The birth of Bauhaus

Retracing the path of the famous art and design school from Germany to Israel and beyond


Turn the clock back 100 years, and Germany stood at the centre of the creative world — a shining moment in a dark half century.

And this year’s Bauhaus centenary is a reminder of all we have to thank the legendary art and design school for, from light-filled interiors to indoor-outdoor living, fitted kitchens, chairs with tubular steel frames instead of legs and shops like Habitat and Ikea making affordable but well-designed objects with which to stock our new open-plan homes.

The Bauhaus also gave Tel Aviv its White City, now a Unesco World Heritage site, thanks to the many students and teachers (notably Arieh Sharon, the father of Israeli architecture), who headed there after the Nazis closed the German school in 1933.

But with many of the buildings there adapted before being listed, if you want to see the purest evocation of the birth of modern living, you have to look beyond Israel and go to the source.

And that means tracing it through several different towns across Germany: from Weimar, where the school opened its doors in 1919, to Berlin, where they were slammed shut, via the industrial town of Dessau, where Bauhaus realised its greatest potential, and the delightful city of Leipzig, the school’s shop window.

All very different, with more than simply Bauhaus sites to offer, this journey through design history makes for a fascinating 10-day sojourn in the former East Germany.

Weimar, for example, was the city of Goethe and Schiller, whose spirits haunt the pretty cobbled squares long before it gave its name to the short-lived republic.

Shell-shocked academics sought a better way to live after the horrors of the First World War, and Belgian Henry van de Velde, who had designed Weimar’s School of Arts and Crafts, wanted visionary Berlin architect Walter Gropius leading the way.

Integrating the existing art and architecture schools, luminaries like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer were hired to teach students that art, design and architecture were all one subject. Their Utopian dream couldn’t last.

Campaigning for access to daylight and fresh air for all, particularly those thousands of poor workers trapped in dark, damp tenements, was considered radical — and not helped by the school’s reputation for partying hard. Weimar’s burghers withdrew funding in 1925.

But in those six years, a fabulous collection of furniture and objects had been created. This collection, which survived the Nazis, now has a permanent home in the new Bauhaus Museum.

In contrast to its fascinating contents, the museum itself is an unlovely white concrete block with one of its few windows framing a view of the Buchenwald memorial. Walk the beautiful city streets and you soon discover Hitler is as much a ghost here as Goethe, Schiller and the Bauhaus set.

All stayed at the iconic 1696 Elephant Inn: rebuilt in 1938, it’s been renovated as a newly stylish boutique hotel, with the city’s finest kitchen.

Beyond the museum, visit the schools themselves with guided tours from students, to see the beautiful staircases and murals, and to get the measure of the movement’s importance. The Haus am Horn, the very first Bauhaus prototype dwelling, has been restored to its original condition and opens this month too.

From Weimar, the school took up an invitation to move to Dessau and partner with local industry — and it’s a culture shock compared to its old-world predecessor.

But in a good way, if you stick to the campus — the world’s first true Modernist building, all steel, glass and dazzling white walls — and the nearby masters’ houses, where Kandinsky, Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Josef and Anni Albers and others lived.

A pretty mile’s walk from here is the Kornhaus, a Bauhaus-designed restaurant whose terrace is a splendid place to dine, if on less inspired food, while watching the sun set over the Elbe.

A new Bauhaus museum is planned to open in September and it’s also possible to tour the school building here. You can even sleep in student digs which enjoy their own balconies and in some cases highly collectible Marcel Breuer chairs and Bauhaus-era lamps.

It’s something of a spartan exercise involving several flights of stairs in a building with no lifts and sharing bathrooms in the absence of en-suites.

Hop on a train to vibrant Leipzig to sleep more comfortably at Arcona Living Bach14, opposite the magnificent Thomaskirche where JS Bach, its musical director for nearly 30 years, is buried.

There was talk of this city becoming the third home of the school after Dessau also fell out of love with the “degenerate” faculty.

But even world famous architect Mies van der Rohe, brought in as the third principal of the Bauhaus in the hope his conservatism would appease the Nazis, could not save the school. Forced to move to Berlin in 1932, it closed the following year.

Who knows if it might have lasted a little longer in radical Leipzig, where the art deco Grassi Museum is showing a fabulous exhibition of Bauhaus works, from prints to sculptures, furniture to coffee services, until late September.

An apt location, with the building’s amazing windows designed by Bauhaus alumnus Josef Albers.

Gropius, who spent three years post-Bauhaus living in Hampstead and designing houses in west London, closed the circle by designing a home for the school’s archives.

Intended for a smaller German town, the archive was completed in Berlin in 1979, 10 years after his death — currently being extended and improved, sadly the Bauhaus-Archiv won’t reopen until 2025. It does, however, have a small temporary home and shop in the city’s elegant Charlottenburg neighbourhood.

There are also tours of key Bauhaus sites this year from Art Berlin, in English on demand. It would be hard to get a better look at the new modern living style in action than at Siemensstadt, a model village built for Siemens workers by several architects in 1929, with two sublime white sugar-cube buildings by Gropius at its heart.

The capital’s Hotel Orania.Berlin, which once housed a 1920s Jewish-owned cabaret, proudly displays its art nouveau flourishes rather than any Bauhaus credentials, but it’s close to Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum, perhaps Berlin’s most unmissable sight.

This stark building owes much to the Bauhaus, whose students taught Liebeskind in New York, and whose architects created the apartment buildings in Tel Aviv, which so dazzled him when he moved from Poland.

It’s these influences that he credits for his success: “I had the exact course that was taught at the Bauhaus and I learned the beauty and profundity of its ideas. I would never have done what I do without that.”


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