There are many architectural and design movements that have influenced where we are today, and the German Bauhaus movement in one of them. If you’ve ever seen a building or chair with bold clean lines, then you’ve most likely seen something influenced by Bauhaus.
The German term Bauhaus—literally “building house”—was understood as meaning “School of Building”, but in spite of its name and the fact that its founder was an architect, the Bauhaus did not have an architecture department during its first years of existence. Bauhaus architecture is a school of design and architecture founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919, in Weimar, Germany. The school was founded to unite fine arts (like painting and sculpture) with applied arts (like industrial design or building design). While the Bauhaus school became non-operational in 1933, the Bauhaus movement continued, birthing a new form of architecture that produced simple designs that are beautiful, functional, and can be mass-produced. Bauhaus architecture’s characteristics include functional shapes, abstract shapes used sparingly for décor, simple color schemes, holistic design, and basic industrial materials like concrete, steel, and glass.
The Bauhaus movement, alongside many others, holds particular interest for its fusion of form and function, displaying in its simple lines and industrial materials an analogue of the time. The social, economic, and political factors of the moment influenced the design of the movement, and produced something innovative and unique, that the world had never seen before. The form reflects the practitioners’ acceptance of the modern industrial techniques of production, and their attempt to use it to their benefit in a novel and innovative way. At the same time, they sought to return humanity and art to the very industrialization they embraced. The result is a movement that is modern, yet somehow manages to feel warm, inviting, and beautiful.
I had the opportunity of visiting the Bauhaus museum in Berlin a few years ago, and was overtaken by the beauty of the interior and exterior of the building, as well as the contents. The historical origins of the movement are fascinating. The building itself is titled an archive, and is housed in a white structure that spreads out low across beautiful grounds, with asymmetric column like featured that accentuate the facade. There are concrete pathways curving between parts of the structure, allowing you to walk through a labyrinth like space and feel totally immersed in it. It is simple and understated, and yet extremely striking. These characteristics are part of what define the movement. As a movement, its goal was to create a relationship between manufacturing and creativity. There was a fear that art was losing its purpose in society. Hence, the Bauhaus was founded to ‘build’ a relationship between manufacturing and creativity as they had been drifting apart.
In contrast to other movements, like the Arts and Crafts movement, it recognized the effect that industrialization was having on the production of buildings and interiors, and embraced it. Arts and Crafts, on the other hand, sought to stylistically and production-wise create a product that reverted to older ways, rejecting the mass production effect of industrialization and the resulting aesthetics. Bauhaus was part of the second industrial revolution, following the initial industrial revolution that ended in the 19th century, Britain, Germany, the United States, and other countries experienced another period of rapid industrial development. This Second Industrial Revolution is also known as the Technological Revolution. It’s characterized by large-scale production, the widespread use of manufacturing machinery, and new technological advancements, including the internal combustion engine, petroleum, new materials and substances, electricity, and communication technologies.
Industrial society structures developed out of the industrial revolution’s influence on technology and mass production. The development of these societies, in turn, shaped the development of modernism. One aspect of this philosophical movement was the belief that traditional forms of art and craftsmanship and even science were no longer compatible with the newly (and wholly) industrialized world. Architect Walter Gropius, who founded the school, was upset by the rapid industrialization of the era without any thought for artistic quality or humanity, and the large rift between the fine arts (like painting and sculpture) and the applied arts (also called arts and crafts during the time; things like furniture design, graphic design, and architecture). A merger of two Grand-Ducal Saxon Academy of Fine Art and the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts resulted in the birth of the architecture school, with Gropius leading the charge as director.
One fun fact I love to tell is that the Bauhaus is responsible for the creation of San Serif and Bauhaus fonts. Among the many genres of fine and decorative art, the Bauhaus also focused on typography. Graphic designer Herbert Bayer felt that typeface was the clearest form of communication and artistic expression. There are many features like this that have had massive impacts on the subtle design choices that have become naturalized today. Now, let’s take a look at ten of the most prominent features and things to know about Bauhaus buildings!
Ten Things to Know About Bauhaus Buildings
1. Primary Colour Scheme
You may have seen a classic Bauhaus print with red white yellow and blue, in geometric shapes, with text mixed with images. This scheme was also applied to building interiors and exteriors. Bauhaus design aims for cohesion and simplicity, so architectural color schemes are often limited to basic industrial colors like white, gray, and beige. In interior design, primary colors are often used—tones of red, yellow, or blue—sometimes all together but more often in focused, deliberate ways (such as a single red wall, or a yellow chair). The Villa Schminke is a great example of this, as it uses red features on the predominantly white exterior. The Schminke House in the Saxon town of Löbau is one of the key works by the architect Hans Scharoun. The house, built between 1930 and 1933, has drawn worldwide attention. It is considered a prime example of the “Neues Bauen”, and of modern architecture in the International Style. With its curved, radiant white facades, porthole-style windows, terraces and unusual exterior stair, the house is reminiscent of a steamship. As a dynamic link between nature and architecture, floor-to-ceiling windows open the living space to the outside. Inside, too, the rooms merge seamlessly. Only sliding doors and curtains separate the individual areas from one another; form and colour reinforce the spatial structure.
