The Legacy of the Bauhaus in Berlin

By Joe Mathieson

‘Ruskin and Morris in England, van de Velde in Belgium, Olbrich, Behrens and others in Germany, and, finally, the German Werkbund discovered the basis of a reunion between creative arts and the industrial world’. So said the architect and founder of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius, words uttered in 1923 in a perhaps long-considered bid to encapsulate the aims of the multifarious institution. The reunion was very much more the predominant focus of the Bauhaus in contrast to its antecedents. Above all it was the embrace of ‘the industrial’ that separated Bauhaus from its Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau predecessors, which sought in their own ways to escape rather than confront the mechanised age that characterises fin-de-siecle modernity.

The Bauhaus is generally considered to be the most influential school of modernist art, design and architecture of the twentieth century

With hindsight, Gropius’ grand embrace of previous traditions has been proven more than portentous rhetoric. The Bauhaus is generally considered to be the most influential school of modernist art, design and architecture of the twentieth century, with a legacy extending well beyond its early demise under the onset of the Nazi ascendancy in 1933. Gropius defined the school as a ‘comprehensive system’ with ‘the theoretical activity of an art academy combined with the practical activity of an arts and craft school’. It was an attempt to build the new Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’, even if it did not possess an official architecture department until 1927.

Emil Fahrenkamp’s Shell-Haus
Photo: Jörg Zägel CC BY-SA 3.0 [original]

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus school. The predominant site of celebration for this centenary is Berlin, understandable insofar as it is the final site of the school before it was closed down. The task of the centenary is shared between the Akademie der Kunste and the Bauhaus Archiv, jointly producing the fine poster for the opening festival (above). There is little original Bauhaus architecture Germany’s capital conducted by its original practitioners. Certainly, there are the six UNESCO World Heritage-protected modernist estates of the city, and Emil Fahrenkamp’s Shell-Haus, striking in its perhaps overenthusiastic adoption of the Streamline Moderne aesthetic of the mid 1920s, with its multiple-curved facade. Somewhat ironically the focal point of Bauhaus activity in Berlin is now centred around a near-postmodern building, the Bauhaus Archiv, finished by Walter Gropius and Alexander Cvijanovic in 1979.

The roof of the Bauhaus
Photo: Deror Avi [original]

To my eyes it seems that the legacy of the Bauhaus in Berlin has been mixed. Certainly in East Berlin, former-Stalinallee, bearing its namesake, is more decidedly Stalinist than early modernist, with its stucco traditionalist facades and massive boulevards that went against the largely individual nature of the Bauhaus builds. This traditionalist approach to architecture we interestingly still see in Berlin in a contemporary context; I am reminded of the Berlin Palace, a former East German building built in the neo-Soviet vein that has now been ‘restored’ in order to fit the rather more classical parade of buildings down the Unter der Linden. West Berlin could be said to have been more hospitable to the Bauhaus legacy. Jealous, or, more accurately, aggrieved by the appropriation of supposed good architectural sense in the project of Stalinallee, we now see the evidence of the Western response: the 1957 Interbau (Inter-build, or International-Build). The focal point of course is our Akademie der Kunste, a predominately brutalist building with intonations of an American mid-century modern aesthetic. The Archiv itself could not have been built in the DDR in the late 1970s; it had to be western, situated now, as it is, south of the western side of the Tiergarten.

Why is western architecture of a premium much harder to find in the communist East?

What does this mean for the architectural West-East dichotomy? Attempting to split the architecture into a binary composition may prove unfruitful, and expose the shortcomings of the black-and-white presuppositions of the author. Indeed, the year in which Gropius gave the aforementioned edict came only shortly after the 1922 Weimar ‘Constructivist-Dadaist Congress’, which explored the possibility of combining Russian and German modes of avant-garde artistic production. Moreover later-communist countries developed key Bauhaus (and generally brutalist) architects and artists; one need only consider Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, or Ernö Goldfinger, or Berthed Lubetkin, to prove this case. Why then is western architecture of a premium much harder to find in the communist East? Largely, and unfortunately, I suspect it is a question of money.

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