Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices


by Anna Glazova


The influence of the Bauhaus on processes in architecture, interior design, furniture manufacturing and visual arts after its tragic closure in 1933 by the Nazi government in the remaining part of the 20th century cannot be underestimated. The entire furniture design is based on the innovations, implemented by the Bauhäusler, and we are used to the expression «the Bauhaus style.» The Bauhaus claimed to be international, and its ideas successfully traversed borders into different countries. My first encounter with the Bauhaus happened in the Moscow Architectural Institute, where in the early 90's the Bauhaus was still a major source of ideas for the whole educational and professional concept, and as far as I know the Illinois Institute of Technology (considered a contemporary successor to the Bauhaus in the USA) has an introductory course for the first-year students, structured similarly to the Bauhaus Vorkurs. What made the Bauhaus special and, at the same time, versatile to that extent? First of all, let us examine the roots.

How the Bauhaus Began

Frank Whitford wrote: «The school's first aim was to rescue all the arts from the isolation in which each then (allegedly) found itself and to train the craftsmen, painters and sculptors of the future to embark on cooperative projects in which all their skills would be combined.» (1, p. 11) What is remarkable in this quote is the word allegedly -- Whitford claims, that Gropius' idea of the art and craft's amalgamation was not very new. As examples of the Bauhaus forerunners he mentions the Wiener Werkstätte and, most importantly, the British reformers of education. Influenced by the latter, the superintendent of schools of arts and crafts Hermann Muthesius «encouraged the establishment of training workshops in which students could learn by actually making things rather than designing them on paper.» (1, p. 20) Whitford gives statistics: «In 1914 the Weimar Kunstgewerbeschule was but one among eighty-one German institutions specializing in art education in one form or another, and of these no fewer than sixty-three included craft departments.» (1, p. 27)
The second goal of the school was to «create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist!» (2) The Belgian architect Henry van de Velde, who was a colleague of Gropius at the Werkbund, conducted the private Arts and Crafts Seminar, and it was «an institute to support the work of craft and industry, more precisely a kind of laboratory where every craftsman or industrialist could be given free advice, have his products analyzed and improved.» (3)
As we see, the Bauhaus proposals were not that unique as they probably appear at first sight. It can be also said that rational design, to which the «young masters» like Marcel Breuer contributed the most, reaching its peak in the Georg Muche's experimental Haus am Horn, had been anticipated by the Viennese Adolf Loos and the German Peter Behrens (1). Both Behrens and van de Velde began as painters and became architects later, because they — as artists of the Werkbund -- felt obliged to be more socially engaged than it would have been possible in painting. This point, essential for the Bauhaus, separates it from the avant-garde.
In the 1919, the Weimar officials appointed Gropius to direct the new Weimar art and craft school, resulting from the fusion of the Academy of Art and the Kunstgewerbeschule. The new organization was called «The State Bauhaus». It took Gropius several years to reform (as far as he was able to) the school in the way he had described in his manifesto in the April of 1919. He restructured the old-fashioned academic hierarchy of the Art Academy: the old professorial teaching positions were now filled by «masters» the former teachers as professors were replaced with «masters», and students -- with «apprentices» and «journeymen». The Vorkurs and workshops became the basics of education and remained in the program for all 14 years of the Bauhaus existence surviving all Bauhaus metamorphoses. «A tandem system of workshop-teaching» (1, p. 30) distinguished the Bauhaus from other reformed arts and crafts schools in Germany.

