Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 – and in doing so revolutionised architecture, design and the way we think about it. What influence does this art school have today? And what should everyone know about the Bauhaus? We answer the most important questions about next year’s anniversary.
All about the building: Walter Gropius, founder and first director of the Bauhaus, knew exactly where he wanted to take his new school. In the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto he wrote: “Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting.” This interdisciplinary approach sought to bring fine art together with the art of architecture, with the spotlight on the building itself.
“The needs of the people before the need for luxury”
Make way for the architecture of the proletariat! Swiss architect Hannes Meyer took over from Gropius as Bauhaus director. He was critical of his predecessor’s work, and assessed the first phase under Gropius as “sect-like and aesthetic”. Meyer set a new guiding principle to take the school in a different direction: “Basically my teaching will be on absolutely functional-collectivist-constructive lines.” In practice this meant that any object to come out of the Bauhaus had to be designed for inexpensive mass production to make it affordable for everyone.
No ornamentation, no frippery or finery, and no bells and whistles: While the “form follows function” ideal did not originate with the great minds of the Bauhaus – although it is often misattributed to them – they were the first to consistently apply it in Germany. And though the language of the Bauhaus might make it seem like this principle perfectly captures the school’s quintessence, Wassily Kandinsky qualified it somewhat with his dictum, “necessity creates form.”
“Where there is wool, you’ll find a weaving wench, be it to fill the idle hours at her bench.”
As ahead of its time as the Bauhaus may appear, Gropius quickly demonstrated how little store he really set in the equality between the sexes he initially touted with such enthusiasm. Women were given little to no consideration, as demonstrated by his recommendation to the Council of Masters’ not to undertake “any unnecessary experiments”. At the Bauhaus, emancipation went no further than sending women directly to the weaving workshop whenever possible, and excluding them from any courses in architecture.
... Gropius claimed in 1925. So far, so good. “In order to design it so that it functions well, its essence must first be explored; it should serve its purpose perfectly, that is, fulfill its function practically and be durable, inexpensive and ‘beautiful’.” This need to explore the essence of things might help explain many an insane sounding lesson in which students are encouraged to think like the object.
What has architecture come to? The Bauhaus school also came under considerable fire, as reviews of the cool, functional living spaces from the 1923 “Bauhaus Exhibition” showed. Whitewashed steel constructions with innovative interior elements; the walls in the children’s rooms were for writing on, and the furniture could be moved together to save space. Contemporaries did not hold back their harsh derision, using phrases like “North Pole station”, “operating theatre”, referring to the floorplan as an “architectural joke”, and classifying the overall feel as “positively unfriendly, orthodox-puritanical”.
The Bauhaus wanted to redefine the relationship between education, art and society. The Bauhaus shared this approach, which can be found in Gropius' Manifesto of 1919, with other movements in the 20th century, such as Japan and Russia.
A little piece of Bauhaus
In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the German Bauhaus, in 2019, the Goethe-Institut Chicago is showing works by local, national and international artists whose works relate to the Bauhaus.