Bauhaus celebrates 100 years

Tel Aviv's White City, mass-market home furnishings and most smartphones owe a large debt to the influential and controversial design school's vision

A building designed by architect Yitzhak Rapaport that is part of Tel Aviv’s White City of about 4,000 buildings created in the Bauhaus style from the 1930s.
A building designed by architect Yitzhak Rapaport that is part of Tel Aviv’s White City of about 4,000 buildings created in the Bauhaus style from the 1930s.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, KNOLL

WEIMAR (Germany) • Bauhaus, the design school that left its mark on everything from teapots to tower blocks and iPhones to Ikea, marks its centenary this year, touching off a politically charged debate about its lasting impact.

The influence of Bauhaus, created during the turbulent period between the world wars and chased out of Germany by the Nazis, can hardly be overstated.

Its radical "form follows function" and "less is more" tenets have become so commonplace that the aesthetics of the modern world are unthinkable without them.

Weimar, with its winding cobblestone alleys and primly restored historical buildings, might seem like an unlikely ground zero for the bombshell launched by Walter Gropius with the school's founding on April 1, 1919.

But the small city 250km south-west of Berlin has been an intellectual hive for centuries and is now at the centre of Bauhaus commemorations around the country and spanning the globe.

"Bauhaus is among our country's most globally influential cultural exports," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as he kicked off the celebrations last week.

He noted that when the movement was run out of Germany after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, it touched off a diaspora that would end up spreading Bauhaus's gospel far and wide.

The clean lines of the United Nations headquarters building in New York, Tel Aviv's White City of 4,000 apartment blocks with pearly facades, mass-market home furnishings and most smartphones owe a large debt to the Bauhaus vision.


The design school, which also counts among its disciples Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky and Switzerland-born surrealist Paul Klee, had at its core the idea of making beautiful design accessible to all social classes.

The reformist vision of the international group of men and women who practised it was rooted in modernist thought and inspired by leaps in technological development after World War I.

"There was of course great suffering and horror after this mendacious war, which had such unbelievably devastating consequences," said Ms Anke Bluemm, a curator with the Bauhaus Foundation in Weimar. "The artists came together to create a new forum for art with very utopian, idealistic ideas."

Professor Winfried Speitkamp, head of Weimar's Bauhaus University - which still uses the original campus to teach the school's hands-on principles to new generations - said the aim was nothing less than to build a new democratic society from the rubble of the kaiser's empire.

"They wanted to break with a very authoritarian, very military-oriented monarchy. But what should that look like?"

Flat roofs, little ornamentation - the minimalist approach was intended to be more affordable and less steeped in fusty German tradition.

Bauhaus' birth dovetailed in time and place with the start of the inter-war Weimar Republic, and it was their shared revolutionary spirit that made them targets of the Nazis.

"It is typical for the far right that anything that challenges the homogeneity of the people and propagates openness and diversity is seen as dangerous," said Prof Speitkamp.

He said that "only five years ago", the Bauhaus jubilee might have been just another staid anniversary. But at a time when Europe and countries around the world were again caught between clashing visions of cultural identity, the discussion around it had become "explosive".

"Do we want to continue going down the path of globalisation, of free movement and cultural exchange? Or, as some nations are saying, do we need to make our borders stronger and define a nation by ethnicity?

"That is what the Bauhaus debate is also really about."

Prof Speitkamp cited a controversy in the run-up to the anniversary, in which leftist punk band Feine Sahne Fischfilet were meant to give a concert on the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, where the school was forced to move in 1925.

The gig by the group was hastily cancelled in October by the Bauhaus Foundation, citing "far-right threats" and a desire to steer clear of "political extremism - whether from the right, the left or elsewhere".

The move was widely slammed as cowardly and blind to the movement's roots.

Instead, a Dessau theatre held the event, which passed off without incident, and the foundation later pledged to remain an "international, open and transparent place for societal debates in the spirit of the historical Bauhaus".

The Bauhaus year will be marked by the openings of grand new museums in Weimar in April and in Dessau in September - both cities in the former communist east, which has seen a surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

A major expansion of Berlin's Bauhaus Archive, which holds the movement's largest collection, is due for completion in 2021.

Last week, Weimar offered a sneak preview to a small group of journalists of the Haus am Horn, the first single-family home designed according to Bauhaus principles.

The squat, boxy structure with innovations such as a prefabricated kitchen was completed in 1923.

It is undergoing a thorough restoration and will open to the public in May, furnished with Bauhaus classics.


Iconic Bauhaus creations


Bauhaus may be best known for its architecture and no city in the world has a larger collection of buildings in its style than Tel Aviv, which is designated as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site.

Designed from the 1930s by German Jewish architects fleeing the Nazis, the more than 4,000 remaining White City apartment buildings - named for their pearly facades - became affordable housing for new arrivals.

But unlike their predecessors built for the German climate, the Tel Aviv constructions used less glass and added balconies that could capture cool breezes off the Mediterranean to help residents beat the heat.


The simple white hemispheric lamp on a glass cylinder and base is a prime example of the smooth, clean lines which Bauhaus is known for.

Created in 1924 by Wilhelm Wagenfeld, the desktop masterpiece became a de rigueur bureau appointment, including in Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius' own office in Weimar.

Bauhaus critics have noted that as time passed, the school's streamlined, sometimes sterile look has strayed far from its egalitarian origins to become an elitist status symbol.

Copies of the Wagenfeld lamp now run upwards of €400 (S$618).


The iconic low-slung Wassily Chair was designed by Marcel Breuer in the 1920s and seen as revolutionary at the time for its use of bent tubular steel and leather.

It is still a huge hit in the design world and is not, as often thought, named for Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, another Bauhaus acolyte and a friend of Breuer's.

It was only in the 1980s, when the chair was being copied by other designers, that it was dubbed the Wassily Chair for marketing reasons.


The Bauhaus was not only aesthetically radical, but also had a reformist vision for society during its rocky tenure in Germany between the world wars.

It was one of the first technical schools to admit women and had rough gender parity among its student body in Weimar, where the university still teaches Bauhaus principles on the historic campus.

While Gropius tried to consign women to weaving and other traditionally "feminine" disciplines, a few trailblazers, such as Marianne Brandt, also worked in heavier materials.

Her 1924 metal teapot, with an intelligently placed spout for easier pouring, had a giant impact for its whimsically angular geometry exuding a sense of harmony.

A household object once stored in cupboards became a design milestone destined for modern art museums.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline 'Bauhaus celebrates 100 years'. Subscribe