Ode to a master

Stuart Forster
Filed on February 7, 2020
Gropius-designed Bauhaus building in Dessau

Museums have come up in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin as part of 100 years of Bauhaus, the institution which combined fine arts and design education

Can any school of art, design and architecture match the impact of the Bauhaus? I ponder that question while looking at sunlit fields through the window of a train zipping southwards in Germany.

The Bauhaus existed for just 14 years, yet had a profound impact on design and architecture and how those subjects were taught around the world. The school was founded in Weimar during 1919, moved to Dessau six years later, and functioned for a few months in Berlin before closing in 1933 due to pressure from the country's newly elected National Socialist authorities. Each of those three cities is opening a Bauhaus museum to commemorate the legacy of the Bauhaus 100 years since its foundation.

The train I board at Halle - changing on the way to Weimar, during the nearly two-hour journey from Dessau-Rosslau - bears the Bauhaus 100 logo on its side. With sites of interest to view in three German cities, travelling by rail is an easy and logical choice. I opted for an Interrail Global Pass, allowing me to travel in first class carriages for seven days within its month of validity (passes for non-residents of Europe are available under the Eurail brand).

With concerns about the environmental impact of flying growing, rail travel is becoming an increasingly attractive option to European travellers. There's even a social media movement known as 'train bragging'. Swedish in origin, it entails tagging photos of journeys with the hashtag #tagskryt. It grew out of the 'flight-shame' movement, known as flygskam, which encourages people to seek modes of transport that are less environmentally damaging than flying. Environmentalists offer convincing arguments as to why travelling by rail rather than air makes sense. But, dare I whisper it, I chose train travel primarily because I love to stare out of the window, getting a sense of the place, and have time to think while rolling through the countryside.

From the station in Weimar, it's a 10-minute stroll to the cube-shaped Bauhaus Museum Weimar that opened in April. The minimalist building, designed by Heike Hanada, displays around 1,000 artefacts from the state's 13,000-strong Bauhaus-related collection. The attraction is conceived as a key element within an area termed the Quarter of Weimar Modernism. The Bauhaus-fostered Modernist ideas that spawned sleek, function-led designs - including Marianne Brandt's iconic teapot - and flat-roofed buildings such as the Georg Muche-designed Haus am Horn on the periphery of the Weimar's Park an der Ilm.

The museum has an open concept with few walls. That symbolises an aspect of the thinking behind the Bauhaus, explains Claudia von der Heyde, my guide in Weimar. She adds that Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus while members of Germany's National Assembly were meeting in Weimar. A plaque, designed by Gropius and displayed on an exterior wall of the city's theatre, commemorates the building's role as the place where the country's democratic constitution was debated and published following the defeat of World War One.

"It was a new time in Germany. We had a democracy. The emperor had abdicated. Women were allowed to vote; they had started working in men's professions. It was turmoil," says von der Heyde about the time in which the Bauhaus was established. She adds that the first few years of the Bauhaus were a time of trying new ways of doing things, of equality and experimentation. There was hope among artists and designers that they could help positively shape modern society and influence people's quality of life.

Exploring the museum conveys how the thinking behind the Bauhaus evolved. At first, its focus was on handcrafted objects. After 1923, Gropius encouraged students to design prototypes that could be manufactured and thus have a greater impact on people's lives. We look at the yellow cradle designed by Peter Keler, see an example of functional furniture designed for a child's bedroom then view steel chairs designed by Marcel Breuer.

The Bauhaus employed several notable artists among the masters that taught students. They included Wassily Kandinksy, Lyonel Feininger and Oskar Schlemmer. However, relatively few paintings are displayed within the Bauhaus Museum Weimar. The reason, explains my guide, is that the Nazis regarded Modernist art as un-German. They labelled it Entartete Kunst meaning 'degenerate art'. Consequently, many of the works within the state collection were sold to foreign museums. Ironically, it was exhibitions such as the one held from 1938 to 1939 in New York's Museum of Modern Art that helped consolidate the Bauhaus's international reputation and broaden awareness of Modernist ideals.

We head to the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, where the Bauhaus was based during its six years in the Thuringian city. As we climb the staircase, Von der Heyde points out the curved handrail of the bannister; it enables our hands to comfortably and effortlessly grab it. One of the key mantras of the Bauhaus was 'form follows function'. She unlocks a room and explains it has been reconstructed in the style of the director's office, used by Gropius. The yellow sofa and armchair plus linear ceiling lamps would not look out of place in home offices today.

In Dessau, I saw a similar office within the Gropius-designed school building that's part of Germany's Bauhaus UNESCO World Heritage Site. That airy building opened in 1926. Making remarkable use of natural light, it features a block with studio apartments for students. Reconstructed with personal effects of students, affordably priced studio rooms can now be rented by the night.

Facing increasing hostility in Weimar - and consequently reductions to funding - Gropius relocated the school to Dessau. In the mid-1920s, it was a rapidly expanding industrial hub. He chose the city due to the municipality's promise of architectural commissions and the prospect of students being able to liaise with local companies to realise designs.

The flat-roofed houses in which the school's masters resided are a five-minute walk along Gropiusallee from the school. I ventured into the city centre by bus; Dessau's line 10 skirts sites associated with the Bauhaus. A new attraction, the Bauhaus Museum Dessau opened on September 8. After viewing its glass façade, I went to see the historic employment office - designed by Gropius and constructed of yellow bricks - then passed through the Dessau-Törten housing estate, where affordable houses were constructed according to Bauhaus principles. The estate includes apartment buildings designed by Hannes Meyer, Gropius's successor as the school's director.

For dinner I visited the Kornhaus, a riverside restaurant with a terrace overlooking a loop in the River Elbe. Designed by Carl Fieger, it features a semi-circular balcony and is a popular place for viewing sunsets. The final stop on my Bauhaus-themed journey was Berlin. A new museum building, with a glass tower, at the site of the Bauhaus-Archiv, is an archive created to bring together Bauhaus-related documentation from around the world.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com


 
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