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Design for life

In Germany, The Bauhaus movement grew from the fountainhead of an epic approach that combined craft and fine arts

I have no lingering association with Weimar, apart from the fact that I’ve travelled sporadically there, and yet, of late, my thoughts turn frequently to the place. That the city is a hotbed of arts and culture with celebrated souls like Goethe having lived and worked here is among the reasons I’ve visited it.

What exerts the strongest pull at the moment is the fact that the Bauhaus — one of the world’s most influential movements that had enormous impact on architecture, design, craft, art and policy around the world, was founded here in Weimar.

Think of the adjustable reading lamp you own, the classic modern home with its geometric lines and functional design, constructed from largely prefabricated elements — and you sense the seed sown by the Bauhaus.

Walter Gropius founded this multidisciplinary school at Weimar in 1919, with the aim of dissolving the distinction between the “fine” and the “applied arts”. He urged his students to create a “complete work of art” — that united arts, craft and technology in its production.

Long years

In 2019, Germany will celebrate 100 years of the movement. How this translates is that, in Weimar and in the surrounding countryside of Jena, Erfurt, Gera and other big-daddy centres of the Bauhaus movement — Dessau chiefly — a range of events have begun to unfold.

Here, opening of new museums, unique exhibitions and displays. There, all permutations of tours to historical venues. Elsewhere, testimonials through architecture and the showcasing of artistic works in gallery spaces. In short, plenty of opportunities to walk through the history of Bauhaus and modernism.

My trail in Weimar begins at the University (former Arts School) where Walter Gropius, founding father, pursued the desire to synthesise life, art and craft. Student-led walking tours take visitors across the campus, discussing the history of the Bauhaus while illuminating significant sights — a mural by Oskar Schlemmer, a reproduction of the modernist composition that is the director’s room, which Walter Gropius designed in 1923.

On the trail of the early Bauhaus, you’d do well to visit the pioneering Haus Hohe Pappeln. This whimsical structure, lived in by architect and pioneer of the Bauhaus, Henry Van de Velde, features an asymmetrical façade with edges, angles, and projecting elements everywhere.


The Haus Hohe Pappeln, built by Belgian art nouveau architect, designer
and painter Henry Van De Velde. 

The reason for the whimsical shape is that Van de Velde planned the house from inside out — the shape determined by the layout of the interior rooms, evolving from the activities unfolding within them. I sense the meaning of the words ‘A complete work of art’ in the strategic arrangement of rooms that follow the light of the sun, and in the harmonious, balanced interiors.

I’m assured that there will opportunities to experience this successful combination of utility and beauty in Bauhaus Museum, scheduled to open this month. On display will be design classics — like the teapot by Marianne Brandt, the lattice chair by Marcel Breuer, ceramics by Theodor Bogler — walking one through a comprehensive overview of the genesis of functional design. But what makes the whole greater than the sum of these form-follows-function parts is that they provoke an examination of the designs of everyday life through multimedia and interactive exhibits.

A half-an-hour drive away in University-city Jena, I make for the Mensa Canteen building.

The cubical, steel-framed building with its flat roof, large window surfaces and red brick façade is another example of unified design. Nearby the Auerbach house makes compelling viewing as one of the most evocative examples of the beginning of Neues Bauhaus for residential buildings. This arrangement of asymmetrical cubic construction, large windows, a flat, partially accessible roof — all geometric in structure, and accompanied by thoughtful detailing — from the built-in cupboards to the wall-mounted bookshelves are distinct elements of the new building style.

Break up that nose-to-tail feast of architecture with a stop at the Philisterium, the café in Jena’s Municipal Museum. Coffee and cake on Van de Velde replica porcelain is the treat here.

A break

There are plenty of other stops that one can make on the Bauhaus trail, but with limited time on hand, it is to Dessau that I elect to go. A one-and-a-half hour drive from Weimar, this is the city most closely associated with the Bauhaus. It was here that the three key directors — Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe — lived and worked in the movement’s most creative phase.


The Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany. Photos by author

The city is home to a most significant cluster of icons of 20th-century architecture. The Bauhaus Building, a haiku of concrete, glass and steel, with its interlocking cubic forms and curtain wall of glass — came to be regarded as a paragon of modern classicism and industrial design.

The form of each part of the building was determined by its function and hence designed and arranged asymmetrically. The furniture is lightweight and appears as if drawn in space, communicating the desire for movement.

The building has no hierarchy of space or central viewpoint, and in order to experience the whole, one must wander and explore.

I have a cluster of experiences over the next few days. An introduction to the new Bauhaus museum scheduled to open in Dessau in September 2019. A chance to witness a spot of Bauhaus Ballet — or the Triadic Ballet, first staged by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922. A packed walking tour that includes a visit to the Masters’ Houses — homes to Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and a litany of other Bauhausiers. Their collaboration through art, dance, music, design and architecture, pushed boundaries on the familiar, and sparked new imaginative artistic forms and agendas — including ones intended to lessen social disparity — through the kind of housing it made possible, as and when required.

The further into the Bauhaus movement you delve, the more you’ll discover. I spend the flight home reflecting on one of the eternal philosophical questions posed by the Bauhaus, “How do we want to live together today?”

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