Libertarianism (minus the egalité et fraternité).

Even 90 years later, Bauhaus design has an amazingly fresh contemporary feel to it; a sense of hope and optimism about the future, about being young in an unfolding new era.

Here are some of the Bauhaus' noted product designers.


Wilhelm Wagenfeld


Wilhelm Wagenfeld wanted to make objects that were "cheap enough for a worker and good enough for the rich."  They are still good enough for the rich, but no wage earner now could possibly afford one.



The Wagenfeld table lamp, among the first designed for electric lighting and not to look like an updated kerosene lamp.






Fitted glass containers by Wagenfeld.




Marcel Breuer seated in his most famous creation.

Marcel Breuer was a native of Hungary and was one of the first and youngest Bauhaus students.



The Wassily Chair, so called because Kandinsky owned one of the prototypes, was the world's first piece of tubular steel furniture.  Breuer could not find a furniture company willing to make a prototype, so eventually he found a bicycle manufacturer to make it.








Another even more famous Marcel Breuer steel tube chair, still available on the market today.




Stackable tables by Breuer.  The Bauhaus invented stackable furniture.

Breuer fled Germany in 1936 to London and eventually to the USA.  He would go on to have a long and distinguished career as a major modern architect of the Post War era.



Marianne Brandt

Marianne Brandt was trained as a painter and photographer, but where she really excelled was in the metal shop.  In 1928, she replaced Lazlo Moholy-Nagy as the director of the metal shop at the Bauhaus.  The Bauhaus metal shop under her direction was one of the very few Bauhaus enterprises successful and profitable enough to actually help fund the school.  She went on to work as a metal smith and designer for Walter Gropius and later independently.  She lived in poverty during the Nazi years, and liberation under the Soviets was scarcely better for her.  The new East German government officially regarded the Bauhaus and all of its products as "decadent."  Even so, in her last years, Marianne Brandt once again attracted a devoted following of students and admirers of her work.

She was among the most brilliant, versatile, and influential of all the Bauhaus designers.  Her work still shapes product design and her influence can be seen in numerous products to this day, especially light fixtures.




The goose neck desk lamp is Marianne Brandt's invention.  Here are two of her original prototypes.






A magnificent electric ceiling lamp by Marianne Brandt.






Brandt's most famous work is her metal smithing.  Here is a tea and coffee set that she made as a prototype for mass production.




Marianne Brandt. teapot






The Bauhaus weaving studio in Weimar


To my mind, some of the best and most original work of the Bauhaus came out of the weaving school.  These are very beautiful and bold works by women who wanted to take weaving out of the realm of female handicraft and to turn it into fine art by applying pictorial ideas together with a renewed feeling for the qualities of various fabric materials.  They designed rugs and wall hangings, but their ideas and creations would influence fabric design and graphic design for the rest of the 20th century.





Gunta Stölzl

Gunta Stölzl was the only woman among the senior faculty of the Bauhaus.  She entered the Bauhaus as a student in 1920 and officially became part of the faculty in 1927 and a full master by the following year.  She took a neglected workshop with very weak technical skills and turned it into one of the leading textile design workshops in the world.  She brought modern pictorial aesthetics into the teaching of fabric design along with an emphasis on new materials and technologies.  She even insisted that her students study mathematics.

I think her work is amazing in its quality, variety, and inventiveness.  Please indulge me as I share a number of examples of her remarkable work.



Gunta Stölzl, wall hanging, 1923





Gunta Stölzl, rug from 1928






Gunta Stölzl, wall hanging, 1924






Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, 1927 - 1928






Gunta Stölzl, wall hanging, ca. 1927





Gunta Stölzl, design for a weave, watercolor on gridded paper, 1926







Anni Albers

Born Anni Fleischmann to an affluent Jewish family in Berlin, Anni originally wanted to study painting, but was discouraged after a meeting with the great Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka who did not think much of her work.  In 1922, she enrolled in the Bauhaus and studied with Johannes Itten.  She originally wanted to enroll in the glass workshop, but was discouraged from doing so and directed instead to the weaving workshop, perhaps because it was considered more "female appropriate."  In 1925, she married the director of that same glass workshop, Josef Albers beginning one of the most productive marriages of modern art.
Under the mentorship of Gunta Stölzl, Anni Albers became one of the most gifted weavers to come out of the Bauhaus.





