Remembering Bauhaus: a lesson in the art of ‘staying open’

Closed by the Nazis in 1933, the German art school known as Bauhaus went on to become one the world’s most influential architecture and design schools. With plans underway to mark its 100th anniversary in 2019, Philip Kleinfeld looks back at the movement’s history and asks what relevance the Bauhaus still holds today.


If not for the word Bauhaus fixed onto the side in white 3D letters, you’d be forgiven for not realising the grey, glass, steel and concrete masterpiece in the German city of Dessau is The Bauhaus Building itself, designed by the movement’s founder Walter Gropius back in 1925. So influential were Bauhaus ideas at the time, that similar International Style buildings and designs soon cropped in cities all over the world.                                            

For a movement that existed for just 14 years however, the Bauhaus’ reach and reputation as interwar Europe’s most influential art institution remains a remarkable story. Founded in Weimar in 1919 with the goal of combining fine arts, craft and design into one total work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk, the movement faced relentless opposition from the largely conservative city.

“It was because they wanted to be a completely new kind of school,” explains Claudia Perren, director and CEO of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. “There was a big feeling, after the war, that this was a new time and that what was needed was a new message, new views and new perspectives. Everything had to be new.”

'Degenerate art'

When the Nazis won seats in the Thuringian parliament in 1924, the Bauhaus were forced to leave Weimar for the small, east German city of Dessau. There, work began on its famous modern headquarters and the school quickly rose to international prominence, designing many of the products and buildings that still define it nearly 100 years later.

In 1932 the Bauhaus was forced to move again however, after the National Socialists – who viewed the movement as representing a “degenerate”, “Jewish-Marxist conception of art” - took control of Dessau City Council.

“The Bauhaus was not intended to be a Germany school as such,” Perren says. “From the very beginning it was an international school with international teachers and international students. It was open to everyone.”          

"From the very beginning [Bauhaus] was an international school with international teachers and international students."

This time the group – now under the wing of its third director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - moved to Berlin, but its days were numbered. On January 30 1933 Hitler became chancellor and shortly after, on 11 April, the abandoned telephone factory the Bauhaus was using was searched and closed by the police, with 32 students arrested. Around three months later the Bauhaus was formally dissolved.

Far from killing the movement, however, if anything its closure helped disseminate modern architectural theories across the globe, with a large number of Bauhaus teachers and students dispersing to schools outside the country.

“The fact that it was an international school made it much easier for many of them when they had to leave Germany,” says Perren. “They could quickly become part of another school or office.”

Brand Bauhaus

80 years after closing, while its influence is hard to overstate, the question of how the Bauhaus should be remembered is open for debate.

“One has to say Bauhaus has become a brand,” says architect and writer, Philipp Oswalt. “A globally known brand which stands for a certain attitude and style, a kind of black box onto which everything is projected.”                                       

To the average fan, for example, the movement is most likely to conjure up purely aesthetic connotations.

“Anything white clad and cubic,” says Oswalt. “It’s considered to be the name of a style, a period of time in design and architecture, a label for modernism. Obviously this is quite a banal way to look at it.”

"If you look at the objects and architecture that was produced during the Bauhaus they really don't all look the same."

In Dessau, where Perren is based, “there are about 14 Bauhaus buildings and they are all very different in terms of material, composition and functionality”, she says. “If you look at the objects and architecture that was produced during the Bauhaus they really don't all look the same”.

People also tend to link the Bauhaus with socially engaged, politically conscious architecture and design. But again, this has to be questioned, says Oswalt.

“The historic Bauhaus was less socially engaged than people assume today,” he says. “With Hannes Meyer there was a social idea. But others like Wassily Kandinsky didn't have any kind of political interests or any concern about having an impact on society in general.”

When Mies van der Rohe took over as director, his stated remit, according to architecture writer Tom Dyckhoff, “was to bring order and discipline to the movement, and above all to make the Bauhaus apolitical”.  His reluctance to condemn Nazi politics, Dyckhoff adds in an article for the Guardian, “saw him attacked by many of his former Bauhaus colleagues, many of whom, Jewish or leftwing, had left for Britain and the US soon after the Nazis took power.”

Keeping German doors open

Rather than aesthetics and social purpose, for Perren, the Bauhaus should be remembered for the pedagogy it advanced.                                        

“For us at the foundation, looking after the heritage of the Bauhaus, it is very important to stress the fact that it was a school,” she says. “They produced many things we still like today but it was not the intention.”

That pedagogical model remains as relevant as ever, Perren adds. “The idea of collaborating and creating things together is a big thing today be it in architecture, curatorial work or design. The question we should be asking therefore is what type of teaching model we can deploy today to produce things that can still be important in 100 years.”

With elections in Europe raising fears of right-wing populism and Germany particularly divided in the wake of the refugee crisis, perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from the Bauhaus, however, is the importance, says Perren, of “staying open”.

“The Bauhaus was always open and always working internationally,” she says. “This is what I wish for Europe. I think it's wrong to try and go back to a nationalist past.”