Dispatches from Deutschland for a landmark celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Bauhaus
I’m visiting Germany as one of a cohort of journalists invited to tour the country’s Bauhaus legacy ahead of a three- year-long, multi-city centennial celebration, spanning a huge array of galleries, architectural sites, schools, and museums. For anyone even remotely interested in the Bauhaus, a trip in for the centennial is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to explore the nuanced movement in all its complexity. Plus, Germany is its own draw.
“Make it new.” Ezra Pound’s famous exhortation and modernist motto also represents what the Bauhaus was after. And what else was there to do? The old ways had clearly failed us, or so it certainly felt. WWI left Europe a smoldering ruin, 20 million dead from new modes of mechanized slaughter.
It’s 1919, 100 years ago next year, and Walter Gropius (it’s the kind of name that’s fun to say, especially with that Germanic pungency—it makes you feel a bit like some transatlantic Brahmin) is building a new type of school from the ground up in Dessau, reconsidering everything that had been taken for granted in the realms of arts, craft, architecture, and design. No longer were these disciplines separate, but instead could be seen as one, in service of a radical functionality, efficiency, and easy replicability. It was time to strip away all the overheated passion and sentimentality that brought us World War and ridiculously ornamented chairs and buildings. There was a sort of ruthlessness to the thinking, in its subjugation of emotion and glorification of the cool logic of machinery, but, seen in context, there’s also a beauty to the idea that we can recognize failure, throw away the old, and begin anew.
To travel in Germany as an American is to realize your home isn’t as first-world as you’d like to believe. A gleaming high-speed rail network shuttles you smoothly from city to city. Conspicuously missing are the masses of people failed by the system, crowded under overpasses and into tent-cities lining the sidewalks. Where is the pollution, smog, decaying infrastructure? The student debt? The untreated illness and underfunded arts? A lot of this, it seems, can be chalked up to the kind of ethos that propelled the Bauhaus—when old modes fail us, move forward. It’s something Germany has managed, through necessity—a recognition that the past, while often beautiful (even Germany’s is, with obvious exceptions) and certainly well worth studying and remembering, needn’t define the future. We can be unshackled from tradition, from “that’s just the way it’s always been” mentalities, and move forward into brighter futures.
At every location we’re met with top-of-their-class tour guides and experts. It’s a whirlwind education in a movement that is difficult to condense, both in the scope of its ambition and the breadth of its influence. My stops include Munich, ritzy Stuttgart, heartbreakingly beautiful Ulm, the delightfully charmless Ludwigshafen, historically rich Mainz, and Frankfurt.
Sweeping into Munich, hopping off the train, checking out a city bike and weaving your way along with a quiet rush hour of pedaling Germans, their workdays humane in hours, heading for the biergartens, bier halls, or just a beer in the park, it feels unsurprising that the city is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable. The river that threads through Munich is clean enough to swim in, and looks clean enough to drink. Sunbathers lie nude on the banks and take in the air, a hint of coming winter in the shade but still lovely in the sun, drinking in the last dregs of summer. In the squares you’re hemmed in by great gothic facades on all sides, church bells singing on the hour. The boompa of Bavarian horns echoes through the cozy streets, lederhosen-clad musicians entertaining diners, and it’s somehow all sans irony.
At the biergarten, I take a seat with a big, blistered Bavarian pretzel and a foaming stein of thirst-slaking, clean-tasting beer beneath a canopy of chestnut trees. There’s a playground for the children, who roughhouse while the parents sip and chat. The Munich government protected these spaces as quasi-public settings, in recognition of the fact that some joys are essential and should be accessible to everyone. You needn’t buy a thing to sit here; you can bring your own food. And people talk to one another, get to know each other, strengthen the bonds that undergird the community. Making friends here is easy, and I find a crew to hit the town with tonight. Architects, as luck would have it.
High-speed rail to Stuttgart (where I will discover, late at night and a long way from my hotel, that I left my wallet at the Munich train station—that’s another story). The whole city feels like it’s under construction. Turns out that Stuttgart will be a major hub on a new high speed rail corridor running from Paris to Hungary. Naturally, some locals are not happy with their city spending nearly a decade as a construction yard, but I ask one elderly resident about the project, and, while she concedes that the noise and ugliness and detours are a hassle, she sees it all as a worthy sacrifice if it means the next generation can enjoy greater mobility across Europe. What a lovely sentiment.
