Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It was a perfect setting for a movement that wanted to cross over the boundary between art and technology. Today, it survives on a different kind of creativity.
Dessau doesn’t feel like the former mouth of a creative volcano. To enter this pleasant, if somewhat austere, eastern German city by train is to discover somewhere so trim and self-effacing that it seems implausible as the former location of the world-straddling, epoch-shaping Bauhaus, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Having transferred there from Weimar in 1925, the art and design school’s seven-year-stay managed to place Dessau at the heart of the Modernist movement, leaving behind it a scattering of truly ground-breaking buildings when it transferred to Berlin in 1932. Now, the city gives an impression of elegantly managed decline, with calm green streets threaded with gardens only lightly scattered with either cars or people.
This year, that pleasant calm may break somewhat, as visitors arrive to Dessau for the Bauhaus’ centenary year, celebrated with both a program of cultural events and a thorough, sensitive restoration of the city’s many remaining Bauhaus-affiliated buildings. What might not instantly be apparent to first-time visitors, however, is that while contemporary Dessau seems like an unlikely spot for artistic and social revolution, it’s more innovative than it looks. Since the millennium, the city has in fact found an unexpected way to continue its tradition of experimental design—not through building, but through a form of creative destruction.
Bauhaus and the city
Much has been made in the past of the improbable contrast between the progressive ferment of the Bauhaus and the doughy provincialism of 1920s Dessau. A medium-sized city roughly halfway between much larger Berlin and Leipzig, Dessau did indeed ferment a partial backlash against the art school before it had even arrived, with the city’s civic associations fulminating against it in the local press. It was nonetheless visionary leadership, and active wooing by the city’s then-mayor Fritz Hesse that attracted the Bauhaus in the first place, fighting off competition from larger cities such as Mannheim. Not only did Hesse (a member of the liberal DDP party) promise funding for the school’s construction, he also agreed that one-sixth of all city building contracts would be granted to the school’s members during their stay, one rather understandable reason why local architects and building companies resented the school’s presence.
It was an accord that left the city not only with an entire quarter (now much altered) of Bauhaus-designed affordable housing, but also such oddities as the unlikely but sparely beautiful Carl Fieger-designed Kornhaus café/restaurant, commissioned by the city and built on the city’s outskirts to serve people strolling along the River Elbe’s water meadows.
This generosity made the city singularly attractive to the school, but there was far more to the choice. The school’s original home had been Weimar, a still non-industrial city which, as a Ducal capital that was once home to Bach, Goethe, and Schiller, inevitably placed any subsequent artistic activity there under the shadow of established German cultural tradition. Bauhaus in Weimar had, in its teachings and products, still initially reflected the influence of Expressionism and the Arts and Crafts movement. These were approaches that, in foregrounding the expression of the individual artist’s consciousness, harked back to a pre-industrial craft tradition, even as they warily began using mass production to reproduce and disseminate their work.
Dessau was different. Beyond a remarkable romantic landscape garden, it had no notable place in German cultural history. What it was, however, was an industrial powerhouse, possessing factories specializing in machine assembly, aircraft fabrication, and gas-heater manufacture among others. It was thus a perfect setting for a movement that wanted to cross over the boundary between art and technology. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius had already been moving towards a greater interest in mass production and functionality for some years by the time the city of Weimar withdrew the school’s funding. Dessau’s multifarious industrial production, and its relative lack of cultural baggage—indeed, its relative anonymity—made it a sort of blank canvas, an ideal place for a new direction.
The city responded by opening itself up as a laboratory for the school’s experiments. During the school’s stay, it commissioned an entire Gropius-designed neighborhood of modestly-sized affordable housing on the city’s southern edge, transforming the chosen location into a sort of factory, in which elements such as concrete joists were not shipped in but fabricated onsite. The city also got Gropius to design a new employment bureau, its interior flooded with light via rows of skylight windows set as giant tiles in a saw-tooth roof. The school itself created experimental prototypes such as the Stahlhaus, intended not for immediate use but to test the use of prefabricated steel plates. Above all, the Bauhaus created its own headquarters, whose plate glass curtain wall allowed its teaching workshops to be flooded with light and formed the model for tens of thousands of subsequent buildings.
The importance of these buildings as experiments first and foremost should be stressed—they were try-outs which, in their original form, didn’t always work perfectly. The new neighborhood at Dessau–Törten ended up being remodeled quite quickly, while the Bauhaus building’s curtain wall created unwelcome seasonal extremes of temperature in the workshops behind. Workers at the employment bureau, meanwhile, may have appreciated the part-glass ceiling but missed windows at eye level, which were punched through (with wooden frames!) some years after construction in the mid-1930s. Close to a century later, however, these buildings still look fresh and even somewhat contemporary, blending effortlessly into an urban fabric in which almost all later buildings show the stamp of Bauhaus influence.
Dessau has never quite seen the likes of anything so culturally influential since. With the school’s funding cancelled in 1932 after a Nazi takeover of the city’s government (and the sacking and, later, the brief internment of Mayor Hesse), the Bauhaus moved on to Berlin for one final, highly difficult year of operation as a private institution. The school’s Dessau headquarters was, of all indignities, turned into a training college for Nazi functionaries, functioning until wartime bombing set it (and many of the nearby Master Houses) on fire, destroying its glass curtain wall. Patched up with concrete and reopened as a vocational college, the Bauhaus itself was first restored to something close to its original appearance in the 1970s before being taken over by the newly founded Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in 1994.
Meanwhile, Dessau was preparing for a a creative second act, developing itself yet again on a minor scale as the stage set for creative transformation. This time, however, it was sparked not by industrial vitality, but industrial decline.
The city’s fate in recent decades echoes that of many towns across eastern Germany. After reunification, Dessau’s economy was decimated. Tariff-free competition from western Germany and further afield swallowed up the markets for the city’s factories (which largely, but not exclusively, failed soon after their privatization) and thousands of citizens left in search of work in the west. Between 1990 and 2006 the newly amalgamated city of Dessau-Rosslau’s population fell by 18 percent (from 111,396 to 91,243). With its mortality rate double its birth rate, it was clear that the trend was not about to reverse. As its population withered, Dessau’s streets became increasingly empty, its buildings fading into disrepair.
This was happening across entire regions of eastern Germany, so simple plans to boost the city through promotion would be highly unlikely to stop the rot. The answer, the city decided, was creative destruction. Instead of trying to save and fill each building, Dessau would remodel itself through demolition, tearing down buildings to create a river of new green space through its heart, around which neighborhoods would function as “city islands,” areas of concentrated settlement and activity set in an altogether lusher, calmer landscape.
In the decade leading up to 2010, Dessau cleared 22 acres of its built-up area, populating the vacated space with lawns, trees, and paths. The city plan was overlaid with a grid dividing it into squares of 400 square meters, which citizens were invited to take over and adapt to their own use. Steadily citizen groups started taking over these patches, reimagining them as allotments for growing produce, BMX parks, and cultural spaces. The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation was at the heart of this process, staging in 2010 an exhibition called “The Future is Less” that explored creative responses to urban shrinkage.
The process hasn’t in itself caused Dessau’s population to rise again. That has in fact been relatively stable at around 82,500 residents since 2016. What it has done, however, is keep the city a pleasant place to live and preserve it from any sense of feeling like a forlorn shell. Dessau thus remains a place for proactive experiments with design and urban form. That these experiments are about managing decline rather than growth has its poignant side. In a world where many former industrial cities are struggling to reinvent themselves, it still makes the city a potentially valuable role model. Other cities may attract more attention, but sometimes it’s the quiet ones that are worth watching.