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Bringing back the Bauhaus

In 1925, the design school was forced out of Weimar. The city is ready to welcome it back

The birthplace of the Bauhaus is not very Bauhaus. The legendary school, which revolutionized design and has been synonymous for decades with the concept of modernism, left surprisingly few marks on the place where it was founded 100 years ago, a small city near the center of Germany called Weimar. Only one of those marks was architectural: a square white house called the Haus am Horn. With hard right angles and flat rooflines, it has the aesthetic touchstones of modernity and rationality that have come to be seen—in designs ranging from household appliances to skyscrapers—as the Bauhaus style.

In 1925, the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar and move to its second and more famous home in Dessau, 80 miles to the north. There, the purpose-built Bauhaus campus, designed by the school’s founding director, Walter Gropius, is something of a pilgrimage site for Bauhaus aficionados and architecture enthusiasts. Even in Berlin, where the school operated under the leadership of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for less than a year before being shut down by the Nazis, buildings like the Bauhaus Archive are veritable landmarks of its impact. Weimar, perhaps better known as the city where the newly written German constitution created the so-called Weimar Republic after World War I, is comparably lacking in Bauhaus flair.

But Weimar may actually be the better place to fully understand the Bauhaus—the cultural conditions that made it possible, the innovative artists and designers who established its foundational philosophy, the dark forces that tried to suppress it, and the global spread of its new form of design. Next month, in honor of the school’s centenary, a new Bauhaus Museum will open in Weimar, showcasing some of the earliest specimens of the Bauhaus school and offering a historical overview of its work and significance.

It’s the central element of what the city is calling its Quarter of Weimar Modernism, a compact footprint just outside the city’s historic center where one can see both the legacy of cultural support that made the city an ideal home for the Bauhaus and the brutal fascism that tried to crush it. The district offers a wide-angle view of history in an easily traversable space: The new museum is bookended by two other buildings that, together, track the full story of the Bauhaus—the 19th-century art museum that nurtured the predecessor of the Bauhaus, and the Nazi-built administrative complex that helped Adolf Hitler establish a regime of suppression and murder that pushed the Bauhaus out of Germany.

Designed by Berlin-based architect Heike Hanada, the new museum building is a minimalist, light gray cube, with a striped facade sparingly interrupted by windows. In lowercase, the words “bauhaus museum” repeat endlessly around the top of the building, and oversize doors at its front and a picture window at its back serve as a visual portal into and through the otherwise closed box. The heart of the museum is the 168-object collection of Bauhaus items from the Weimar days, hand-selected by Walter Gropius for safekeeping as the school prepared to leave the home that was disowning it. Crated and hidden away from the Nazis in a storage room in the palace of the former grand duke, the collection wasn’t reopened and inventoried until the 1950s. The complete collection will be displayed together for the first time in the new Bauhaus Museum. Displays will also track the tenures of the school’s three directors, Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Mies van der Rohe. Other features include a painting by Paul Klee, who spent 10 years teaching at the school, and the Bauhaus Cradle, a modernist rocking crib of triangles and circles that expresses most vibrantly the color theory of Bauhaus instructor and painter Wassily Kandinsky.

Detail of the front of the Bauhaus Museum, visualization 2018.
© Heike Hanada laboratory or art and architecture

Outside, with construction crews still banging away ahead of its grand opening, Bauhaus Museum director Ulrike Bestgen explains that while the story of the Bauhaus is much bigger than Weimar, the city provides the historical context to explain its importance. And as extreme right-wing parties in Germany and across Europe are regaining political power, it’s becoming even more crucial to understand the history of the Bauhaus and the forces that tried to suppress it.

The Neues Museum, just down the street from the Bauhaus Museum’s construction site, was one of the first museums ever opened in Germany. Formed in the 1860s by Charles Alexander, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, a duchy now part of the state of Thuringia, it was built to feature the contemporary art of the 19th century, presenting the works of artists from across Europe. Closed by the Nazis, bombed during World War II, and left a ruin by the East German government, the museum sat unused until the late 1990s. Today, it’s being reprogrammed to tell a very specific story about the development of art and design in the birthplace of the Bauhaus.

