What did the Bauhaus do for us?

Words:
Pamela Buxton

There’s a flurry of books, exhibitions and even new buildings to celebrate the centenary of the influential if short-live Bauhaus. But how has it exerted such widespread and long lasting impact?

Woman on club chair B3 by Marcel Breuer, mask by Oskar Schlemmer, dress by Lis Beyer.
Woman on club chair B3 by Marcel Breuer, mask by Oskar Schlemmer, dress by Lis Beyer. Credit: : Erick Consemüller, about 1927/©Klassik Stiftung Weimar/© Stephan Erick Consemüller (Erick Consemüller)

 

This year it will be nigh on impossible to avoid the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. There is something of a centenary industry out there, with books, exhibitions, festivals and museums all offering their particular angle on that most iconic of design schools. Kicked off by a Bauhaus opening festival in January in Berlin, many of these have been gathered together under the Bauhaus100 umbrella of centenary happenings.

Yet how did an institution that lasted for just 14 years, operating from a succession of three different locations in sometimes perilous financial conditions, gain such a lasting reputation? And for all the undoubted greatness of its teachers, how extensive has its influence really been on architecture and design in the UK?

It’s a compelling story at a formative time in the development of modern design. Established by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Bauhaus pioneered a pluralistic educational approach that embraced both applied and fine arts as well as functionalism, and encouraged collaborative, inter-disciplinary working. In addition to admitting significant numbers of women, the progressive school was open to foreign students as well as Germans. It moved to Dessau in 1926 for what was its heyday period but fell foul of local authorities, who forced its closure in 1932. By then headed by Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus had a brief re-incarnation in Berlin before Nazi pressure finally closed it for good in July 1933. Over its duration, its cosmopolitan teaching staff included luminaries such as László Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee and Marcel Breuer.

Closure prompted a number of Bauhaus notables including Gropius to relocate temporarily to London, with a cluster gathering at the Isokon building in Hampstead. Gropius, the subject of a forthcoming biography by Fiona MacCarthy, subsequently moved on to America.

Certainly having a catchy name emblazoned in large letters on its premises did the school’s mythology no harm, according to Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society. Lucia Moholy’s well known photographs of the Gropius-designed school building and students in Dessau presented alluring and memorable images of life at the Bauhaus.

‘Bauhaus presents a very beguiling image, not least because it had to struggle for survival and died in its prime, making it a very compelling narrative,’ she says.

  • Jump above the Bauhaus.
    Jump above the Bauhaus. Credit: T.Lux Feininger, about 1927. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin/© Nachlass T.Lux Feininger
  • Volker Staab’s competition winning design for a new building at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin.
    Volker Staab’s competition winning design for a new building at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. Credit: Prof Volker Staab/© Staab Architekten
  • Model of Bauhaus Museum Weimar. Design by Prof. Heike Hanada with Prof. Benedict Tonon
    Model of Bauhaus Museum Weimar. Design by Prof. Heike Hanada with Prof. Benedict Tonon Credit: Candy Welz/© Klassik Stiftung Weimar
  • Part of the opening festival of Bauhaus100, the Triadic Ballet was a performance of Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer’s costume ballet from 1922. The Ballet was revived in 1977 by Gerhard Bohner with a new production by Bayerisches Staatsballett II in 2014.
    Part of the opening festival of Bauhaus100, the Triadic Ballet was a performance of Bauhaus master Oskar Schlemmer’s costume ballet from 1922. The Ballet was revived in 1977 by Gerhard Bohner with a new production by Bayerisches Staatsballett II in 2014. Credit: Credit Wilfried Hoesl.
  • Winning design for the Bauhaus Museum Dessau, designed by Gonzalez Hinz Zabala, Barcelona, 2016
    Winning design for the Bauhaus Museum Dessau, designed by Gonzalez Hinz Zabala, Barcelona, 2016 Credit: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau
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Interestingly, there was little contemporary recognition in the UK of the Bauhaus, which was but one of many design schools in Germany. According to Alan Powers, author the forthcoming book Bauhaus Goes West about the migration of key figures from the school to Britain and America, little was known of the Bauhaus in the UK until relatively late in its existence, with the first serious article on it not written until 1931.

