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The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics

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Éva Forgács

Chapter 16. Endgame

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1IF WE SEE the history of the Bauhaus as the fate of the original Bauhaus idea as defined by Gropius, then we may consider this fate fulfilled by Hannes Meyer's manifesto, 'bauhaus and society'. However, the school's history still had a final chapter left: that of Judgment Day.

  • 1 Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1978, p. 58.
  • 2 Dearstyne, Inside the Bauhaus, op. cit., p. 222.

2Mies van der Rohe was appointed director of the Bauhaus on 5 August 1930. Mies was born in 1886, and his career had run in parallel with Gropius's. From 1908 to 1910 they worked together at Peter Behrens's office; they met again in the Novembergruppe, and both were members of the Werkbund, of which Mies was elected vice president in 1926. He was considered one of the most gifted and respected German architects. The ethereal elegance and originality of the German Pavilion he designed for the 1929 Barcelona World Fair brought him world fame. According to Philip Johnson: 'Here for the first time Mies was able to build a structure unhampered by functional requirements... [this was] one of the milestones of modern architecture.'1 Peter Behrens, recalling the moment when he first glimpsed it, stated: 'My heart leaped up.'2

  • 3 Ibid.. p. 221.

3Still, Mies was not given a unanimously joyous reception at the Bauhaus. 'A large number of students, egged on by a handful of militant communists, gathered in the canteen and demanded that he exhibit his work, to enable them to decide whether or not he was qualified to direct the Bauhaus.'3 Mies called in the police, and several students were expelled from the school. For a few weeks the Bauhaus remained closed.

4Mies van der Rohe did not engage in politics, but only his employers considered this a virtue. The Bauhaus youth thought this a betrayal: to them, Meyer's dismissal and Mies's appointment was a scandal.

10 Mies van der Rohe

  • 4 'A Swiss Architecture Student Writes to a Swiss Architect about the Bauhaus Dessau'; in Wingler, o (...)
  • 5 Josef Albers, Letter to Otti Berger, 20 December 1930; In bauhaus berlin. Auflösung Dessau, 1932 S (...)

5Under Mies's directorship the school became a regular university. 'We enter the building at 8 a.m., and at 5 p.m., after finishing with the day's courses, we go back home again … Many say that since the Bauhaus has become more like a technical school It has become much better than before. Mies is a wonderful architect, but as a man, and particularly as the Director, he is very reactionary … There simply is no life left in the whole shebang.'4 Not everyone concurred with this; Josef Albers thought that 'Mies is a wonderful guy' and as far as he was concerned, continued to enjoy his work.5

6Pius Pahl, who enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1930, came under the influence of the prevailing atmosphere:

  • 6 Pius E. Pahl, 'Experiences of an architectural student'; In Neumann (ed.), op. cit., pp. 251-4.

There was no comparison between the atmosphere at the Bauhaus and that of any of the other schools I had attended. The Bauhdusler regarded themselves as part of the Bauhaus, just as monks might regard themselves as part of their monastery... The recognition of the connections in industrial developments, the shifting of production, the necessary changes In the sociological structure, the intellectual assimilation of these factors, the threat to Individuality In an industrial state, and other problems all were of great concern to us Bauhäusler… Mies takes us for the fourth semester. The studio hours are always very interesting. Mies walks from table to table and helps in his clear and calm way ... It was after the lecture of a Swiss architect to a large audience that an argument started. The functionalists substantially supported the speaker, while a large section of the students protested, but not too successfully, until Howard Dearstyne described the commendable clothes of the speaker, including the impressive red tie, and asked the opponents for an explanation of the function of the tie.6

7It was also true that some of the faculty departed: in 1931 Klee left for the Düsseldorf Academy and Gunta Stölzl for Zürich; Schlemmer went to Breslau in 1929.

  • 7 Dearstyne, op. cit., pp. 222-3.

8Many people considered Mies van der Rohe a 'formalist' and an 'elitist' for designing family homes for wealthy patrons Instead of inexpensive housing for the masses. Undoubtedly, his style of leadership was different from Gropius's and Meyer's. Actually he resided in Berlin and commuted three times a week to Dessau. He did not strive for spiritual communion with his colleagues and students, but fulfilled his duties as director and was an excellent teacher.7

  • 8 Jean Leppien, in Nina Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 144; quoted by Whitford. op. cit., p. 192.

9Before starting the first semester in 1931, each student was mailed a declaration that had to be signed and returned to the Bauhaus to qualify for attendance. Among other things, the statement included the following: 'With my signature I undertake to attend the courses regularly, to sit in the canteen no longer than the meal lasts, not to stay in the canteen in the evening, to avoid political discussions, and to take care not to make any noise in the town and to go out well dressed.'8 The need for such regulations is a testimonial not so much about the Bauhaus as about the changed atmosphere of Dessau and Germany.

