100 years of Bauhaus, or the myth of German efficiency

There’s a fascinating podcast series called How to F**k Up An Airport. I challenge you to listen to it and not find yourself questioning everything you’d ever thought about the efficiency and orderliness of Germany. After all, Berlin’s new airport was supposed to replace three existing airports, and be a symbol of national pride and the city’s post-reunification resurgence. It is also the airport where, “instead of a working fire safety system, they planned to hire up to 800 people to act as human fire alarms”.

Listen to this tale of woe and you might understand what has gone wrong in planning the 100-year anniversary celebration of Bauhaus.

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Dessau, Germany

Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

It’s not as if Germany hasn’t had a century to prepare for the centenary of the Bauhaus movement. Yet the opportunity to celebrate perhaps the single most influential design, architectural and artistic flourishing of modern times, seems to have caught the nation by surprise. Unless, of course, it was always the plan to launch the anniversary with the major sites of the Bauhaus in a bizarre state of refurbishment, obscured by scaffolding and plastic. If that was the plan, everyone should be very pleased with themselves.

The expected influx of visitors from around the world may be less thrilled. It beggars belief that Dessau, the epicentre of the Bauhaus, where the truest expression of their philosophy can be found, currently has most of its major sights under restoration. That’s before we even get to the new Bauhaus museum that was supposed to be the cherry on top of this year-long celebration. It’s currently scheduled for completion at the end of 2019. Please don’t hold your breath.

The inability to prepare for what should be a year to educate and inform about the influence and impact of Bauhaus on the modern world (spoiler alert, it’s enormous), is all the less forgivable because Dessau is not a town in which you’d voluntarily spend time under normal circumstances. I know this because we spent considerable energy trying to navigate our way through neighbourhoods of former East German brutalist architecture to find far flung examples of Bauhaus designed buildings.

I’ve been a fan of Bauhaus for many years. The beauty of their architectural vision and the philosophy behind it would have been enough to draw me to Dessau. Not to forget that two of the most famous artists of the period – Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky -lived here in one of the famous meisterhaus that are currently obscured by scaffolding. It is a crying shame that the house most associated with the two artists isn’t even open, although you can still go inside the other three.

We went on a tour of the Bauhaus Building, the vocational education centre designed by Walter Gropius, the movement’s founder. The tour was in German but gave us an insight into the functioning of the building. The English language audioguide was excellent, with good information about the history of Bauhaus and its proponents. A radical movement of the Weimar Republic Bauhaus may have been, but their attitude to women was ‘traditional’. The gentler sex were not considered serious artists.

Bauhaus thrived in Dessau throughout the 1920s, but the movement was despised by the Nazi Party. In the early 1930s the Bauhaus came under pressure from the Nazis, and when they were elected to power in Dessau the Bauhaus school was forced to close. The Nazis then redesigned and rebuilt the building. I’d not really appreciated how political Bauhaus was, but there is a fascinating photograph of the building after the Nazis had completed their makeover.

Meisterhaus, Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Meisterhaus, Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus employment office, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus employment office, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus employment office, Dessau, Germany

Bauhaus employment office, Dessau, Germany

Gone are the vast glass windows through which light floods into the interior, replaced by tiny windows that let in very little light. Could there be a more fitting metaphor for National Socialism? Today, the building is fully restored to its 1920s glory, and it’s once again a magnet for design and architecture students. It’s deeply ironic that the national trauma of the First World War gave rise to both the Bauhaus and to National Socialism, two diametrically opposed visions for German society.

*This just in: the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum in Berlin is also closed, not just this year but until 2022. That’s serious anniversay planning gone bad.

9 thoughts on “100 years of Bauhaus, or the myth of German efficiency

  1. Allow me not to follow you on Bauhaus. It seems to me it engendered architectural horrors that are still going on. But that’s all right. Des goûts et des couleurs…
    Bon week-end Paul

  2. Anyone who believes in German efficiency never met my late father. I have never known anyone more disorganised and inefficient than he was. He fitted a bathroom in my old house (a house on three floors) and as the end of every day most of his tools would be distributed around every level of the house and into both the front and back garden, and he could never, ever find what he was looking for. He was much the same in the office he worked in during his years as a travel agent.

    • I remember some beautiful Bauhaus-style houses in Tel Aviv from many years ago, although I didn’t visit the Bauhaus Centre. The post was a bit tounge in cheek, but I was genuinely surprised to find so many of the best examples of Bauhaus architecture undergoing restoration. I’ll visit again later in the year.

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