On May 16, 2014 the two master houses of Walter Gropius and Lázló Moholy-Nagy, new interpreted by Berlin based architects Bruno Fioretti Marquez, were opened. Photo © Christoph Rokitta
The dreamed-up house
by Franziska Eidner
May 19, 2014

At the beginning of the official opening of the master houses in Dessau, German Federal President Joachim Gauck spoke of “everyday life being given that Sunday feeling”. What he meant was the Bauhaus’ aspiration to combine the aesthetic with the functional and render it democratic as “practical beauty” for the masses. Gauck said this on Friday at the ceremony, in marvelous sunshine. People had dressed up for the occasion, and guests had even flown in from Chicago and Haifa, and the new master houses seemed at that moment really to be a matter of Sunday architecture, bringing a little of the gleam of the big, wide world to the everyday life of Dessau’s Rosslau suburb, which turns all too empty come Monday morning.

Two days earlier, on Wednesday, when journalists were first allowed to tour the houses, the sky was gray and there had been no sense of a Sunday outing at all. Rather it was all somewhat sobering initially as what you saw first was a wall that was admittedly Bauhaus in origin, but definitely mundane. And the wall had also been re-erected as part of the “repairs” undertaken to the urban design of the ensemble of master houses from 2010 onwards. It had before then played no part in the many years of debates on how to reconstruct the ensemble, designed by Walter Gropius and built in 1926.

Out of the impasse

Between 1992 and 2000 the houses of Bauhaus masters Feininger, Kandinsky/Klee and Schlemmer/Muche were carefully repaired, one after the other, a project that in part required reconstruction work. What then ensued was a very protracted and heated debate on both the Director’s Villa and the semi-detached home of Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy. Both buildings were destroyed in bombing raids in 1945, and since the 1950s where once the Gropius House had been, stood on the remains of its basement a bland detached house with a tedious saddle roof, the Emmer House. The wall, originally built by Gropius at the tip of the ensemble to shield his villa somewhat, had survived the war and was not torn down until the end of the 1960s, suffering the same fate at the time as the kiosk that Mies van der Rohe had designed in 1932. The ever fiercer public debate that started in 2007 focused in particular on whether the Emmer House should be torn down or preserved and whether the Gropius and Moholy-Nagy houses should be rebuilt, or something radically new put in their place.

The concept of “precise imprecision” brought to bear in repairing the ensemble of master houses and giving them a contemporary thrust, as devised by Berlin-based architects Bruno Fioretti Marquez (BFM) 2010, won the relevant competition and offered a way out of this reconstruction impasse.

Round the wall

Anyone now wishing to examine the realization of that promising idea of an architecture that brings the old to mind in ghostly form and thus clearly squares up to the present, will certainly come up against the wall. 200 x 2 meters of concrete, the object of much vexation among Dessau inhabitants, who feel they have been robbed of a free view out over the small pine forest and the ensemble of master houses. That said, the wall also stands for Gropius’ oeuvre and outlook, highlighting the two sides to Modernism, and only with it and the kiosk is the ensemble truly complete. Or thus argued the monument preservation authorities, the Stiftung Bauhaus and the town of Dessau-Roßlau, whose lord mayor has over the last 18 months had to defend the wall at no less than 14 public meetings.

When facing the wall you may well find it hard to transpose your intellectual advocacy into emotional support – the dividing wall is at first sight so dominant, seemingly calling on us to reject what lies behind it. And walking along it seemed not the slightest bit like a Sunday stroll. On the other hand, it does allow you to read the demarcation as the creation of spatial tension, and its end point as the dramaturgical culmination: the Director’s Villa and the Moholy-Nagy House take the stage.

Masterful, on the outside

They appear before us like mirages, spectral buildings, ghostly houses, filling your mind with possible labels, all of them rejected as inadequate, as not fitting what your eye spies and hardly explaining why you gradually feel all the more emotionally seized and engaged. The model-like, the cursory that underlies the architects’ concept, is actually omnipresent in the new builds and (and this is what is really surprising) tangible in a touching, almost poetic way. As if someone had dreamed of the Gropius and Moholy-Nagy houses.

