The German design school known as the Bauhaus (literally, house of building), that functioned between 1919 and 1932, laid the foundation of a different kind of architectural education, one that was eventually adopted throughout the world. It restored the links between design and making that had been undermined during the Renaissance and virtually destroyed by the European academies. Much of the Bauhaus’s significance lies in the fact that some of its leaders migrated to the United States in the 1930s to head up the schools of architecture at Harvard and the Illinois Institute of Technology; other members also became teachers and practitioners in America.
The Bauhaus was conceived by Walter Gropius (1883–1969). After reluctantly commencing architectural studies at Berlin-Charlottenberg in 1905, between 1907 and 1910 he worked in the office of Peter Behrens before forming a partnership with a fellow employee, Adolf Meyer. During World War I Gropius served as a cavalry officer, and following the November 1918 armistice he was appointed director of two separate institutions in Weimar, Saxony, Germany: the Grand Ducal Academy of Arts and the Grand Ducal Academy of Crafts. He immediately proposed that they should be combined, and in April 1919 courses started at Das Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar. Gropius’s 1919 Manifesto called for “the unification of all the creative arts under the leadership of architecture”; building on the doctrines of nineteenth-century English reformers, Gropius sought to improve design standards by combining art and production.Architecture was not in the curriculum of the Bauhaus’s first phase at Weimar (1919–1923). Because he believed that good art, architecture, and design were more the result of collaboration than of individual virtuosity, Gropius’s formal program was based upon the proposition that one cannot design without understanding the process by which the design is realized. The designed object must be “by systematic practical and theoretical research into formal, technical, and economic fields” derived from “natural functions and relationships”—in short, the Bauhaus provided an applied design education based on Marxist materialism. Under Johannes Itten students were introduced to elements of design—shape, line, color, pattern, texture, rhythm, and density. There were also workshops for stone, wood, metal, pottery, glass, painting, and textiles. Every course was conducted by a team: a craftsperson and an artist.
The aims of the Bauhaus were maintained through the three phases of its existence in three different places and despite several changes in its direction. They were: first, “rescue all of the arts from the isolation in which each then found itself”; second, raise the status of craft to that of the so-called fine arts; and third, link the designer with emerging industrial production. Those ideas are taken for granted now, but they were first spelled out by the Bauhaus.
In spite of Gropius’s ostensible nonpolitical stance, the unfamiliar ideas, left-wing beliefs, and eccentric ways evident at the Bauhaus unsettled the government and brought opposition. Objecting to official
insistence upon an exhibition Art and Technics in 1923, immediately afterward the staff resigned. Gropius was swamped with offers to relocate, and accepted one from Dessau. To house the school he designed a group of connected blocks (1925–1926): administration, classrooms, studios, workshops, and accommodations for staff and students. Although Gropius often denied any such intention, the need for modem architecture—a tangible expression of the spirit of the age—meant that the Dessau complex would be adopted as a model internationally.
Architecture was introduced into the curriculum at Dessau. Just then, groups of European architects, mostly socialists, were searching for a pure form of architecture, liberated from the historical styles that they associated with a decadent aristocracy or (worse in their eyes) with the rising industrial bourgeoisie. The architects included English Arts and Crafts, Italian Futurists, Dutch De Srijl, and German Expressionists. Buildings inevitably became expressions of their beliefs, and their response to Europe’s widespread housing crisis of the 1920s was an austere form of workers’ housing with open floor plans, white interiors, and furniture that “worked,” whatever that meant. For them, a building must have a flat roof and flat walls, devoid of all ornament and decoration. And because color was bourgeois, the exteriors of houses must be white, gray, or black—in fact, just like the Dessau Bauhaus. It is not surprising that by 1932 the Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson recognized in all this what they (inaccurately) dubbed an International Style. It was soon imitated throughout the world, frequently with no heed to the underlying sociopolitical theory.
Gropius resigned the Bauhaus directorship in April 1928, not only to concentrate upon his architectural practice but also in an attempt—futile, as it happened—to stem the growing National Socialist (Nazi) Party’s propaganda attacks upon the school. He recommended the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer as successor. But because Meyer was overtly Communist, the mayor of Dessau dismissed him in 1930, appointing in his place a German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Under mounting pressure to close altogether, Mies moved the Bauhaus to Berlin in 1932. A year later he disbanded it.
Although its ideas were spread internationally by many publications—not least the Bauhausbüche series after 1925—and exhibitions, the Bauhaus became more influential through the diaspora of staff and students: for example, Gropius went to head up the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Mies became dean of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and László Moholy-Nagy established the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago. A Bauhaus archive, originally at Darmstadt, moved to Berlin in the 1970s; another is housed at Harvard. The design philosophy and the educational philosophy of the Bauhaus continue to have impact on the teaching and practice of architecture and design.