Bringing Back the Bauhaus

In 1925, the design school was forced out of Weimar. The city is ready to welcome it back.
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The birthplace of the Bauhaus is not very Bauhaus. The legendary school, which revolutionized design and has been synonymous for decades with the concept of modernism, left surprisingly few marks on the place where it was founded 100 years ago, a small city near the center of Germany called Weimar. Only one of those marks was architectural: a square white house called the Haus am Horn. With hard right angles and flat rooflines, it has the aesthetic touchstones of modernity and rationality that have come to be seen—in designs ranging from household appliances to skyscrapers—as the Bauhaus style.

In 1925, the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar and move to its second and more famous home in Dessau, 80 miles to the north. There, the purpose-built Bauhaus campus, designed by the school’s founding director, Walter Gropius, is something of a pilgrimage site for Bauhaus aficionados and architecture enthusiasts. Even in Berlin, where the school operated under the leadership of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for less than a year before being shut down by the Nazis, buildings like the Bauhaus Archive are veritable landmarks of its impact. Weimar, perhaps better known as the city where the newly written German constitution created the so-called Weimar Republic after World War I, is comparably lacking in Bauhaus flair.

But Weimar may actually be the better place to fully understand the Bauhaus—the cultural conditions that made it possible, the innovative artists and designers who established its foundational philosophy, the dark forces that tried to suppress it, and the global spread of its new form of design. Next month, in honor of the school’s centenary, a new Bauhaus Museum will open in Weimar, showcasing some of the earliest specimens of the Bauhaus school and offering a historical overview of its work and significance.

It’s the central element of what the city is calling its Quarter of Weimar Modernism, a compact footprint just outside the city’s historic center where one can see both the legacy of cultural support that made the city an ideal home for the Bauhaus and the brutal fascism that tried to crush it. The district offers a wide-angle view of history in an easily traversable space: The new museum is bookended by two other buildings that, together, track the full story of the Bauhaus—the 19th-century art museum that nurtured the predecessor of the Bauhaus, and the Nazi-built administrative complex that helped Adolf Hitler establish a regime of suppression and murder that pushed the Bauhaus out of Germany.

Designed by Berlin-based architect Heike Hanada, the new museum building is a minimalist, light gray cube, with a striped facade sparingly interrupted by windows. In lowercase, the words “bauhaus museum” repeat endlessly around the top of the building, and oversize doors at its front and a picture window at its back serve as a visual portal into and through the otherwise closed box. The heart of the museum is the 168-object collection of Bauhaus items from the Weimar days, hand-selected by Walter Gropius for safekeeping as the school prepared to leave the home that was disowning it. Crated and hidden away from the Nazis in a storage room in the palace of the former grand duke, the collection wasn’t reopened and inventoried until the 1950s. The complete collection will be displayed together for the first time in the new Bauhaus Museum. Displays will also track the tenures of the school’s three directors, Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Mies van der Rohe. Other features include a painting by Paul Klee, who spent 10 years teaching at the school, and the Bauhaus Cradle, a modernist rocking crib of triangles and circles that expresses most vibrantly the color theory of Bauhaus instructor and painter Wassily Kandinsky.

Outside, with construction crews still banging away ahead of its grand opening, Bauhaus Museum director Ulrike Bestgen explains that while the story of the Bauhaus is much bigger than Weimar, the city provides the historical context to explain its importance. And as extreme right-wing parties in Germany and across Europe are regaining political power, it’s becoming even more crucial to understand the history of the Bauhaus and the forces that tried to suppress it. ...