Bauhaus building Dessau, Walter Gropius (1925-26), southern view

A change of perspective as a source of inspiration

Why a visit to the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau is an absolute – quite regardless of the current anniversary.
by Markus Hieke | 5/22/2019

It was just one of any number of excursions we were taken on as children: in the mid-nineties, I must have been about eight, let’s say, when I first saw the Wörlitzer Park on a family outing. The Garden Kingdom to the east of Dessau developed towards the end of the 18th century, commissioned by Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, in the English style at a site nestled in an old branch of the Elbe. Back then I had no idea that right nearby was a place that would have a far greater influence on my life. My 33 years and this Stylepark Special demanded that I seek out what is probably the most important location for German design and architectural history for the very first time.

Passing the current campus of Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, you reach the actual Bauhaus, a complex of several interconnected buildings. The structure was inaugurated in 1926 when the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau. The school, which had been founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, had been forced to move by the new German National government, which was elected in Thüringen in 1924 and was far from keen on the academy’s revolutionary approach. The Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar was over, but the idea endured: Discussions for continuation of the Bauhaus involved cities like Frankfurt am Main, Darmstadt and Cologne. The fact that Dessau of all places became the new location is largely down to the city’s mayor at that time, Fritz Hesse, who hoped to gain ideas for social housing construction from the establishment. After all, during his time Dessau was a burgeoning industrial city with a rapidly growing population. The city authorities provided one million Reichsmarks for construction of a new building for the school, and the Gropius architecture studio itself was commissioned with designing the Bauhaus building, accommodation for its teachers, and the Dessau-Törten estate as well as the new Labor Office for the City of Dessau soon afterwards.

Bauhaus building, west side

Arriving from the station, these days you first come across the studio building, one of three wings into which the building is divided. Behind the radiant white façade there were 28 student rooms on four levels, 16 of which had their own small balconies looking east, while the remaining twelve were oriented towards the opposing workshop wing. A hall of residence was thus integrated into the school building, complete with wardrobes, niches for beds, tables, chairs, and wash basins – something that was unique in Germany at that time. The apartments were therefore much in demand among international students, and teachers also resided here.

Glass facade at the Bauhaus building

The main section of the Bauhaus building is the workshop wing, which was designed with a transparency that remains unparalleled to this day. It is a reinforced concrete structure surrounded by a glass curtain façade – suddenly pillars disappear from the external view. The workshops are intentionally factory-like, since they are supposed to be viewed as more of a laboratory than a classroom. The architecture inspired the students to develop design ideas that might never have come to mind in a more traditional building. Some student projects even became part of the interior of the Dessau Bauhaus: Marianne Brandt and Hans Przyrembel, for example, designed the adjustable pendant luminaires in the workshops, while Max Krajewski’s light installation adorns the staircase – considering the lighting as part of the design as he does here was revolutionary back then. Marcel Breuer too, an earlier alumnus who had once arrived at the Weimar Bauhaus as a high-flying 18-year-old, left his mark on the building. The hall, which is located at the transition between the workshop wing and the studio building and, where required, can be connected to the adjoining canteen by means of an enormous folding door, was fitted out with his textile-covered tubular steel furniture. Breuer’s “B9” stools, which are now produced by Thonet, also feature in the canteen.

New seating in the auditorium of the Bauhaus building, based on the historical model of Marcel Breuer, 2019

Just as impressive as the architecture is the building’s color scheme, which is largely down to Weimar Bauhaus student Hinnerk Scheper, who managed the color workshop in Dessau as a young master from 1925. Spray-on aluminum coating, varying structures and color as a means of orientation: The design was so complex thanks to colors that have, in the intervening period, been reproduced so as to be as true to the originals as possible.

A bridge within the building leads to the north wing, which housed Dessau’s vocational college alongside the Bauhaus. This section of the building was kept very plain, although it does benefit from the numerous lines of vision between the individual wings. From 1927, the upper level of the bridge housed the newly established building department, which had been initiated by the later director Hannes Meyer. Beneath it lay the administration of the two schools, while the Bauhaus director’s rooms were in the middle.

Bauhaus heads on a balcony of the Atelier building

It’s hard to imagine everyday life in the school at that time, but a visit to the Bauhaus does make one thing clear: The Bauhaus style is not only about clear lines and design according to the principle of “form follows function”. Claudia Perren, director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, aims to clear up this short-sighted perspective: “For many, the Bauhaus simply stands for reduced, cubist, white buildings on the one hand, and iconic design objects like the Wagenfeld lights on the other. First and foremost, however, the Bauhaus was a school. It was about exploring contemporary approaches with the aim of actively helping to shape a new society. To achieve this, new forms of pedagogical interaction were required.” It is for this reason, she says, that the Bauhaus educational approach was the main subject of the Foundation’s first anniversary festival “Schule Fundamental” in March. “We want to find out how Bauhaus ideas about school can inspire us even today, and what alternative educational models have developed internationally. Hence, in a “schools’ parliament” held as part of the festival, we discussed examples from Jakarta, New York, Valparaíso, Tokyo and many other places.