Many considered Weimar in the 1800s to be the cultural heart of Germany. A succession of its dukes were active supporters of the arts, famously sponsoring such local talents as the authors Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller; a statue of the two now stands in the city’s main square and is its central landmark. Around the time Grand Duke Charles Alexander opened the museum, he also opened a school of fine art in Weimar, and some of the paintings that emerged are now being hung on the museum’s walls.

Neues Museum Weimar.
Jens Hauspurg © Klassik Stiftung Weimar

Walking through the museum a month before it’s set to reopen, curator Sabine Walter explains that throughout the last half of the 19th century, art was undergoing a dramatic shift, and the students of the art school were pushing new frontiers. By the 1890s, typical paintings of imagined heroic figures perched on craggy mountainsides gave way to realist landscapes depicting the common people and the changing seasons of Weimar.

The term “art” also began to encompass a wider array of objects and materials. At the turn of the century, the school of fine art was joined by a new academy focusing on arts and crafts like ceramics and furniture making, headed by a polymathic Belgian designer named Henry van de Velde. Versed in furniture making, textiles, graphic design, and interior design, van de Velde used principles of natural lighting to design the layout of his own home in Weimar, as well as the building that would house his new school and eventually the Bauhaus itself. His multidisciplinary approach to design would lead the school of art, the school of arts and crafts, and a separate school of sculpture to merge into a single institution in 1910—a proto-Bauhaus, with van de Velde as its ideological guide.

The hallways of the Neues Museum are lined with furniture, much of it designed by van de Velde during the first decade of the 20th century. The pieces start on the ornamental side, with elaborate curves and intricate inlays, but slowly the ornament gives way to practicality. The concave front edge of a writing desk is less stylistic than ergonomic. Shelves are angled within easy reach. At the end of the hall sits a simple rectangular wardrobe, designed around 1910, with two straight doors crowned by a trio of open cubby holes. It’s all right angles and rationality. “This is the link to the Bauhaus,” Walter says. “Only in Weimar can you tell this story, because it all happened here.”

Van de Velde’s influence was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, which forced the school to close in 1915. As a Belgian national, he was obliged to resign his position and leave the country. Before leaving, he offered the names of people he thought could take over the school and continue its melding of art and craft. One was a young architect named Walter Gropius.

Haus Hohe PappeIn, the private residence of the Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde.
Tillmann Franzen © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The two had come to know each other through their participation in the Deutscher Werkbund, a group of progressive designers who gathered to debate the ways that design, industry, and the machine age could be harnessed to reshape modern life. Gropius had garnered acclaim for designing an innovative office building in the northern city of Alfeld that was supported by an interior concrete frame, freeing the facade to be mostly glass, and he was increasingly outspoken about the role new technology could play in improving design. Drafted into the army to fight on the Western Front, Gropius made his case for taking over the Weimar school through a memo sent to the grand duke from the front lines in 1916, calling for training that would result in technically experienced artists and craftspeople capable of working with the manufacturers of the industrial age. He received the duke’s appointment to run the school once the war was over, but before he could take the position, the revolution swept Germany and the duchy was replaced with the new German republic. In early 1919, Gropius followed up with the new governing authorities to see if the offer to lead the school was still on the table. Within months, he was in Weimar drawing up budgets and plans for what would become the Bauhaus.

From the start, the conditions were challenging. The economy had been devastated by Germany’s loss of the war, and funding for the school’s operations was limited. In a proposed budget for the school, republished in Hans M. Wingler’s exhaustive 1969 Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, Gropius notes that money available held just a quarter of its peacetime value due to inflation. Germany’s postwar debt and budgetary limitations meant that his hopes for the school would have to be pursued gradually. An architecture department, for instance, was not in the school’s early offerings, despite Gropius’s obvious inclination.

Even the name of the school posed a problem. Inspired by the “Bauhütte” historically set up alongside the construction sites of cathedrals to comprehensively train the project tradespeople, Gropius had insisted on naming his new school, and his modern approach to teaching the skilled trades, the Bauhaus. The provisional government insisted on a more traditional name, and the official compromise amended Bauhaus with the parenthetical “Combined former Grand-Ducal Academy of Art and former Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts.”

