Paul Sullivan takes a day trip to Dessau to explore the Bauhaus City…
Nestled into the corner of the Mulde and Elbe rivers, the Saxony-Anhalt town of Dessau—Dessau-Rosslau since 2007—is a gentle, inconspicuous place with a big reputation. Aside from its 16th century role as the capital of the Principality of Anhalt (a state of the Holy Roman Empire), and a few decades as the capital of the Free State of Anhalt (1918-1945), it’s today best known for its connection to the Bauhaus architectural movement.
Founded by Walter Gropius in the Thuringian town of Weimar in 1919, the original Bauhaus school was a marriage of arts, crafts and architecture, with a specific emphasis on bridging the gap between applied arts and fine arts—Bauhaus meaning ‘building’ in German, but also a reference to Bauhütte, a pre-modern stonemasons’ guild. The school was more or less immediately successful, morphing quickly into a powerful and global movement by attracting an international set of artists, architects, designers and choreographers: Oskar Schlemmer, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johanes Itten, among them.
Managing to nonetheless ruffle the feathers of Weimar’s conservative municipal authorities, the entire entourage moved to Dessau in 1925, where Gropius designed a new main school in a minimalist, internationalist style. It was here that, under the leadership of Hannes Meyer (from 1928) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (from 1930), the Bauhaus worldview began to lean more towards functionalism, architecture and commerce, enjoying what would be its heyday until it was shut down by the Nazis.
Today, Gropius’s strikingly linear, all-white building is just one of around 300 Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, based on designs by well-known names such as Gropius, Kandinsky and Marcel Breuer. Renovated following World War Two and the subsequent division of the country, they are now breezily integrated into the city’s more eclectic range of urban architecture, and range from Carl Fieger’s Kornhaus—a restaurant that sits attractively on the Elbe river—and Gropius’s functionalist yellow-brick Employment Office, to the sprawling Törten Housing Estate, the main Bauhaus Building, and the Masters’ Houses; several of these are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The best starting point for an exploration, though, is a new building: the Bauhaus Museum Dessau, which opened in 2019 to mark the centenary of the movement. A distinctly contemporary building of steel and glass by Barcelona’s addenda architects, it has an impressive exhibition space of 2,100 square meters and hosts the world’s second-largest collection of Bauhaus exhibits: around 50,000 catalogued items.
The spacious ground floor is used as an open stage for contemporary artistic ideas and events (lectures, film screenings, performances), and also hosts the ticket office, and a sleek shop and café. The main exhibition, entitled Versuchsstätte Bauhaus: Die Sammlung—which roughly translates as Experimental Bauhaus: The Collection, a nod to the school’s penchant for creativity and innovation—takes up the entirety of the first floor, which is also known as the Black Box due to its black-painted walls and dramatic spot-lit ambiance.
The curators have not gone for an obvious overview of the school; rather they expect some kind of familiarity with the basics, taking visitors instead on an insider tour of the school’s most significant departments (furnishings, architecture, textiles, lighting) while showcasing a variety of works—some well-known, some obscure—inside large orange cabinets. These cabinets offer slide-out walls and draws that hold design and lesson plans, and there are additional exhibits in the shape of listening stations, photos and textual ‘interventions’ on the walls.
The idea is to go a little deeper into the school’s methodology, showing work from students as well as masters, elucidating how it was a place for idea exchanges rather than top-down learning, and how it tried to continuously juggle its baked-in penchant for experimentation with the economic pressures it faced. Some sections also the see-sawing fortunes of the institute: it had its detractors from the start, though none as harsh as the National Socialists, and was written off by East Germany for being too modernist until the late seventies, when it was brought back to life.
Of the exhibits on show, we get a decent range of well-known works. The opening gambit is a light-space modulator by Laylo Moholy-Nagy, who ran the school’s preliminary course. There’s a reconstructions of Oskar Schlemmer’s famous figurines for his Triadic Ballet; several of Marcel Breuer’s chairs (his B3 tubular steel chair and African chair, for example); and Mies van der Rohe’s 1927 Weissenhof chair—the first cantilever chair with elastic flexing—and his Barcelona Chair, designed for the 1929 Barcelona Expo, where Spain’s king and queen tried out the design, transforming it into a modern throne.
