Hannes Meyer, Marxist and modernist (1889-1954)

by Claude Schnaidt

Image: Cover to Claude Schnaidt’s
biographical essay Hannes Meyer (1964)

Hannes Meyer died ten years ago. The publication of his work is both too early and too late. Too late because there is reason to believe that the course of modern architectural history has been changed, although it is hard to say how much, by ignorance of this work. Certain misconceptions concerning the movements and events with which he was associated might have been avoided if his work had been accessible at an earlier date. These debatable interpretations of the recent past are partly responsible for the present confusion in the minds of a whole generation of architects. Today architecture is venturing along dangerous paths from which it might have held back if the real intentions of preceding generations had been better understood. People talk, for example, of the misdeeds of functionalism and prepare to write it off without really knowing what it was. Too late, again, because the lapse of time has made Hannes Meyer a legendary figure. His is the legend of an accursed architect which must now be divested of its fictitious elements to uncover the real man concealed beneath. But this book on Hannes Meyer is also too early. The passions stirred up by the man and his work are still a long way from being quelled. There are still too many people with a stake in misrepresenting the truth. Yet, in order to establish the historical truth, we still lack many of the elements that time alone can supply.

Why, it will be asked, has the work of Hannes Meyer been misunderstood for so long? There are a number of reasons. First of all, Meyer himself was too engrossed in his daily tasks to be troubled with the preparation of a book on his works. It is also likely that such an intention was alien to his cast of mind; he was too much imbued with the idea of collective work to want to parade his own originality. And if in the last years of his life he did think of turning his enforced leisure to account by preparing a book, ill health prevented him from putting this plan into effect. Moreover, the very character of his work is ill fitted for publication. A substantial portion of it is made up of organizational measures or of research, analyses and reports prepared by a team and stored away in many instances in archives in Germany, the USSR or Mexico. But if Meyer is little or imperfectly known, this is due more particularly to the conspiracy of silence organized by all those who felt threatened by his revolutionary opinions and zest. There is also the indifference due to a failure to understand ideas transcending the conventional. If Meyer had spoken a little more often about art and a little less about politics, if he had merely indulged in reassuring generalities instead of impugning an economic system, if he had built luxury villas instead of co-operative housing estates, he would probably have been entitled to more honors than he has received. Meyer did not share the overweening ambition of his contemporaries. He did not believe that society could be changed merely by changing its architecture and its town-planning. He opposed this idealist dream and made a deliberate attempt to adapt his work to the living reality of the world. That is why there is something disconcerting about Meyer’s work at first sight: it is based on very strict principles but assumes a great variety of forms of expression.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit: Architektur- und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919 - 1927.

Hannes Meyer, Dokumente zur Frühzeit:
Architektur und Gestaltungsversuche, 1919-27

Whether belated or, in certain respects, premature, it may be hoped that the publication of Hannes Meyer’s work will shed light on some matters of topical interest, more particularly the debate on the status and role of the architect in an industrial civilization, the controversy raging around functionalism, the reassessment of the heritage of the Bauhaus, and the crisis in the teaching of architecture. On all these outstanding questions Meyer, either implicitly or explicitly, took up a position which was original and singularly clear-sighted. Generally speaking, however, it is the general situation of architecture which underlines the topicality of Meyer’s work. Modern architects are no longer able to cope with the demands which they have helped to create. The aims and methods of architecture are due for a radical reappraisal and for this a return to the sources seems increasingly necessary.

The architect and urbanist

Meyer was one of the generation that created the “new building.” He was born in 1889. It was in the year when Eiffel was building his tower, Contamin and Dutert were constructing the machinery hall of the Paris exhibition and Camillo Sitte was publishing “Town Planning.” He died in 1954, the year in which modern western architects were embroiled in serious disagreements that were to bring about the rapid dissolution of CIAM, and the year of the Moscow Building Conference, which was to set a new line for architecture in the socialist countries. Which is to say that Meyer lived in the most fertile and also the most dramatic period in the whole history of architecture. Because he fought in the thick of the battles of this time with a rare vigor, tenacity, and consistency, he knew more solid successes but also more bitter disappointments than many of the architects of his generation.

Future Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer as a student, in 1913

Future Bauhaus director Hannes
Meyer as a student, in 1913

Born into a family whose members had been architects for generations, Meyer set about training for his career in a purposeful and highly individual way.

In the Basle orphanage where I lived from the age of nine to fourteen I had to work hard for long hours as a joiner’s apprentice when I was out of school. On Sunday I used to copy Hans Holbein’s designs for goldsmiths and in this way trained my sense of form. I am sure that Holbein’s Renaissance found a boyish and ingenuous echo in the way in which I fitted the Biedermeier chests of drawers in vogue at the time with decorative veneers. From fifteen to eighteen I worked as a stone mason during the day. In the evening I attended classes at the technical school and at night and on Sundays I worked without intermission copying Viollet-le-Duc’s work on the Gothic castle of Pierrefonds. I also made some 40 drawings of freestone details at Notre-Dame in Paris. I am quite sure that my daily work as a stone mason benefited from my nightly grappling with the great Gothic architects because in this way I formed a sense of my own identity.[1]

All the same, copying the great works of the past did not leave young Meyer indifferent to the problems of his time. His apprenticeship as a mason amongst seasonal workers from Italy had opened his eyes to the needs and the aspirations of the working class. The vast industrial expansion of the second half of the 19th century had given rise to urban concentrations such as had never before been seen in history. The result had been that living conditions in the towns had deteriorated with consequences of ever increasing gravity. It was abundantly clear that if man was to live in suitable housing the environment of which he had to form an integral part must be a focus of attention, and that architecture would have to be rethought in terms of town-planning. It was for this reason that Meyer went at the age of 20 to work in Berlin, where he could attend courses on town-planning. He became closely associated with Adolf Damaschke (Bund Deutscher Bodenreformer) and Johann Friedrich Schär (Freilandbewegung). Meyer learnt that town-planning was no longer dominated by a concern with its aesthetic, landscape or monumental aspects but by economic, social, political and legal factors. At this period modern town-planning was coming very much to the forefront, especially in England. Ebenezer Howard had published Tomorrow in 1898, a year later the “Garden City Association” was formed in London, and Patrick Geddes brought out his “City Development” in 1904. Between 1912 and 1913 Meyer went to study the garden cities of Letchworth, Bourneville, and Port Sunlight on the spot. He studied the co-operative movement in London and Birmingham. Meyer was 25 at the outbreak of World War I. His training as an architect and town-planner was complete. He had already arrived at a conviction that was to guide him in thought and deed throughout his life: architecture and town-planning had become social problems. The modern architect and town-planner had no longer to gratify the wishes of a few privileged people but to satisfy the needs of the masses; they could no longer confine themselves to their work as technicians but had to play their part in establishing social relations better fitted to an industrial civilization.

Hannes Meyer and Georg Metzendorf, housing estates 1916

Hannes Meyer and Georg Metzendorf, housing estates 1916

Meyer acquired his first garden city experience in Germany at the end of World War I, For two years he worked at Essen in Krupp’s welfare office, which at that time was busy building housing estates on a scale unprecedented on the continent. The paternalism and pseudo-romantic conception of these housing schemes, which were intended to perpetuate the petit bourgeois way of life, left Meyer dissatisfied. A year later, however, the Swiss Co-operative Union gave him a chance to design and build an estate matching up to his own ideas: Freidorf near Basle, the first full-scale co-operative in Switzerland. Meyer did not confine himself to drawing up the plans and superintending the building work. In close collaboration with the originator, Dr. Bernhard Jaggi, he also had a hand in settling all the questions raised by the co-operative life of the estate dwellers: collective ownership of the houses and land; inheritable tenancies; co-determination by assigning all adults to seven working groups for education, management, safety, finance, health, maintenance and entertainment; self-administration of the estate by the co-operators themselves on a voluntary basis; obligation to help in carrying out communal works without pay; joint purchase of all articles to cover the daily requirements of the estate dwellers; co-operative arrangements for life insurance, savings and current money for all members; primary education in the estate’s own eight-storey school; continuation classes in the co-operative seminar. At first sight there may appear to be a contradiction between the progressive social policy of Freidorf and the uncompromisingly classicistic character of its architecture. Meyer has clearly explained how the principles of his composition were derived:

At the age of 27, when I was engaged on large-scale housing schemes for a big German industrial concern, I used my free time to draw all Palladio’s plans on thirty standard sheets of paper (size 420/594) in a common scale. This work on Palladio prompted me to design my first housing scheme, the Freidorf estate (built 1919-1921), on the modular system of an architectural order. By means of this system all the external spaces (squares, streets, gardens) and all public internal spaces (school, restaurant, shop, meeting rooms) were laid out in an artistic pattern which would be perceived by those living there as the spatial harmony of proportion.[2]

In seeking the architectural idiom and town-planning lay-out for Freidorf, Meyer was inspired by Carouge, a small town built near Geneva between 1775 and 1790 by Italian architects working for the kings of Sardinia. This return to the forms of the 18th century was not only an idiosyncrasy of Meyer’s but seems to have been favored by a number of young architects at the time. It was the first reaction of a young generation enamored of order and clarity after the chaotic forms of the 19th century. Meyer was soon pressing beyond this position.

Co-op shop window by Hannes Meyer, 1923-1926

Co-op shop window by Hannes Meyer, 1923-1926

During the years following World War I a strong wind of revolution blew through Europe. Everywhere the social fabric was shaken by the workers, who had made the greatest sacrifices during the recent hostilities. The first great modern technical inventions were making their impact on everyday life. Life was undergoing tangible and visible changes. In a few years a new world came into being. This upheaval gave birth to a new idea: art itself must be creation, it must be liberated from the rules of imitation which had been accepted for centuries. A new aesthetic based on the forms deriving from pure technical utility was gaining acceptance all over the world, an aesthetic of reduction to essentials and geometric rigor, both liberating and seductive. Between 1923 and 1926 Meyer played an active part in bringing about these decisive changes. While working on some architectural and town-planning assignments of minor importance, he carried out a whole series of works for the co-operatives which allowed him to explore the new means of expression. In the “Co-op Show Window” he studied the tensions of modern materials and packs and the essential nature of standardized objects. In photographic constructions, “Co-op Photos”, he came to grips with the visible world around him. In a series of “Co-op Lino Cuts” he tried to elicit the laws to which the new graphic art conformed. With the “Co-op Theatre” of the First International Co-operative Exhibition at Ghent he learnt with Jean Bard to “stir men’s souls by the spectacle of bodies, light, color, sound, and movement.” During these years of astonishing activity, Meyer traveled through Europe, alertly observing the new world that was taking shape. He made contact with Le Corbusier, with the Stijl group, and with the Scandinavian co-operative movements. He edited several special numbers on the new cultural forms of expression for Swiss magazines. Following upon a six-month stay in Belgium for the Co-op Theater performances, he organized an exhibition of modern Belgian art for the Kunsthalle in Basle. In 1926 he summed up this period of intensive preoccupation with the new reality in his essay “The New World.”