Anni Albers, weave design for a Smyrna Rug, 1925



Anni Albers, the rug made from the design above, 1925





Anni Albers, a weave design, 1925





The Bauhaus was one of the very few schools of higher education on the European continent that had a campus.  The University of Heidelberg does not.  It's facilities are scattered all over town, as are those of the University of Bologna and others.  In Weimar its first home, the Bauhaus likewise rented or owned facilities all over town.  Newly arrived in Dessau in 1925 with abundant financial support from the city and major manufacturers located there, the staff of the Bauhaus decided to build a campus to not only provide facilities and living quarters for students and staff, but to showcase their aesthetic vision to the world.  Walter Gropius designed the new campus with plenty of assistance from the Bauhaus faculty.  The new campus was begun in June of 1925 and ready to be used by October 1926, remarkably fast for so large a building.

Gropius wanted a close interconnected campus.  He complained about low attendance rates by students having to travel through Weimar to get from their apartments to classes scattered all over town.  Gropius planned a group of buildings connected by covered walkways and bridges.  One former student remarked that the campus was so close together that all you needed to call someone was to whistle.  The campus had a lot of new features such as a food lift from the kitchen to all floors of the student housing, with a rooftop garden.  The stage of the Bauhaus theater opened in the back to the student canteen, the mensa, forming a kind of theater in the round.  The construction was state of the art and experimental, built around a frame of reinforced concrete with new waterproof material on the roofs (which didn't really prevent much leaking).  The building went way over its generous budget and became an election issue for Dessau in 1927.



The Bauhaus shop building with the sign designed by Herbert Bayer.





The very close set Bauhaus campus as it is in Dessau today.  It is amazingly well preserved considering its history.  Allied bombers flattened the city of Dessau in 1944 - 1945 because of the presence of the Junkers Aircraft Company along with other manufacturers.  The Bauhaus campus suffered very little war damage.  The campus survived occupation by very hostile Nazis and just as hostile Communists under the East German government.  Despite almost 60 years of neglect and abuse, most of the original fixtures and furniture survive.  The campus once again functions as an art school.




The Bauhaus shop block, known to the locals as "The Aquarium."  This is the largest building on campus.  The steel and glass curtain wall that covers two of the outside walls is the first in the world.  The skin of steel and glass that hangs like a curtain from the frame of a building is a commonplace of modern architecture all over the world.  It was pioneered here.
This building contained all of the Bauhaus workshops for metal, wood, textiles, ceramics, etc.





Women looking out of that first glass curtain wall in about 1928






A Bauhaus reception desk in about 1928






The auditorium in the Bauhaus photographed in 1927




The Bauhaus auditorium today



The auditorium vestibule and staircase in 1927




The same today




Electric light fixtures designed by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy




The Bauhaus recreation room in 1928





Apprentice housing, basically the student dormitories.





Apprentice Housing photographed by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in 1927





Students in the Bauhaus Mensa, 1927




The Bauhaus Mensa

Looking at the backless seating is a reminder that Bauhaus modernism is very austere by our standards.  So cool looking, and yet so uncomfortable.




The Bauhaus mensa opening onto the stage of the auditorium, early theater in the round.




A detail from the mensa





Master housing at the Bauhaus in Dessau located in the pine forests about a 10 minute walk from the main campus.  There were four units with generous townhouse apartments.




Lazlo Moholy-Nagy's apartment photographed in 1927

This looks so familiar to us and so modern that it is hard to believe that people were still paying to go see silent movies and that cars still had to be cranked to start at the same time this picture was taken.  While this looks very stylish to us still, Bauhaus design is austere by our standards.  Note the absence of carpeting or rugs.  The pillows are relatively few and the cushions scarcer compared to most homes today.  That Wassily chair (which isn't very comfortable, I can say from experience) is the nearest thing to a comfy chair in this room.  Imagine trying to read the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung in that chair.


The city of Dessau commissioned Gropius and the Bauhaus to design and build a low cost housing estate in the Torten district of the city in 1926.  The Torten Estate was built in three stages and completed in 1928


The Torten Estate photographed shortly after completion in 1928.  The tall building on the left is an apartment block with rented shops on the ground level, the Konsum designed by Gropius.