Such conflicts would become a regular part of the Bauhaus’s existence in Weimar, and soon concerned matters far more significant than the name. This was a time of great change in Germany—a burgeoning national assembly spent much of 1919 in Weimar’s main theater, just a five-minute walk from the school’s campus, drafting the constitution of what would soon be referred to as the Weimar Republic. But by the early 1920s, conservative nationalism was already in the air in this part of Germany, and that nationalism didn’t mesh easily with the Bauhaus’s new form of modernism, a mix of art, craft, industry, and technology that foresaw changing modes of production and the changing needs of society. “For right-wing parties, it was easy to agitate against the Bauhaus,” says Max Welch Guerra, director of the Bauhaus Institute for History and Theory of Architecture and Planning at what’s now known as Bauhaus University in Weimar.

Peter Keler, Kinderwiege/Cradle, 1922, Klassik Stiftung Weimar.
© Jan Keler

Part of the opposition to the Bauhaus had to do with the radical nature of the school, some of its teachers or “masters,” and the bohemian student body itself. Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter who was in the original group of masters in the Bauhaus, became particularly polarizing. Charged with leading the school’s preliminary course, an obligatory first-semester class focused on relaying a broad sense of the elements of design, Itten had an unconventional method. A practitioner of Mazdaznan, a religion based on Zoroastrianism that centered around body consciousness and breathing exercises, Itten conducted his classes in an 18th-century Lutheran church building in a park next to the river, starting each session out on the meadow with yoga-like stretches and breathing exercises. Wearing robes and with a shaved head, Itten was a conspicuous sight in the city.

Also conspicuous were the many female students who, unusually for the time, attended the school. More women than men applied to enter in the school’s first year, and made up roughly half its student body, though they were limited to certain areas of study, such as weaving and pottery. The presence of so many female students “was something that the conservative nationalist movement really couldn’t stand,” says Christiane Wolf, director of the Modernist Archive at Bauhaus University, through an interpreter. “And women with short hair!”

The Bauhaus was so divisive that within the first year of its existence an official opposition group had formed in Weimar. The Free Union for the Protection of the Town’s Interests held its first meeting in December 1919, calling for the school to abandon its reformist approach to the arts. In her 1991 book The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics, Éva Forgács notes that speakers quickly turned to personal attacks, calling the school “a Spartacist-Bolshevik institution” full of “alien” and “Jewish” art. Another speaker, a student at the Bauhaus, criticized the “internationalist reign” of the school’s leanings, calling them a “wolf thirsting for the blood of the German people.”

Dr. Emil Herfurth, the leader of the Free Union, continued the offensive against the Bauhaus, publishing a critical pamphlet two months later in which he wrote, “We demand that the proper authorities, respecting the will of the citizens, carefully consider whether Weimar of all cities, with its tradition and with its present financial possibilities, is at all suitable for the implementation of the Bauhaus idea in its hitherto pursued form.”

The school persevered, but the attacks continued over the following years, and the school’s already thin support at the state level withered as the region’s politics shifted to the right. The Bauhaus idea of fusing art with practical craft was put to the test as the school tried to solicit commissioned industry work to generate funding to keep the school operating. The state government of Thuringia, tiring of supporting the Bauhaus during a period of rampant inflation, demanded a progress report. Gropius and the other masters organized a large exhibition of the school’s approach and output between August and September 1923.

The workshops were opened to the public, galleries were hung with the work of student and master alike, and a variety of performances and lectures were held. The most significant of the exhibition’s offerings was the Haus am Horn, furnished by the products of the school’s varied workshops and representing, at full-scale, the Bauhaus vision for the home and lifestyle of the future. “All these concepts are very closely connected to this new idea of how to live in a very efficient, rational way,” says Martina Ullrich, a curator who’s leading a renovation of the Haus am Horn. It marked the school’s transition away from its craft-focused roots and toward a more comprehensive fusion of art and technology for an increasingly industrial age; Gropius considered it a product display to convince industry to license the school’s works and mode of design.

