Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009

Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954

Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954

If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954

What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.) As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon. Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine. Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

On Claude Schnaidt

The writings of the French-German Marxist and architectural historian Claude Schnaidt (1931-2007) are hardly known at all in the English-speaking world. His only major essay to appear in translation was reproduced in the previous post, along with photos and scans illustrating the subjects covered. Intellectually, he can be compared to his colleague and collaborator Anatole Kopp, whose work I reflected upon in a recent blog entry.

Paul Chemetov, one of Schnaidt’s students, recently authored an article for the bilingual journal Le visiteur in which he briefly sketched the relationship between the two men and their intertwining career paths. Chemetov writes:

To those who knew him or met him, Claude Schnaidt was a curious figure. Curious because of his voice, coloured by so many accents — he was a native of Geneva, but German-speaking, with occasional echoes of old-style Parisian “lip.” And curious in his appearance — ascetic, but loving life. A soldier-monk? In reality, a passionate teacher. As the successor to Max Bill, he took on the role of director at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm until its closure in 1967-68, and the Institut de l’Environnement in Paris (located, incredibly, at the corner of Rue d’Ulm and Rue Jean Calvin…), founded by André Malraux after the events of 1968, and clad in Schnaidt’s day in a façade by Prouvé, before Philippe Starck’s marble top-coat signified the end of that particular pedagogical, political, and intellectual interlude. Born in 1931, Claude Schnaidt died on the 22nd of March, 2007. “A young man in the mainstream of modernity,” in Gubler’s words. He was a close associate of that other eternal young man, Anatole Kopp, whose book Quand le moderne n’était pas un style mais une cause (“When modernism was not a style but a cause”) is a precise resumé of both of their careers.

Whereas Kopp dedicated his life to the excavation of early Soviet avant-garde architecture, Schnaidt’s focus was narrower. Most of the work he’s known for concerned a single figure from the annals of modernism: the Marxist and modernist Hannes Meyer. Nevertheless, from what I can tell (and Chemetov’s remarks seem to confirm this) their projects were otherwise remarkably similar. As Chemetov suggests, their primary interest was to recover the sociohistoric mission of modern architecture, which had by their time degenerated to what they most despised in 19th-century architecture: “style.” Since modern architecture had formally triumphed, flourishing in the postwar years, the broader program of social transformation it once aspired to had been lost. Like Kopp, Schnaidt believed that by revealing modernism’s radical, quasi-socialist origins, this project might be renewed.

Claude Schnaidt, Herbert Lindinger, und Herbert Kapitzki leiten die Versammlung der HfG am 2/23/1968

Claude Schnaidt, Herbert Lindinger, und Herbert Kapitzki leiten die Versammlung der HfG am 2/23/1968

His frustration with the impasse modern architecture reached in the mid-1960s comes through quite clearly in a 1967 article, “Architecture and Political Commitment”:

Greater truth, directness, and depth cannot be given to human relations by the invention of novel forms. The aberrations of modern city life have deeper social causes than the shape of the buildings. The erection of monuments — and only history can decide what is a monument and what is not — will add nothing to human happiness. Self-glorification has never made men happy. Technology cannot be domesticated by putting up lepidopterous theaters and sinusoidal airport buildings. Far from settling the hash of the engineers, contemporary Baroque emphasizes their triumph. What is the use of impugning the formal schematics of the rationalist if one leaves unassailed the utopian ideas behind them? What is the use of decrying the squalor of urban conglomerations and the degradation of the modern habitat without at the same time denouncing the bourgeois commercialism which gives rise to them? What is the use of accusing rationalism, when, in point of fact, the rationalism accused is mechanistic, limited, and obsolete. If modern architecture is at a dead-end, it is not through any abuse of rationalism but through ignorance of genuine scientific thought, not through any abuse of social sense, but rather through a lack of concrete social content.

Of course, this was a common theme seized upon by many leftists in the 1960s. The technical and economic progress of society had not brought with it the emancipatory results many expected would accompany them. Modernism, the ideological extrapolation of this societal expectation, had finally been accepted by the public at large. Yet humanity was no freer for it. Kopp and Schnaidt thus sought to mobilize the memory of modern architecture’s most revolutionary phase against empty stylizations that would reduce problems of construction to mere formulae. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp à l'inauguration de l'exposition des techniques américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946a

Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans

by Anatole Kopp

Image: Paul Nelson, Robert Pontabry et Anatole Kopp
à l’inauguration de l’exposition des techniques
américaines, Grand Palais, 14 juin 1946

Reproduced below, sans footnotes, is the French-Russian architectural historian Anatole Kopp’s late article on “Foreign architects in the Soviet Union during the first two five-year plans,” from 1988. As things stand, it’s probably the most thorough account of international specialists’ activities in the USSR. In a post that’ll soon follow, I’ll go over Kopp’s career and outlook, his strengths and shortcomings, his collaborations and disagreements with peers such as Henri Lefebvre. His earlier work was stronger, and more influential, but this article is valuable if for no other reason than its comprehensiveness. That said, it does leave out mention of a few noteworthy figures, such as Hinnerk Scheper and Johan Niegeman. I’ve included some images of them, even though he neglects to mention them.