This masterly glorification of modernism, which served at the same time as the manifesto of the “new building”, is a surprising mixture of the lyrical and the baldly factual, of schematism and realism, of illusion and shrewdness. To appreciate the full significance of this text, it is necessary to situate it in the period when it was written. Generally speaking, it must be remembered that no young architect determined to escape from the dead-end of academicism could possibly maintain an attitude of critical non-committalism or anxious reflection at this time. In 1926 one was for modernism and accepted it without reserve or one was against it. Time was getting short. Meyer was 37 years old. He knew that he would achieve nothing unless he discarded the masters of architecture he had idolized. The frailest link with the past would be enough to sap his strength. Like every architect of his age, he needed to cut away from his antecedents and, to achieve that end, any means would serve. In 1926 capitalism was regaining its stability after being seriously shaken by the war and the Russian revolution. The new steel, cement, glass, roofing felt and sanitary equipment industries were concentrated in the hands of large trusts and were launching a ruthless campaign to seize the markets of the suppliers and craftsmen in the traditional building trade. The workers were organizing themselves and, through the trade unions, co-operatives, and communes, placing orders for housing estates and social institutions. The economic trend called for the building of new factories and new commercial and administrative blocks. In the home labor-saving devices were to help to offset the rapid disappearance of domestic staff and satisfy the demand for comfort which had come about as a result of the higher pressure at which the men were expected to work. Whereas the house had previously been restricted to the passive role of providing shelter against the external elements, it was thenceforth to serve the occupant. It became active and more like a machine. In view of the wide scope of the tasks to be performed and the need to reduce building costs, the possibility was being explored of applying the mass production methods of industry to building.

Hannes Meyer, co-op theater (1923)

Hannes Meyer, co-op theater (1923)

But the introduction of new materials and building processes and the satisfaction of new needs clashed with the forms inherited from the past. These forms persisted with tenacity, for they provided the background necessary for maintaining the privileges of the conservative and decadent elements of society. They were borrowed from the architecture of the “great” periods for the purpose of denoting a person’s rank, of making a group stand out from the ruck, and of accentuating the hierarchy of a society. This ideological power of architecture, which was potent enough to obstruct technical development and stultify the practical usefulness of a building, was the main obstacle to be overcome. To open the path of progress what had to be rediscovered at all costs was the original, technical and economic function of architecture. Anything that was not immediately and indisputably of use to the work had to be eliminated. Neue Sachlichkeit was to oust subjectivity, and the rational take the place of the arbitrary. Form was no longer aprioristic but took its rise from function — visible, measurable and ponderable function — and from the materials and manufacturing processes. If these principles bear a remarkable resemblance to the rules propounded by Labrouste, Viollet-le-Duc, Sullivan, or Loos, they nevertheless differ from them radically in that they are no longer merely platonic formulae but in 1926 formed the basis for a real line of action.

The young architects found that the truth of their theses was borne out by the triumphant spread of new mechanical inventions. In the steamship, aircraft, motor car, radio aerial and the office furniture of 1926, each component was adapted to manufacturing conditions and assembled in such a manner as to give reliable service. These products were intended to fulfill practical requirements which were precisely defined and, with a view to this end, their forms were designed so as to allow the highest possible output. “All these things are a product of the formula: function times economics” proclaimed Meyer in “The New World.” And the effectiveness of this formula, the enormous technical progress it brought, and the victory of man over nature and the collective over the individual which it promised, persuaded him to apply it to architecture. Thus the architect was no longer distinguishable from the engineer except in the tasks he performed. His work was pure construction. It had been deprived of its formidable ideological power. It was no longer part of the world of art. Architecture in its previous sense had ceased to be. At least that was what Meyer thought in 1926.

Was he right or wrong? Although the question is justified today because of the reviving controversy round functionalism, it seems rhetorical to a degree when seen in the historical context of the twenties. To throw off the stultifying influence of academicism it was imperative at all costs to rediscover the primordial aims of architecture, to set solid realities — functions of use — polemically against subjective speculations — functions of representation, imperative to reaffirm a forgotten truth: a building is the object of material production, imperative to rise to the level of engineers so as to share with them in building the modern world. The tremendously fruitful renewal of the human environment which followed when functionalist ideas were put into action showed that they were a true instrument of progress. The functionalists were indeed partly successful in creating an architecture which provided the best conditions for human development by satisfying material needs with the aid of modern technology. Their achievements are still evidence of this today. If history has shown that Meyer was right in insisting on the primary importance of practical functions in the design study of a project and in his “scientization of architecture”, it has shown him to be wrong as regards ideological expression. Actually it was soon realized, and Meyer was one of the first to see this, that functionalism was not the spontaneous product of the principles of technology but the ideological expression of those principles. In architecture the adaptation of form to function does indeed depend on the precise data supplied by the sciences and technology, but it also depends on how man conceives this function should be carried out. When Meyer said “individual form, building mass, material color and surface texture come about automatically”, he was not speaking the full truth, for, in point of fact, the forms the architect invents are not a passive expression of man’s requirements and the demands of material but rather direct human activities along new and more appropriate lines and suggest the possibilities opened up by industrial civilization. Like all functionalists, he wanted to express and demonstrate the clarity, truth and beauty of the modern world. Thus, without wishing to, Meyer worked out a functionalist aesthetic.

Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer's proposal for St. Peter's School in Basel (1926)

Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer’s proposal
for St. Peter’s School in Basel (1926)

The year in which “The New World” appeared also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Meyer and Hans Wittwer, who was born in Basle in 1894 and obtained his diploma in 1916 at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Their first joint design was for St. Peter’s School in Basle and it faithfully reflects the philosophy of building set forth in “The New World.” The spatial organization of the building was determined primarily by the need to make use of the available space and to obtain sunshine and ventilation. Classrooms, school bath, toilets, staircase and playground are of simple design and articulated so as to form an integrated unit. The size of the windows was decided after careful calculation of the intensity of illumination. New building materials of high quality enhance the ability of the building to perform its task. But for the perfect example of Meyer and Wittwer’s scientization of building we must look at their design for the League of Nations building. In April 1926 the League of Nations held an international competition for the erection of its permanent headquarters in Geneva. By the closing date in January 1927, 377 designs from all over the world had been received. The young generation of architects believed that the new spirit animating the League and the building program it had established would afford them an opportunity of triumphantly imposing their idea of architecture. Unfortunately things turned out differently. As the nine members of the jury were unable to agree they each awarded a prize. This legally unwarrantable compromise led to the appointment of a committee of five diplomats who, under pressure from the “old guard,” finally decided to adopt an academic design. Meyer and Wittwer obtained one of the nine third prizes for their design. Rarely have the principles of the “new building” been illustrated with such single-mindedness and such perfection as in this work. Each element is shaped purely and simply by the conditions of its use and construction. It is located there in its precise position so as to function effectively without clash or jar. The materials, the dimensions of the spaces, and the internal traffic system were all selected with a view to achieving the utmost saving of money, energy and time. Just as the program was broken down into constituent parts, so the structural composition was divided into juxtaposed planes and volumes. Restrained only by the dictates of function and cost, lengths, widths and heights unfold in all directions within a planning grid which ensures the structural continuity of the whole. It is interesting to find that the logic of Meyer and Wittwer’s design has been confirmed by the subsequent construction of buildings of similar design. Twenty years later the architects of the UNO building in New York were to adopt a solution based on an analogous principle.

It is common knowledge that the scandal of this competition, with Le Corbusier as its chief victim, led indirectly to the formation of the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM). The defeat inflicted on the progressive architects prompted them to unite with a view to “defining the present problems of architecture, reformulating the idea of modern architecture, spreading this idea in the technical, economic and social departments of modern life, and keeping a careful watch over the solutions of architectural problems.”[3] Hannes Meyer took an active part in the preparatory Congress (CIAM 1), which was held at La Sarraz castle in Switzerland between June 25 and 29, 1928. Together with 22 leading European architects he drew up and signed the official manifesto which was to lay the foundation for a doctrine of modern architecture.

Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer's proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland (1927). Isometric view.

Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer’s League of
Nations building design (1927). Isometric view.

At the beginning of this document, which is divided into four parts, the signatories established their unanimity of outlook as regards architecture and their professional obligations. They wanted to satisfy the material and spiritual demands of their age and situate architecture once again in its true economic and social context. In the first part, devoted to general economic efficiency, it is stressed that the idea of economic efficiency should be understood not in its business and speculative sense but in its technical and productive sense. The logical consequences of the economically most efficient production are rationalization and standardization. It is absolutely imperative that the architect, the building trade and the user should bear this in mind in carrying out their tasks. The organization of production on an industrial scale called for a realignment of the building laws. The second part deals with town and country planning. It is recalled that town planning is the organization of all the functions of collective life in town and country and that it can never be determined by aesthetic considerations. The basic functions in town planning are residence, work and recreation. The means by which these functions are fulfilled are the distribution of land, traffic management and legislation. The ratio between the areas assigned to the various functions should be determined by the density of population decided upon by the town and country planners. The chaotic fragmentation of the land by purchase, speculation and inheritance was to be countered by a planned collective land policy. Traffic management was to be constantly checked against statistics and legislation had to be radically altered. In the third part of the document, entitled Architecture and Public Opinion, attention is drawn to the necessity of a two-way flow of information between architects and users so as to obtain a clear picture of housing problems. Finally in the fourth part, devoted to Architecture and its Relationship to the State, the signatories voice their opinion that the state academies and universities, because of the aesthetic and formalistic bias of their methods, were neglecting the most urgent tasks of town-planning and economics and were thus holding up social progress. For this reason it was essential to give the methods of teaching architecture a thorough overhaul. And then regulations which tended in any way to exert an aesthetic and formal influence on building must be fought because they are an impediment to rational and economic building. Moreover, the necessary and deliberate enlistment of the architect in the production process renders superfluous any state protection for his title.

At the time of the declaration of La Sarraz, Meyer was director of the Bauhaus at Dessau. This school, which Gropius founded just after World War I, was at that time the only one in Western Europe to have broken completely with academic methods of teaching. It had appointed Meyer as master of architecture in 1927. A year later Gropius handed his post as director to Meyer. In 1928 the Bauhaus was in a critical phase of its development. The incompatibility between its liberal and humanist conception of industrial civilization and the commercialism of bourgeois society had, on the one hand, converted its search for contemporary design into aestheticism and, on the other, stirred reactionary circles into aggressive violence. Essentially it was Meyer’s task at the Bauhaus, to which we shall revert in detail below, to fight this double threat with courage. His efforts were cut short by a fresh irruption of conservative forces into the school.

The Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne upon its foundation at La Sarraz, 1928

The Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne
upon its foundation at La Sarraz, 1928

In his manifesto “bauen,” which was published in the bauhaus magazine in 1928, he had set forth the conception of architecture upon which his teaching was based, “bauen” took up again the theses of “The New World” but substantially widened their scope. The sentence “building is a technical process” is replaced, for example, by “building is a biological process.” From this point onwards the idea of function takes on a number of aspects: building is social, technical, economic and psychic organization. The first signs of a functionalist formalism prompted Meyer to declare: “What is modern about this estate is not the flat roof and vertical-horizontal division of the facade but its direct relationship with human existence.” The works carried out by Meyer in collaboration with the students of the Bauhaus, viz. the Törten estate at Dessau, the Federal School of the German Trade Unions Federation at Bernau, and the Worker’s Bank in Berlin are perfect illustrations of this logical interpretation of functionalism.

