The Bauhaus Art School — one of the birthplaces of Modernism — was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919 and operated until 1933. There students studied not only architecture but created everything from art to furniture. Throughout the year Germany is continuing to celebrate the school’s centenary. Recently, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit all the Bauhaus hotspots and explore exhibits and events marking the design center’s founding.
Form follows function
The Bauhaus (literally “Building House”) was founded by architect Walter Gropius with the idea of creating a “total work of art.” This style, which includes architecture and graphic, interior and industrial design, would later become one of the most influential currents in modern planning —clean, simple and contemporary. American architect Louis Sullivan, describing Bauhaus, coined the phrase “form follows function” — an apt description.
The first city in my Bauhausland tour was Karlsruhe. Lying at the northern edge of the Black Forest, the town was mainly built in a charming Neoclassical style. The Landesmuseum is a massive, bright canary-yellow structure that is one of the most important cultural history museums in all of Germany. The works encompass pre- and early history, ancient cultures, the Middle Ages, the Baroque period and the rest of art history into the 21st century. Later, I explored the ZKM Center for Art and Media, housing painting, photography and sculpture as well as film, video, dance and performance. The museum’s mission is to continue the classical arts into the digital age. Meanwhile, the Daimler Collection’s “Light as an Artistic Installation,” featured 50 artists and 80 works from the 1950s to the present.
Public housing for the ages
The next day I was excited to tour the Dammerstock Estate, an impressive example of new architecture created by Gropius and Otto Haesler, among others. Built in 1929 in just sevent months as an affordable housing complex, it united the aesthetic principles of air, light and hygiene. Created with radiant white plaster, gray plinths, flat roofs, uniform windows and, scattered throughout, relaxing benches, sculpture and gardens, Dammerstock works just as well today as it did when first conceived. As sprawling as it is, you feel welcomed and cozy, especially resting on a bench under towering linden and elm trees fronting the iconic Goethe House. This was Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first home as a young man and throughout his life he kept it as his retreat and studio.
One of the best preserved medieval cities in Germany, Erfurt was first mentioned in the year 742. Among its treasures is the Alte Synagogue, beautifully maintained and dating from the 11th century. A little known fact: In 1919 more women than men applied to study at one of the first Bauhaus art schools, and this city’s Angermuseum sheds light on four of the “Bauhaus Girls,” uncovering the lives of Gertrud Arndt, Marianne Brandt, Margarete Heymann and Margaretha Reichardt and their work in photography, metalwork, ceramic and textiles.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
In April of last year, the New Bauhaus Museum opened in Weimar, showcasing a wide range of the world’s oldest collection of Bauhaus treasures. The building features a striking Minimalist glass cube over a concrete base with five levels of exhibit space. The city consists of 11 World Heritage sites. Two of the most engaging are the Goethe House, built in the Baroque style in 1709 and surrounded by a verdant garden, and the Friedrich von Schiller House, the first memorial to a poet in Germany. Wandering through its rooms, I had a real feeling for the everyday life of the Schiller family as I glimpsed a lovely teapot made of local porcelain resting on a small stove top.
In Jena, I lost my heart to the charming and amusing Auerbach House built in 1924 by Gropius for Felix and Anna Auerbach. As I climbed a hill to its crest, my first impression of the dwelling was of a floating asymmetrical building that seemed to change and reverse itself as I entered and moved through the rooms. Curiouser and curiouser, I found nothing symmetrical inside its walls, which were painted with 37 different gentle pastel colors — eye-catching and completely entrancing. These myriad tones illustrated how color relates to space and light and gave each room its own special ambience.
Once more — with feeling
During the Weimar Republic, the Moritzburg Art Museum in Halle was a significant center of contemporary art. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, this collection was suddenly regarded as degenerate and the works were vilified in “Exhibitions of Shame” that opened in 1937. Thus 146 of these works were ultimately lost and today only 14 have been reacquired. Happily when I visited, I was able to marvel at parts of the reconstructed lost collection — glorious masterpieces by Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, among others, from international collections in France, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, the United States and Japan.
The first historical mention of the city of Dessau was in 1213 and it became an important center in 1570. Fast forward to today: The Bauhaus Museum Dessau was recently opened to mark the school’s centenary. Until now, it was possible to view the prized collection of the Bauhaus Foundation only in a limited way, but the new museum provides a splendid showcase.
Before bidding adieu to Bauhausland, I made sure I traveled to Magdeburg to view the oldest Gothic cathedral in all of Germany. First built in 937, the current Magdeburg Cathedral was constructed over a period of 300 years beginning in 1209. The cathedral is replete with art, both antique and modern. The statue of the Egyptian St. Maurice dating from 1250 was impressive and I was enthralled by a large relief of the “Ten Virgins,” depicting the importance of being spiritually prepared.
Departing the cathedral and ultimately Germany, I felt curiously ensconced in all things medieval. Yet, returning home with my heightened awareness of the Bauhaus, I was amused, not to say amazed, to notice — all around me — examples of this symbolic design. Walls painted in bright, primary colors, the mauve New York City skyline at dusk with its straight lines slashing across the sky, the Met Life Building itself (by Gropius) and the Seagram Building (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). Thus, I didn’t actually leave behind this fresh, forward-looking style at all. As I light a Brandt look-alike lamp and settle down in my Mies-inspired chair, the thought hits me: Bauhaus is part of my house.