Haus Am Horn, 1923, Architect Georg Muche.
Tillmann Franzen, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018
Marcel Breuer, Lattenstuhl/Batten Chair, 1922/1924, Klassik Stiftung Weimar.

In many ways the exhibition was a success. It attracted attention across Germany, luring thousands of visitors to Weimar and generating positive reviews in national newspapers, according to Forgács’s book. But the local response was overwhelmingly negative, and publications in the city blasted the exhibition as a threat to German culture at large. It had failed to generate the local support the school needed.

One morning in November 1923, Gropius was summoned to his home by the German army. The state was under martial law due to political unrest, and seven members of the military conducted a thorough search of Gropius’s home, based on an accusation that he had been stirring leftist political tensions. In a letter of complaint mailed the next day to the state’s military commandant, Gropius expressed his outrage over the search, “as if its object were a public enemy,” and demanded an apology. “I am ashamed of my country,” he wrote. According to Wingler’s book, the commandant’s lieutenant-general wrote back threatening legal prosecution for affronting the military and “insulting me personally.”

The pressure against the Bauhaus grew steadily, and it became clear that its place in Weimar was endangered. “The Bauhaus community ... form a small secluded island in the ocean of the Weimar Philistines,” noted a newspaper report in 1924, as quoted in Wingler’s book. “Four years of serious work have not succeeded in getting the Bauhaus people used to Weimar, nor the people of Weimar used to the Bauhaus.”

The people of Weimar soon had a chance to speak up. In February 1924, state parliamentary elections were held, and the Bauhaus-friendly Social-Democratic governing coalition had its majority wiped out. The new government was openly antagonistic toward the Bauhaus and announced in September that it would not be renewing the contracts for the Bauhaus masters.

Gropius and the other masters decided that the school was no longer viable in Weimar. In late December, they published an open letter in local newspapers announcing their decision to dissolve the Bauhaus and began the search for a new home. Just days earlier, federal elections had given even more power to the conservative German National People’s Party, which became the second-largest party in the German Reichstag. One of their first acts was to release from prison a compatriot who had perpetrated a failed coup attempt the year before, a man named Adolf Hitler. Within two months he had officially re-founded his fledgling Nazi party. Though most parts of Germany had banned Hitler from making speeches, Weimar had not. The city would become inextricably linked with Hitler’s rise.

In late March 1925, days before the Bauhaus was set to lose its funding in Weimar, it got some good news. By a vote of 26 to 15, the city council in Dessau, in the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt, approved a plan to become the school’s new home. Leaving Weimar was a matter of survival for the Bauhaus, but it was also the beginning of a forced journey that, within a decade, would spread the school’s influence around the world.

“Weimar has a long history with the Nazis,” says Wolf. She’s standing inside one of the buildings of the Gauforum, the complex of administrative buildings the Nazis constructed in Weimar. Three long neoclassical structures arranged in a U shape with a large auditorium at its far end, the buildings formed a bold new center for the city, built atop a neighborhood of 140 apartment buildings that were demolished to make the space. Maps from the 1930s show the central area labeled Adolf Hitler Platz. “The Gauforum was a kind of prototype for upcoming architecture in the Third Reich,” Wolf says. Other complexes like it were to be built across Germany, like bombastic centers of county-level government. The Nazis had labeled the modernism of the Bauhaus “degenerate art,” and now they were building their own type of modernist design, albeit one more focused on projecting power than a new way of life.

Crowds filled the central plaza for speeches, and high-ranking Nazis rode through on horseback. The auditorium at the far end of the complex, a hall intended to hold capacity crowds of nearly 20,000, provided a bold backdrop. A brochure from the time shows the town’s landmark statue of Goethe and Schiller superimposed in front of the hall, a wreathed swastika perched atop its columned facade. But Wolf says that photos of the rallies, printed in newspapers and Nazi publications throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, were all from a single day—a massive stage set for propaganda. “In the media, they made people believe that this was actually the marching place and this was all taking place here,” Wolf says. “It was all an imagination.”