  • 9 Whitford. op. cit., p. 193.

10Mies van der Rohe's Bauhaus took on the character of a modern school of architecture insofar as it placed total emphasis on theoretical training. In 1930 the cabinet-making, metal and mural-painting workshops were amalgamated into a single 'interior design' workshop directed from 1932 by Mies's partner, Lily Reich, who assumed responsibility for the textile workshop as well. The overall duration of training was decreased from nine to seven semesters, and the Bauhaus now consisted of two divisions: one for exterior architecture and one for interior design. Of the former Bauhaus masters the only one left was Kandinsky who, as late as 1932, was still complaining to Mies about his reduced teaching hours.9

11In October 1931 the Nazi party entered the Dessau elections with a programme that included not only the shutting down of the Bauhaus but the demolition of the building into ashes and dust. By this time, everything had become saturated with political content. Whether Mies liked it or not, modem architecture became identified with leftist political views, since it did not point towards the monumentality or folk art espoused by the ideology of the Third Reich. The NSDAP (German Nazi party) considered the international style of modern architecture to be a Jewish-Bolshevik contamination. The flat roof became a sign of primitivism alien to the Nordic races.

  • 10 Naylor, op. cit., p. 176.
  • 11 Ibid.

12In 1932 the Nazis came to power in Dessau. Paul Schulfze-Naumburg, author of a work entitled Art and Race, who became the director of the Weimar Academy of Fine Arts in 1930 and, as we have seen, used this capacity to destroy the murals and reliefs of Oskar Schlemmer and Joost Schmidt, now arrived in Dessau to offer an expert opinion (for he was an architect) about the Bauhaus. As was to be expected, on the basis of this the school was shut down and the entire faculty fired. Fritz Hesse somehow managed to secure salaries until October,"10 as well as the disbursement of royalty payments. The decision to demolish the building was commented upon by the Anhalter Tageszeitung in the following terms: 'The disappearance of this so-called "Institute of Design" will mean the disappearance from German soil of one of the most prominent places of Jewish-Marxist "art" manifestation. May the total demolition follow soon, and may in the same spot where today stands the sombre glass palace of oriental taste, the "aquarium", as it has been popularly dubbed in Dessau, soon rise homesteads and parks that will provide the German people with homes and places of relaxation.'11

13In the end the building was not demolished, for the costs proved prohibitive.

14Mies van der Rohe's new strategy was to continue the Bauhaus as a private institution. In 1932 he rented an abandoned telephone factory in the Steglitz district of Berlin and moved the Bauhaus there. In addition to many of the Dessau students, there were numerous new students who enrolled. The faculty consisted of Albers, Kandinsky, Lily Reich, Walter Peterhans, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Hinnerk Scheper and Alcar Rudelt. The school was able to operate for one full semester. Kandinsky, in spite of his argument with Mies, taught the theory of art. As Pius Pahl recalls:

  • 12 Pahl, op. cit., p. 184.

When I arrived in Berlin, the remodelling of the abandoned, old factory building had just begun. We all helped; we pulled down old walls and built new ones. Although the financial situation of the Bauhaus was hopeless, thanks to the personal sacrifices made by the faculty, instruction could commence. No one knew whether the political balance would tilt to the extreme left or to the extreme right. Still, for one final semester we could work undisturbed by Internal dissensions. There was one very successful Bauhaus festival attended by many friends. We also organized a semester-closing exhibition, which, considering the reduced circumstances of the Berlin Bauhaus, was a success.12

  • 13 Kandinsky, Letter to Werner Drawes, Berlin, 10 April 1933; In bauhaus berlin, op. cit., p. 27.
  • 14 Pahl. op. cit., p. 195.

15The new elections were held on 5 March. The National Socialists wasted no time: in a physical, although not in a legal, sense the Bauhaus was shut down on 11 April 1933. On the day before, Kandinsky wrote to a former student: 'Berlin is perfectly calm ... 17 new students enrolled, Including a Japanese woman.'13 On the following day, according to Pius Pahl's account, 'early In the morning the police came in trucks and closed down the Bauhaus. Those Bauhaus students who did not possess suitable identification papers (and who had. in those days!) were taken away on the trucks.'14 On the same morning the remaining students and faculty discussed the options still open to them. One possibility was emigration, but this was dismissed by Mies van der Rohe. He still hoped, as many others did, according to Pius Pahl, that the NSDAP, having taken over, would promulgate a more lenient cultural policy. Such hopes did not seem unfounded back then. A few days later, for example, the Reich's Cultural Office made known its intention to have Mies van der Rohe design a palace of culture for Hitler.