The Federal School of the GTUF at Bernau was the first large-scale work in which Meyer gave effect to ideas of “new building.” It was also a great success which subsequently inspired a number of architects. In 1927 the German Trade Unions Federation had decided to build a school at Bernau near Berlin for the further education of its members. The Board of the GTUF had declared that the building would have to be an outstanding example of modern architecture. It was not simply a question of building an exemplary school but also of familiarizing the worker who was to study there with up-to-date standards in building. Six architects — Max Berg, Alois Klement, Willy Ludewig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes Meyer and Max Taut — were invited to take part in a competition with a restricted entry. The jury comprised Theodor Leipart, chairman of the executive council of the Federation, Otto Hessler, the educational secretary of GTUF, the architects Heinrich Tessenow and Martin Wagner, and Dr. Adolf Behne. Meyer’s design was awarded the first prize and the building was commissioned. No major changes were required by the owner except that the proposed skeleton and assembly system of building should be discarded. The school at Bernau is the perfect refutation of those fatuous allegations that the functionalists dehumanize architecture. The layout of the plan is not a merely mechanical response to the requirements of the program but deliberately gives direction to the activities of the users and the structure of the community. Meyer sets out to obtain a maximum effect on those attending the courses during the short time they are there (1-2 months). He succeeds by adopting the “small circle system” evolved by V.A. Huber and K. Munding in their social education. He thus divides the 120 pupils provided for in the program into 12 working groups and these give the clue to the educational and architectural organization. Following the contours of the site, the maximum exposure to sunshine and the direction of the wind, the building elements for these groups unfold in a fluid arrangement. Form and material are handled with the same unconstraint. The building stands there naturally and inevitably, devoid of all showiness and aprioristic modernity.

Hannes Meyer around the time he became second direct of the Bauhaus

Hannes Meyer around the time he
became second rector at Bauhaus

How did Meyer set about his designs? He replied to this question in an article published a few years after the construction of the Bernau school:

1. I never design alone. All my designs have arisen from the very start out of collaboration with others. That is why I consider the choosing of suitable associates to be the most important act in preparing for a creative work in architecture. The more contrasted the abilities of the individual members of a designing brigade, the greater its capabilities and creative power…

2. My designing work is continually analytical. At the beginning of my architectural career I found that the sketches embodying the flights of my architectural imagination as it was at that time were a stumbling block when I was designing. Today I try to approach the design — and induce my associates to approach it — entirely without any prepossessions or preconceived ideas. My preliminary sketches consist of innumerable analyses in diagram form drawn on the smallest possible scale on a standard pad of squared paper.

Whenever possible the designing brigade should seize the opportunity of putting together the detailed building program themselves since it provides a good chance to make a joint analysis of the problem facing them. At all events the analysis must cover three areas:

a) techno-economic elements
b) politico-economic elements
c) psycho-artistic elements[4]

This analysis of the building program must be carried out scientifically and systematically, for it is the ultimate basis of the design. For this reason I always have its results graphically represented in the organization diagrams. The project then takes shape as brigade work in four stages: Stage 1: Diagrammatic representation of the building program in which spaces of a similar kind are grouped together and the analytic features indicated (usually on a scale of 1 : 500 or 1 : 1000).

Stage 2: Standardization of all spaces of the same kind and laying down of standard types for all vitally important individual spaces (scale 1 : 100 or 1 : 200) in the process of which the results of the overall analysis are collated.

Stage 3: Diagrammatic plan of the entire building program on a uniform scale (usually 1 : 500) showing the organization and the most appropriate grouping of spaces and the connections between them. This plan also embodies the results of bringing spaces into conformity with a type and shows in graphic form the requirements of a techno-economic, politico-economic and psycho-economic nature. Stage 4: Working out of the draft of the building with all economic, technical and architectural factors. The building organization plan is strictly observed. The draft plan is drawn on the smallest possible scale and in a tersely standardized form.

I also make an analysis of the building site independently of that of the building program. My first visits to future building sites are among the most memorable events of my professional career.

The plants, living creatures and minerals I find there usually tell me more about the characteristics of a place than the people accompanying me. Geobotanic studies are a personal hobby of mine and I never leave a building site without a botanic cross-section in my pocket, for plants are a clear pointer to the subsoil and the conditions of life on any part of the earth’s crust.

3. I prefer the standardized drawing. For this reason it is no trouble at all to me to represent a draft building plan in graphic form. Since 1916 I have had all the plans made under my supervision drawn according to the regulations of the DIN (German Industrial Standards) or the OCT (Soviet Standards). Wherever possible I also use their standard sizes of paper, their standard lettering, standard division of the drawing into parts and standard notations in line and color. The standardized drawing is part of the elementary equipment of any architect. It is easily understood by anybody and makes rational use of paper, drawing material and labor. It simplifies filing and makes comparison of different drawings easier. F. Auerbach’s Physik in grafischen Darstellungen, which presents its ideas in concise standardized drawings, is a favorite book of mine.

I prefer the concisest possible representation of building plans on a few sheets of paper of the smallest practical size. The project for the famous GTUF school at Bernau was drawn on only four standard sheets (841 x 1189 mm) on a scale of 1 : 200 but all the details were shown with an accuracy such as one normally finds on a scale of 1 : 100. This design is proof that a standardized drawing can produce a lively and artistic effect.

As a rule I use an axonometric aerial view to render a design for a building as a general plan. All parts are drawn to scale and the view shows how all the elements of the building are spatially arranged in measurable dimensions. Errors of judgment in the arrangement of the buildings are shown up mercilessly. It seems important to me that designs for buildings should be represented as realistically as possible so that they will be immediately understandable to any member of the public. For this reason I prefer a rendering of the design to be inserted into photographic enlargements of the site so that its effect in the general scene of a street or square can be judged…[5]

Between 1927 and 1930 the internal situation in the Bauhaus, the Nazi menace, and the crises materializing in the capitalistic world economic system induced Meyer to give his social commitment a definite political direction. Progressively he came to see in Marxism the only doctrine capable of understanding the problems of the modern world and solving them rationally. Immediately after his dismissal without notice from the Bauhaus in 1930, Meyer stated categorically at an interview: “I am going to work in the USSR where a truly proletarian culture is being hammered out, where socialism originates and where the society exists for which we have fought here under capitalism.”[6]

Hannes Meyer, photographed shortly after he arrived in the Soviet Union (1930)

Hannes Meyer, photographed shortly after
he arrived in the Soviet Union (1930)

At that time the USSR was in the throes of putting its first five-year plan into effect. The country had been transformed into a huge work-yard and the government had called in thousands of foreign specialists to help to achieve its industrial building program. In October 1930 two Pullman coaches full of Western architects and town-planners arrived in the USSR. During his first year in Moscow Meyer worked as the chief architect of the building trust for secondary and technical schools (GIPROVTUS) and as a consultant in national institutes for town planning (GIPROGOR). He also taught at the university of architecture (VASI). These large Russian design organizations were at that time an important innovation in architectural practice. They employed staffs running into hundreds or even thousands, divided into workshops with a considerable degree of autonomy. Each workshop comprised several brigades under the supervision of a chief architect. These work brigades took on a design job as a joint assignment and were accordingly made up of the necessary draughtsmen, technicians, economists, engineers and architects. Collective work on these lines enabled the various phases of a building scheme to be organically and rationally regulated and combined and creative activity in the architectural sphere to be assimilated to that in other branches of industry. It was a step towards the scientization of architecture which Meyer had been advocating since 1926.

However, the introduction of foreign specialists into the actual conditions prevailing in Russia was not free from hitches and snags. During the first ten years of its existence the Soviet government had had no definite building policy. The first phase had consisted in a more or less even distribution of available housing among the population. A second phase had encouraged building by every available means but quite unsystematically. The first five-year plan (1928-1932), which gave greater precision to the general directives for the industrialization of the country, tackled the building problem in an entirely different way. Building was dovetailed into the general production program and from that time onwards became dependent on the general development of the country. With its main emphasis on the manufacture of producer goods and the equipment of heavy industry, the plan made provision for the large-scale construction of factories and the extension of plant already in existence. As a result it became necessary to plan a large number of industrial buildings and housing for the workers. On the other hand agriculture was to be collectivized and this called for an equally strenuous effort to erect farm buildings. The task facing the architects was prodigious: the five-year plan envisaged the foundation of 120 new towns. The concrete materialization of these plans ran up against the most formidable difficulties. In an essay on Soviet architects Meyer relates that there was virtually no building industry at all, and as one developed, its materials had to be earmarked almost entirely for civil engineering and industrial building. There was a serious shortage of cement, reinforcements, glass, hardware and builder’s equipment. Nails and screws were worth their weight in gold. Moreover, although manpower was abundant, there were no skilled workmen at all. To overcome these difficulties the government began to encourage a return to traditional building systems with timber and bricks from 1931 onwards. Together with the paucity of materials went a lack of financial resources. Building societies were started in order to encourage the population to take a direct share in the construction of housing. In order to cajole money out of the private citizen’s pocket it was necessary not to shock old-established customs. It was for this reason that the authorities insisted that the national traditions should be respected. Furthermore, the people were clamoring increasingly for the erection of public buildings which should be just as showy and ornate as those that had been put up by the previous ruling classes. A new regulation laid down that the building authorities should not recommend the acceptance of any architectural design for actual construction without producing the minutes of the meetings at which the workers, peasants and intellectuals had expressed their opinions of the project. “The people are also entitled to pillars” was the very ambiguous slogan that was brought out.

All these conditions were markedly at variance with the ideas of architecture that had developed in the USSR during the twenties. Actually the young Russian architects had defended the ideas of the “new building” even more radically than their colleagues in the West. They had originated two particular trends in modern architecture: symbolism and constructivism. Their enthusiastic projects based on the most modern technology and on the extremist principles of the Proletkult (short for proletarian culture) had a most unrealistic look when seen against the conditions under which the five-year plan was being carried into effect. About 1930 it began to be said that constructivism was a thing of the past, and the various architectural organizations came into headlong collision over formalism.

Hannes Meyer in the USSR

Meyer had joined the Pan-Russian Society of Proletarian Architects (VOPRA). This organization, formed in 1929, pressed the claims of the orthodox Marxist interpretation of architecture as the only true creed and waged embittered war on two other associations, ASNOVA and SASS, which represented the two main trends of Soviet architecture in the twenties. ASNOVA (Association of New Architects) represented the symbolist doctrine which sought the prefiguration of function in the form. The architects of this persuasion granted form a certain autonomy and insisted on its psychological and ideological power. They saw their task as a deliberate artistic shaping of space. SASS (Section of Architects of Socialist Building) represented the constructivist and functionalist line of thought, which held that form was the automatic result of function and construction. Its members denied that form had any independent existence and refused to handle it with any emotive intent. They discarded art and aesthetics and wanted to tackle a building assignment purely as a job of engineering. As for VOPRA, to which Meyer belonged, it regarded form as the expression of content and gave the idea of content a broad and mobile meaning which included the  material and spiritual aspects of architecture. Their program was to turn art systematically into a means of educating the proletarian class consciousness. The architects of VOPRA criticized the ambers of ASNOVA for basing the psychological and ideological power of form on what were claimed to be the absolute laws of visual perception. Moreover, they accused their SASS colleagues of depriving architecture of its suggestive power over the masses. Nevertheless, a text written by Meyer in 1931 but never published suggests that there were also disagreements within these organizations. It propounds thirteen principles of “Marxist architecture”[7] most of which were at variance with the opinions of the heads of VOPRA who, for their part, went in for the most pompous kind of monumentalism:

1. Architecture is no longer the art of building. Building has become a science. Architecture is building science.

2. Building is not a matter of feeling but of knowing. Hence building is not an act of composition dictated by feeling. Building is an act of premeditated organization.