A street of houses in the Torten Estate in Dessau photographed shortly after completion in 1928.

Gropius and the Bauhaus faculty designed the Torten houses to be built cheaply and quickly.  They were made out of standardized parts that were made on site from poured concrete, thus saving transport costs.  A house could go up in two days.





Gropius' design for a Torten house.




A living room in a Torten house in 1928.

The Torten Estate was a qualified success.  The houses were small and dark with windows too high up on the walls.  The cheap concrete cracked easily.  Houses could be damp and hard to heat in the winter.  And yet, people eagerly snapped them up.  Shoddy as they were, the houses were still superior to most low rent housing of the day, and the very low sales price put the dream of property ownership in the reach of a lot of people with modest means.  The houses may have been small, but they each came with a small plot of land and a kitchen garden.
The Torten houses still exist, and are still inhabited.


Recent photograph of houses in the Torten Estate.


The problems with Bauhaus design are those of every Utopian vision.  Equality becomes conflated with uniformity.  The problem with that perfect sunlit world where health, beauty, strength, intelligence, and reason are all in harmony is that it is ultimately a closed world with very little room for variation.  The utopian paradise quickly becomes an officious bureaucratic purgatory for complicated, infinitely varied, flawed, and selfish individual human beings.  Cosmopolitanism becomes ever more of a challenge for individuals incorrigibly located in very particular places and identities with conflicting desires.

While Bauhaus furniture design, graphic arts, and appliance design may be a lasting success, Bauhaus city planning is more problematic in its influence.



Ludwig Hilberseimer

The architect Ludwig Hilberseimer was among the last instructional hires at the Bauhaus, joining the faculty in 1929 after Hannes Meyer replaced Walter Gropius as president of the Bauhaus.  He stayed until the Nazi government closed the school for good in 1933.  He was Otti Berger's husband.  He built relatively little and is mostly remembered today as a theorist, especially of urban planning.  He left Germany in 1938 and moved to Chicago to work with Mies Van Der Rohe there.  He ended his days as an urban planner employed by the City of Chicago.

Hilberseimer enjoys today a revival among some critics and architects; but as far as I'm concerned, his ideas about urban planning represent a reductivist abstract approach discredited by historical  experience.

Hilberseimer advocated a "de-centralized" city planned around a centerless grid of streets.  As in so many other proposed idea cities of the early 20th century such as Le Corbusier's Voisin plan, Hilberseimer's city plans consisted of high rise buildings rising out of green squares.  Hilberseimer made these designs with the best of intentions for the health of the people who would live in them. To his credit, his designs all call for continuous park space, even wild nature, through urban areas, even into business zones (something like this already exists in Frankfurt, a creation not of urban planning but of accidents of history; Frankfurt kept most of its medieval city forest and now uses it for parkland; you can now ride a bike from Frankfurt Airport through the woods all the way into the city center).  He advocated for different street levels -- a "hierarchy" of streets -- to protect pedestrians, especially children, and to facilitate traffic.

These highly abstract plans are indifferent to local histories and identities.  They are created out of the demands and organization of industrial production and not out of the needs and wants of people who were actually going to live there.  These plans are the visions of managers.  I think that it was inevitable that these centerless grids laid out like vast government forms upon the landscape would appeal most to bureaucrats and urban policy makers.  The crooked made straight and the rough places plain to facilitate policy implementation.

Historically in the USA and in Europe, governments implemented these plans not for the benefit of the professional classes, but to warehouse and manage the poor and other undesirable populations.  People who had no real say in how and where they were to be housed would be the primary beneficiaries of these visions of radiant cities.  From the end of the Second World War right into the 1980s, building high rise housing grids in green spaces was the hallmark of slum clearing.





Ludwig Hilberseimer, an unbuilt proposal from 1930 for a mixed height gridded city with individual houses and gardens.  This appears to prophesy suburban developments in the USA after World War II consisting of individual small houses on small lots of land arranged along centerless street grids such as Levittown on Long Island or Lakewood, California.



Ludwig Hilberseimer, rendering from Vertical City, 1927


To my mind, these prospects are bleak and dismal, more dystopian than utopian visions.  They are the ultimate fulfillment of that false equivalence of equality with uniformity.