Soviet architecture of the 1920s — avant-garde architecture — was largely unresearched in the West until the mid-1960s. Since then, in Europe, in the United States, and also progressively in the Soviet Union, various studies have been devoted to this subject. What has remained largely unexamined, however, is the activity of a large number of foreign technicians who went to work in the USSR beginning in 1928. Their participation in various construction projects and in the development of Soviet architecture is the subject of this essay. Continue reading

Mies’ Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1926)

Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.

Mies' site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

Site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:

As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.

Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:

[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.

"Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein"

“Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein”

To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.


Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture. Continue reading

Der Palast der Sowjets: Entries by German architects to the Palace of the Soviets competition

Hans Poelzig [Ганс Полциг]

Walter Gropius [Вальтер Гропиус]

Hannes Meyer [Ганнес Майер]

Erich Mendelsohn [Ерих Мендельсон]

“The Soviet Union and modern architecture” (1932)

Hans Schmidt

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.
El Lissitzky, Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.
(MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief. We have no intention of using this occasion to mollify their outrage; on the contrary, it is incombent upon us to inform the reader in the same breath that the decision was neither accidental nor an isolated occurrence. In fact, a limited competition among ten Soviet architects has been held and since and has yielded similar results. At the same time, however, we do consider it our duty to give our Western colleagues a more objective picture of the architectural situation in the Soviet Union and to put into perspective those matters that have been misunderstood and distorted by overexposure and sensation-seeking publicity. In our case, the attempt to be objective reflects the desire to look at modern architecture not simply as a completed phenomenon, but as a process intimately connected to all the social, political, and technical manifestations of a whole culture.

Let us first attempt briefly to trace developments as faras the West is concerned. The present situation of modern architecture in the West has come about as the result of a long struggle, with many interacting and mutually interdependent movements often appearing to be countermanding each other, as for example the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the Dutch Rationalist Movement (Berlage), the Art Nouveau Movement, the Fin de Siècle Movement, etc. The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which after the French Revolution had at first decided to take over the styles bequeathed by feudalism, later attempted by movements such as those mentioned to evolve their own cultural forms in architecture as well as in other fields of artistic endeavor. It is significant to note that all these early attempts had one thing in common: they all tried to find their outlets within the context of high capitalism. As a result of this we had a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the negation of the metropolis, the embracing of social ideas, i.e., garden cities for the workers, etc. Under the influence of technical developments in the last phase of capitalism, and as a result of rationalization and standardization, the real program of modern architecture eventually came into existence, demanding absolute unity between art form and technical form, both firmly rooted in developed capitalist technology. Even here, social ideas crept in, such as the notion that prosperity for all could be solved simply be harnessing capitalism to modern technology. The realization that this was not necessarily the case had as its consequence the eventual decision by the left wing of modern architecture to embrace the idea of Socialism. Continue reading

Hannes Meyer and the Red Bauhaus-Brigade in the Soviet Union (1930-1937)

A photo gallery & translation

Image: Poster for an expo of the
Bauhaus Dessau in Moscow (1931)


An extract of an interview from Pravda, 1930:

Hannes Meyer: After many years of working within the capitalist system I am convinced that working under such conditions is quite senseless.  In view of our Marxist and revolutionary conception of the world we, revolutionary architects, are at the mercy of the insoluble contradictions of a world built on animal individualism and the exploitation of man by man.  I have said, and I say again, to all architects, all engineers, all builders:

Our way is and must be that of the revolutionary proletariat, that of the communist party, the way of those who are building and achieving socialism.

I am leaving for the USSR to work among people who are forging a true revolutionary culture, who are achieving socialism, and who are living in that form of society for which we have been fighting here under the conditions of capitalism.

I beg our Russian comrades to regard us, my group and myself, not as heartless specialists, claiming all kinds of special privileges, but as fellow workers with comradely views ready to make a gift to socialism and the revolution of all our knowledge, all our strength, and all the experience that we have acquired in the art of building.

[From Pravda, Berlin dispatch dated October 10th, 1930]

And here are some exceedingly rare photographs of the second Bauhaus director, Hannes Meyer, along with his team of architects, in the Soviet Union.

Image gallery

Free PDFs of the German Avant-Garde Architectural Journal Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau (1926-1931)

Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau's Coverage of Ivan Leonidov's Proposal for the Lenin Institute

 The modernist movement was alive and well in interwar Germany.  Not only at the Bauhaus, which stood at the forefront of the avant-garde, under the leadership of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, but all over the country.  László Moholy-Nagy and Gropius published their famous Bauhausbücher series, El Lissitzky established his journal ABC: Beitrage zum Bauen, and Theo van Doesburg transplanted his Dutch De Stijl magazine to Germany. Continue reading

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism


An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.