DESSAU, 60km southwest of Magdeburg, was once an attractive town at the centre of a patchwork of palaces, parks and gardens. The latter have survived, but war damage, Stalinist rebuilding programmes and years of GDR neglect have made the place rather workaday. But what does justify the journey here are remnants of the Bauhaus movement. Built here in 1925, the Bauhaus design school once made it the hub of Modernism and the first place where many modern designs were implemented – these include the Meisterhäuser, the villas of the most influential thinkers, and the Törten, the first modern housing-estate. All this makes it a place of pilgrimage for architecture students, but it is interesting enough to appeal to anyone inquisitive about the roots of modern design.
The belt of landscaped parks in and around Dessau have been collectively dubbed the Gartenreich (Garden Realm; gartenreich.com) and offer days of unhurried exploration and picnicking. Their attendant Baroque and Neoclassical mansions are an additional draw. The most extensive and impressive of all the complexes is Wörlitz, but the most convenient is Park Georgium, a short walk from the Meisterhäuser in central Dessau.Read More
Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau
Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau
The one-time hub of the worldwide Bauhaus movement was Dessau’s Bauhausgebäude, which now houses the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau (Bauhaus Foundation). The work of Walter Gropius, this white concrete building with its huge plate-glass windows was refurbished on its eightieth anniversary in 2006, making it look tremendously new. The famous Bauhaus logo graces the southern side; the photogenic “swimming pool” balconies its eastern wall.
At the time of its construction the building was an architectural sensation and prototype for several construction techniques. A reinforced concrete skeleton allowed for curtain walling – outer walls designed to carry nothing but their own weight – and introduced wide-span building techniques that opened up more useable floor space by removing the need for supporting columns. These principles really flourished from the 1950s and 1960s and have dominated since – making them less of a spectacle for today’s viewer.
Though still in use as a design school, the public can wander round much of the building, with the audio tour a useful accompaniment, particularly if you can’t make the hour-long tours in German which access otherwise locked areas. Both can be organized at the first-floor front desk, which sells tickets to Dessau’s other Bauhaus attractions and is the entrance to the Ausstellung im Bauhaus (Exhibition in the Bauhaus), which explores the experimental application of Bauhaus theory in just about every sphere of art and design, including ceramics, furniture, theatre and visual art. Finally, the well-stocked basement book and gift shop is also worth a look.
Bauhaus, whose literal meaning in German is “building-house”, has become a generic term for the aesthetically functional designs that emerged from the art and design school at Dessau. The Bauhaus movement began with the Novembergruppe, founded in 1918 by Expressionist painter Max Pechstein to utilize art for revolutionary purposes. Members included Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Emil Nolde, Eric Mendelssohn and architect Walter Gropius. In 1919 Gropius was invited by Germany‘s new republican government to oversee the amalgamation of the School of Arts and Crafts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar into the Staatliche Bauhaus Weimar. The new institution was to break down barriers between art and craft, creating a new form of applied art. It attracted over two hundred students who studied typography, furniture design, ceramics, wood-, glass- and metalworking under exponents like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy.
Financial problems and opposition from the conservative administration in Weimar eventually forced a relocation to Dessau, chosen because, as home to a number of modern industrial concerns, notably an aeroplane factory and a chemical works, it could provide financial and material support. Dessau’s Bauhausgebäude, designed by Gropius and inaugurated on December 4, 1926, is one of the movement’s classic buildings. Towards the end of the 1920s, the staff and students of the Bauhaus school became increasingly embroiled in the political battles of the time. As a result, Gropius was pressurized into resigning by the authorities and replaced by Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. He, in turn, was dismissed in 1930 because of the increasingly left-wing orientation of the school. His successor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tried to establish an apolitical atmosphere, but throughout the early 1930s Dessau’s Nazi town councillors called for an end to Bauhaus subsidies. Their efforts finally succeeded in 1932, forcing the school to close and relocate to a disused telephone factory in more liberal Berlin. However, after the Nazis came to power, police harassment reached such a pitch that in 1933, Mies van der Rohe decided to shut up shop for good. He and many of the staff and students subsequently went into exile in the USA, where they helped found a successor movement known as the International Style.
24 hours of Bauhaus
If you’re in Dessau on a Bauhaus pilgrimage, be sure to pick up a 24-hour ticket (€15) at the Bauhausgebäude. It gets you into all Bauhaus buildings open to the public and on all tours of them within a 24-hour period. Complete the experience by dining at the Bauhaus Mensa or the Kornhaus and sleep in the Prellerhaus, the school’s former student accommodation .