The architects of the Bauhaus responded to Weimar’s excess with sleek functionality, and you can see the result in Berlin’s cityscape today.
Walter Gropius wanted ‘an architecture adapted to our world of machines and fast cars.’
Both a school and a design movement whose goal was to unite art and craft into a single practice, Bauhaus was born in 1919 in Dessau. It was the brainchild of architect Walter Gropius who, inspired by the functional designs of his mentor Peter Behrens, wanted “an architecture adapted to our world of machines, radios and fast cars”. Today it’s more like “gadgets, Spotify and U-Bahns”, but, in Berlin, we are still living among the sleek aesthetic that Gropius imagined for us. All over town there are Weimar buildings inconspicuously blending into the contemporary landscape.
We start, as all Berlin adventures must, at Alexanderplatz. The city’s bustling epicentre is shaped by two buildings put there by Peter Behrens, who won the contract in a 1929 competition to redesign the square. Berolina Haus and Alexanderhaus, otherwise known as “the one with the C&A” and “the one with the “Sparkasse”, flank Alex’s southwest side. Typical of Behrens’ modern style, there’s nothing ornate about them; instead, the architect created interest in the unadorned facades via his repetitive grid arrangement of the four-panelled windowsand subtle shifts in the bands of stonework. Most notable are the giant white wedges that split the buildings lengthwise, giving the impression that the buildings are mirroring themselves.
Bauhaus architects were also interested in shaping private spaces, most specifically when it came to providing Berlin’s spiking population with an alternative to squalid tenement housing. Instead of trying to make these buildings look handmade, architects like Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Bruno Taut celebrated the aesthetic of mass production. Take this to its extreme and you get Cold War-era high-rise dystopias like East Berlin’s Plattenbauten or the West’s Gropiusstadt (of Christiane F. fame), but at least in the 1920s, designers used colour blocking and geometric patterns to liven things up. The most famous of these projects are the six UNESCO-protected “Modernist Housing Estates”, which include Taut’s horseshoeshaped Hufeisensiedlung in Britz and Hans Scharoun’s Großsiedlung Siemensstadt workers’ quarters in Spandau, but a lesserknown gem lies in Wedding: Van der Rohe’s Afrikanische Straße Apartments, four multi-family houses set back from the street, their otherwise plain exteriors distinguished only by the mix of square and rectangular windows. It was the only such low-cost housing project from the architect, who later assumed directorship of the Bauhaus school for its final three years (1930-1933), and went on to design the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Back in Mitte near Checkpoint Charlie, you can see some more interesting windows at Mossehaus – added by Erich Mendelson in 1922 to turn the humdrum publishing house into a modern monument to New Objectivity. Mendelson’s reimagining of the 1902 building is best known for the rounded windows wrapped around the northeast corner, a nod to his former Expressionist roots and Bauhaus-style present. The bands, one on top of the other, elongate the building and orient it on the diagonal by making the corner the focal point.
Bauhaus celebrates 100 years in 2019, and in preparation for the big anniversary Bauhaus sites all over Germany are being renovated – like Berlin’s very own Bauhaus Archive, which closes its current permanent exhibition on February 27 and expands to accommodate the vast collection of Bauhaus objects, drawings and photographs it has accumulated since it opened in 1979. As envisioned by German architect Volker Staab, the original space-age-looking structure designed by Gropius will be complemented by a new building with a transparent exterior made of thin rectangular windows and separated by subtle awnings, paying homage to the architects of the past who will be celebrated inside.