Ludwig Hilberseimer, rendering from Vertical City, 1927

After World War II, these dismal views became reality in any number of government housing projects across the USA from Alfred E. Smith Houses in New York to Chicago's Cabrini Green; in government housing in France in places like La Defense in Paris; and perhaps worst of all in that traffic choked pedestrian hostile capital city built in the middle of nowhere, Brasilia in Brazil.
Even bigger and more monstrous versions of this kind of urban planning are going up in major cities all over China now.





Public housing estate in Hong Kong



Hilberseimer and his celebrated collaborator Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe didn't get to build any of their ideas until after the Second World War, and in the USA rather than in Germany.
Probably their most celebrated and successful collaboration was Lafayette Park in Detroit, Michigan, a garden city development of mixed height residential buildings.  It was not a government housing project, but a private one funded Herbert Greewald of Metropolitan Structures, a private development company that employed Mies Van Der Rohe before.  The project was built in stages from 1955 to 1963


Ludwig Hilberseimer and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Lafayette Park in Detroit, a photo taken in 1959.




Lafayette Park today







The Crystal Office Building, Mies Van Der Rohe in Berlin


As I said at the beginning of this post, the glass office building was born in the USA, but it was conceived in Berlin.  The man most responsible for its conception was Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus and long a pioneering modern architect.

The Friedrichstrasse Tower in Berlin was never built, but foretold so much of what was to come in the later 20th century and into our own century.


Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, proposal drawing for a glass office building on the Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1921





Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, photocollage proposal for the Friedrichstrasse office building in Berlin, 1921




Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, floor plan of the Friedrichstrasse Tower in Berlin, 1921.


Mies Van Der Rohe designed this building to fit on an awkward triangular lot bounded by the Spree River on one side, the Friedrichstrasse on another, and the Friedrichstrasse Station on a third side.  Mies Van Der Rohe wedded the glass crystal of the Expressionist architects such as Bruno Taut and Wassili Luckhardt with the Chicago steel frame first exploited by architects Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan.  Mies Van Der Rohe's proposed building rose around a central utility core with floors at least partially cantilevered off the core like leaves on a plant.  Instead of the brick and terra cotta facing of Chicago architecture, he proposed an all glass skin over a framework of floors.  That framework would remain visible within the glass skin.





Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, photo collage of the model of a proposed glass tower for an unknown project in Berlin, 1922





Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, floor plan of a proposed glass tower, Berlin, 1922.

Another unbuilt glass tower project for an unknown business in Berlin was a glass tower built on a biomorphic shaped floor plan.  This was to be a third taller than the Friedrichstrasse Tower.  Mies Van Der Rohe proposed the convoluted surface of the building to take advantage of the anticipated play of reflected light and transparencies of the glass surface.

None of these early proposed glass towers got anywhere past the proposal stage.  The designs were too new, and the technology needed to raise them too experimental at the time for developers in 1920s Berlin to seriously consider.

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe finally got to build glass towers not in Berlin, but in the USA after the Second World War.  By that time, his thinking about their form changed.  The rapture over crystalline material and form that he shared with the early Expressionist architects departed, and was replaced by an almost Neo-Classical sense of measure and balance.  The Chicago steel frame with its structural grid replaced the Expressionist crystal as the organizing principle in Mies Van Der Rohe's designs.
The very first steel and glass buildings in the world were built by Mies in the birthplace of modern building technology, in Chicago in 1948 to 1951, the Lake Shore Drive Apartments.



Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Lake Shore Drive apartments under construction in Chicago, 1950


Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Lake Shore Drive Apartments today, Chicago



The ground floor peristyle of the Lakeshore Drive Apartments, Chicago

The Lake Shore Drive Apartments were a private real estate development.  At this phase of his career, Mies Van Der Rohe changed from an Expressionist romantic to something more in the spirit of old German Neo-Classical architects like Schinkel and Von Klenze.  These towers have a sense of internal harmonious agreement in parts and among proportions like a steel and glass version of a Greek temple.  The ground floors are surrounded by what amounts to an updated steel peristyle.  Where Mies differs from the old Neo-Classicists is his indifference to articulating meaning through architecture.  Mies like so many early 20th century painters and sculptors, wanted to close the distinction between form and content, and to do so through reductivism; the content is the form, the form is the content.  Mies was largely indifferent to any meanings or social function in architecture.  What mattered to him was not the buildings themselves, but the formal ideas that they embodied.  Mies Van Der Rohe was the ultimate abstract architect; buildings divorced from any articulation of meaning beyond themselves.  Frank Lloyd Wright famously loathed Mies Van Der Rohe for precisely that reason.