Stuttgart holds three primary sites of interest for the Bau-curious. There’s the dynamic, resolutely experimental Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, one of the oldest and largest “art associations” in Germany—private, member- driven collectives with exhibition and research resources that also receive state funding for their programming. Proudly provocative, the exhibition we saw explored the fascist and communist appropriations of Bauhaus and modernist architectural ideals, as well as exhibitions highlighting influential and often-overlooked female architects from the era.
Perhaps more accessible is the world-class Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, an art museum punching well above its weight, considering Stuttgart is Germany’s 6th largest city. Next to an astonishing array of Modiglianis, Picassos, Munchs, and highlights from almost every artistic movement from the 19th and 20th centuries is a special exhibition on important figures from the Bauhaus—Paul Klee, Willi Baumeister, and in particular the enigmatic and fascinating Oskar Schlemmer.
Schlemmer’s ideas were so idiosyncratic that they challenged the sensibilities of even the progressive Bauhaus. On view at the Staatsgalerie are a collection of his paintings and sculptures, which abstract human forms into their geometrical essence, devoid of troublesome sentimentality or the fraught prospect of emotional exchange, and which supposedly represent Schlemmer’s hopeful imaginings of a purely logical future human society. It can be hard to see the appeal, even if the imagery is fascinating—they inhabit rooms without interacting, ascending and descending stairs with an unnerving objectivity and sense of purpose. More joyful are his psychedelic, otherworldly costumes for the avant garde Triadisches Ballett which I recommend googling immediately. Designed to restrict opportunities for movement in the dancers, the costumes are hilarious and beautiful. They still look ahead of their time.
Then there’s the Weissenhoff Estate, which will likely be the biggest draw for architecture buffs. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Estate was built hastily in advance of the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition, which was seen as Bauhaus and modernist architects’ chance to justify all the esoteric theorizing they were doing on the state’s dime by building something with practical applications. Curated and overseen by Mies van der Rohe, and featuring architects that would go on to become icons in their field (including Gropius, Josef Frank, and—most prominently—Corbusier), the Werkbund exhibition defined the “International Style” and Modernist architecture generally in concrete terms. What strikes me most about the Weissenhoff Estate was how modern it still felt, and how sexy the buildings still are. Perched up in the hills around the city, with clean lines and pretty roof gardens, they feel like they would fit in above Hollywood—not a coincidence, considering some of LA’s cherished modernists, i.e. Neutra, are European expats who were immersed in the International Style and Bauhaus traditions.
I have to say, after a few days immersed in the cooly utilitarian dispassionate practicality of the Bauhaus, you begin to crave a little romance, a little sentimentality. Thankfully, Germany delivers there as well. Hopping off the bus in the charming town of Ulm, with its narrow streets, canals lined with quaint storybook houses, and an ostentatious gaudily gothic church (the tallest in the world), I was relieved. After a hearty dinner of schnitzel and beer, I sprinted up the steps the steeple and wandered the gorgeous, charming streets, thankful to encounter a bit of heart.
That’s something of the idea behind Frankfurt’s New Old Town, known as the Dom-Römer Project. Here we see the whole thing come full circle. After Germany’s wars, and the whole “make it new” philosophy of utilitarian urbanism, people realized they wanted more than practicality. There was something of a backlash against the modernist and Bauhaus ideals. Frankfurt, whose gorgeous old town was almost completely destroyed during WWII, is going further than anywhere else in Germany to restore what was lost in the process of transformation, with a hugely expensive, years-long project to recreate the old city, recently finished.
This nostalgia, and the artifice inherent in building versions of old buildings with modern amenities and materials is easily mocked as “Disneyfied,” impractical, inauthentic. And that’s true to an extent—the New Old Town feels a bit like a theme park. But it’s fun and pretty, and judging by the masses of tourists walking the streets, popular. The warring impulses of pragmatism and fantasy, rationality and sentimentality both have their value. It’s important that we resist golden age thinking, that we are able to leave behind the past to move towards brighter futures, but it’s also important that we preserve a human element and a sense of history. Germany does both. Gleaming towers, brutalist apartment blocks, and a formidable clean energy program meets storybook villages, lederhosen, gothic cathedrals, beer for breakfast. No wonder it’s such a lovely place to visit.
Title illustration by Daryn Ray