Take, for example, the solid insulating concrete shell, a monolithic mold of what was there before. The frameless window openings with those black borders, cut roughly into the façade. Inset windows, coated with a gray film in a special process, make the windows appear as if they are covered with parchment paper. Are they real? From a distance, when the light shines on them in a particular way, these openings look as if they have simply been painted on the walls.

New, on the inside

Inside the impression of cursoriness disappears entirely. The architects “dissected the DNA of the two houses,” as BFM’s Donatella Fioretti explains during the tour, in order to render the original spatial composition of the rooms as a sculpture. Walls and ceilings were reduced, different stories connected – the remaining torso, an expansive timber construction that serves to define the buildings’ core, hardly reveals the original floor plans. Instead we get the impression of a house-within-a-house, for example in the Moholy-Nagy House, where incisions transform the former kitchen into a balcony that juts out into the three-storey volume of the building.

The rooms are still empty at present. Over the coming months the interior of the Director’s Villa will be transformed into a visitor information center, while the Kurt Weill Association, which is based in the neighboring Feininger House, will use the Moholy-Nagy House as a space to host events. Let’s just hope that the Bauhaus Foundation succeeds in maintaining the rooms then used such that visitors will be able to read and experience them as a gesamtkunstwerk – which will no doubt spell a major challenge. In particular the mural “Le Pigment de la Lumière” by Olaf Nicolai, who let himself be inspired by László Moholy-Nagy’s writings on the effects and pigmentation of light, needs a second and indeed a third glance before it unfolds its full potential. Nicolai coated BFM’s timber construction with an extraordinary delicate, monochrome surface relief. Plaster made of white powdered marble in four different thicknesses was arranged seamlessly into geometrical shapes, which depending on the light, create the illusion of folds in the space. In places the effects are incredibly subtle: During the hot phase of construction in the run up to the opening one of the tradesmen almost painted over the plasterwork by accident. These folds are so exquisitely tailored to the architecture and light that we keep rediscovering the rooms time and again.

Following the ceremony the buildings were opened to the public and the crowds flocked inside, which meant queues in the narrow stairwells and many rooms soon reverberating with multiple exclamations of amazement. It seems possible that the new Director’s Villa and the Moholy-Nagy House may indeed be able to give everyday life in Dessau that special Sunday feeling. The Bauhaus is busy planning projects to make this happen, such as the “Haushaltsmesse des 21. Jahrhunderts” (a trade fair for 21st century household appliances), which is on the cards for next year – at the Gropius House. A perfect location, as at the time it was first built it was considered one of the most cutting-edge households there was. And indeed happen not only at the architectural, but also at the programmatic level.

Die Meisterhäuser Dessau
Ebertallee 69/71
06846 Dessau-Roßlau

Opening hours: As of May 19 all master houses will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Exhibitions: Until September 7 the must-see exhibition “Dessau 1945 – Modernism Destroyed” will be on show in the Bauhaus building, featuring hitherto unknown photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and addressing themes such as the expulsion of the Bauhaus members and the use of the master houses during the Nazi regime.

MORE on Stylepark:

Bauhaus master with speared heart: The “Herbert Bayer: Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928 – 1938” show at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin
(29 December 2013)

The Bauhaus is blue: We are in Tel Aviv, on the trail of the largest conjoined ensemble of buildings in the early international style.
(04 August 2009)

The model-like, the cursory that underlies the architects’ concept, is actually omnipresent: inside of house Gropius.
Photo © Sebastian Gündel, 2014, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau
The master house Moholy-Nagy designed by Bruno Fioretti Marquez architects. Photo © Christoph Rokitta
At Moholy-Nagy’s house, where incisions transform the former kitchen into a balcony. Photo © Christoph Rokitta
As if they are covered with parchment paper: The frameless window openings with those black borders, cut roughly into the façade. Photo © Heidi Specker, 2014, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau
The 200 meter concrete wall is part of the two reconstructed master houses. Photo © Franziska Eidner
Since the 1950s where once the Gropius House had been, stood on the remains the Emmer House. Photo © Franziska Eidner
Not only the Director’s Villa and the Moholy-Nagy House take the stage. Photo © Franziska Eidner
Master houses Dessau, twin house Klee/Kandinsky, 1927.
Photo © Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / (c) VG BILDKUNST Bonn 2014