‘It was really not in the consciousness,’ he says, adding that architecture wasn’t actually taught at the Bauhaus until 1926. ‘The architectural world completely ignored it although it was looking at other forms of modern architecture.’

Interest picked up however around the time of the arrival in London of Gropius in 1934 and László Moholy-Nagy in 1935. Gropius and Moholy-Nagy published their own books on the Bauhaus in 1935 and 1938 respectively and by 1937, architectural historian John Summerson had identified Corbusian and Bauhaus thinking as two different pathways of modernism, says Powers. Greater awareness of the school and its methods grew further, he adds, after the 1938 Bauhaus exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York was widely reviewed.

Although there was never any attempt to set up a Bauhaus-equivalent in the UK, it did have an impact on post-war design, art and architectural education, most notably through its ideas of inter-disciplinary practice. Yet very few ex-Bauhaus ended up teaching in the UK – unlike in the US, where Josef and Anni Albers (Black Mountain College) Gropius (Harvard), Mies (Chicago) and Maholy-Nagy (also Chicago), all taught substantially.

Croft ultimately sees the Bauhaus legacy in the UK as difficult to separate from the wider narrative of the influence of émigré architects and designers from the Continent at the time.

Powers traces the influence of Gropius and the Bauhaus ethos of group working and research to the establishment of practices such as the Design Research Unit and the Architects Co-operative Partnership, and possibly later on to the work of the Hertfordshire schools programme and that of Eric Lyons and Span housing.

‘In some ways English architects carried out his ideas very successfully,’ he says.

In more recent years Bauhaus, while not always fully understood, has nonetheless turned into something of a cultural industry, says Powers.

New Bauhaus museum buildings are under way in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin and a host of exhibitions are planned all over Germany and beyond this year, tracing the influence of the progressive design school and its protagonists.‘It’s totally a brand, and that’s propelled it ever since,’ he says.


Find out more about the Bauhaus centenary


Bauhaus bonanza – our pick of the Bauhaus centenary books

Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber & Faber (published 7 March 2019). Explores the colourful life of the charismatic Bauhaus founder and his huge contribution to 20th century architecture and design.

Bauhaus Goes West by Alan Powers, Thames and Hudson (published 28 February 2019. Examines what happened to key Bauhaus protagonists in the UK and the US after the demise of the famous school, and re-evaluates the influence of Bauhaus values on modern art and design in Britain.

Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain by Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, Batsford (published 7 Mar 2019). The story of the modernist Hampstead apartment block, home to a cluster of artists, writers and thinkers including Bauhaus exiles Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy.

 

Exhibitions

Netherlands Bauhaus, 9 February– 26 May 2019, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Explores interactions between the Netherlands and the Bauhaus and the role of various Dutch artists in the formation of the school’s character.

Design for Life – Bauhaus Design in the GDR, 7 April 2019 – 5 January 2020, Documentation Center for Everyday Culture of the GDR, Eisenhüttenstadt. Exhibition on how political developments influenced changing attitudes to the Bauhaus in the GDR.

Oskar Schlemmer – The Bauhaus and the Path to Modernity, 28 April – 28 July 2019, Ducal Museum in Gotha. First exhibition in Germany dedicated to the cross-disciplinary artist, who was Master of Form at the Bauhaus theatre workshop.

 

Buildings

Bauhaus Museum Weimar Located at the site of the Weimar State Bauhaus, the new building is designed by Heike Hanada with Benedict Tonon. Contents focus on the earliest phase of the influential design school, opening with the exhibition The Bauhaus comes from Weimar. Opens 6 April 2019.

Bauhaus Museum Dessau. Designed by Gonzalez Hinz Zabala at the Bauhaus school building in Dessau, the new museum will house its historic collection as well as contemporary and temporary collections. Opens 8 September 2019.

Bauhaus-Archiv The Berlin museum is expanding with the ongoing renovation of its existing Gropius-designed building for archive use and the addition of a five-storey new museum building designed by Volker Staab of Staab Architekten.