The Weimar Bauhaus

The Weimar Bauhaus existed through 1925 until its first temporal closure and subsequent re-establishment in Dessau. In this first phase different currents in teaching can already be seen, that are directly influenced by the personalities of the director Gropius and teachers of the preliminary course, first Itten, then, since 1923, Moholy-Nagy. I don't believe this was incidental but quite logical that Moholy came to take Itten's place, because this reflected the development of the school. A closer look into the Gropius' manifesto of 1919 reveals it as idealistic. It says: «The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art.» (2) Lyonel Feininger made the cover for this manifesto, a woodcut reminiscent of the expressionism and demonstrating «the cathedral of art», or, as Gropius wrote in an essay for the Arbeitsrat für Kunst in 1919 «the creative conception of the cathedral of the future, which will once more encompass everything in one form — architecture and sculpture and painting». In this almost theologically conceptualized institution artists, or «Masters of Form», were supposed to work hand in hand with craftsmen, or «Workshop Masters». Whitford wrote: «From the beginning Gropius was determined that the Bauhaus would become much more than a mere school. He hoped that the students would learn to live and work together in a miniature society which would serve as a model of society at large.» (1, p. 46) Whitford compares this vision with the medieval guild (1, p. 49), and to me it also seems a sort of a cloister in the service of transcendent art, occupied by the Masters, the monks. Itten's spirituality, his fin-de-siecle image of a «new man» and his teaching methods, including breathing exercises and vegetarian diet for the students, contribute a lot to this metaphor.
The early Bauhaus suffered a number of problems and disillusionments. The reality demonstrated that the co-operation between artists and craftsmen was not altogether devoid of problems. Instead of the equality proclaimed in the manifesto, the craftsmen were not treated as equals to the Masters of Form: they were paid less, and it was the Masters of Form who could make decisions in the workshops as well. In the manifesto Gropius wrote: «The tuition fee is 180 marks per year (it will gradually disappear entirely with increasing earning of the Bauhaus)» (2). But the earnings at that time turned out to be an illusion — in 1921 he had to admit «the lack of co-operation between the workshops, the lack of projects of any size which would make the idea of the Bauhaus clear to the public, and the small number of usable products made by some of the workshops.» (1, p.138) Of course, the main reason for that was general lack of money in the post-war Germany, but not only that. The manifesto begins with a obliging proclamation: «The main aim of all visual arts is the complete building!» (2) But, as Oscar Schlemmer said in 1921: «the construction and architecture class or workshop, which should be the core of the Bauhaus, does not exist officially, but only in Gropius' private office… It is an architectural bureau, its aims directly opposed to the schooling function of the workshops.» (1, p. 78) And the co-operative project of the Sommerfeld house also shows the «celebrated craftsmanship in the old-fashioned way: there was nothing suggesting industrial design anywhere in it.» (1, p. 77)
Gropius had to face all those imperfections and to undertake changes for their improvement. He realized that instead of involvement with the real world, the Bauhaus was getting isolated from it. The first step Gropius made was the replacement of Johannes Itten with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Quite opposite to the spiritually concerned Itten, Moholy was the «man mistrustful of the emotions, more at home among machines than human beings» (1, p. 123) Under Moholy's guidance, the students of the Vorkurs now had to create globe lamps, tea-pots, infusers etc. - much more utilitarian things than those Itten had been interested in. The Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, as well as the Muche's experimental Haus am Horn, show the changes that had taken place inside the Bauhaus: the modern functional and rational design superceded the beauty of the «exalted craftsmen» of the Sommerfeld house.


In 1925 the Weimar Bauhaus was closed due to the cancellation of financing. The Bauhaus managed to find a new site, and with the amazing speed the new campus was built. As soon as December, 1926, the school was reopened in Dessau. This geographical shift stimulated a number of internal changes: some workshops closed and some amalgamated; the printing workshop, previously concentrating on graphic art, concerned now with layout, typography and advertising, and the department of architecture was introduced. Gropius wrote another statement, Principles of Bauhaus Production, different from his first manifesto in many ways. Where the first manifesto proclaims «the building!» the second one speaks about «present-day housing, from the simplest household appliances to the finished dwelling». (4) Where the first Programme calls upon a revision of the roles of artist and craftsman, the Principles concern themselves with application of new materials and technology, «a new productive unity in which they [the crafts] will carry out the experimental work for industrial production». (4) Whitford wrote that the Dessau Bauhaus became a place, where «a new kind of industrial designer was being trained. The period of experimentation was over. What went on was serious, practical and effective». The social life of the school, now much more centralized on the campus, where the staff and the students were living, became vivid and rich in events. The teaching was made different from that in Weimar, with the involvement of the «Young Masters» (Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Gunta Stölzl). Quite conveniently, the former «Masters of Form» were now called «professors», and the employed trained craftsmen, who were no longer treated as equals to professors, replaced the «Workshop Masters». The democracy of Weimar gave place to the stricter subordination. The style of the production became sober; for example, Marcel Breuer in his essay wrote: «Metal Furniture is part of a modern world. It is styleless, for it should not express no intentional form beyond its function […]» The Young Masters, whose influence was essential to the atmosphere of the Dessau Bauhaus, «were much less specialized, equally at home in the workshops and studio, […] and determined to demonstrate that there is no essential difference between fine art and the crafts». (1, p. 178)

