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Designs on radical living: 100 years of the Bauhaus

OTTO MUNZENBERG pays tribute to the movement whose influence on architecture and interior design is all around us

FOUNDED by renowned architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus  — literally “house of construction” in German — was initially conceived with the idea of creating an academy where all the arts would coexist.

Experimental, and with the emphasis on the theoretical, the Bauhaus represented an opportunity to extend beauty and quality to every home through well-designed and industrially produced products and structures.

The Bauhaus style went on to become one of the most influential currents in design, modernist architecture and art, and architectural education and ever since it has had a profound influence upon developments in those spheres, as well as in graphic, interior and  industrial design and typography.

Attracting a teaching staff that included many of the stellar names in the art and design world — Vasily Kandinski, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy among them —  the Bauhaus’s principles reflected the view of many German intellectuals, who believed that political irrationalism had led to the violence of WWI and that a “critical rationalism” had to be imposed in order to resolve social conflict.

The Bauhaus project really began in Dessau in eastern Germany with the design and construction of the first Bauhaus building of art and design workshops, studios and student accommodation 1925-6.

Largely conceived by Gropius, rooms were simple with only essential furniture. Accommodation costs were kept deliberately cheap, so that poorer students would not feel excluded and visitors could also stay there for a modest sum. Every room was designed and furnished with Bauhaus-inspired designs.

The project turned the central Bauhaus principle, that form should follow function, into reality. There is no ornamentation in the furniture, no decoration on the walls and the lines are clean.

With every piece of furniture and structure you can see exactly what serves which purpose. Attention to detail was paramount and Gropius’s door handle from 1923 is considered an icon of 20th-century design and often listed as one of the most influential to emerge from the Bauhaus.

Gropius’s design philosophy created buildings, readily recognisable as Bauhaus designs, which are now considered masterpieces.

They have impacted on many areas of life today, from dentists’ surgeries to offices and from bedrooms to architectural studios.

Bauhaus took art and architecture back to its basic principles of functionality, that art should serve the needs of society not individual whim and Gropius’s great manifesto brings together the characteristics of the modernist movement — rationally articulated pure spaces, innovative usage of new materials such as glass-curtain walls in facades, horizontal windows and an absence of ornamentation.

The global design for all elements is a spatial conception presided over by the interrelation between the interior and exterior by means of the glass wall, principles soon adopted and developed internationally in housing projects.

Gropius left the Bauhaus in 1928 and went on to design large-scale housing projects in Berlin, Karlsruhe and Dessau which were major contributions to the New Objectivity movement.

He was succeeded by Hannes Meyer as director of the architecture department, who continued Gropius’s innovations in the design of prototypes for serial mass production and functionalist architecture.

But he was politically more left-wing and closer to the communists than Gropius and, in the increasingly dangerous political era of the Weimar Republic, Dessau’s mayor alleged that Meyer was allowing a communist student organisation to flourish at the school and was bringing it bad publicity, threatening its survival. He was dismissed in 1930.
During his short time as director, Meyer introduced “the new way to build,” a more radical functionalist philosophy contending that architecture is an organisational rather than an aesthetic task and that buildings should be low cost and designed to fulfil social needs.

Meyer attracted two of the most significant building commissions for the school, both of which still exist. One was for apartment buildings with balcony access in Dessau, the other was the Federal School of the German Trade Union Association (ADGB) in Bernau, near Berlin, completed in 1930. The school operated for only three years until the nazis confiscated it in 1933.

With the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, the Bauhaus was viewed as a nest of left-wing and Jewish degenerate artists. Gropius, along with pioneer of modernist architecture Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others, was forced to flee the country and the academy was closed.

With the help of the English architect Maxwell Fry, Gropius first settled in Britain in 1934 before later moving to the US, where he died at the age of 86 in 1969.

While in London, he lived and worked among the group of artists centred around Hampstead in north London associated with the art critic Herbert Read. He was also connected with the Isokon group that built the Lawn Road flats in Hampstead.

Heavily influenced by Bauhaus ideas, and now known as the Isokon building, it is Grade I listed and incorporates a small museum.

Along with several former Bauhaus students, Meyer emigrated to the USSR in the autumn of 1930 and became involved in design and building projects in Moscow and the newly created Jewish Autonomous Region before moving to Mexico.

There he eventually became the director of Estampa Mexicana, the publishing house of the famous Popular Graphic Arts Workshop in 1942.

The hugely influential Bauhaus trajectories of Gropius and Mayer are being recognised globally in museums and galleries this year and in Germany alone there will be over 900 exhibitions and events to commemorate the centenary, with three new Bauhaus museums opening in Weimar next month and Dessau and Berlin in early autumn.


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