3. The architect is the organizer of the building sciences. He is not himself a scientist in the strict sense of the word.

4. Since building is a process of organization, the strictly scientific structure of the socialist planned economy can alone afford an opportunity for organized architecture to develop in its highest form.

5. The rudiments of socialist architecture in a planned economy are composed of norms, types and standards. We make dimensional requirements conform to a norm so as to obtain a standard space and standard equipment. We organize these standardized elements to make up the standard organic architectural entities of practical socialist life.

6. As the socialist planned economy materializes in the sphere of building, the steady diminution of the multiplicity of standard elements (equipment, building elements ,spaces) is an indication of the steady socialization of life in the mass.

7. The final product of socialist building practice is never an isolated building but part of a productive or recreational centre in a sosgorod or agrocenter. These centers of work and recreation are, as organic architectural entities, the only final objectives of socialist architecture.

8. The building system of the socialist town is elastic, not rigid. The greater the elasticity of such centers of industry, housing, education, and recreation, the greater is the practical effect on the continuous process of socializing the life of the masses.

9. The artistic mission of proletarian architecture is to produce certain architectural solutions which lend themselves to the most varied manifestations of proletarian art; mass cinema, mass demonstrations, mass theatre and mass sport…The building itself is not a work of art. Its size is determined by the dimensions and functions of its program and not by the shallow pathos of any trimmings.

10. The socialist building is neither beautiful nor ugly, it is perfect or imperfect, right or wrong. The result of a process of organization does not stand or fall by any aesthetic assessment…

11. In line with the Marxist maxim that “being determines consciousness” the socialist building is a factor in mass psychology. Hence towns and their buildings must be organized psychologically in keeping with the findings of a science in which psychology is kept constantly in the foreground. The individual sensibilities of the artist-architect must not be allowed to determine the psychological effect of the building. The elements in a building that have a telling psychological effect (poster area, loudspeaker, light dispenser, staircase, color, etc.) must be organically integrated so as to accord with our profoundest insights into the laws of perception…

12. Socialist architecture calls for a radical change in the teaching of building. The socialist theory of architecture is a science which introduces into the building process the Marxist laws and the ideology of the proletariat. Out, then, with the doctrine of composition prompted by the emotions! In, then, with the doctrine of organization as dictated by the reason! The socialist doctrine of building must teach aspirants to the profession of architect the rudiments of the art in the form of a doctrine of standardization embracing technical, economic and social standards, types and norms. It must enable the student to analyze the processes of life and teach him to give organic unity to this knowledge in the building.

13. Following all this, the role of the architect in the socialist reconstruction is clear. The Leninist architect is not an aesthetic lackey and, unlike his colleague in the West, not a lawyer and custodian of the interests of the capitalist ruling class there. His opportunity to collaborate in socialist building is not an opportunity to prostitute his own private complexes of wishful emotions. The Leninist architect is an organizational assistant in the economically planned building process of socialist society. A building, whatever its kind, is for him an impersonal work whose structure is determined by mass requirements, norms, types and standards. It is typical of his work to rationalize means and processes and to avoid as far as possible the use of materials in short supply. He avoids deviating leftwards to the utopian project and rightwards to modernism and classicism. He strives constantly and with scientific objectivity to introduce the latest results of research into the process of building. Revolutionary elasticity and scientific objectivity are the hallmarks of the Leninist architect. For him architecture is not an aesthetic stimulus but a keen-edged weapon in the class struggle.[8]

This principle not only shows us how Meyer’s own ideas developed but also affords us a glimpse of what Soviet architecture might have become if the discussion had not been cut short by the policy of Stalin. In April 1932 appeared the government decree that dissolved all “schismatic cells” among artists and invited them to form themselves into a single professional organization for each art. A few months afterwards the Association of Soviet Architects was founded. From this time onwards Russian architects had to work along the lines of social realism which set out to answer the material and spiritual needs of society by respecting national traditions. Taken with a view to cutting out fruitless research and rallying every energy for the execution of the five-year plan, these measures indubitably pushed the architects towards solutions which seemed to be more closely matched to the actual situation than the majority of projects in the preceding year. But they rapidly led to the unanimous adoption of a form of neo-classical expression which did not necessarily derive from this return to a more realistic technique. After events had taken this turn, Meyer devoted himself almost exclusively to town-planning. He worked on the Standardgorproject as head of the section for towns with heavy industries and finally at the Giprogor town-planning institute as head of the section for East Siberia and the Far East.

Meyer’s urban projects in the USSR

While these discussions on architecture had been in progress, a lively controversy had arisen in 1930 on what the socialist city should be like. It had split the town-planners into two implacably opposed groups. On of them preached urbanization and the other disurbanization. It was a question of knowing how to interpret Marx’s dictum: “Doing away with the antagonism between town and country is one of the first conditions of collectivization.” The urbanizers were in favor of replacing the conurbations and villages by a large number of small industrial and agricultural towns of 40 to 50,000 inhabitants in which consumption would be entirely collectivized. One effect of this collectivization was to abolish the family home and replace it by communal houses accommodating 4,000 persons or more. If the argument of the urbanizers had the advantage of providing a remedy to the problems of over- and under-population, its drawback was that it could offer no satisfactory solution to the problem of how to achieve the expansion of the towns it advocated. It was, moreover, based on the utopian notion of abolishing family life in the communal houses, which were a kind of giant hotel made up of individual cells, public rooms where people could eat and the adults take their rest, and an autonomous children’s section. The disurbanizers did not regard the town as an isolated and independent organism. They favored an even distribution of the population all over the country along the traffic routes which connected the points where natural riches were extracted and processed. The disurbanizers proposed ribbon towns in which each family would have a private mass-produced house. The great weakness of this plan was that it called for the building of a highly expensive network of roads that would take a very long time to construct and it also ran counter to the process of economic concentration which was an essential feature of the first phase of industrialization.

Following this discussion and some unfortunate experiences, the time seemed ripe for setting matters in order. A decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party dated May 16,1930 had some hard things to say about the “semi-fantastic and extremely dangerous attempts of certain architects who wanted to clear at a single leap the obstacles barring the way to the socialist transformation of life.” This decree stressed the financial difficulties which prevented the immediate realization of the plans put forward by the urbanizers and the disurbanizers. The Central Committee instructed the Council of the People’s Commissars to issue directives on the subject of building towns and housing. In the event these directives specified the preservation of sufficient open space between the residential and industrial zones, the development of communal services and means of communication, the creation of the best conditions for public health, and the reduction of the costs of construction.

The various town-planning schemes devised by Meyer are an expression of the general line followed after these discussions. The principle of a large urban area was retained because it was better suited to the existing conditions than the idea of dispersion. Since, however, the preceding discussions had shown how necessary it was to counteract the baleful influence of urban life, the idea of the garden city was agreed upon. Satellite towns were the answer chosen to the problem of development. At the suggestion of the urbanizers, agriculture was considered an urban function. As agriculture became mechanized and rationalized, so the centers from which the land was worked could be expanded, i.e. the village would gradually grow into a small town. It followed from the way life was organized in the agrotown that the residential and production areas should be separated on the same lines as in the industrial towns. The collectivization of the land, general planned development, and the concentration of investable monies made it possible greatly to narrow the gap between theory and practice in town-planning. The elements which go to make up a town are sources of power, mineral wealth, industries and transport installations and equipment. The political and administrative function is bound up with these factors but, except in capital cities, it is subordinate to them. The retail trade is no longer of any importance as a factor in the creation of urban centers. It is the duty of a town-planning scheme to reconcile production and residential needs. It provides for a clear partition between the industrial and the residential zone. These two zones are separated by a verdant zone but linked up by a rapid transport system which they share. One upshot of the debate between the urbanizers and the disurbanizers was that the city of the future was to make possible a fuller social life and to relieve the woman of her household chores. This is why the public services (food, maintenance, health, education) are developed to the maximum. Commercial activity is centralized and occupies a limited space. A town is a polycentric organism of equal districts built for the undifferentiated mass of the inhabitants. In the centre are grouped the main administrative agencies, the higher social and cultural institutions and the big stores. As a residential area it is of minor importance. A residential district of 2000 to 6000 people is the basic element in the organized pattern of a town. It forms a small subsidiary centre with its basic collective institutions: kindergarten, day nursery, restaurant, shops, first-aid station, sports ground. Elementary schools jointly serving several districts are arranged in the verdant belt separating them. The residential districts make up the so-called raions, which in turn are provided with the requisite public buildings: health-center, club, public baths, post office, etc. The verdant zones form a continuous network throughout the town. They vary according to the use to which they are put: district gardens, sports, and cultural grounds, or a protective belt (2 km or 300 to 500 meters) wide to separate a residential district from heavy industry and from light industry respectively.

Experimental Jewish capital Birobidzhan in Siberia (1933). Meyer cooperated in preparing its development plan

Experimental Jewish capital Birobidzhan in Siberia (1933).
Meyer cooperated in preparing its development plan

The appreciable improvements in the conditions of life achieved in the course of the second five-year plan coincided with the consolidation of Stalin’s oppressive and despotic regime. The small but vainglorious coterie at the head of the new Academy of Architecture was able to force through the acceptance of its neoclassical ideas. A cloud of suspicion gathered round the foreign specialists. A certain number of them, including one of Meyer’s close associates, were arrested and deported. By 1936 the situation had become virtually intolerable for those who had not withdrawn beyond the frontier.

Meyer returned to Switzerland in June 1936. It was very difficult for him to find a position in his native country. For some time he devoted himself to preparing publications on town-planning and housing. Then the Swiss Co-operative Union, for whom he had built the Freidorf, entrusted him with the building of a children’s home in the Solothurn Jura. This modest building, constructed with the handicraft materials of the country builder, was at once both a break with Meyer’s previous work and at the same time a continuation of his ideas. The break was with the international character of the “new building”; the continuity resided in the rejection of formalism and in the social and educational mission of architecture. However, during his many years abroad, Meyer had grown accustomed to giving this mission a broader scope than was practicable in Switzerland. It was in Mexico, where he went in 1938 to attend an international conference on town-planning, that he was to find the wide horizons and the political and social climate he needed.

At that time the president, Lazaro Cardenas, had injected new life into the principles of the Mexican revolution of 1910. Between 1934 and 1938 he had distributed some 37 million acres to more than 800,000 penniless peasants and substantially increased assistance to agricultural co-operatives. In 1938 he nationalized the foreign oil companies. In the field of architecture Mexico had been the first country in Latin America to throw off the shackles of academicism. The government saw in modern architecture an expression that matched its progressive policy. In June 1939 Meyer accepted an invitation to become director of the newly formed Institute for Town and National Planning of Mexico. As the country stood in urgent need of the services of town-planners, Meyer tried to make his teaching at the Institute secondary to his performance of practical tasks. Unhappily his experience was to last but two short years. President Avila Camacho, who had succeeded Cardenas in 1940, was obliged to pay an enormous indemnity to the USA and England in return for recognition of the nationalized status of the oil companies. To balance the economy of the country, he had no alternative but to make certain concessions to the new national middle class and to back down on the Cardenas program. This change of policy meant a cut in public expenditure and the Town Planning Institute had to be closed for lack of funds.

