The Staatliches Bauhaus, or the Bauhaus as it became known was the revolutionary art school in Germany that combined the art and crafts. Active from 1919 until 1933 the ethos of the school was best exemplified in the modernist architecture that still bears its name. The Bauhaus ethos continues to influence architecture, interior design, graphic design and the arts. What is less well known is the history of its development and the political pressures that eventually saw its closure in 1933.
The Bauhaus could be said to have originated with Walter Gropius and his solution to the problems of the machine age. By the end of the 19th century, many in Germany, and elsewhere, had become disillusioned with the machines of the modern age; machines that threatened to control human lives. Machines had driven artisans out of work, created objects had lost their value and life was divorced from nature. Gropius determined to wrest control back. Artists would be freed from the tyranny of producing meaningless baubles, artisans would be freed from the tyranny of the factory and life would rediscover nature. Architecture was to be the battle ground.
By the end of the 19th century architecture in Germany was stuck in a non-creative format. Public buildings were all neo-classical, factories were all functional steel structures and ordinary houses were basic boxes. Many in architecture were agitating for some change; some movement. Expressionism was sweeping across the artistic community and the architects saw a new potential.
At the end of the Great War, however, the government in Berlin were faced with a multitude of problems; architecture and any new direction was the least of their worries. Weimar held the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Conscious of the various calls for some form of new direction for architecture but loath to commit any real time or resources to such an idea the government merged the two institutions and called on Gropius to take charge.
Presented with this opportunity Gropius quickly attracted architects, painters and sculptors to the art school. He created a syllabus that married the arts and crafts together and gave life to the ethos of modern design for modern life. However, despite the previous calls for a new direction, Gropius’ innovative approach generated a considerable degree of criticism. Wilhelm van Bode, a well respected art collector and contributor to the Imperial museum in Berlin wrote to the government to complain about Gropius’ methods. Several of the professors from the Grand Ducal School refused to accept Gropius’ authority or indeed the existence of the Bauhaus and walked out setting up their own academy.
The town of Weimar was equally hostile. A relatively bourgeois town, Weimar did not understand Gropius or the Bauhaus and did not understand why they had lost their Ducal School and Academy. Although Gropius was generally unconcerned by the petty attitudes of the people of Weimar he was dependent on funding from the Thuringian state government. As a result he spent a considerable amount of time countering claims from right wing politicians regarding the waste of public money spent on the Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus struggled on, ever under the threat of losing its funding until 1923 when the government in Berlin became involved. 1923 had seen a variety of crises hit the government. In Thuringia, the socialists, concerned at the amount of ground that was being won by the reactionaries, decided to join the communists. The government in Berlin, attempting to maintain order between the various political factions, placed Thuringia under martial law. The army started to listen more closely to the complaints about the Bauhaus. The following spring the elections saw large gains by the factions on the right and further pressure was placed on the government to do something about the Bauhaus and its generally suspect activities. An official investigation into the school’s finances was launched. Unfortunately the Bauhaus had had five different business managers in six years and although there was no impropriety in their finances they were muddled enough for just such an accusation to be levelled. The investigation ordered all employment contracts to be terminated on September 1924, just at the beginning of the new teaching year and halved the state funding to the school. Gropius announced he would dissolve the Bauhaus.
Just at the moment, Dr Fritz Hesse, the Social Democratic Mayor of Dessau, offered the Bauhaus a home in his town. The Bauhaus built its own school and by 1925 had re-established its teaching programme. The work continued to evolve and by 1928 Gropius gave way to Hannes Meyer as architect-director of the Bauhaus. Meyer was more socialist than Gropius had been and moved the ethos of the school in this direction. However, Meyer’s main focus was on the development of architectural styles and was not predominantly political. Meyer attempted to keep the school out of the increasingly fraught national politics. When several students attempted to form an active Communist group in the school Meyer stopped them. Unfortunately Dr Hesse felt threatened by this and dismissed Meyer as director. The Dessau council asked Gropius to return. Gropius declined but suggested Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the next director. Rohe was appointed in 1930. Unfortunately for Rohe he was in post for barely a year when the National Socialist Workers’ Party gained control of the Dessau council in the elections of 1931. Within weeks of gaining control Nazis made clear their intention to close the Bauhaus.
In late 1932 Rohe moved the Bauhaus to a derelict factory he rented in Berlin using his own money. Condemned by the Nazis as un-German and as a front for communists, Rohe knew that the Bauhaus was living on borrowed time. All too soon the Gestapo closed them down. They had operated in Berlin for barely ten months. Rohe challenged the closure of the Bauhaus and surprisingly the decision was changed. However, despite this victory, Rohe knew that the Bauhaus would never be allowed artistic freedom under the Nazis and decided to close down the school.
Despite its brief existence, the Bauhaus was and remains influential across the world. What should not be forgotten, however, is that the talent that was nurtured and the artistic influence that was created came from a school that existed for barely 14 years; had uncertain funding, existed in unsupportive surroundings; had to move twice and was under political threat for almost all of its existence.