Even so, the photographed crowd was at one point real, and local support for the Nazis only grew after the Bauhaus was forced out of Weimar. In 1926, the Nazi party held its national convention in the building where the constitution of Germany was written less than a decade earlier. Hitler, who Wolf says gave more than 40 speeches in the city, frequently stayed in a hotel that still overlooks the market square. When local streets named after historic figures began to be renamed for high-ranking officials in the Nazi party, there was no public opposition. The only pushback the Nazis seem to have received in Weimar was against using the name Ettersberg for the concentration camp they were building a few miles outside the city, due to the fact that Goethe was known to have frequently climbed a hill of the same name. The concentration camp was renamed Buchenwald.

Built by forced labor, Buchenwald eventually housed nearly 280,000 people total, 56,000 of whom died there due to medical experiments, disease, starvation, or death marches. The metal door at the main gate leading to the grounds where barracks once stood is topped with the phrase “Jedem Das Seine”: To Each His Own. The Nazis forced Franz Ehrlich, a former Bauhaus student imprisoned there, to design the gate, and the typography has an unmistakable Bauhaus touch.

The Nazis never finished building the Gauforum, mostly due to the onset of World War II. No Gauforum complexes were built in other cities, leaving Weimar with a unique architectural legacy. The buildings now mostly house government offices. The large auditorium was converted into a shopping mall in the 1990s, and the plaza in the center is its underground parking garage. A dense exhibit on the complex hangs in a room next to the unfinished belltower, and a new exhibition on forced labor throughout the Third Reich is set to open next year. It’s intended to be part of the Quarter of Weimar Modernism, part of explaining the city’s complex path through history. “When you step out of the Gauforum, opposite you’ll see the entrance to the Bauhaus Museum,” Wolf says. “This is the Weimar story.”

Unlike the harsh order of the Gauforum’s plan, the cubic Bauhaus Museum is situated off-kilter, rotated away from that dark grid by a dozen degrees or so. It’s subtle but visible, and highlights the tension inherent in this place, long a scar on the city. “In Germany, we say it was a no-go area here. You cross this area in order to go to the railway station, but you do not stay here. The city of Weimar wanted to change this,” says Bestgen, the museum curator. “We didn’t like this place very much. We had to learn to love this place. But now we’re very much convinced that it’s the right place for the Bauhaus Museum.”

The Bauhaus Museum, current state of the southwest elevation, 2018.
© Heike Hanada laboratory or art and architecture

The classical center of the city, with the Goethe and Schiller statue and the signing space of the Weimar Republic’s constitution, is a 10-minute walk away, but the museum’s site really is at the center of the city’s complicated history and its present-day draw. “A lot of the people that come here, they don’t know who Goethe is, or Schiller,” says Jayne Obst, a local tour guide. “They want to know about the Bauhaus.”

The design of the museum draws a clear connection between the Bauhaus and the efforts to crush it, framed by its oversized front and back openings. From one, the view is a direct shot of the Gauforum, and, in the distance, the mid-rise student housing tower built by the East Germans in the 1970s to visually counter the impact of the Gauforum. From the museum’s back side, the view is out across one of the city’s first parks and off to the hills outside the city where the Buchenwald concentration camp was built and a tall memorial tower now stands. The site, Bestgen says, is “part of the ambivalent history of modernity during the 20th century.”

She also wants it to keep pushing our understanding of the Bauhaus and its significance in new directions. It’s an especially important task now, as history echoes through new forces of suppression and division. Nationalist right-wing parties are on the rise in Europe, and state elections in Thuringia later this year are likely to put more power into the hands of neo-Nazis. The story of the Bauhaus and the efforts to stifle it have an uncomfortable relevance today.

“For us, it was important that when the visitor leaves the museum he should not leave it with a ‘modernist’ way of thinking, for example, like Mies van der Rohe,” says Bestgen. “Rather we want to invite him to think about his time, the problems of his time, the problems we have to face nowadays.”

Nate Berg is a freelance journalist writing primarily about cities, design, and technology. He lives in Berlin.


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