Form and Function

Form and Function: Bauhaus as a Reflection of the German Cultural Landscape

Sophia Palombo
ARC1720 section 3407
Word Count: 3015

The Bauhaus, a movement and school founded by German architect Walter Gropius in 1919, is seen as one of the most influential schools of art, architecture, and design. Gropius lived from 1883 until 1969 and is considered a pioneering master of modern architecture. He founded the Bauhaus educational program by combining the Weimar Academy of Art and the Weimar School of Applied Arts into a single educational institution. This program was the first of its kind, as its curriculum aimed to emphasise architecture at the forefront of the arts to expose the need for German societal reform. Although the Bauhaus movement is often considered radically new and different, there are many components of it that were heavily influenced by pieces of Wilhelmine architecture and design. These historical elements became important because as war broke out, they helped to fuel nostalgia for the more peaceful, politically distant past. In the age of industrialization, the beauty and care found in artisanal crafts was being rapidly replaced by mass produced functional goods. The German market began to shift away from small time operators and craftsmen and towards markets full of mass produced goods. The Bauhaus’ central goal was a “radical fusion of the fine arts, decorative arts, architecture, and industrial design” in order to blur the lines of aesthetically appealing design and functionality. Industry did not mesh well with the traditional, ornamental ideas of beauty so reform was essential. The Bauhaus school and architecture movement were heavily influenced by the unusual post World War condition in which Germany found itself. However, analysis of buildings and an understanding of the historical succession of events shows representation of pre-war developments in architecture amidst the revolution. The Bauhaus is both reflective of changing German social values and an innovative movement. Walter Gropius’ pre-World War I building, Fagus Factory, and his post war Bauhaus Building in Dessau demonstrate that the importance of unity between form and function can be extrapolated to represent the values and challenges of the changing German cultural landscape.
From 1911 to 1913, Walter Gropius worked on constructing the Fagus Factory, a shoe factory commissioned by industrialist Carl Benscheidt, located at Hannoversche Straße, Alfeld and der Leine. As a business owner seeking to expand, Carl Benscheidt was interested in a radically innovative building to represent his small company’s leap into the future—a goal that Gropius helped him meet. The ten timeless factory buildings of Fagus that were designed by Gropius are now a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site and the factory complex is still an operational shoe factory today. The Fagus Factory is considered to be a success story in twentieth century industrial culture and design. This early modernist project allowed Walter Gropius to shape some of his ideas and gain credibility, tremendously helping his career by launching his success as an architect. This pre Bauhaus building was a collaborative effort between an architect and the industrialist building owner. It culminated in the creation of one of the world’s most important modernist buildings and the process helped shape many of the fundamental beliefs outlined in Gropius’ manifesto.
Walter Gropius’ concept of himself as an architect revolves around upholding appealing aesthetics while meeting the innovative demands of the industrial age. His first building, the Fagus Factory, epitomizes the transformation of a “technical form” into an “art form”. Both functional and constructional logic are clearly maintained in this building. The Fagus Factory is the first building that showcases fully glazed corners, which can help to create the illusion of weightlessness, an essential element of modernism. The primary building that is cited as inspiration for Gropius’ Fagus Factory complex is the AEG Turbine Building , designed by Peter Behrens. Prior to becoming an independent designer, Gropius worked under Behrens. Rather than copying elements of this building, Gropius used it as a benchmark for design ideas he disagreed with. He particularly disliked that the Turbine Building had a covered exterior that hides the construction elements and prevents civilians from seeing the logic behind the structure. Therefore, Walter Gropius decided to use the industrial materials of glass and steel in this building and make all of the structural components highly visible. The look of lightness and the specific aesthetic created by the use of these modern materials was radical for the time period.
Located just off the tracks of a major railroad, many potential customers would see the shoe factory building. Therefore, the exterior look of the Fagus Factory played a significant role in marketing. Catching the eye of the public and convincing them of a new age of modernity and success for industry workers was at the forefront of Benscheidt’s business strategy. Entirely devoid of arbitrariness and ornament, Gropius chose to design the building with a unity of form and color. According to Gropius, these elements alongside “clear contrasts, well ordered members, serial rows of similar elements … are the basis for the rhythm of modern architectural creation”.
