Cube of LightThe Bauhaus School
‘Let us together create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one form: architecture and sculpture and painting.’
Visiting in 1927, a year after its inauguration, journalist Nelly Schwalacher described the Bauhaus building in Dessau: “A radiant cone of light attracts the eye. A giant cube of light … glass, glass, and there, where walls ascend, they radiate their blinding white colour. I have never before seen such a reflector of light.” The glass curtain facade of the Bauhaus workshop wing exemplified much of the art school’s vision: radically modern, and completely transparent.
Today the Bauhaus is often remembered as a certain style of boxy architecture and sleek, functional furniture, but above all else, it was a thorough redefinition of what a school could be. With the world’s avant-garde artists unified in one faculty, the teachers experimented alongside the students in laboratory-like workshops, devising new design solutions through trial and error. The students tried their hands at many different disciplines, from painting and sculpture, to carpentry, steelwork, textiles and theatre. The school’s foundation course – the Vorkurs – which was completed by each student before they were assigned a workshop, remains the basis for the ‘foundation year’ that is still included in many fine art degrees today.
Although it was only in operation for 14 years, the Bauhaus underwent many changes. Founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius, the Staatliches Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1926, and then to Berlin in 1932, a year before it was finally shut down under pressure from the Nazi regime. It knew three directors: Hannes Meyer succeeded Gropius in 1928, until he was in turn removed and replaced with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930. In the course of these changes, a subtle shift in focus took place. The school was originally founded to unify crafts and the fine arts, but with the move to Dessau, this shifted to integrating the arts with the processes of industrial production. In 1927, architecture became available to study for the first time, and during Mies van der Rohe’s directorship, the Bauhaus dropped much of the art syllabus and became almost entirely architectural in its focus.
Despite literally translating to ‘building house’, and having such a recognisable architectural style of clean functionality associated with its teaching, the Bauhaus has relatively few buildings to claim as its own. The majority are at Dessau, now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. With the school’s move here in 1926, Gropius was able to construct a purpose-built home for the school: five structures interlinked by bridges and corridors, including workshops, a canteen, a hall, and student accommodation. He referred to it as a Gesamtkunstwerk – a ‘total artwork’, in keeping with what he outlined in the Bauhaus manifesto of 1919: ‘Let us together create the new building of the future, which will be everything in one form: architecture and sculpture and painting.’
A ten-minute walk from the main school complex are Gropius’s director’s house and three Meisterhaüser, constructed and named for the luminaries who lived there during their time as teachers, including the abstract Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, the Swiss-born avant-garde painter Paul Klee, and Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy. Semi-detached, built in L shapes, and with mirroring floor plans, the homes were epitomic of functional Bauhaus design. They were enlivened by Kandinsky and Klee’s bold use of colour, in line with Bauhaus colour theory: yellow is combative, aggressive, and associated with the triangle; red is static, heavy and linked with the square; blue is relaxing, but also in motion, and when associated with the circle, becomes a symbol of ‘the mind animated within itself’. The director’s house, and Moholy-Nagy’s Meisterhaus, having been destroyed in air raids during the Second World War, were reinterpreted by Berlin studio Bruno Fioretti Marquez in 2014. The new buildings match the overall volumes of the originals and their cubic, exposed concrete forms make striking geometric silhouettes among the surrounding pine forest.
Students also lived onsite in the main school complex. Some struggling students were even known to sleep on the carpets in the gymnasium overnight. The campus dynamic was unusual in Germany at the time, and typical of the Bauhaus’s lateral mixing of teachers and students. Some who studied here returned as masters, such as the painter Josef Albers, and the designer Marcel Breuer, who studied at the Weimar Bauhaus and returned to Dessau as a young master of carpentry in 1925. His tubular steel upholstered seating can be seen in the auditorium, and his B9 stools still populate the canteen. Other student’s designs, such as Marianne Brandt and Hans Przyrembel’s pendant lighting, also remain in place in the workshops.
The personnel that passed through the Bauhaus did not always do so without controversy. The first teacher of the Vorkurs, Johannes Itten, was a passionate follower of Mazdaznan, a neo-Zoroastrian religion. He shaved his head, dressed in robes, and submitted the school cafeteria to a strict vegetarian diet. Alma Mahler, who was married to Gropius at the time, disdainfully recalls the ‘obligatory diet of uncooked mush in garlic’ in her 1958 memoir, and noted, ‘Bauhaus disciples [were] recognisable at a distance, by the garlic smell.’ Itten began his classes with elaborate gymnastics and breathing exercises, before moving onto discussions of the nature of colour and materials. He was eventually forced out for being too spiritual, and replaced by Moholy-Nagy in 1923. Hannes Meyer, on the other hand, enhanced the social focus of the Bauhaus during his directorship, and became increasingly political; a slogan of his was ‘the needs of the people instead of the needs of luxury.’ He encouraged internal agitation among the Communist students at the Bauhaus, which was viewed with suspicion by the Dessau authorities, and culminated in his removal by the Dessau mayor in 1930.
The school’s forced closure in 1933 had the adverse effect of spreading its influence far wider than it might have done otherwise; its masters and alumni fled Germany for the USA, UK, Israel and the USSR, taking what they had learnt and applying it to these new contexts, contributing to the birth of the International Style of mid-century architecture. Folding chairs, as well as boldly coloured subway logos, are two quotidian examples of the Bauhaus legacy we may take for granted. Although its social mission for improving the quality of people’s everyday lives may have been more or less unsuccessful – the designs that emerged from the school were conceived for their efficiency and economy in mass production yet evolved into highly sought-after consumerist goods – the Bauhaus’s most important legacy is that of an ever-relevant educational model. Bringing together an international community of teachers and students, to exchange and develop radical ideas in the name of improving contemporary life, remains a potent formula and reminder of education’s world-changing potential.