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DESIGN

The haus that Gropius built

Nine decades after Walter Gropius founded his revolutionary Bauhaus academy, dozens of exhibitions across Germany are celebrating a movement that embodied much more than simply aesthetics. Celeste Sunderland investigates.

The haus that Gropius built
Photo: DPA

Seven letters stream down the side of a building. No fussy serifs adorn this stunning, simple font. With clean lines and smooth curves they proclaim the existence of a building made of steel and glass, constructed to house a legendary school where creativity flourished, and art and technology became one.

The Bauhaus Building rises above the terra-cotta rooftops of Dessau where it was constructed in 1926. A symbol of a revitalised nation, the geometric building of interlocking blocks became a UNESCO World Heritage site seventy years later, but it was one hundred kilometres to the south, in the fabled city of Weimar, where the Bauhaus movement began.

In 1919, just a year after the end of World War I, a young generation of Germans was eager to rebuild their creatively and economically bankrupt nation. Inspired by the words of the then 36-year-old architect Walter Gropius, they signed up for an altogether new kind of academy dedicated to the merits of skilled craftsmanship without the academic hindrances of the “old arts” schools.

With a manifesto that linked art with craft, Gropius set out to form “the new building of the future” – a place where disciplines like architecture, sculpture, and painting merged seamlessly. He enlisted leading artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, visionaries who developed their own concepts, independent of tradition.

They taught courses on colour theory, analytical drawing, and three-dimensional studies while leading workshops on painting, printmaking, pottery, industrial and interior design, weaving, and typography. According to Dessau Bauhaus Foundation Director Phillip Oswalt, this trans-disciplinary approach set the Bauhaus apart from any other movement.

He recently explained that “bringing people from different design professions together” was one of its core ideas.

These highly specialised workshops developed products such as the table lamp by Karl Jacob Jucker and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Marianne Brandt’s silver teapot, and Marcel Breuer’s nesting tables and tubular steel chairs. Easily reproduced, they became icons of twentieth century craftsmanship and influenced myriad designers in the decades that followed.

“You have continuities,” Oswalt told The Local. “Some of the products are still produced. Designers made updates or developments of [Bauhaus] design ideas. You have things that have a strong relationship to Bauhaus ideas, even something like IKEA furniture, just to give an example of one brand.”

The convertible tables and stainless steel coffee pots that fill contemporary design stores today do reveal a marked influence, and would fit right in at one of the four Masters’ Houses Gropius built adjacent to the main Bauhaus building.

But looks can deceive, and Oswalt warns against labelling anything that embodies a modernist aesthetic with the term Bauhaus.

“There are quite a few people who relate to the ideas of Bauhaus in an articulated, explicit way, but there are things you can see in relationship to the Bauhaus ideas which are not necessarily derived from studying the Bauhaus program,” he said.

That’s because the the Bauhaus movement went beyond simple aesthetics. It incorporated societal issues and reacted to a population’s basic needs. During the Bauhaus’ fourteen years of existence, relationships between topics like art and science, style and form, functionalism and necessity were constantly debated.

After Gropius’ departure in 1927, the directorial reins passed to Hannes Meyer and then Mies van der Rohe, who both presented new ideals, and shifted the school in ways that often conflicted with one another. These continual changes in perspectives, Oswalt explained, were a key factor in the Bauhaus’ development.

“It was dynamic and controversial and many-fold,” he explained.

In 1925, a far-right government came to power in Weimar, which compelled the school to relocate to Dessau. But the Bauhaus experienced further hardships and moved to Berlin in 1932, where it remained for just one year before it closed as the Nazis took power. Many of the masters emigrated to the United States. There, Mies van der Rohe became a superstar architect, Moholy-Nagy established the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Gropius took a position at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

In Germany, three important sites offer insights into the movement’s impressive legacy.

At the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar, hundreds of objects created by teachers and students fill the original, historic building where the school was founded. The Dessau Bauhaus Foundation offers guided tours of the workshops and rooms where the masters lived and worked. And at Berlin’s Bauhaus Archive, revolving exhibitions delve into topics complimenting the museum’s vast permanent collection.

But this is a momentous year in the world of Bauhaus, and in addition to these three celebrated sites, dozens of exhibitions and events are taking place throughout Germany, offering plenty of ways to encounter its unmistakable style.