Hannes Meyer photographed after leaving the Soviet Union (1935)

Hannes Meyer photographed after
leaving the Soviet Union (1935)

Meyer set up in private practice as an architect. But in 1942 he was able to re-enter public service in a capacity which was more in keeping with his views on architecture and his abilities. He was appointed technical director of the Division for Workers’ Housing in the Ministry of Labor. There he was in charge of planning several housing estates and standardizing various forms of housing. In 1944 the minister of labor became head of the Mexican Social Insurance Institute (IMSS). Meyer followed him there and was appointed architect-secretary of the planning commission for hospitals and clinics. Together with the medical secretary, Meyer had to work out a network of clinics for this newly formed institute and then set up the program for the first two zonal hospitals together with out-patient departments. A third of the 50 hospitals then under construction all over the country came under the authority of the Mexican Social Insurance Institute. Between 1945 and 1947 Meyer organized the entire documentation of the National Committee for School Building (CAPFCE) and prepared for publication the 1944-46 memorandum of this exemplary organization. Then, until 1949, he worked out town-planning schemes for various spas and, together with his wife, acted as technical manager of “La Estampa Mexicana.”

These ten years of desperately hard work under conditions that were often difficult undermined Meyer’s health. At the end of 1949 he decided to return to Switzerland. He retired to a quiet village in the Ticino in order to rest and marshal the ideas which his vast experience had inspired. But illness prevented him from putting this plan into effect. After much suffering he died on July 19, 1954.

The teacher

Apart from being an architect and town-planner, Hannes Meyer was also an educator. As in his other fields of endeavor, his teaching was oriented to the future and he had to contend with a historical situation which was not in his favor. Meyer never taught for longer than three years at the same institution. At the Bauhaus the joint forces of the extreme right and the internal opposition put a forcible end to his work. In the USSR the turn to socialist realism drove him away from his teaching at the VASI school and at the Academy of Architecture. In Mexico lack of funds led to the closing of the Town-Planning Institute, of which he was the director. Contrary to what has happened in the case of other great masters of modern architecture, his teaching experience did not strike any immediate roots. Yet Meyer had not been satisfied merely to reduce modern architecture to neat formulae but had, from the first years of his work as a teacher, laid the foundations of a new system of teaching architecture and industrial design.

Meyer began his teaching career at the Bauhaus in Dessau to which he had been appointed in 1927. Between 1928 and 1930 he was to become Director of the Bauhaus in succession to Walter Gropius, who had started the school. For almost a third of a century these two years, which are amongst the most fertile and interesting in the history of the Bauhaus, have been passed over in silence or systematically garbled by its annalists. Although it has rarely been said in as many words, Meyer is generally considered to be one of those who dug the grave of the venerable Dessau school. The actual facts of history are very different. Meyer brought about a necessary change at the Bauhaus and by so doing gave it fresh vigor.

Hannes Meyer, Co-op Construction (1926)

Hannes Meyer, Co-op Construction (1926)

For a proper appreciation of what Meyer contributed to the Bauhaus, we must go back over the development of the institution and retrace the ideas it represented. The Bauhaus started at Weimar in 1919 when the Sächsische Hochschule für bildende Kunst and the Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule were amalgamated. The latter had been founded about the beginning of the century by the Belgian Henry van de Velde (one of the initiators of “Art Nouveau”) who had been its director since its inception. It was he who, on leaving Germany at the end of World War I, had appointed Gropius as his successor at the head of the school. As the post of director at the Sächsische Hochschule für bildende Kunst fell vacant shortly afterwards, Gropius was able to persuade the government of Thuringia to merge the two schools under the name of Staatliches Bauhaus and to introduce a uniform system of teaching under his direction.

The first curriculum published in 1919 announced in messianic strains the reconciliation of the arts and crafts:

…Architects, painters and sculptors must get to know and comprehend once more the multiformity of the building in its entirety and in its parts, then their works will spontaneously recover the architectural spirit they have lost in their salon art…Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to the crafts! For there is no “art by profession.” There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is the craftsman raised to a higher degree. By the grace of heaven there are rare moments of illumination, beyond his will to control, when art flowers unconsciously from the work of his hand, but no artist can dispense with a groundwork in his craft. There is the well-spring of creative work! Let us therefore form a new guild of craftsmen without that presumption which divides the classes and raises a wall of arrogance between craftsmen and artists! Let us will, invent and create together the new building of the future which will be all things in one form: architecture and sculpture and painting, — which will one day be raised towards heaven by millions of craftsmen’s hands as a crystal emblem of a new faith to come.[9]

This declaration resembles many a manifesto of the same period. The question of the place and the role of the artist, and of the content and meaning of his work within the framework of industrial production, had been an evergreen topic since the middle of the 19th century. The “arts and crafts” movement had seen art (the unchanging ideal) and industry (a transitory and accursed phenomenon) as irreconcilable opposites. The mass production of forms derived from the craft tradition which was such a notable feature of early industrialization had in fact proved to be an antithesis of artistic creation. Arts and crafts had issued in Art Nouveau which, for its part, had made every effort to influence industry by creating ornamentation intended to dissemble the industrial origin of the products. But while these efforts were being made, new buildings, apparatus and materials had appeared which were by their very nature irreconcilable with overlaid ornamentation. These were the products of engineers whose ideas of utility and beauty coincided exactly. As for the art schools, most of them went in for abstract speculations about pure beauty or cultivated a craft tradition which had no foundation in the industrial civilization that was taking shape. In this chaotic situation the problem of the part to be played by the artist in shaping a material culture better suited to the needs of the times became particularly acute. This was the problem the Bauhaus set out to solve.

Although there was nothing particularly original about the ideas set forth in the first program, to put them into teaching practice was an important innovation. The school curriculum provided:

— a preliminary course of six months;
— three years’ study in one of the seven workshops: stone sculpture, joinery, metal, pottery, stained glass, mural painting, weaving;
— a finishing course of variable length reserved for the most gifted pupils.

The purpose of the preliminary course was to train the students in handling materials, forms and colors with the aid of simple and varied exercises. It was originally conducted by Johannes Itten, who had started an elementary course in plastic education in Vienna in 1916. It included studies from nature of the properties of material, plastic compositions based on the variety of materials, and analyses of the old masters. The student was to “feel” the material, understand its intimate nature, free himself from the prejudices imposed by its traditional uses, and rediscover the elementary laws of vision.

Furnishings of a popular flat, 1929. Design and execution by Bauhaus students

Furnishings of a popular flat, 1929. Design/execution by Bauhaus students

Teaching in the workshops was partly technical and partly aesthetic. It was given simultaneously by a craftsman and an artist, who shared the running of the workshop. The technical side of the teaching consisted of a manual apprentice ship in the craft rounded off by knowledge of the technology of materials and tools, of pricing, accountancy and law. This craft training in which manual experience was acquired of the whole process of manufacture was intended to give the pupil the sense of integration necessary in industrial production where work is strictly divided. Aesthetic instruction was meant to give students a plastic language based on the objective laws of form and color. It comprised a course of training based on visual observation and including nature study and knowledge of materials, a course in representation including descriptive geometry, geometrical construction, technical drawing and model building for all spatial structures; and finally a course in design with instruction in handling space, color, and composition. The observation and reproduction of nature was intended to enable the student to grasp in particular the relations between form and content. Other exercises taught him to make proper use of materials while the geometrical problems taught him to see spatially. In the design course he studied and applied the rules of harmony, rhythm, proportion, symmetry, scale, value, and color perception. The masters did their best to see that the students were not influenced by their authority or by any kind of style. Personal initiative was to be allowed to develop freely so as to afford greater assurance in creative thought. Throughout their studies the students were obliged to follow a course in harmonization. This was intended to give a unified conception of sound, color and form and to balance the various physical and mental abilities according to the individualities of the students concerned.

As for the finishing course its aim was to bring together the students from all the different sections so that they could work together in carrying out practical commissions received from outside. At Weimar organizational difficulties and financial obstacles greatly restricted the scope of this experiment.

Progress towards the final aim of teaching — “the new unity, the gathering of the many arts, trends and manifestations into an indivisible whole which is anchored in man himself and only acquires meaning and significance through life as it is lived”[10] — was to be achieved in two stages. In the first stage, the preliminary course, the student set free his creative energy and developed his individuality by practical manual and artistic work and by direct contact with nature. In the second stage he acquired through his personal experience of the craftsman’s kind of production an awareness which would make him a responsible member within the collective working of industry. For Gropius craftsmanship was no longer the romantic ideal it had been for the Arts and Crafts movement and, to a certain extent, for van de Velde. To his mind the methods of craftsmanship were a didactic means of integrating the plastic creator with the reality of his work and of preparing him for joint action in industry.

Furnishings of a popular flat, 1929. Design and execution by Bauhaus students

Furnishings of a popular flat, 1929. Design/execution by Bauhaus students

The principal features of this teaching are apparent: artistic and personal expression; manual and practical activity. Gropius made no secret of the close family relationship between the educational theories of the Bauhaus and the research being done in education at that time. From this point of view the Bauhaus takes its place among the various institutions arising in those years from the international movement for school reform. What was peculiar about it was the fact that it should have carried this movement onto the plane of higher education in art. The Bauhaus broke with the rules of imitation which had currency in the academies. Form was no longer an independent category, independent of time, but was to be the result of productive activity and of social life as a whole. The way was open for a rationalist aesthetic seeking as rigorous a relation as possible between the form and the function of a work. Expressionism which had very clearly influenced the productions of the Bauhaus during its early years was replaced by several trends — particularly functionalism, constructivism and neoplasticism — of the rationalist aesthetic. Theo van Doesburg, the editor of the magazine “de Stijl”, played an important part in this development after he had stigmatized the mysticism and the expressionism of the Bauhaus from outside between 1921 and 1922.

The Bauhaus at Weimar had to face increasing hostility. The defenders of tradition accused it of concealing a dangerously subversive movement set upon overthrowing the changeless values of culture. The school was held to be an institution of the left-wing socialists who had come into power in Thuringia with the establishment of the republic. This is why it was constantly attacked by the reactionary government which followed that of the socialists. Moreover, Gropius wanted to balance the very tight budget he had been allotted by eking it out with the profits made from the practical work of the workshops. The authorities were opposed to this combination of an institution subsidized by the State and a profit-making undertaking. At the end of 1924, when working conditions had become increasingly difficult, the masters decided, with the support of the students, to dissolve the Bauhaus. This firm attitude received wide backing throughout Germany and beyond its frontiers.

Gropius’ famed Bauhaus building at Dessau

At the beginning of 1925 the town of Dessau announced that it was prepared to receive the Bauhaus. The town commissioned Gropius to erect a new building for the school, a group of studios for the students and several villas for the masters. Subsequently it was to place a number of important orders with the various workshops. Germany’s economic situation had improved. A growing number of connections were formed between the Bauhaus and industry. The experience acquired at Weimar could be turned to good account when the Bauhaus was reestablished at Dessau. Some changes were made in the organization and teaching. Pottery and the workshops for sculpture and stained glass were discontinued. Their place was taken by two new workshops: typography and advertising art. The stage workshop, which had in fact existed at Weimar but been unable to develop there for lack of a stage, was improved. Six former pupils were appointed masters. A commercial company was set up under the name “Bauhaus G.m.b.H.” to sell the designs developed in the workshops.