2. Functional Shapes
Bauhaus design features little to no embellishment or ornamentation, instead drawing attention to the streamlined design. The concept and impetus for this design principle comes from an embrace of the effects of industrialization on production, streamlining products and making things with machines, as opposed to ornate hand carved wood like in the Arts and Crafts movement. Tubular chairs—simple chairs held up by an angular length of steel tubing—are another quintessential example of Bauhaus interior design’s beautiful functionality: functional and straightforward, with geometric shapes and few extraneous details. Another popular characteristic of Bauhaus design is abstract shapes, used sparingly in decoration, and a functional option for mass production. The Masters’ House by Walter Gropius. Parallel to the Bauhaus Building, the city of Dessau commissioned Walter Gropius to construct three pairs of identical semi-detached houses for the Bauhaus masters and a detached house for the director. These were built in a small pine wood on the street now known as the Ebertallee. The buildings take the form of interlocking cubic structures of various heights. Towards the street the semi-detached houses are distinguished by generously glazed studios; vertical strip windows on the sides let light into the staircases. Only the director’s house featured an asymmetric arrangement of windows. The light-coloured houses have generously-sized terraces and balconies and feature colourful accents on the window reveals, the undersides of the balconies and the drainpipes. The form of the architecture is highly functional, in shapes that do nothing more than they need to, but somehow still manage to be highly aesthetically pleasing.
3. Industrial Materials
Since the Bauhaus movement focuses on simplicity and industrialism, it most often tries to incorporate the fewest different materials possible, all of which are considered industrial, modern materials. These materials include glass (especially in ribbon windows or glass curtain walls), concrete (especially in building design, and steel (especially in appliances and objects like lamps and chairs). The Bauhaus way of thinking has always emphasized authentic materials, ones that are true to their original form and not altered in any way. As a result, the architecture often wraps in steel, concrete, glass, and organic materials that haven’t been overly worked or manipulated. There is a desire to showcase the new materials accessible at this second industrial revolution, without taking effort to create a facade of previous forms of design. This was an embrace of a new way of making things, and the resulting aesthetic reflected that.
4. Balanced Asymmetry
Bauhaus architecture and design aimed for visual balance through asymmetry. (Symmetry was considered too industrial without any artistic heart.) One great example of this is in the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin, which utilizes asymmetry for its entire facade, but in a consistent pattern that renders it to feel natural and cohesive. As a result of the desire for balance, Bauhaus designers worked to unite and balance buildings and rooms by incorporating the same elements throughout (for instance, the same materials and shapes, or repeating colors) without making both sides the same. A landmark example of this is the Bauhaus building in Dessau, which includes several different shapes and angles while remaining cohesive with white paint and extensive window designs.
5. Flat Roofs
While many common house structures today feature sloping triangular roofs, the Bauhaus approach to roofs is quite different. In line with the sleek modern lines of the movement, the roofs tend to be flat, creating a cube or rectangular form for the building. In some cases, the intent is for people to walk on them. But you won’t often see big overhangs. I love the Farnsworth house in Idaho as an example of this flat roof construction. The British Baron, Lord Peter Palumbo, purchased the Farnsworth property in 1971 and restored it twice: in 1971-72, and again in 1996-97, following a devastating flood. Baron Palumbo sold the property at auction in 2003. The building essentially looks like one long rectangle, flat to the ground, yet with large windows that span most of the exterior walls, sheltered by an overhung flat roof. Even some other buildings, like the Weissenhof Estate detached house by Hans Scharoun below, which feature many other shapes, still keep the consistent flat roof design.
6. Smooth Facades
One of the most well-known aspects of Bauhaus architecture is linear design. Polished, smooth lines are key since the aesthetics are meant to be as uncomplicated as possible. This can be witnessed everywhere, from the steps to the windows and all of the details in between. There are those who describe Tel Aviv as a drab, gray city of concrete. However, if you look beyond the worn buildings’ façade you will encounter the largest collection of buildings whose architectural roots can be traced to the Bauhaus architecture of Germany. It is perhaps ironic that Tel Aviv houses the largest number of buildings designed in an architectural style that developed in pre-Nazi Germany, a style that came to an abrupt end in Germany, with the Nazi’s rise to power. This architectural style is so prevalent in Tel Aviv that it almost seems as though it were a local style, but it is not. Bauhaus architecture was concerned with the social aspects of design and with the creation of a new form of social housing for workers. This may be just another one of the reasons it was embraced in the newly evolving city of Tel Aviv, at a time when socialist ideas were so prevalent. This style of architecture came about (in part) because of new engineering developments that allowed the walls to be built around steel or iron frames. This meant that walls no longer had to support the structure, but only enveloped it – from the outside.
