Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A special series that reflects on the Bauhaus school on its 100th anniversary—from the roots of its ideas to how its concepts impacted an impure world.
It was the art school that changed the world. In the 14 years of its existence, and despite its small size and upstart status, the Bauhaus (German for “building house”) attracted a cadre of teachers and students who would go on to define Modernism: the architects Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; the artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee; and textile artist Anni Albers, to name a few. The school revolutionized design education with its hands-on, experimental, interdisciplinary approach and its embrace of new technology. And as its alumni scattered, they spread their way of thinking and making around the world, to outposts like Chicago and Tel Aviv, and to a new generation of disciples.
The Bauhaus, to quote the critic Fiona MacCarthy, “started much that we now take for granted.” If you’ve ever sat in a tubular-steel chair or admired the clean lines of a factory building, you’ve felt its influence.
Founded in 1919 in Weimar in central Germany, the avant-garde school resettled in Dessau in 1925 after facing intense political scrutiny and funding cuts in its original home. In Dessau, Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius and instructor László Moholy-Nagy could finally publish the first of the Bauhausbücher, books that articulated the school’s design philosophy.
Bauhausbücher 1 was Gropius’s roundup of contemporary international architecture. Photos of Lower Manhattan’s growing skyline, Holland’s new social housing, North America’s hulking grain elevators, Germany’s factories, and various renderings and models by Gropius and other Bauhaus-connected designers demonstrated a wish to break free from prewar “sentimental, aesthetically decorative conceptions… drawn mostly from past cultures,” he explained.
“The master builders in this book embrace the modern world of machines and vehicles and their speed; they strive for ever more daring design means to create a sense of soaring high and overcoming earth’s inertia,” Gropius concluded.
The “modern world of machines and vehicles” ended up creating cities dominated by private automobiles and zoning codes that drastically changed land use and architecture—an evolution that is often seen as a hindrance to true urban progress in the 21st century. So a proper look back at the Bauhaus on the 100th anniversary of its foundation should not pine for an aesthetic, but explore the roots of its ideas and what happened when they were applied in an impure world.
That’s what we hope to do at CityLab this week with our special report on the school’s architectural and urban legacy, Building Bauhaus. Contributors writing from Europe, the Middle East, and North America—including Ariel Aberg-Riger in Tel Aviv, Feargus O’Sullivan in Dessau, and Zach Mortice in Chicago, among others—will tell stories about the history of the school, the buildings its members created, and the endurance of its ideas in some of the many cities it touched well after the Nazis shut down the school for good in 1933.