Bauhaus, a German art school founded by German architect Walter Gropius after World War I, is now a hundred years old. The Bauhaus school influenced and changed what is now known as modern design and its influence was not only limited to art, furniture and design in Germany. This revolutionary art movement also shaped the cityscape of entire urban centers elsewhere in the world.
Bauhaus was founded on principles of how design could be used to serve people and transform society. The aftermath of WWI left Germany in ruins and emerging nationalist groups called for nation-building by returning to traditional roots and values, impacting post-war Germany in various ways. These nationalist groups went on to coalesce as the Nazi party. The devastation of World War I resulted in a rethinking of art and architecture in Germany and led to the first concrete foundations of modern design. In the midst of this, Gropius founded the Bauhaus school in Weimar in 1919, where students were taught in cross-disciplinary subjects, including art, architecture and crafts. Among their many creations, the Bauhaus was credited with establishing a new typeface – the Bauhaus.
The nationalist movement that soon developed into the Nazi ideology in Germany considered Bauhaus to be a rejection of traditional German values. Nazi Germany adopted a typescript, the Fraktur, that began to be uniquely associated with them.
The Fraktur is an adaptation of the Gothic typeface using Latin alphabets and had been in use across Europe in the 20th century. The Nazis however, adapted the typeface as a representation of “true” German values. Art historians believe that the Bauhaus typeface emerged to counter the Fraktur and it’s nationalistic association with Nazi Germany.
The Bauhaus school was operational mainly in three German cities —Weimar, where it was founded and Dessau and Berlin. In 1925, the Weimar school closed down and operations shifted to Dessau. However, by 1931, the National Socialist German Workers Party or the Nazi Party had established substantial control and influence over German politics and forced the Bauhaus school in Dessau to close. The Bauhaus school then shifted its operations to a humble factory in the outskirts of Berlin in 1932 where students and artists began working, but Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, closed down this school as well in 1933.
The Nazis labelled Bauhaus as “degenerate art”, a term used in Nazi Germany in the 1920s to describe and ban any kind of modern art that they found to be against German values, and sustained political pressure forced the school to close. But this was hardly the end of Bauhaus.
People who fled Nazi Germany to other parts of the world, particularly Bauhaus artists, took the art with them and established it in cities around the world where they sought refuge. Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, took his art with him when he fled Germany in 1934 and settled in London. Four years later, Gropius moved to the United States with his family and settled in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A few years after his arrival in the US, along with his protégé, Marcel Breuer, Gropius began teaching at Harvard University’s School of Design where he became chair of the department in 1938. The house that Gropius designed for his family was done in the Bauhaus style and was designated a National Historic Landmark by the US government in 2000 and renamed ‘Gropius House’.
Refugees from Nazi Europe who were a part of the Bauhaus school settled in Britain, the United States, Israel and elsewhere in the world and influenced the architecture and design of buildings in those places.
Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany
The Bauhaus Building in Dessau, Germany was built by Walter Gropius in 1927, the founder of Bauhaus, and commissioned by the city of Dessau. The building also served as a school for training in Bauhaus but was closed by the Nazis in 1932. In 2006, the building was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Today, it houses the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, founded in 1994, for the research and preservation of Bauhaus and its associated museum is scheduled to be completed in 2019.
Kolkata-born architect, Habib Rahman won a scholarship in the 1940s to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied under the founder of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius. Rahman not only studied under the Bauhaus master, he also worked with Gropius’ protégé, Marcel Breuer after finishing studies at MIT. Rahman returned to India and was responsible for designing the Gandhi Ghat in Barrackpore, West Bengal, and the New Secretariat building in Kolkata. In New Delhi, Rahman designed the National Zoological Park.
During the 1930s, Jewish architects who escaped Nazi Europe and settled in Israel built what is now known as the largest number of buildings in the Bauhaus architectural style. This architectural style, with buildings mostly built as apartment blocks, was adapted to suit the dry Mediterranean climate of Israel with the use of white as the predominant colour. In 2003, UNESCO gave Tel Aviv’s ‘White City’, the neighbourhood in the city where most buildings in the Bauhaus style are located, a World Cultural Heritage tag. The Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv serves as an archive of the city’s Bauhaus heritage.
Bauhaus has contributed immensely to typography and graphic design and there are several visible examples of its influence. Among the most notable examples of Bauhaus typeface include German typographer Jan Tschichold’s book cover designs for Penguin between 1947 to 1949.
More recently, Adobe, the software company, in collaboration with German type designer Erik Spiekermann digitised special Bauhaus fonts to mark the school’s 100th anniversary, for the software company’s ‘Hidden Treasures’ series.