Since Itten’s departure in 1923 the preliminary course had been given partly by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and partly by Josef Albers, a former pupil of the school. At Dessau Moholy-Nagy took charge of the metal workshop, leaving Albers the sole responsibility for the preliminary course. Whereas Moholy-Nagy had run the course on rather formal lines with a marked dash of constructivism, Albers organized it in a different and much more interesting manner. Itten and Moholy-Nagy had sought to reeducate the senses, to draw out their pupils’ creativity and to quicken their personal expression, Itten emphasizing the understanding of materials and Moholy-Nagy the understanding of space. Albers adopted these aims but gave them a more concrete and objective content while stressing the empirical nature of the preliminary course. Under Albers contact with material was divested of some of its sentimentality and became instead an essential condition of “constructive thought.” Albers was a man for efficiency. His criteria were economic rather than aesthetic. By focusing the minds of his students on invention rather than expression, he enabled a notable advance to be made in the teaching methods of the preliminary course and in the Bauhaus as a whole.

When former pupils were appointed to the teaching staff, it was possible to give up the system of having two teachers at a time (craftsman-artist) in the workshops. Each workshop could then be placed in the charge of a single master whose training in the school itself fitted him out with the necessary manual and theoretical qualities. This measure, in conjunction with the recent link-up with industry, was to have a decisive effect on production in most of the workshops. As from 1927 it was possible to organize a proper architectural section and Hannes Meyer was placed as its head.

Die Bauhausmeister auf dem Dach des Bauhausgebäudes - 1926.

Die Bauhausmeister auf dem Dach des Bauhausgebäudes, 1926

Meyer had come to Dessau in December 1926 to attend the opening of the Bauhaus building. Gropius had used this opportunity to set before Meyer his plans for starting an architectural section. Two weeks before, he had written to him suggesting he should take over this task. Meyer took up his duties on April 1, 1927. He had agreed with Gropius that architectural design can only be properly taught by actual experience on the job itself, it had been agreed that a start should be made without a curriculum and that the basic questions of building organization could be illustrated by reference to problems arising in practice (competitions and execution of works). In a letter to Gropius dated January 18, 1927, Meyer stated categorically: “Basically my teaching will be on absolutely functional-collectivist-constructive lines in keeping with ABC[11] and “The New World.”[12]

However, in its progress towards the accomplishment of practical tasks serving the needs of the time the Bauhaus came up against a formidable internal obstacle: formalism. It had proved impossible to obviate this danger which Gropius had so dreaded; a Bauhaus style had come into being and had rapidly made its influence felt. The Bauhaus reached after a unitary image of man’s material environment. It wanted this unity to be realized organically in the collective work of creation. It is obvious that in pursuing this aim the Bauhaus was swimming against the current in a market economy based on free supply and demand, private initiative and competition. The Bauhaus people were uneasy about this contradiction. At a loss to know how to set their ideas to work so as to fit in with the real world, they transferred the economic and social problems thrown up by the change they were advocating onto the aesthetic plane. They thought they could make up for the fact that historical conditions were not right for the realization of their unitary ideal by embarking on a feverish search for a new visual culture, a new language of form. Hence the great store set by smooth surfaces, by transparency, by immateriality, by pure colors; hence the breaking down of the object into elementary geometrical volumes; hence the effects of contrast between the masses, etc. “All these features did not so much express the essential character of the practical function an object is intended to serve as represent the result of a conscious aestheticization of technology and an endeavor to reveal the abundance of its inherent possibilities and thus draw upon the whole armamentarium of artistic means.”[13]

The activities of the Bauhaus had continued to worry reactionary circles. Gropius was subjected to attacks of every kind which, aimed at him, were meant primarily for the school. With the idea of restoring peace, he asked at the beginning of 1928 to be relieved of his duties as director. On this occasion he made a public statement in which, after giving the reasons for his decision, he said he thought the Bauhaus was strong enough to be handed over to someone else. In actual fact the school he had founded nine years earlier had perhaps never been so threatened before: by formalism from the inside and by the extreme right from the outside. A formidable task awaited the new director. The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had been marked out for the post, turned it down. Ultimately it was Hannes Meyer who took charge of the Bauhaus as from April 1, 1928.

Bauhaus students hanging out in Dessau, 1928

Bauhaus students hanging out in Dessau, 1928

In his address to the representatives of the students on his appointment to the post of director in February 1928, Meyer had asked: “Is our work to be determined from inside or outside? Are we to set our course by the needs of the outside world and help to shape new forms of living, or are we to be an island which indeed promotes personality values but whose positive productivity is dubious?”[14] Meyer’s new program, characterized by the stress on the social mission of the Bauhaus, the higher proportion of exact sciences in the curriculum, the suppression of the painters’ influence, the co-operative development of the workshop units, vocational training based on the actual job, the development of types and standards for articles of popular consumption, the democratization of study and closer co-operation with the workers’ movement and the trade unions, was to provide a clear answer to these questions. In choosing this line Meyer was not only convinced that it was the right one for the future but he also saw in it the only effective answer to the main threats hanging over the Bauhaus at that time.

Meyer had been the first master at the Bauhaus to set himself vigorously against the formalism prevailing there. He had grasped that the problem of quality in the objects forming the background of our everyday life was not merely a formal one, and that if the creative artist wanted to play an effective social role he had to step in at the level of popular needs. This was to mean the abandonment of the artistic speculations forming the special reserve of a small number of initiates in favor of the standard product. “Our work serves the people” was a popular saying with Meyer, whose principal aim was to give a concrete social content to the work of the Bauhaus.

Meyer has been accused of allowing politics to be brought into the Bauhaus to a dangerous extent. In fact the school had been the plaything of politicians since its beginning. The Bauhaus people had discovered to their cost on more than one occasion that it is hardly possible to venture into the social and economic world without compromising oneself politically. It is impossible to imagine by what miracle the Bauhaus could have remained aloof from the dramatic political tensions of Germany between 1928 and 1930. Complete political indifference would have been more disturbing. Meyer had been shrewd enough to see that the principal outside threat to the Bauhaus came from the extreme right, which was growing increasingly aggressive. His personal solidarity with the determined opponents of Hitler, the workers’ movements and the trade unions, was, whether one likes it or not, a tangible contribution to the defense of the Bauhaus.

Workshop chair, 1929, Design and execution by students of the Bauhaus metal workshop

Workshop chair, 1929, Design and execution
by students of the Bauhaus metal workshop

Meyer has also been criticized for having shattered the homogeneity of the Bauhaus and sowing chaos. It would seem that the chaos was already there before he took over as director. If this had not been so, why should he have said in his address to the students’ representatives of February 1928:

You speak of chaos and I admit that this expression is not entirely wrong. But we have chaos not only here in the Bauhaus, the whole world is full of unsolved problems. It is my conviction that we men are here for no other purpose than to solve the problems life poses for us. But there is no reason for us to hang our heads.”[15]

Painters like Kandinsky, Klee and Schlemmer for instance, had never ceased, ever since the Weimar days, to set themselves against the development of practical activity which they held to be a threat to the artistic mission of the Bauhaus. The conflict between art and practical activity did not wait for Meyer’s appointment as director before making itself manifest. It was bound to enter a more acute phase because of the stress on productive work which Meyer called for and which was in any case fully in line with the principle stated in the first program of 1919: “The school is the servant of the workshop and will one day be merged into it.”

The change of director had, of course, some repercussions on the teaching staff. Moholy-Nagy left the school at the same time as Gropius. They were followed shortly afterwards by Bayer and Breuer. The other workshop heads remained at their posts. Albers continued his work with the preliminary course. The mathematician and photographer Walter Peterhans was set on the task of organizing and direction the photography workshop. Meyer worked out a curriculum for the building department which comprised nine terms of study:

1st term: preliminary course No previous training of any kind dispenses the student from attending the preliminary course: its purpose is to encourage analytical thinking, to initiate the student into the characteristics of materials, to wean him away from tradition as much as possible and to awaken in him the forces dormant in everyone. These are the principles on which work at the Bauhaus is based. 2nd and 3rd terms: building workshop Experimental work in the metal workshop, joinery or wall painting to improve handicraft skills and promote the creative powers. — Free choice of workshop. — Attendance at theoretical, artistic and scientific courses.

4th, 5th, 6th terms: course in building This is intended to give the trained journeyman a deeper knowledge of the driving forces behind creative work. It is not meant to train architects alone: the journeyman can also derive from a study of the real inwardness of all life’s manifestations a wider grasp of his profession and is thus enabled to fit his activities into modern society with a better appreciation of what he is about. It teaches the student of building to think of his subject in scientific terms on the principle that building means “the organization of all life’s processes.”

7th, 8th and 9th terms: building studio As a rule the building studio is reserved for students who intend to become architects. All the types of work figuring in the “scales of fees for architects of July 1926” are performed for outside parties just as they would be in an architect’s office. The idea of the building studio is to afford the best possible introduction to building practice in a “study of production.”

On concluding his studies as an architect the student is awarded the Bauhaus Diploma.”[16]

Teaching in the building department focused particular attention on the systematic research which was to provide the basis for the formulation of plans. Before embarking on any project a careful study was made of needs, behavior patterns, users’ relations with neighbors and the physiological and psychological factors at play. Before this method of work could be put into effect, however, many difficulties due to the limited resources of the Bauhaus in the exact sciences had to be overcome. Five projects were actually carried out, notably a group of ninety flats on the Törten housing estate which had been previously started by Gropius. The teaching was done by Meyer, head of the department; Anton Brenner, head of the building studio; Ludwig Hilberseimer, head of the course of instruction in building; Hans Wittwer, chief draughtsman, lecturer on acoustics, light and heat engineering, installations; Edward Heiberg, housing estates; Mart Stam, visiting lecturer in town planning and for the elementary building course; Alcar Rudelt, statics, strength of materials, mathematics, reinforced concrete, steel structures, costing, building construction; Wilhelm Müller, building materials; and Carl Fieger, drawing.

Castor-mounted wardrobe for a bachelor, 1930, design and execution by students of the Bauhaus carpenters' workshop

Castor-mounted wardrobe for a bachelor (1930),
by students of the Bauhaus carpenters’ workshop

During Meyer’s directorship the Bauhaus workshops were grouped in four sections:

  • the building department (building administration, building office);
  • the advertising department (photo workshop, graphic workshop, printing);
  • the interior department (wall painting, metal workshop, joinery);
  • the textile department (dyeing, weaving, tapestry).

Whereas the structure of the school was left more or less intact, there were drastic changes in the curriculum and the methods of work. Teaching was brought considerably closer to actual working conditions. More and more the workshops set aside imaginary projects and took up real jobs of work. As the workshops took an increasing share in the economic life of the country, they rapidly developed into autonomous production centers. The student was no longer engaged on an individual task but participated in a collective work. This reorganization of workshop activities made it possible to form “vertical brigades” in which students at all levels were brought together in the spirit of mutual aid and joint responsibility. The vertical brigades represented the first concrete solution to the problem of preparing students for teamwork, a problem which had exercised the Bauhaus since its inception.