  • 15 Bauhaus Bertin, op. cit., p. 129.
  • 16 Ibid.

16The day after the closing of the Bauhaus Mies paid a visit to Alfred Rosenberg's office, In the hope that the president of the 'Militant Alliance of German Culture' would support him.15 However, Rosenberg informed him that the Bauhaus was a symbol of those forces 'who were putting up the hardest fight against National Socialism'.16

17Mies van der Rohe made the following notes about the meeting:

  • 17 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,' Minutes of a Conference, Recorded from Memory, of 12 April 1933 with Al (...)

I put the question to Rosenberg: 'Where do you, as the cultural leader of the new Germany, stand on the aesthetic problems which have emerged as a result of the technical and Industrial development? Do you consider it Important, culturally, to work on these problems?' - Rosenberg: 'Why do you ask?' - Mies: 'Because work on such problems is the major concern of the Bauhaus, and I would like to know whether there is any sense in our continuing these efforts.' -Rosenberg: 'Are these problems not dealt with at the Institutes of Technology?' -Mies: 'No. At the Institutes of Technology these fields are split into too many special disciplines and one should take just exactly the opposite course. These problems of aesthetics can only be dealt with when taken all together. Moreover, they must really be worked on, which is something impossible to do at institutes where one single teacher has up to one hundred and fifty students. I have, in three different semesters, a total of about thirty young students, so that I am truly able to work with each one of them.' - Rosenberg: 'Why do you want the backing of political power? We are not thinking of stifling private initiative. If you are so sure of what you are doing, your ideas will succeed anyway.' - Mies: 'For any cultural effort one needs peace, and I would like to know whether we will have that peace.' - Rosenberg: 'Are you hampered in your work?' - Mies: 'Hampered is not the correct term. Our house has been sealed, and I would be grateful to you if you could look into this matter.' - This Rosenberg promised to do.'17

  • 18 Nina Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 150.
  • 19 Mies van der Rohe, 'Announcement to the students', Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin, unit 17/3; quoted by Wh (...)

18Four months after the closing of the school Mies was offered permission to re-open the Bauhaus on two conditions: 'Hilberseimer had to be dismissed, for being a member of the Social Democrat party, and Kandinsky had to be dismissed, for his theories are dangerous in our eyes.'18 On 10 August 1933 Mies sent out letters informing students that 'at its last meeting, the faculty resolved to dissolve the Bauhaus. The reason for this decision was the difficult economic situation of the institute.'19

19Rosenberg was not mistaken. The spirit of independence represented by Kandinsky, among others, was a much more radical enemy of Nazism than any communist or professional Bauhaus programme could ever be.

Notes

1 Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1978, p. 58.

2 Dearstyne, Inside the Bauhaus, op. cit., p. 222.

3 Ibid.. p. 221.

4 'A Swiss Architecture Student Writes to a Swiss Architect about the Bauhaus Dessau'; in Wingler, op. cit., p. 175.

5 Josef Albers, Letter to Otti Berger, 20 December 1930; In bauhaus berlin. Auflösung Dessau, 1932 Schliessung. Berlin, 1933, Bauhäusler und Drittes Reich: Eine Dokumentation, zusammengestellt vom Bauhaus-Archiv, Kunstverlag Weingarten, Berlin, 1985, p. 26.

6 Pius E. Pahl, 'Experiences of an architectural student'; In Neumann (ed.), op. cit., pp. 251-4.

7 Dearstyne, op. cit., pp. 222-3.

8 Jean Leppien, in Nina Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 144; quoted by Whitford. op. cit., p. 192.

9 Whitford. op. cit., p. 193.

10 Naylor, op. cit., p. 176.

11 Ibid.

12 Pahl, op. cit., p. 184.

13 Kandinsky, Letter to Werner Drawes, Berlin, 10 April 1933; In bauhaus berlin, op. cit., p. 27.

14 Pahl. op. cit., p. 195.

15 Bauhaus Bertin, op. cit., p. 129.

16 Ibid.

17 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,' Minutes of a Conference, Recorded from Memory, of 12 April 1933 with Alfred Rosenberg, Concerning the Closing of the Bauhaus Berlin, 13 April 1933'; Wingler's copy from the private archives of Mies van der Rohe; in bauhaus berlin, op. cit., p. 130.

18 Nina Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 150.

19 Mies van der Rohe, 'Announcement to the students', Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin, unit 17/3; quoted by Whitford, op. cit., p. 196.

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