For a comprehensive listing see the Bauhaus 2009 website.

Apolda

Exhibition: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – On the Way to Weimar 1917-1923

Kunsthaus Apolda Avantgarde, Bahnhofstrasse, 42

April 05 – June 21, 2009

Early paintings, drawings, and prints by the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus master trace his development from expressionism to constructivism.

Berlin

Exhibition: Modell Bauhaus

The Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstrasse 7

July 22 – October 4, 2009

Iconic pieces from Germany’s three Bauhaus institutions, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau, the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin and the Bauhaus Museum Weimar provide a comprehensive overview of the Bauhaus’ contributions to 20th century design and examine the movement’s influence on the present day.

Erfurt

Exhibition: Margaretha Reichardt

Kulturhof Krönbacken, Galerie Waidspeicher, Michaelisstrasse 10

September 12 – October 11

The life and work of Erfurt-born, Bauhaus-trained weaver Margaretha Reichardt is celebrated with this colourful exhibition of carpets, tapestries, photographs, and personal documents.

Gera

Exhibition: Encountering Bauhaus – Kurt Schmidt and Avant-Garde Artists Kunstsammlung Gera, Küchengartenallee March 25 – June 14

For the Bauhaus’ first exhibition in 1923, Kurt Schmidt developed a performance called the “Mechanical Ballet,” which joined dance and technology. A series of works from the artist’s varied periods hang alongside pieces by Bauhaus masters and students like Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, and Lothar Schreyer.

Exhibition: Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain and the Bauhaus Museum of Applied Arts, Greizer Strasse 37 June 23 – September 20, 2009

Classic pieces of pottery and porcelain, like smooth white vases and elegant teapots created by Bauhaus ceramicist Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain sit within Gera’s Museum of Applied Arts display cases all summer.

Gotha

Exhibition: Modern but not Fashionable – Bauhaus Artists in Gotha

Schlossmuseum, Schloss Friedenstein October 10, 2009 – January 3, 2010

The desk lamps, coffee pots, and tea strainers of Wolfgang Tümpel and Marianne Brandt are displayed along with original sketches in this exhibition of two Bauhaus metalwork students who worked in Gotha during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Jena

Exhibition: Kandinsky – Paintings, Drawings and Graphic Prints

Stadtmuseum Jena, Markt 7 September 06 – November 22, 2009

Devoted teacher and visionary abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky was one of the Bauhaus’ most revered masters. This exhibition presents examples from the artist’s entire oeuvre, and examines his connections with the city of Jena.

Seminar – The Bauhaus in Jena 1919 – 1933 Volkshochschule Jena, Grietgasse 17a April 30, May 7, May 14, May 28, 6-7:30pm

Over the course of four Thursdays, this seminar traverses the history of the Bauhaus, through discussions and evening walks through Jena.

Weimar

Film: New Building I – Efficiency Fever and Urbanism Kommunales Kino, Goetheplatz 11 April 23, 2009, 7:30pm

Kommunales Kino screens a series of historic films including one from 1926 where Ilsa Gropius demonstrates the time-saving advantages of a modern kitchen. A full program of Bauhaus related films runs through December.

For members

GERMANY EXPLAINED

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Compared to many other countries, October 3rd is a relatively new nationwide holiday, marking 32 years since German reunification. Aaron Burnett explains the background to it and why it's celebrated on this particular date.

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany's national holiday

Independence Day in the United States dates all the way back to 1776. Canada Day, celebrated on July 1st, goes back to 1867. France’s Bastille Day on July 14th commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Compared to those national holidays, Germany’s October 3rd is fairly recent, having only been around since 1990.

October 3rd – or Tag der Deutschen Einheit – marks the date that the former West and East Germany officially became one country again, after being divided since the end of WWII. In 2022 it’s celebrated on a Monday, meaning many people will get a long weekend. 

Between 1945 and 1949, the country was split into four occupation zones – held by the Americans, British, French, and the then Soviets. In 1949 the Soviet zone became the communist East Germany – or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), while the rest of the country became the West German Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD).

The Bundesrepublik continues today, but now with the five eastern federal states, plus East Berlin, that were formerly in the DDR.

Why October 3rd and not November 9th?

Less than a year before official reunification on October 3rd, 1990, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.

At first glance, November 9th might seem a better day to commemorate as a national day.