Yet Hannes Meyer’s boldest innovation was in the teaching of theory. He was the first at the Bauhaus to grasp the importance of science in the training of the designer. Courses covering a number of scientific and technical fields were introduced into the curriculum and entrusted to German and foreign scientists, who were often of worldwide reputation. An introductory course based on Gestalt psychology had actually been envisaged for the winter of 1930/31. Thus Meyer not only aimed at the effectiveness that goes with the possession of factual knowledge; he also saw the educational significance of a method which inculcated clarity, fairness and modesty — qualities which he opposed to the vagueness of utopianism, the arbitrariness of aestheticism and the arrogance of pseudo-rationalism. Meyer was accused of trammeling the personality of the creative artists whereas, in actual fact, he was emancipating it and restoring to it its real powers.

The subordinate position assigned to art in this program is striking. From that time forth the student was to spend six months intensively cultivating his inventiveness, his manual dexterity, and his economic sense. Then, following seven or nine terms of close contact with the realities of industrial production, he trained himself to apply his reason in his work by drawing on his scientific and technical knowledge. This knowledge embraced the manufacturing stages and the actual use of the products. In Meyer’s view the role of the designer was not limited to finding for the object a form which primarily satisfied aesthetic requirements but consisted also in meeting a complex of social needs bound up with the general conception of the product. It followed that in an industrial civilization only science and technology could satisfy these needs effectively. Throughout the period of his directorship, Meyer sought indefatigably to put these ideas into practice. It was this that earned him for the rest of his time the execration of those who saw the Bauhaus as a citadel of art.

Exercise from Albers' preliminary course, 1928, involving a copy of Die Rote Fahne, chief organ of the KPD, and the Berliner Tageblatt

Exercise from Albers’ preliminary course, 1928, using
a copy of Die Rote Fahne and Berliner Tageblatt

The invasion of the school by both life and science had the result that the change wrought in the character of the work done there, which had been initiated some years before, became increasingly radical and affected all the workshops. The considerable scale of the commercial work going on in the workshops produced a marked improvement in the economic strength of the Bauhaus. In fact the share of the proceeds which went to the students from the sale of products was tantamount to a student wage and meant that a wider range of students could study at the school. The new ideas of the Bauhaus were publicized by a traveling exhibition which visited several cities in Germany and Switzerland, by a series of lectures given by Hannes Meyer in the principal towns of central Europe, and by the bauhaus magazine. More and more industries sought the collaboration of the school or the aid of specialists who had been trained there. Already there loomed ahead the possibility that the Bauhaus might become financially and thus administratively autonomous. This was too much to stomach for the forces of reaction who dreamed of making the Bauhaus an instrument of power for themselves. They accused Meyer of bringing Marxism into the school and seized upon the first pretext — a collection for some strikers — for demanding energetic measures against him. On July 29, 1930, when most of the students and staff were on holiday, the Mayor of Dessau called for the immediate dismissal of Hannes Meyer.

Meyer’s departure was greeted with relief by a whole contingent of malcontents at the Bauhaus. It had been thought that Gropius might take the school over again but he preferred to leave this unenviable task to Mies van der Rohe. The school opened again in the autumn of 1930. A certain number of students were expelled while those who remained lost their influence on the running of the school. Some of the courses in theory disappeared from the curriculum. The workshops were reformed and brought into line with the marked emphasis on architecture imparted to the whole school, and their commercial activities were almost completely discontinued. The social mission of the Bauhaus lost all impetus. Formalist tendencies reasserted themselves. There was a falling off in the democratization of the school. Teachers suspected of “Kulturbolschewismus” were restrained in their utterances. The first organized Nazis appeared among the students. On October 1, 1932, the government of Dessau, which had a National-Socialist majority, closed the school. Mies van der Rohe then transferred the Bauhaus to Berlin, where it eked out a precarious existence until it was finally closed in April 1933. The Bauhaus, which had been born at the same time as the Weimar Republic, shared its tragic end.

Whereas most of the Bauhaus masters were to emigrate to the United States, where they were able to take up their teaching again shortly before World War II, Meyer opted for the USSR and went there with a group of students from the building department. In October 1930 he was appointed professor at the Higher Institute for Architecture and Building (VASI) in Moscow.

Hannes Meyer delivering a speech to the VASI in the Soviet Union (1930)

Hannes Meyer delivering a speech to
the VASI in the Soviet Union (1930)

Before Meyer’s arrival this school had developed on lines very similar to those of the Bauhaus. In 1918 the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture had merged with the Stroganoff School of Applied Art. The institution that emerged from this amalgamation was called Higher Techno-Artistic Workshops (VKhUTEMAS). It comprised seven sections: painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, metal and woodwork, textiles and typography. Apart from the regular students, of which there were several thousand, the public could attend lectures and advanced study groups where the various movements of the Russian avant-garde in art came face to face. The teaching staff numbered among its members Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Rosanova, and Pevsner. The curriculum of the VKhUTEMAS was determined by the Institute of Artistic Cultures, an organization which was trying to evolve a communist theory of art and a method of education that combined the psycho-intuitive conception of art of Kandinsky, Malevich, and the Pevsner brothers, the suprematist conception, and the rationalist conception of Tatlin, Rodchenko, and the future constructivists. The former believed art to be a spiritual activity and essentially purposeless; the artist who wants to do his creative work within the milieu of material production should join the ranks of the artisans. The latter held that art should be enlisted in the service of material life; the artist should turn mechanical work into an artistic activity and for this purpose should raise himself to the level of the engineer. The subjectivist wing of the Institute for Artistic Cultures was very soon in the minority. This led to the departure of Kandinsky, who was able, from 1922 onwards, to put into practice at the Bauhaus the theories he had evolved at Moscow. Under the influence of the Institute for Artistic Cultures, which was henceforth resolutely rationalist in character, the VKhUTEMAS were transformed into an institution of a polytechnical character which was called VKhUTEIN. At the beginning of the first five-year plan, the experimental laboratories (metal, wood, textiles, etc.) of this Soviet Bauhaus were absorbed by the various branches of industry. The school specialized in architecture and was again rechristened VASI. In 1930, when Meyer arrived there to teach, it was dependent on the People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industry.

Meyer described the teaching at the VASI in these words:

The marked specialization typical of the Soviet building industry called for an equally marked specialization on the part of the architects in four entirely separate faculties:

  1. industrial building
  2. town planning
  3. agricultural building
  4. housing and social building. How could these students, of differing ages, with their very different educational backgrounds be given a well-rounded architectural training?

a) By a direct link with the building site
b) By the brigade system

During the four-year course every second, fourth, sixth etc. term had to be spent on the building site as a laborer, mason, assistant technician, assistant superintendent, etc., the wages received being those normally paid for that category of work.

I remember that in 1931 I visited students of my course on the site of a rolling mill about 14 miles from Moscow, where they were living in huts, the men separate from the women. The length of a term, 3-5 months, depended on design assignment. For example the 25 students my third course in agricultural building designed what was known as an “agropoint” (a very complex assignment) for a particular group of kolkhozes in the Ukraine on the basis of an agreement with the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture. The various groups of buildings were divided between brigades of 2 to 4 members. The more experienced were entrusted with the school, day nursery and club; the less experienced with the shop, workshop and store. The functional analyses were made by the whole course in joint consultation and the drafts put forward by the brigades were subjected to joint criticism. The advantage of this educational procedure was that it promoted the collective spirit of the whole course, but the work of the weaker members could hide behind the brigade.[17]

Meyer taught at the VASI from autumn 1930 to autumn 1933, first in the Housing and Social Building Department and then in the Agricultural Building Department and finally in the Industrial Building Department. From March 1934 to October 1935 he was professor and head of the Cabinet for Housing and the newly founded Architectural Academy of the USSR in Moscow.

This was a central institute for training Soviet professors. In a three years’ course it trained a limited number of 100 architects with practical experience to be “masters of architecture” and university teachers. These “aspirants”, as they were called, were brought to the institution from all over the Soviet Union as an elite. During their period of training they received the monthly salary of a young architect and free lodging. The aspirants were grouped into seminars of 6 as regards both rooms and organization. The past masters who taught could spend only two hours a day in the seminar. This system, which requires 3 to 4 professors per seminar, eliminates the dangerous influence of a single professor and forces the past master to remain in touch with practical architecture.

Poster for an exhibition of the work of the Bauhaus Dessau in Moscow (1931)

Poster for an exhibition of the work of
the Bauhaus Dessau in Moscow (1931)

Finally it prevents him from eventually desiccating into a professorial mummy at the Academy. This system of training calls for heavy expenditure, for even in the first term some 25 past masters were needed for about 30 aspirants. But the system pays dividends in the form of an unprecedented intensification of architectural training and its development to a higher level than ever before.[18]

The wholesale reconstruction of Soviet architectural and building organizations which took place in 1933 and the era of socialist realism that followed this reorganization kept Meyer out of teaching for several years. In June 1939 he was appointed head of the newly-founded Institute for Town and General Planning, which formed part of the National Polytechnical Institute of Mexico. He taught there until June 1941, the date when the Town Planning Institute was closed because of shortage of funds. During this short and final period of teaching, Meyer was able to put into practice the principles he had enunciated in 1938 in a lecture at the San Carlos Academy. This is how he envisaged the training of the architect:

Before proceeding to discuss the training of the architect, we must first be clear in our minds as to the scope of the activities subsumed under the name architecture.

Architecture is a process of giving form and pattern to the social life of the community.

Architecture is not an individual act performed by an artist-architect and charged with his emotions. Building is a collective action.

Society determines the contents of its own life and thus the contents of architecture within the framework of a specific social system within a specific period of time with specific economic and technical means and in a specific place in a real situation.

It is therefore something closely touching the material concerns of a collective stratum, a class, a nation.

Architecture is thus a social manifestation and indissolubly linked with the structure of society at a given point of time. Once separated from the society of its age, it becomes an empty sham and a toy for the infatuated followers of vulgar fashion. Today, in an epoch of the greatest social confusion when one social system is merging into the next, we should not be surprised if architecture itself displays the heterogeneous forms of the transition.

The architect is thus a regulator and shaper of the living processes of his society. He studies its material and spiritual needs and converts them into plastic reality,

he organizes the technical and structural possibilities, he is familiar with the biological prerequisites and knows the social object of his work, he understands the historical mission of the constructor, and knows how to draw upon the folkloric and cultural heritage, he unites in his work the most disparate arts, the dynamic photograph of publicity, the play of water, the elements of traffic, the arts of the gardener.

Thus the architect is an organizer. He is an organizer of the specialists without being a specialist himself!…The architect is an artist, for all art is a matter of organization; that is, of reality shaped according to a new system…

Like all the arts, architecture is a matter of public morals. The architect is fulfilling his moral function if he analyses his assignment with single-minded truthfulness and puts it into the form of a building honestly and boldly.