Perhaps more interesting are the numerous insights into the school itself, and the physical examples of less famous Bauhaus products and ideas. There’s a special emphasis on bringing some of the lesser-known female members to the fore: although the Bauhaus was technically open to women from the start, they were officially restricted to the textiles department—which eventually became the most productive and successful department in the whole school.
However, women like Marianne Brandt, a protégé of László Moholy-Nagy, refused to be limited in this way, and became the first female metalworker, working eventually with everything from lighting and textiles to furniture (her lamps, and tea infuser are on display). In the textiles area we learn about Gunta Stölzl, the first and only female Master and a frequent collaborator with Breuer. Some of the carpets here are presented upright like paintings, and with good reason: Margaretha “Grete“ Reichardt’s works look like Kandinsky paintings, and she was indeed taught by him.
Other areas cover the 50th anniversary in 1976, when the movement and buildings were revived by the GDR, and the Bauhaus Building reopened as “Wissenschaftlich-Kulturelles Zentrum” (almost all of that ‘comeback collection’ is on display), show how important exhibitions were to raise the school’s profile, and how the institution fostered an international network.
It was also in Dessau that Bauhaus seriously took up architecture, helping design prefab buildings to alleviate the housing shortage in Weimar. Led by Gropius, these pioneering homes—many of which were also built by non Bauhaus architects with similar ideas—were installed with Bauhaus interiors, from chairs to wallpapers, and needed to be affordable for the working classes, with a garden and space for livestock.
The exhibition contains some architectural models, but it’s worth taking time to explore some of the real-life examples dotted around the city, especially as they’re easily reached on foot (and well signposted), or by hopping on the dedicated bus (#10). The star of the show is the distinctive Bauhaus building, which housed the office of its designer, Walter Gropius. Restored in the seventies, it is today in good shape and a UNESCO Heritage site, though since there is little to see inside, the 8,50 euro entry fee seems steep; meanwhile, it’s free to walk around and take photographs.
More interesting are the Masters’ Houses—also designed by Gropius—which with some 200 square meters of living space were relatively luxurious. As well as his own detached house, visitors can also take tours of the adjacent semi-detached homes built for other Masters, which are adapted iterations of the same floor plan thanks to interior modular walls. (Note that both the Gropius House and Moholy-Nagy House were destroyed and are historically accurate rebuilds). As well as the furnishings inside, look out for artist Olaf Nicolai’s installation (The Colour of Light) for the two newer buildings, inspired by Moholy-Nagy.
Gropius also created the rationalist Employment Office that still sits on August-Bebel-Platz (#16), and which carefully and rationally followed the office’s processes, from interview and registration to benefit payouts by building five entrances (separating visitors by profession and gender) and an admin building built just behind. Today the building is used by the serves as Dessau’s Amt für Ordnung und Verkehr, but it’s possible (and free) to go inside, and admire the surprisingly well-lit interior, thanks to the glass roof and glass internal walls.
A much bigger site (and trip) is the Dessau-Törten Housing Estate, which lies around five kilometres from the centre of town. Commissioned as a cost-effective solution to housing shortages, it was again designed by Gropius and comprises 314 terraced houses with a range of typologies and their own gardens, but no Bauhaus interiors as there was apparently no demand for them. The Konsum Building, the centrepoint of the estate, is now a visitor centre with an overview of the estate and permanent exhibition.
If you want to explore more, but feel you’ve had enough of architecture for the day, the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz is around 15 kilometres away, and the natural scenery of the UNESCO Middle Elbe Biosphere Reserve around 10 kilometres: both are serene places to unwind and reflect on the immense legacy of a short-lived but somewhat utopian movement, whose influence very much lives on today.
This article first appeared in This Is Germany magazine, a new English-language publication for fans of Germany.
All photos courtesy of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation