Weimar – Where Bauhaus Began

While I am familiar with most 19th and 20th century design movements, I have paid scant attention to the places that birthed them. Except perhaps for Barcelona, the home of Catalan Modernism, and Colombo, where Geoffrey Bawa created his signature style that is now termed ‘Tropical Modernism’. Our stay in his rather dilapidated country home in Bentota in January was almost a pilgrimage.

An invitation from the German National Tourist Office, India, to the Bauhaus themed Incoming Brand Summit in Weimar, last month, was an exciting opportunity to explore the origins of a modern architectural style that while very short-lived, left a lasting impact on every aspect of the post modern world.

A little idea that changed the world

Weimar wielded considerable influence in Europe during its ‘golden period’ (1758 – 1832) with a fair share of Renaissance buildings and landscaped parks that today constitute its ‘Classical’ UNESCO heritage. At the turn of the century, Grand Duke Charles Alexander decided that the best way to keep that influence culturally relevant was to found an art school that would be celebrated across Europe.

In 1910, his young successor Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernest merged the art, craft and sculpture schools to form the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Visual Arts, housed in the main studio (re)designed by Belgian architect (and director) Henry Van de Velde.

It is in this building, in 1919, that German architect Walter Gropius sowed the seeds of his radical experiment with functional architecture. It is here that the architect (who, incidentally, could not draw!) collaborated with the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to formulate a philosophy that would change the way the world approached design forever. They named it Bauhaus, meaning ‘House of Building’.

Here, he encouraged the unlearning of old ‘rules’ to liberate creativity. Here, he propagated the confluence of art, craft and architecture and the use of industrial materials in a departure from the ornate aesthetic of the day. Steel and glass had already been used in projects like the Eiffel Tower, but never before on a less monumental, day to day scale.

“Art and the people must form an entity. Art shall no longer be a luxury of the few but should be enjoyed and experienced by the broad masses. The aim is an alliance of the arts under the wing of great architecture”
~ Walter Gropius

Although the Bauhaus concept is initially about architecture, the political tensions and the brevity of its time in Weimar, result in architecture not being taught as a subject (in Weimar) at all.

Experimental Bauhaus
Main building, Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Staircase mural by Oskar Schlemmer in the Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Mural by Herbert Bayer depicting the square and the circle and the triangle and how they work together with primary colours. Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Elliptical staircase, Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar
Weimar, Germany
House Hohe Pappe, Weimar

Our group follows enthusiastic student volunteers, sporting signature blue scarves, through the corridors of the main university building that seem to echo with the footsteps of the Bauhaus Masters. We are reminded that much of these (pre-Bauhaus) buildings and the artwork inside was destroyed by Nazi sympathisers hostile towards ‘degenerate’ art. They weren’t restored by the East German government right up until the late 1970s.

We walk through the skylight hall and past Henri van de Velde’s much Instagrammed elliptical staircase, past more stairways with murals by Oskar Schlemmer and Herbert Bayer, to the re-creation of the director’s office designed for the 1923 exhibition.

The (‘flawed’ but gorgeous) cantilevered yellow chair, Gropius’ functional desk (copy of the original that is in his Boston house/museum), the Gerrit Rietveld lamp, the geometric patterned Gertrud Arndt rug, the Else Mögelin wall hanging…all early, experimental, iconic Bauhaus. All bound by copyright, sadly, so I’m afraid I cannot show you photos, but here’s a link.

“An object is defined by its nature. In order to function properly, one must first of all study its nature. For it to serve its purpose perfectly, it must fulfil its function in a practical way.”
~ Walter Gropius

Bauhaus-Universität, Weimar was designated a UNESCO site in 1996 and is today, a functioning university with disciplines in every aspect of art and architecture.

With the only other surviving Bauhaus building in Weimar – the Haus Am Horn – under restoration, and the new Bauhaus Museum not set to open until the centenary in April 2019, the only other Bauhaus related building left to see is Henri Van de Velde’s old office and the pre- Bauhaus, House Hohe Pappe. The 1920s interiors remind me of Frank Lloyd Wright. The light fixtures, like FLW’s, are particularly drool-worthy. Again, no photos, but worth a visit.

The sparkling culmination
Bauhaus, Dessau
Bauhaus, Dessau
The circular brick and glass Employment Office by Walter Gropius in Dessau
The circular brick and glass Employment Office by Walter Gropius in Dessau

The 1923 exhibition garners international acclaim, but fails to win over neither conservative, post-war public sentiment nor a disapproving government. The religious leanings of some Bauhaus staff, Mazdanan follower Johannes Itten in particular, adds to their troubles.

An offer of land and funding from the city of Dessau saves the Bauhaus School from closure and prompts the shift, in 1925, to a brand new campus built from scratch. The campus is dominated by a sparkling glass and steel edifice that is the culmination of Gropius’s early dream. An architectural icon to reflect Germany’s post-war resurgence. It has classrooms, workshops and residential spaces. And, it finally boasts an architecture program! The reportedly brilliant Masters’ Houses adjacent to the university block is, disappointingly, not included on the post-summit tour that I am on.

We cannot go on indefinitely reviving revivals…Neither medievalism nor colonialism can express the life of the 20th-century man. There is no finality in architecture – only continuous change.”
~ Walter Gropius”

The aim of every minimalist feature of the Bauhaus Dessau – the splendid facade, the connecting bridge that straddles a dividing road, the varying window dimensions, the provisions for natural ventilation – reflect the principle of timeless utility, a kind of “functional-aesthetic perfection”. Herbert Bayer’s pared down typeface consisting of only lowercase letters, goes on to become the signature font of the Bauhaus. (In case you didn’t know, graphic design was significantly influenced by Bauhaus.)

“From Thuringia to the world”
A Josef Hartwig chess set
Dornburg, Thuringia
Ceramic workshop of Ulrich Körting in Dornburg. The ceramic wing of the Weimar Bauhaus university was established in the stables of the Dornburg castle.
Erfurt, Thuringia
Weaving demo at Margaretha Reichardt’s workshop near Erfurt. She was a Bauhaus student who worked on the fabric for Marcel Breuer’s tube chair.

The rise of the Nazi party spells doom for the Bauhaus school. Gropius quits in 1928, and after a brief stint in Berlin, he escapes to London before finally settling in the US. He is succeeded by Hannes Meyer and then Mies Van der Rohe who shuts shop in Dessau, and then tries hard to keep the semblance of a school running with his own funds in an abandoned telephone building in Berlin. A gestapo raid forces its closure in April 1933. Van der Rohe stubbornly resists migration until a work trip takes him to the US in 1937 from which he never returns.

A century on, Bauhaus continues to be relevant, not just in the schools of Weimar and Dessau and the impressive design repertoire of its founding members and their renowned students even beyond their exodus from Nazi Germany, but in every little thing we consider modern in our lives. There were several Bauhaus products displayed around the conference hall during the two days of the GNTB brand summit – sleek glass kettles, spartan chess boards, iconic tube chairs, painted wooden toys, the Bauhaus cradle – products one could be forgiven for assuming were designed yesterday.

It is ironic that even copies of these timeless legacies of Gropius’ egalitarian dream cost a king’s ransom today, To me, they are metaphors for the power of that small idea born in Thuringia that brought about big change in the world.

GNTB and the Bauhaus Association, in collaboration with the tourism boards of Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin, have big things planned for the Bauhaus centenary all next year. It includes the inauguration of three new Bauhaus Museums in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin set to house an incredible array of original Bauhaus artefacts. I can’t think of a better time to go. And not just for the design…the classical sites of Thuringia are equally captivating. More on that in my next post.

Disclaimer: My visit to Weimar, Erfurt and Dessau was sponsored by GNTB.