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German Unification
The Bauhaus – A reunified German cult site

In East Germany this stronghold of modernism was long ostracized. Today the Bauhaus is one of the cultural beacons of unified Germany.

It was the most successful German invention of the twentieth century, the biggest export hit, the most durable of all brand names: the Bauhaus in Dessau, which was founded in Weimar. No other school of design from Germany has achieved a similar worldwide breakthrough. No other is so completely and unwaveringly connected with modernism. To argue against the Bauhaus still means to deny “progress” – although the architectural school in Dessau was in existence for only eight years and already shut down in 1933.

Between the closing in Dessau and the GDR regime’s reopening of a “Scientific and Cultural Centre” at the same location in 1976 were four decades of public ostracism – first by the Nazis, who had fought against the Bauhaus even before 1933, then (which is less known in West Germany) by the Communists. The GDR’s rejection of the Bauhaus goes back to the former’s infancy. Bauhaus and socialism do not mix, declared Arkady Mordvinov, President of the Academy of Architecture of the Soviet Union, to a high-level delegation of East German architects and party ideologues that had been summoned to Moscow to be sworn into the new Party line. The task, he continued, is therefore “to range people of the Bauhaus type in the front lines of true socialist culture”.

Second-class rehabilitation

It was only three years before German reunification in 1990 that the spell seemed to be broken. Then the GDR, in festive mood, celebrated the official reopening of the Bauhaus, now renamed a “Centre of Design”. But, of course, not without noting that the right socialist idea of architecture had escaped the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. His “socially determined conception of architecture” was “open to both sides […] – to the proletarian (socialist) as well as the bourgeois (capitalist)”, observed the Weimar architecture scholar Christian Schädlich. This was only a second-class rehabilitation.

Even four years after German reunification how things should proceed with the Bauhaus remained open. It was only on 9 February 1994 that the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation was established. Only since then has the building ensemble and its institutes been one of the important cult sites and cultural “beacons” of unified Germany.

It is an accolade that the historical Bauhaus would never have sought. Its self-understanding and law of life was rebellion. The fascination for this school of art could never have found its unexampled world-historical dissemination had the Bauhaus not radiated the promise of a revolution in all the circumstances of life, a revaluation of all values, bonds and goals.

We must realize that at the beginning of this heroic, exorbitant and presumptuous idea stood the artistic concept of the total work of art, as it had been championed by the composer Richard Wagner. To this there was added the romantic idea that a community of artists could improve the world, an inspiration which had also animated the pioneers of Jugendstil around the Austrian designer and architect Josef Maria Olbrich. There was an urge to return to crafts, to medieval cathedral workshops, to guilds; adherents extolled breathing techniques, physical fitness and healthy diet, from which they promised themselves an “inner purification of the body”.

Straight, razor-sharp lines

Even before the move to Dessau, in the early Weimar years of the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1925, this double-pronged attack on existing conditions could not be sustained. What appeared to the English art historian Frank Whitford in his big Bauhaus monograph of 1992 as something “very fundamental in contemporary Germany” fell apart in the duel between the “mystic” Johannes Itten and the Bauhaus boss Walter Gropius: “On the one hand the invasion of Eastern culture, India cult, the ‘back to nature’ of the Wandervogel movement and also housing estates, vegetarianism, Tolstoyism, reaction against the war – and on the other hand Americanism, progress, the marvel of technology and invention, the big city …”.

Gropius prevailed, and with him the cult of the straight, razor-sharp lines imported from the Netherlands. Abjured were the ornamental façade, colour, the gabled roof, the column, the bay, the base, the cornice. Propagated were the car-friendly city, the city as machine, the dissolution of corridor roads and perimeter development, the segregation of functions, the prefabricated component and finished element design. The new thing was “Fordism”, the adaptation to production processes, to the pace of factories, the speed of goods traffic. But the preservation of a legacy and, as the charter of the Bauhaus Foundation has it, its “communication to the public” – this is not what Gropius, the father of the Bauhaus, desired.

If today the Bauhaus is a cult site for an again unified Germany, this could come about only because its revolutionary spirit has breathed its last and it is now dedicated more to the maintenance of tradition than the prospect of something fundamentally new. The progress that here began its triumphal march around the world now suns itself in the light of the museum.

Bauhaus Dessau today:

You can still walk in the footsteps of the Bauhaus. Tours take visitors through the former school building designed by Walter Gropius and the “New Masters’ Houses”. The houses of Gropius and his colleagues were reconstructed and reopened in 2014. In the south of Dessau, visitors can also view the “Törten Housing Estate”, commissioned by the city and built at the end of the 1920s.