Growing up in Canada, my Gelsenkirchen-born Oma used to talk about the Berlin Wall falling with a slight waver in her voice – and sometimes even tears – decades after it crumbled before her eyes on her television screen.

November 9th, 1989 is remembered by many Germans as the happiest day in the history of the country, but the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall is not observed as a national holiday.

‘It was the happiest day in German history,’ she told me at the time. ‘People were just so amazed at seeing that and no one really thought it would actually happen and guck mal – there it was. It was very emotional at the time and I guess I still am too,’ she would say.

READ ALSO: ‘There was a human tide moving’: Berliner remembers crossing the Wall

For Oma and many other German-Canadians I grew up around, Unity Day felt a little less momentous than November 9th. To them, October 3rd was an important day to observe, but conjured up a few less emotions.

‘November 9th suddenly made the dream of having a unified Germany again seem possible,’ my teacher at Calgary’s German-Canadian Club told me years ago. ‘By the time it was actually official, it just seemed like the final step of something that had been going on for a while already.’

To my Oma, my teacher, and others I grew up around who remembered that time – German reunification seemed inevitable within days of the Wall falling. But it wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. Even after the Wall fell, the DDR and BRD remained separate countries at first.

The months between November 9th, 1989 and October 3rd, 1990 were momentous – and saw several additional events that would pave the way for reunification.

On March 18th, 1990, the DDR would hold its first – and only – free and democratic elections. Won by the East German Christian Democrats, their leader Lothar de Maiziere served as GDR Premier until reunification on October 3rd.

Lothar de Maiziere, the first and only democratically elected leader of East Germany, at a German reunification celebration on October 3rd, 2020.

In Spring 1990, Bonn and Berlin agreed to convert the East German Ostmark – which was practically worthless at the time – to the West German Deutschmark on a largely 1 for 1 basis, with most salaries, prices, and savings being converted straight over.

Finally, the process for legal reunification took months, with the signing of an economic and currency union, the reconstituting of the five eastern federal states that had been abolished in communist times, the official reunification treaty, and the treaty that saw the WWII allies renounce all rights and responsibilities in Germany.

READ ALSO: What unity means to eastern Germans

At the stroke of midnight on October 3rd, 1990 – a reunified Germany became a fully sovereign state for the first time since WWII. That was thanks in large part to both political will and legal work in the months immediately following the Wall’s fall.

Although it seems so normal now, reunification was never guaranteed, which is part of why October 3rd enjoys and deserves its own special commemoration.

November 9th – German history’s double edge

The other major reason why October 3rd serves as Germany’s national day instead of November 9th is that November 9th, while associated with the happy elation of witnessing the Berlin Wall crumble, is also linked to many other momentous – and often solemn – historical commemorations.

On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Within hours, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party both declared the Weimar Republic and a ‘free, socialist republic,’ respectively. It would serve as the first sign of political instability that eventually allowed the Nazis to take power.

On November 9th, 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup that started in a Munich beer hall. He was arrested and wrote Mein Kampf during his time in jail.

November 9th was not chosen as Germany’s national day partly because of the solemn commemorations attached to it, such as Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938.

And on November 9th, 1938, Jewish businesses and synagogues were violently targeted during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” At least 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported.

As happy as November 9th, 1989 was, commemorating it as Germany’s national day would be problematic given the other solemn observances attached to it, which is also part of why October 3rd was chosen.

READ ALSO: Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history

What days does October 3rd replace?

Both East and West Germany had national holidays before reunification. The DDR observed ‘Republic Day’ on October 7th, the anniversary of its founding in 1949. Before 1990, the BDR commemorated June 17th, or the anniversary of the East German uprising in 1953.

October 3rd replaced both days as the national day of celebration. 

Where can you celebrate it?

Unity Day is a national holiday with celebrations readily found around the country.

In Bavaria, Oktoberfest remains open until October 3rd partly to mark the occasion. In Berlin, festivities are readily found around the Brandenburg Gate.

However, each year, a major city plays host to official celebrations and the Unity Day Bürgerfest, or ‘Citizen’s Festival.’ The host city is in the federal state presiding over the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper legislative chamber – that particular year.

For 2022, Erfurt – the state capital of Thuringia – is the host, and next year will see Hamburg take over hosting duties.

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