Hannes Meyer

In 1927 Gropius assigned Hannes Meyer to lead the newly established department of architecture. In 1926, the same year when Gropius published his second manifesto, Meyer wrote his, The New World. His ideas were mainly guided by the desire to develop a strongly functional dwelling, without luxuries and at minimal expense. He seeks the maximal extent of standardization (the Sozialer Wohnungsbau in the DDR and the Soviet Union after the WW2 can, probably, serve as an example of a reification of these ideas): «The degree of standardization is the index of our collective economy». (6) With the production of «the typical standard wares of international origin» he wants to construct «a residence machine». (6) Whitford wrote: «Meyer fervently believed that it was the architect's job to improve society […]». (1, p. 180) In 1926-28, the architectural department under Meyer built an experimental housing project in the Törten. Although the houses were not perfect in the sense of durability, they were cheap and offered poor families a possibility to obtain their own property.
Meyer's presence inspired a wave of resignations: Muche, Moholy, Breuer, Bayer and even Gropius himself left the school. Meyer became the new director and kept pursuing his goals of production design. Several workshops started to draw profit at that time: for example, the mural-painting department created a series of templates for a wallpaper factory. «Ironically, the school under the Marxist Meyer benefited enormously from the success of the capitalist system.» (1, p. 190)
Michael Nays in his article about Hannes Meyer wrote: «Meyer's work seeks to fulfill the aesthetic, ideological, protopolitical mission to recode the reified content of the objective, material world and to make it available for simultaneous collective reception on a subjective, aesthetic level.» (7, p. 146) But in 1930 Meyer was clearly not the right person to lead an institution dependent on governmental funds — as soon as 1926 the Bauhaus was already considered too leftist. Meyer was forced to resign by his colleagues and, deeply wounded, went to the Soviet Union to remain there until 1936. The Bauhaus again needed a new director.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

When he was appointed to head the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe had already gained an international reputation. For the first time Gropius offered him the director's chair in 1928, but he refused. Now he accepted it, and the first thing he had to do was to re-establish the Bauhaus in its apolitical form. Through this, many conflicts arose between him and the leftist students who criticized him for being a «bourgeois architect», «preferring to design luxurious houses for rich patrons than cheap accommodation for working class». (1, p. 192) The students were now obliged to obey the rules, which prohibited any kind of political activity.
Under Mies' directorship the dominant role of architecture increased: «In 1930, the furniture, metal and mural-painting workshops were combined into a single department for 'interior design'.» (1, p. 193) The fine art courses were eliminated. The Bauhaus became much more theoretical, similar to the convenient architectural school. Mies emphasized the meaning of aesthetic representation in the architecture, and in his statement he said: «What matters is not 'what' but only 'how,» and «the question of value is decisive». (8) Compared to Meyer, Mies van der Rohe paid much less attention (if any) to the sociological aspect of the houses he was planning, and in comparison to Gropius, he was much less interested in challenging the relationship of art and craft. He took the new opportunities matter-of-factly: «The new era is a fact; it exists entirely independently of whether we say 'yes' or ' no' to it. But it neither better nor worse than any other era.» (8)
In 1933, when Hitler became a Chancellor, the school was closed for being too cosmopolitan, or, from the point of view of Nazis, too «Jewish-Marxist».

The books cited:

  1. Whitford, Frank. Bauhaus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.
  2. Gropius, Walter. Programme of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, 1919.
  3. Gropius, Walter. Concept and Development of the State Bauhaus, 1924.
  4. Gropius, Walter. Principles of Bauhaus Production, 1926.
  5. Breuer, Marcel. «Metal Furniture and Modern Spatiality», in Das neue Frankfurt, no. 1, 1928.
  6. Meyer, Hannes. «The New World», in Die Neue Welt, no. 7, 1926.
  7. Nays, Michael. The Bauhaus And The Radicalization Of Building.
  8. Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig. The New Era, 1930.

1. The house that Behrens designed for himself on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt in 1901, is an example of the Jugendstil, but its scarce ornamentation and large flat surfaces make it a boundary case of the Art Nouveau, a step toward functional design of the on-coming architectural style.