Walter Gropius. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I.M. Pei. Paul Rudolph. Philip Johnson.
The timeline of the Bauhaus School reads as a who’s-who of Modernist architecture – the impact of directors, professors, and students who travelled along the school’s distinctive educational path is astounding. Its legacy is huge and complex, and the ideological design philosophies of Gropius et al can be seen sprinkled throughout countless contemporary masterpieces. If there is one place where these philosophies are embodied in their purist form, however, it must surely be the city of Dessau in Germany, where the school relocated after the rise of the Nazis in 1924.
As well as the construction of the iconic School Building in 1925, Gropius was commissioned to design three semi-detached dwellings for the Bauhaus Masters, and a detached house for its director. These dwellings encapsulated the German architect’s vision of utilizing industrial prefabrication as a tool to produce perfectly functional units of domestic architecture: although the standardization of elements was never fully realized due to the limitations of technology at the time, these houses have become synonymous with the lofty ideals of the Bauhaus.
It is understandable, then, that there has been fierce debate surrounding the approach to rebuilding, restoring, or reinterpreting the houses that were damaged or destroyed during World War II. Five of the six semi-detached dwellings survived with varying amounts of damage, and have been meticulously restored over the past 24 years, now serving as exhibition and event spaces. The houses of both the director and artist László Moholy-Nagy were completely destroyed by Allied air raids, and thus posed a greater challenge to renovation architect José Gutierrez.
Walter and Isa Gropius. Image via Uncube
A quick history lesson: The director’s house has a truly turbulent past, and an extraordinary list of inhabitants. The only detached house in the complex, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius lived here with his wife Ilse until he left the school in 1928. Hannes Meyer inherited both the directorship and the residence for two years, before a certain Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took over in 1930.
When the house was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, with only the basement block surviving, the plot remained empty for more than 20 years. Even then, it was just the beginning of an arduous road to reinstatement for Gropius’ masterpiece: in 1956, the new landowners were refused planning permission to rebuild in the original style, so a detached, gable-roofed house was built on the foundations.
After decades of debate, it was finally decided to resurrect the memory of the original Bauhaus structure and its intrinsic design ethos. The occupying property was demolished in 2008 to make way for a new building that would act as an information center for the Masterhouse-Ensemble, and work has finally been completed, reopening earlier this month.
Original 1926 and rebuilt 2014 director's house. Images via Uncube
While the striking silhouette of the director’s dwelling has been reinstated, its external appearance and internal layout have been substantially reinterpreted by Gutierrez. The minimalist design has been stripped back even further, forming a ghostly cast of the original building that appears more as an abstract sculpture than a domestic structure.
Explaining the ethereal design, José Gutierrez said that “memory lives off blurriness and imprecision,” going on to say: “We wanted to create something playful and light, nothing too heavy: an innocent glance at Germany’s painful past.” While the architect’s attempt to achieve "innocence" appears contrived in this context, the formal result is undeniably elegant: a nod to Gropius’ astute eye for proportions and composition, without straying into stylistic pastiche.
Original Moholy-Nagy House with Bauhaus-designed furniture. Image via The Space Architecture
The architect employed the same approach for the Moholy-Nagy House, peeling away both the external and internal surfaces to leave a monochromatic palette – the original internal layout is also eschewed, replaced with a series of open-plan, double-height spaces. Initially, the removal of floor plates and absence of classic Bauhaus details appears counter-intuitive: are these elements not essential in illustrating the overarching ideas and resulting spatial qualities of Gropius’ building?
Rebuilt Moholy-Nagy House. Images via ArchDaily
The logic behind these design decisions comes to light when one considers the intended use for the reconstructed edifice: the neighboring house of noted polymath Lyonel Feininger hosts a permanent exhibit devoted to composer Kurt Weill, which will expand into the Moholy-Nagy house this year. This programmatic shift from domestic to public use dictates that the shell of the original house should become a lighter, more flexible container in order to function, and Gutierrez has opened up the internal space accordingly.
Ultimately, the reinterpretation of the Master Houses appears successful: the architects involved have revived the intellectual spirit the Bauhaus while avoiding nostalgic clichés, resulting in a collection of subtle exhibition spaces that should act as an appropriately polished backdrop for future exhibits.
Would Gropius, Meyer and Mies be satisfied? Probably not – but to be fair, you can rarely please perfectionists…
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