For the innovative educational concept, which aimed to combine the disciplines of sculpture, painting and architecture, Walter Gropius brought the international avant-garde even to Weimar: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Gerhard Marcks and Johannes Itten. Some of these names still featured in Dessau too, and Gropius erected the so-called “masters’ houses” around ten minutes’ walk from the Bauhaus near his own director’s house.

Meisterhaus Muche / Schlemmer (1925-26), planned by Walter Gropius

The director’s house, which was destroyed during the Second World War, and the three semi-detached houses for the masters were opened to the public once again a few years ago. While the preserved masters’ houses were painstakingly restored, another solution was chosen for Gropius’s house and the adjoining half of the house, which belonged to László Moholy-Nagy and was likewise destroyed. Berlin-based architecture firm Bruno Fioretti Marquez replaced it in 2014 with interpretations made of exposed concrete with a cubage that corresponded to each of the originals, but which had been completely opened up inside. In his mural “Le pigment de la lumière”, artist Olaf Nicolai picks up on the significance of color design for the Bauhaus, but he does so not with colors, but rather textures for shaping the surfaces. Visitors have to simply imagine the erstwhile room structure of the houses.

The Director's House and in the background the Moholy-Nagy Meisterhaus in a new interpretation based on plans by Bruno Fioretti Marquez Architects from Berlin.

In the masters’ houses that have survived, you can see just how much space for individuality remains even in uniform and simplified structures. The semi-detached houses are each positioned at a 90-degree angle to one another, with mirroring floor plans. The kitchen, dining room and living room are located on the ground floor, while the 45 square meters of space upstairs provides for a studio with a huge window façade, plus bedroom and bathroom, along with other small rooms under the roof. Like the furniture of the houses, the color schemes were also individual – yet in every regard they are more intense than in the Bauhaus building, as a look at Kandinsky’s house with its black dining room, gold door frames and lilac and turquoise walls clearly demonstrates. In April the Kandinsky / Klee master’s house was reopened following its most recent restoration. Despite intense reproduction work, however, one can still imagine only vaguely how it must have looked when the members of this world-renowned avant-garde group – we would call them influencers these days – lived side by side in the middle of a pine forest.

Can the brief Bauhaus phase actually be comprehended in any meaningful way, I ask Claudia Perren. “The historical Bauhaus, or to be more precise the Bauhaus School, did indeed only exist for 14 years, from 1919 to 1933. The school’s most productive period was during its time here in Dessau. This can be seen, among other things, from the countless buildings. For example, the school building, the various masters’ houses, and the Dessau-Törten housing estate are all prototypes for a radically new understanding of building and architecture. There are numerous details that show what questions the Bauhaus members sought to address and the standards they tried to set.”

Newly renovated Meisterhaus Kandinsky / Klee
Staircase in the Meisterhaus Kandinsky
Golden wall niche in the Meisterhaus Kandinsky

So what remains? How much Bauhaus is there in contemporary design and architecture today? “The Bauhaus was from the very outset part of a form of Modernism that had strong regional and international links, and in many areas brought a new type of thinking with it,” comments Claudia Perren. “Among other things, the emphasis was on designing residential interiors and everyday utility objects to be functional in a way that improved the general standard of living. To this end, the focus was on using the very latest technological possibilities to great effect. This understanding of Modernism can to this day be considered an important point of reference for design and architecture. And the desire to always find new answers to current design questions is as topical as ever. What always played a key role was experimenting, was trial and error – and that approach remains as contemporary as ever.”

There’s a lot being celebrated this Bauhaus centenary year. Films relive the age in Weimar, Dessau, and lastly in Berlin. Manufacturers are trotting out their classics, designed by Bauhaus students and masters. However, in order to really understand the magic of the place – created in order to enable a change of perspective and whose convictions later gained a new lease of life at schools such as the Black Mountain College in North Carolina (USA) – you need to have actually been there. Even if Gropius himself always refused to accept a term like “Bauhaus style”, the principles of the Bauhaus are still to be encountered today in university curricula for both design and architecture. In only a few years’ time, Dessau will be celebrating yet another high point, as then the relocation of the Bauhaus there from Weimar will be one hundred years past. I celebrate - already today - my new insights through proximity and distance!

For more information on the Bauhaus building browse through "Bauhaus Dessau. Architektur Gestaltung Idee", which Jovis Verlag, Berlin, published in 2007.

The Meisterhaus Muche / Schlemmer is one of three semi-detached houses next to the director's house of Walter Gropius.
Atelier in the Meisterhaus Kandinsky with floor-to-ceiling windows: the studios are the largest rooms in the master houses with 45 square metres each.
The black dining room in the Meisterhaus Kandinsky has been restored close to the historic original.
The staircase in the Meisterhaus Klee was renovated on the occasion of the Bauhaus year with pigmented special paints.
The Meisterhaus Moholy-Nagy is part of the "new master houses" designed by the Berlin architects Bruno Fioretti Marquez.