The cry for an “international architecture” in this age of national self-sufficiency, of the awakening of the colonial peoples, of the common front in Latin America against imperialism, the socialist reconstruction in the Soviet Union, and of the expropriation of the railways, large estates and oil wells for the benefit of the people in Mexico, is a dream of those building aesthetes who, anxious to be thought in the forefront of fashion, conjure up for themselves a uniform world of buildings constructed of glass, concrete and steel, detached from social reality…

This brings us to the problem of content and form in architecture. The form of the building must have a social content, otherwise it is mere decoration and formalism. We condemn the exhibitionist as an antisocial element in society, and we should also condemn that type of architect for whom the building of a house is merely an opportunity to parade personal formal preferences for all the street to see. And the content of the building must be expressed with formal mastery so that there can be no doubt as to the social functions of the building. The standardized hut of the Mexican railway worker as an element of a progressive, democratic state, represents a higher form of housing than the hut in a labor camp in present-day Germany, although they are both exactly the same in construction and appearance.

We would call the process of building a conscious patterning of the socio-economic, the technical-constructive and the psycho-physiological elements in the social living process. We architects must master this task in its totality, i.e. in all the demands — biological, artistic and historical — it makes upon us.

We must find a dialectical solution to the problems of building (i.e. in the novel context of a given time). We must find a differentiated form for them (i.e. in the novel functional form of a given time)…

It is crucially important that the public should play a part in the training of the architect…Here in Mexico I am struck by the way in which architectural circles are isolated from the people whereas fresco painting enjoys a unique popularity! In 1931 in Prague a group of young architects made an analysis of living conditions in the beautiful Czech capital. It caused such a stir that the police had to close the modest exhibition in which it was presented.

In Oslo in 1932 a co-operative of young architects made a camera reportage on the housing in the old town which forced the newspapers of every political persuasion to take up the question of housing and bring it out into the open. The upshot of both cases was that broad masses of the population began to concern themselves with the idea of architecture as a means to hygienic living conditions…

Why is it that here in Mexico, where there is a vigorous trade union movement, a workers’ university, and an awakening peasantry, there is no way of associating the people with the business of giving architecture its shape in co-operation with the architects?

If we accept the conception of architecture described here, the following conclusions can be drawn concerning the training of the architect:

a) He must be trained as an analyst, he must be able to grasp reality in all the different forms in which it appears: Since he is concerned throughout with a socio-economic reality, he must have a knowledge of sociology (without being a specialist sociologist). How otherwise will he be able to work in, say, Mexico where so many social systems (pre-feudal, feudal, capitalist, and a system in transition to socialism) are intermingled? How will he be able to understand the forms housing takes in these four sets of social conditions? It is not enough for him to have some glimmerings about the co-operative or the trade union movements in general, he must be able to grasp the differences between co-operative and trade union life.

b) He must train to be a creative inventor who helps to bring the new architecture into being through exact and analytical thinking (he is not a formalist artist). He must be conversant with biological sciences (without becoming a specialist biologist!).

For without hygiene or climatology or the science of management he will have no functional diagrams, i.e. no data on which he can elaborate his architectural forms.

c) As an artist he must be a master of the various ordering systems and the artistic orders. By these I do not mean the Corinthian or Doric orders, with which he will naturally be acquainted as a matter of architectural history. I mean more particularly the psychological orders of lines, planes and solids. I mean the tensions between various materials, their surface structure, division, proportions: their effect in a group or singly…in brief the wherewithal for a deliberate psychological shaping and patterning of material.

d) His technical and constructional training should include above all standardized forms. (For in special cases he will need the help of the specialist engineer!) He should be familiar with the standardized building methods on which both the handicraft and the highly industrialized building concerns are based. But he must also be conversant with old methods of building. (If he is not, how can he possibly carry out renovations or reconstructions and understand the history of architecture?)

e) He must be a master of architectural history not as an empty theory of building forms but as a record of the relationship between style and the form of society. Only if he grasps, for instance, the co-operative character of the mediaeval guilds and their desire to be masters of their own fate, will he be able to understand the multitude of functional forms which were new to the Middle Ages in Europe (I am thinking of staircases, oriels). He must learn to understand that the rhythm of Doric columns changes with the rhythm of social life, and that a repressed people can never create free orders of columns. He must be capable of appreciating folklore as something more than textiles and decorated pottery; namely, as a translation of the imaginative world of nature and religion into such functional media as plant fibers, wool, clay, etc. The colorful story-telling of Mexican textiles would be quite unimaginable in a gloomy environment!

f) He must have a knowledge of town-planning (without being an urbanist). How else will he be able to fit his building into the general framework of the town?

How will he be able to study structural forms in town planning, particularly the distribution of accents, the skyline, parks and verdant zones, unless he has some notion of the purposes of town planning?

But the trained architect is not himself a town planner!

…In conclusion let me summarize my suggestions for the reorganization of your academy of architecture:

  1. Productive education in the actual field of building.
  2. Development of the system of work brigades
  3. Development of the link with the public and social criticism
  4. Economic liberation of the students and the professors
  5. No status school for intellectuals! No formalism! Development of the creative powers of the architectural inventor.

Remember: Architecture is a weapon which at all times has been wielded by the ruling class of human society. In Mexico you are living in a state which is one of the most progressive democracies in the world. Fight for the truly progressive architecture of this state.[19]

This lecture, which was delivered in 1938, shows how Meyer’s ideas had developed since the twenties. He does not depart from his social, scientific, and antiformalist conception of building, but he no longer denies that architecture is also an art. To understand this change it must be remembered that the principles expounded in “Die neue Welt” or in “bauen” were inspired by the need to press arguments for a proper appreciation of the non-artistic factors in architecture. In 1938 the trend taken by architecture in countries with very different cultural traditions restored a certain importance to the relationship between art and architecture. Meyer no longer proclaimed that the world of forms had no home country. He denounced the formalism and utopianism of the new architecture. He wanted to give back to architecture the progressive role it had played ten years before. In point of fact, the functionalist program had rapidly come up against unsuspected snags. In the first flush of the early years nobody had seen, or wanted to see, the gap separating machines from buildings. The strict adaptation of form to function in the machine is feasible because the function itself is strictly defined. This definition and adaptation are not achieved all at once. They are the upshot of a process of gradual approximation from model to model, from year to year. These successive approximations, which are prompted by experience, are made possible by the fact that models are standardized and the functions of design and production are integrated within the same undertaking. The reasons why a mechanical design tends towards an optimum form are that there are laws which set the approximate course of its development, it is submitted to a systematic experimental method, and the organization of industry is very highly advanced.

Page reproduced from Meyer's memorandum Memoria CAPFCE, 1944-1946

Page from Meyer’s memorandum
Memoria CAPFCE, 1944-1946

Things were, and are, very different in the case of a building. With a few special exceptions, its functions are not defined with the same rigor as in a mechanical design. This is because they are almost always much more complex and because a number of them depend on the widely different ideas men entertain as to how their vital needs should be satisfied. Eating, working, sleeping, washing, resting, breathing, seeing, hearing are all needs which change in content and priority according to the individual, family, social status and cultural group. It is for this reason that they bring a margin of uncertainty into the definition of a building’s function and make the search for a useful form relative and inconclusive. Moreover, since the majority of buildings are unique structures, there is no possibility of gradually adjusting the design to the conditions of use established in practice, and the architect is consequently forced to rely heavily on his intuition. To these difficulties must be added the almost permanent gap separating the project and the actual technical possibilities available for carrying it out — a gap which is due to the traditional divorce of design from execution in building. This uncertainty in the definition of functions, the wide scope left to intuition, and the autonomy of the creative act in building give the architect ample latitude within which to evolve a large number of possible solutions all of equal value. Thus for a given function and given conditions of manufacture there is not merely one single form that can be used but several, and from these must be selected the one which best expresses and emphasizes the purpose of the building. This is tantamount to an implicit admission on the part of the functionalists that form has an ideological power, or in other words, that form has a partly autonomous existence, and this paves the way to a new formalism. Bareness and the splitting of volumes, transparency, white finishes, the break-up of the mass do not so much reflect immediate and practical necessities as mark the intention to glorify the possibilities of the modern world.

A growing tendency to confuse usefulness and certain preset forms was paralleled by a no less disturbing development in which functionalism was interpreted as an identification of usefulness and earning power. In a society in which the erection of a building is regarded as just a business transaction like any other rather than as the satisfaction of social needs, it is natural for the idea of utility to take on a meaning which is first and foremost commercial. For the operator in real estate a building is useful, practical and of a design properly matched to its purpose if it earns him the highest profit. An example is the “minimum dwelling.” “A critical examination of the living cells of such minimum dwellings shows that when the area is between 32 and 54 square meters, the last vestiges of the architectural features marking the general layout of the previous middle-class dwelling have been forfeited. The living and subsidiary rooms are reduced step by step in number and area. There are plans without corridors, sleeping bunks, divisible rooms, etc. The kitchen is systematically reduced from the kitchen parlor to a galley kitchen, to a kitchen recess, to a kitchen cupboard.”[20] Thus there has been a steady and wide-scale onslaught on the human habitat which has been carried on under the guise of a struggle for functional architecture.

Hannes Meyer in Mexico, late 1930s

Hannes Meyer in Mexico, late 1930s

Should it be concluded from all this that functionalism was finished, that its realization had killed it? Should one return to the expression of personal emotions in opposition to the misdeeds of vulgar utilitarianism? Should one give up rational methods? Meyer was clear-sighted enough not to go so far as this, for he had seen that there would be no surmounting the deviations and debasement of the new architecture until objective knowledge had been expanded and the economic and social structures transformed.


[1] Meyer, Hannes: “How I work.” In Arkhitektura CCCP, Nr. 6, 1933. Moscow. (Manuscript in German).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Article 2 of the Articles of Agreement of the CIAM.
[4] This text was written in the USSR in 1933 at a time when the artistic content of architecture was the subject of lively discussion.
[5] Meyer, “How I work.”
[6] In Sovremennaia architektura, Nr. 5, 1930. Moscow. (Russian).
[7] According to many Marxists, there can be no such thing as Marxist art, only a Marxist theory of art.
[8] Meyer, Hannes: “On Marxist architecture.” 1931. (Manuscript in German).
[9] Gropius, Walter: Programm des staatlichen Bauhauses in Weimar. 1919.
[10] Gropius, Walter: Idee und Aufbau des staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar. Bauhausverlag, Munich 1923.
[11] A Swiss magazine edited by Hans Schmidt and Mart Stam which stood for a strict functionalism.
[12] Essay by Hannes Meyer written 1926.
[13] Pazitnov, L: Das schöpferische Erbe des Bauhauses, 1919-1933. Institut für angewandte Kunst. Berlin 1963.
[14] Wingler, Hans Maria: Das Bauhaus. Verlag Gebr. Rasch & Co. Bramsche 1962.
[15] Ibid.
[16] In “bauhaus — junge menschen kommt ans bauhaus!” Publicity brochure. 1929.
[17] Meyer, Hannes: “Education of the Architect.” Lecture to the San Carlos Academy, Mexico, 30.9.1938. (Manuscript in German).
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Meyer, Hannes: The architecture of capitalist housing in the post-war period, 1919-1934. 1935. (Manuscript in German).

15 thoughts on “Hannes Meyer, Marxist and modernist (1889-1954)

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  13. Hi Ross,

    I’ve only just discovered your excellent blog while searching for information about Hannes Meyer. My apologies if you’ve already covered this topic, but I’d be very interested to know if there was any direct contact between Hannes Meyer and Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo or Leon Trotsky during the period 1939-40.

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