One of the best ways to appreciate the impact of the Bauhaus School is to wander the streets of Berlin and see the work its members and their contemporaries left behind.
Founded in Weimar in 1919 and ending in Berlin with the rise of National Socialism, the school was open for just fourteen years between two world wars. It was a hothouse for modernism and continues to inform the practice and teaching of design today. This year, Germany marks its centenary with a programme of talks, exhibitions and walking tours.
Today, the ebullient David Varnhold of Art Berlin accompanies me on a journey across the city to seek out Bauhaus treasures. We start at Haus Lewin, a private home in well-heeled Zehlendorf.
Designed by architect Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, for a publisher, it has the unadorned white block form and flat room of a 1960s modernist home. The living areas at the back feature a wall of glass that unites house and garden – a fundamental design principle we now take for granted.
But it’s important to look back in time, David reminds me, and imagine how strange this house must have seemed in 1928 when it landed between the ornate villas of West Berlin, as incongruous as a spaceship.
The Nazis considered the school ‘degenerate’, and to illustrate this point, David leads me down nearby Teschener Weg and into a forest colony of rustic, fairy-tale houses. With their tiny windows, shutters and steep gable roofs, they appear to pre-date the house we’ve just seen by a century. But, in fact, they were built ten years later, to house the Third Reich’s highest-ranking Secret Service officers and their families.
Emerging back onto Argentinische Allee, we pass the vivid green facades and communal gardens of Onkel Tom’s Hutte, a housing estate designed by Bruno Taut in 1926 and named after the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While Taut neither trained nor studied at the school, he was friends with Gropius and shared many of his utopian ideals about the transformative possibilities of design.
The estate was built at a time when Berlin’s population was booming and apartments were severely overcrowded, with little natural light, privacy or outdoor space. Taut’s design provided light-filled, comfortable accommodation, and his signature use of colour was a cost-effective way to enliven impoverished neighbourhoods. Each apartment had its own kitchen and bathroom, rare at the time, and shops, restaurants, and shared gardens were integrated into the plan to build community and ease daily life.
Summarising the impact of the Bauhaus is impossible, but David gives it a good shot as we walk to the train station. “It was about design stripped back to the essentials. Modern materials. Bringing together different art forms, and learning through hands-on workshops rather than theory. Gropius was also inspired by churches, which unite art, architecture and craft in their design, and wanted to do the same with ordinary buildings.”
Our next stop is the Erich Hamann chocolate shop, a rare example of a fully intact Bauhaus interior, designed by the Swiss painter and mystical Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten in 1928. Today, the descendants of Erich Hamann still work here, and its dark chocolate is made onsite, packed in blue-ribboned boxes. With its clean lines and zinc-trimmed timber cabinetry, it showcases the school’s emphasis on uniting artists across disciplines to create something unique and functional.
A few stops away by U-Bahn is the Bauhaus Archive. A sculptural white gallery with a sawtooth roof, it was conceived by Walter Gropius but didn’t open until 1979, a decade after his death. For now, though, like much of Berlin, it’s surrounded by temporary fencing and closed for renovations.
Fortunately, a temporary archive and shop is found at nearby Ernst Reuter Platz, adjacent to German design temple Manufactum.
Here, wall displays offer a concise history of the school, and a portrait gallery of Bauhaus women, such as Lotte Beese, the first woman to study at the school’s building department who went on to become a successful architect, and Lilly Reich, who headed the interior design department and weaving workshop in the school’s final years.
The exhibition also tells of the movement’s untimely end. By 1932 the school had relocated to Dessau, where the local government voted to dissolve it in 1932. Director Mies van der Rohe moved it to a disused telephone factory in Berlin, but in April 1933, Gestapo police surrounded the building and 32 students were arrested.
Mies van der Rohe met with Nazi communications director Alfred Rosenberg, who gave him the opportunity to keep the school running, provided it abandoned modernism and became a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. After consulting with his staff, the school was closed. Mies eventually took his ideas to Chicago while Gropius went to Harvard, seeding Bauhaus ideas in new places.
Modernist design gained traction in Germany with mixed results in the years of rebuilding that followed the war. One place where it was beautifully realised is the heritage-listed Hansaviertal, a residential quarter bordering the Tiergarten, which I visit on another walking tour with Art:Berlin.
Once again, some mental time travel is required. By the end of the war, much of the area’s original Altbau housing had been destroyed. Food was in short supply, the Tiergarten’s trees were stripped for firewood, and people struggled to grow potatoes in the soil.
An international competition was announced by the City of West Berlin to meet the city’s dire need for housing, and to compete with the Soviet architecture rising in nearby Stalinallee. Leading architects were invited to submit designs for more than 1000 new homes.
In 1957 the Interbau exhibition opened, showcasing innovative high-rise apartments by some of the best-known names in mid-century modernism, including Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Oscar Neymeyer and Arne Jacobsen. While Sixties apartment blocks are ubiquitous now, at that time family rooms, private bathrooms and fitted kitchens were a revelation, and fans of mid-century architecture will find much to admire here.
We wander through the communal gardens that link the apartments and towards the Art Academy, a sprawling modernist building that hosts art students and produces its own honey from architect-designed hives. No doubt the Bauhaus founders would approve of such shared bounty.
Seeing the influence of the Bauhaus in Berlin is a journey that tracks much of the city’s recent history, from the creativity and idealism of the 1920s to the devastation of World War Two and the gradual rebuilding that continues today. With its fluid cast of characters and turbulent historical backdrop, its history is not easily summed up. Yet this small German school transformed design, literally for good.
More to the story
International design pilgrims, families, and even Berliners love to stay at Tautes Heim, a two-bedroom house in Bruno Taut’s UNESCO-listed Horseshoe Estate near Neukolln. Sensitively renovated by its owners, the interiors offer a time travel experience back to the emerging modernism of the 1920s, with bright colours and smart, functional furniture, much of it collected by the owners from flea markets and antique shops. In the garden, poppies, roses, sour kirsch and apple trees pay homage to 1920s plant trends. http://www.tautes-heim.de/
This Charlottenburg gallery houses the superb collection of the late Heinz Berggruen, a Berlin-born art dealer. Works by Bauhaus teacher and artist Paul Klee, and many by Picasso, fill this small, beautifully designed gallery.
For architectural walking tours and a full programme of Bauhaus events, see www.artberlin-online.de and https://www.visitberlin.de/en/the-berlin-modernism and the centenary website https://www.bauhaus100.com
First published in The Australian, September 21, 2019