The End of the Bauhaus


Walter Gropius during his long tenure as director of the Bauhaus did all he could to shelter the institution, its students, and faculty from the turmoil of Weimar Germany.  Officially, the Bauhaus was apolitical.  The institution officially endorsed no political program or agenda.  And yet, as German politics became ever more deeply polarized, the very existence of the Bauhaus became a loud political declaration in and of itself.  In conflicts that are alarmingly familiar in our own time, the German far right nationalists saw the very existence of the Bauhaus as a rebuke and a threat.  The German far right -- including the National Socialist Party of Germany (NSDAP) or Nazis -- promoted a racist agenda about unity through identity; the German people together on German territory with German language and German culture set over and against the rest of the world.  German identity mattered above all else and gave meaning to every aspect of life.  This was the polar opposite of the internationalist social democratic vision of the world that the Bauhaus embodied without ever having to verbalize.  It was this misfit between the Bauhaus' central mission and the rightward drift of politics all around them that is at the heart of the school's tense relations first with the city of Weimar, and later with Dessau.

The Inflation of 1923 caused armed uprisings on the left and the right who fought it out in the streets of major German cities.  The far right Reichswehr troops occupied Weimar quickly.  Reichswehr troops raided Gropius' home, but found nothing incriminating.  The new far right government of Weimar cut the funding of the Bauhaus by 50% forcing the institution to either close or find a new home.
The Social Democratic government of Dessau welcomed the Bauhaus and together with major manufacturers located in the city, generously funded the Bauhaus including the construction of a new campus.
In 1927, Gropius and the Bauhaus board of directors hired Hannes Meyer to be the new director of the architecture department.  That Meyer was a Communist was not controversial.  Many of the faculty and staff were card carrying members of the Party.  What mattered was that Meyer was a very doctrinaire Communist who structured the whole program of the architecture department around Communist ideology.  This immediately exposed the Bauhaus to attack from right wing politicians, and they wasted no time and pulled no punches.  All of Gropius' efforts to keep the Bauhaus above the partisan fray came undone.  In 1928, Gropius resigned as director of the Bauhaus breaking a contract that had 2 more years to run.  After 9 years as director, Gropius was gone.  Ironically, at the very moment Gropius resigned, the Bauhaus was at the height of its success with good relations with its funders and growing interest from industry.
Gropius approached Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe to succeed him.  Mies refused the offer, and so Gropius then offered the directorship to Hannes Meyer who accepted.  This caused consternation among the faculty and students of the Bauhaus.  Student's petitioned against his appointment. Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Bayer and Schlemmer all resigned.
Ambitious right wing political opponents of the Social Democratic mayor of Dessau exploited Meyer's directorship of the Bauhaus calling the school a nest of Bolsheviks.  Meyer's short temper and outspokenness did not help matters. Eventually, the mayor demanded and got Meyer's dismissal from the Bauhaus directorship.  The Dessau city government demanded that Communist students be dismissed along with Meyer.  The Bauhaus complied, and dismissed Communist students formed around the expelled Meyer.  The Bauhaus now had enemies on the far left as well as the far right.

In 1930, Mies Van Der Rohe took over the directorship of the Bauhaus and resorted to authoritarian rule to bring the rebellions by left wing students under control.  Prospective students now had to sign an agreement to abide by the new rules of the school.  Mies very much wanted to restore the Bauhaus' apolitical status, but politics overwhelmed the school anyway.  In 1931 in a broad sweep in local elections throughout Germany, the Nazis came to power in Dessau and immediately cut the school's funding, terminated its contracts, and evicted the school from its campus.  The Bauhaus was effectively closed.
Mies Van Der Rohe re-established the Bauhaus as a private school in Berlin locating what was left of it in a rented abandoned telephone factory in Berlin.  The end finally came in April 1933 when the school was officially closed by the Nazi government.




Nazi officials pose outside the vacant Bauhaus campus, renovated as a Nazi training center in 1932.





The last Bauhaus students are rounded up by police soon after the Bauhaus in Berlin was closed on government orders, April 11, 1933.