History of the Bauhaus Dessau

The School of Design in Dessau

Dessau is the city most closely associated with the Bauhaus. This is where the school of design founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 was active for the longest period of time, and where it experienced its heyday from 1925 to 1932. All three directors of the Bauhaus – Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer und Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – left their mark on the Bauhaus Dessau, and almost all of the Bauhaus buildings erected in Dessau are now regarded as icons of twentieth century architecture.

The Bauhaus and the city

In Dessau the Bauhaus was able to directly realise its desire to play a part in shaping modern society. Dessau in the 1920s is an up-and-coming industrial location, with Lord Mayor Fritz Hesse, engineer Hugo Junkers and state-appointed conservator Ludwig Grote as its driving forces. In 1924, when the Bauhaus was compelled to leave Weimar for political reasons, other cities such as Frankfurt am Main, Darmstadt and Magdeburg competed to host the Bauhaus school. Dessau then emerged victorious.

The school of design, designed by Walter Gropius and financed by the city, opened in 1926. Some 1,500 guests from all over the world arrived in Dessau for the inauguration.

Bauhausgebäude Dessau, Ansicht von Südost, Fotografie, Fotograf unbekannt (vermutlich Ernst Gülzow), o. J., 1931/32,unbezeichnet, Vintage Print, 5,4 x 8,6 cm / Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, Foto: unbekannt
Bauhaus Dessau, Nach dem Unterricht bei Wassily Kandinsky (in der Mitte sitzend) im Prellerhaus, Fotografie, Fotograf unbekannt, o. J., 1931/32,unbezeichnet, Vintage Print, 5,6 x 8 cm / Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, Foto: unbekannt
Beginn einer Reise von Studenten der Architektur-Abteilung vor dem Bauhausgebäude Dessau, 1932 / Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau / Foto: Albert Hennig (c) Editha Hennig
Studenten auf der Brüstung der Mensa-Terrasse um 1931 / Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau (I 19044 F), Foto: unbekannt

Shaping the modern age

The catastrophic experiences of WWI motivated the Bauhauslers to radically rethink life, society and the everyday world. Rejecting traditional knowledge, with the Bauhaus they forged a school of design in which young people were to develop their artistic creativity by learning with and from materials so that they could give shape to the modern age and meet its many demands. In doing so, the focus was less on the individual work of art than on everyday objects which were to be manufactured in collaboration with industry. Out of this emerged the lion’s share of the best-known products and buildings that continue to influence the image of the Bauhaus today, from Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture to Marianne Brandt’s ashtray, from the Stahlhaus (Steel House) to the school’s best-selling product, the Bauhaus wallpaper.

The Bauhaus as a locus for the avant-garde

In just a few years the Bauhaus Dessau becomes a focus of attention for young people from all over the world. The theoretical instruction is placed on a broader footing and other subjects, e.g. engineering sciences, psychology or business studies are incorporated in the syllabus. Graduates now completed their training with a Bauhaus Diploma. In the workshop wing of the school building the machines clattered while in the stage workshop, modern theatre evolved. The students lived in the studio building, also known as the Prellerhaus, and met in the canteen or used the gymnasium. The masters however lived with their families close by in the Masters’ Houses. The first generation of masters were Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. These were often joined by friends and guests with the result that the complex of Masters’ Houses came to epitomise the artists’ colony of the twentieth century.

The city as contractor

The city of Dessau entrusted the Bauhaus with several public construction projects. The Dessau-Törten Housing Estate and the Employment Office by Walter Gropius, the Houses with Balcony Access by Hannes Meyer and the Kornhaus restaurant by Carl Fieger all come about in this way. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built the small Kiosk near the Masters’ Houses.

The three directors and the school’s closure

In Dessau, too, the Bauhaus was not immune from political hostilities. After Walter Gropius transfers his leadership of the school to Hannes Meyer in 1928, the latter places an ever-increasing focus on the social aims of the Bauhaus, being primarily concerned with the question of how well designed products and buildings might be made affordable for all.

The Volkswohnung (people’s flat), the Houses with Balcony Access and the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau stood out as architectonic examples of Meyer’s idea of collective design with a social ideal. The students under Meyer became politically radicalised and involved with communism. As a result, politicians dismissed Hannes Meyer, who was himself a Marxist, in 1930. The third Bauhaus director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was personally recommended by Walter Gropius. Under van der Rohe the preliminary course was scrapped and the activities of the workshops downscaled. Architecture, constructive logic and free-flowing open space came into focus.

In the municipal assembly of Dessau meanwhile, the National Socialists had obtained a majority. On 30 September 1932 the assembly resolved to close the Bauhaus Dessau. Van der Rohe directed the Bauhaus as a private institute in Berlin-Steglitz for one more term, but after numerous disputes with the National Socialists he announced the dissolution of the Bauhaus in a newsletter on 10 August 1933.

The reception of the Bauhaus idea worldwide

Despite the closure of the school the ideas of the Bauhaus spread worldwide. Many of the Bauhaus masters went into exile and became professors at successor institutions, for instance Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, or László Moholy-Nagy, who directed the New Bauhaus in Chicago. The students who arrived at the Bauhaus Dessau from 29 different countries also disseminated the Bauhaus ideas in their homelands.

The preservation of the Bauhaus legacy in Dessau

The Bauhaus architecture was able to survive National Socialism, WWII and the GDR era largely intact, although some buildings were damaged. The GDR first rediscovers the Bauhaus legacy in 1976. It reconstructs the Bauhaus Building in line with monument conservation guidelines and establishes the Wissenschaftlich-Kulturelle Zentrum (WKZ), which among other things starts to build up the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation’s current collection and reactivates the Bauhaus stage. The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation is established after reunification in 1994. To this day this researches, conserves and passes on the Bauhaus legacy in the form of the buildings, the collection and the variety of themes spanning architecture, design and art. The Foundation has an artistic-scientific mission; its institutional sponsors are the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM), the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt and the city of Dessau-Roßlau.

The Bauhaus and its Sites in Weimar and Dessau have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1996.

Every year some 100,000 visitors from all over the world come to Dessau to view the Bauhaus buildings and to research, work and become creatively involved as scientists, architects, designers, artists or students.