7. Glass Curtain Walls
In most of the examples I have referenced, the buildings are surrounded by floor to ceiling windows with matching white curtains that provide flexible privacy and protection from the sun. One fabulous example of the floor to ceiling curtain glass walls is the Barcelona Pavillion. designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, was the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. This building was used for the official opening of the German section of the exhibition. It is an important building in the history of modern architecture, known for its simple form and its spectacular use of extravagant materials, such as marble, red onyx and travertine. Mies wanted this building to become “an ideal zone of tranquillity” for the weary visitor, who should be invited into the pavilion on the way to the next attraction. It contains many luxurious materials, but also simple industrial ones, and translucent ones like glass and water. Ribbon windows and glass curtain walls often indicate the Bauhaus influence today.
8. Holistic Design
Gropius built many structures based on a modular principle, using industrially prefabricated components. With this he wished to realise the principles of rational construction, both in the architecture and in the process of building per se. In view of the technical resources available at the time, his plan was only partially realized in certain circumstances. Among the essential tenets of Bauhaus design is integrating the school’s techniques into every element of life, including city design, street corners, building architecture, furniture design, appliances, eating utensils, and typography. This holistic, integrated approach requires the designer to keep the school’s tenets at the forefront of every choice they make when designing a room or building look in the Bauhaus style.
9. Lack of Ornamentation
At its heart, Bauhaus is all about simplicity and clean lines, but this doesn’t mean that Bauhaus architecture lacks style. Thanks to the clever use and placement of geometric shapes, a clean, unfussy look was achieved that also worked well when applied to mass production and designing functional buildings that were intended for everyone. Although the Bauhaus is associated with minimalist design, students and teachers invested an unsuspected amount of energy in creating surreal costumes for parties, as reported by Farkas Molnar in his 1925 essay, “Life at the Bauhaus.” The parties began as improvised events but were later turned into large-scale productions, such as Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet” from 1922.
10. Geometric Accents
Cubism was an art movement that started in the early 20th century, and was recognized for its adherence to geometric shapes and cubes. This approach can also be viewed among Bauhaus architecture, which commonly showcases both curved and squared silhouettes. The geometry makes these buildings look fresh and contemporary, even today. Walter Gropius, the founder of the movement himself, built and designed his family home, which is a great example of the geometry of the Bauhaus buildings. Gropius designed his family home when he came to teach architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. The house might be modest in scale but its impact was indisputable to the fields of township and urban planning. Gropius combined traditional elements of New England architecture with innovative materials including glass, chrome and the latest technology in fixtures. The house featured a beautiful collection of furniture designed by Marcel Breuer and fabricated in Bauhaus workshops. In true Bauhaus style, the homes and its landscapes represent maximum efficiency and simple elegance. It is currently open to public for visits and private events. I actually had the pleasure of touring the house when I was in Boston, and it is quite stunning. Surrounded by many traditional colonial style homes, in winding roads through suburban and rural areas with plenty of green space, it stands out.
With the rise of Nazi power in Germany, the Bauhaus were labeled “degenerate” and many artworks and designs were destroyed. In 1933, the remaining members of the Bauhaus decided to dissolve the group and shut its doors, rather than bend to the will of the Nazi regime. At a 2009 exhibition at the Neue Museum in Weimar, it was brought to light that the Nazis later leaned on the functionality of the Bauhaus design to build concentration camps such as Buchenwald. A lot of the movements that have birthed much of our stylistic choices today were decimated by World War Two, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, and Bauhaus. A lot of new things were birthed after the war, including mid-century modern, which many say is highly influenced by Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus school likely influenced the glass, steel, and concrete materials that have become a staple of modern interior design. Before Bauhaus, these materials were considered aesthetically displeasing or utilitarian; the school reimagined these materials as sleek, simple, and beautiful in their functionality Industrial design continues today, optimizing function, value, and appearance for the benefit of both consumer and producer. Just as art and design were fused during the production process at Bauhaus workshops, industrial design today is also an immersive, holistic experience where design is equally important to manufacture.
Today’s modern furniture design is reminiscent of the Bauhaus designs of the 20th century. Metals, glass, plastic, and textiles of varying materials create furniture that not only serves a purpose but also makes a statement. And unless it’s custom-made (or otherwise handmade by a craftsman), at least some elements are likely mass-produced. Think Ikea, here. Originally, however, Bauhaus was a school: it hosted workshops on everything from metalworking to textiles. The Bauhaus combined elements of both fine arts and design education. The curriculum commenced with a preliminary course that immersed the students, who came from a diverse range of social and educational backgrounds, in the study of materials, color theory, and formal relationships in preparation for more specialized studies. While we are discussing mostly buildings in this article, the movement also produced incredible visual art. Some of the greatest modern artists and designers of the 20th century studied or taught at the Bauhaus including: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Mies Van Der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, and Marianne Brandt.
The Bauhaus movement can teach us so much about how to innovate in design with the invention of new materials and modes of production. While so many conditions have changed, many have remained the same since then. With the current changes in our technological capabilities, what new forms can we invent anew?