The Fagus Factory is representative of a pivotal point for the German society, economy, and culture as the nation rapidly began to industrialize. With the popularization of factories, urbanization became more prevalent than ever. People moved from the farmlands closer to where their factory jobs were located, resulting in the construction of new buildings “suited to the lifestyle of the age.” Previously, millions had been relying on “crafts” to make an income and express their culture but this economic sector was in the process of extinction . Gropius’ Fagus Factory was built for the future and represents the excitement of a nation at the brink of rapid economic development. The modernist style reflects the notion that Germany was developing a sophisticated capitalist consumer culture. It was crucial that Bauhaus design could cater to new commercial expectations. Some of the spirit of novelty present during this era can be attributed to the culture of experimentation instilled by Wilhelmine schools.
There is a significant social component to the aesthetics of industry as represented in the Fagus Factory. Since factories were becoming a more popular place to work, hazards involving faulty buildings and dangerous worker conditions became an increasingly common topic. With the Fagus Factory, Walter Gropius called for “palaces of labor”. He wanted to ensure hygiene, light, and a generally pleasant work environment to help the working class “sense the nobility of the grand, collective idea”. This socialist concept was indicative of the rise in political unity and patriotism in Germany. He also made the argument that when the individual worker is satisfied, the overall productivity of the factory will rise. The main architectural component that set this factory apart and made it a light, airy, workers’ paradise is the dematerialized outer wall. Rather than having loadbearing walls, Gropius put the supports on the inside of the factory . This design choice liberated the exterior from severe structural significance, granting Gropius the freedom to design facades with floor to ceiling windows that continued around the corners of the building. This factory was the first that used of “curtain walls” , which later became a prominent motif of modernism, and is part of the reason this building is still highly regarded. In order to further maximize the look of lightness of the building, Gropius incorporated optical illusions into his designs for the windows: the frames have greater horizontal than vertical elements, windows near the corners of the building are longer, and the tallest windows are on the top floor.
The Fagus Factory is a prime example of a building that demonstrates the goals and potential of pre-World War I Bauhaus style modernism. At the time, the general focus was on industry and the power it brought to the laborer and to society. However, seeing as this is an early piece in the evolution of functional design, some problems can be found in the construction of the building. The supports and ceilings of the Fagus Factory eventually faced structural issues. Revisions and additions to the complex continued into the First World War. The steel used for window frames rusted very quickly and both the acoustic and thermal insulation in the factory proved to be insufficient. These challenges can be attributed to pioneering a new building style and using a lot of modern materials such as concrete, glass, and steel. Gropius’ first building served as a foundation for the modernism to come later in his career. Both the sleek, avant-garde look of the factory as well as its function—mass producing shoes—highlight the German anticipation of industrial power that was felt at the time.
The Bauhaus Building, constructed from 1925 to 1926 at the Gropiusallee, Dessau, was one of Walter Gropius’ significant works from the period after World War I and the founding of Bauhaus. This large structure was built as a new school when it seemed that the end of the Weimar Bauhaus, founded in 1919 , was rapidly approaching due to political turmoil. Unlike the Fagus Factory, the Bauhaus Building was erected post World War I, and therefore reflects a vastly transformed German social and political landscape. The Bauhauslers, as the students and staff associated with the school were known, were impacted by the disastrous effects of the war and began to rethink society and day to day life. Rejecting traditional beliefs became increasingly central to the Bauhaus as its students explored a new, interactive, engaging process of design that helped facilitate innovation and met the demands of the modern world. Focus shifted away from art work and more towards designing practical items that could be mass-produced with those working in industry. During the time of the construction of the Bauhaus Building at Dessau, Gropius began to redefine the Bauhaus as a broader social entity in order to respond to the challenges the First World War brought to Germany. The program began to reflect the new German economic way of thought: “a controlled finance, productive time-consuming projects, precise material use, and a spare space.” Uniqueness, not continuity, was emphasized at the school and minimalism was the goal . Students produced continually lighter and simpler household items and predicted that some of them would disappear entirely in the future.
Prior to the war, mass production was viewed in a more hopeful light: it represented modernity and improvement. However, in the poverty and destruction that followed World War I mass production was seen as a crucial tool to keep prices low and prevent the economy from further deteriorating. The political factors that led to the economic devastation of the German nation emphasized the change in educational orientation even further towards industrial mass production and rational building, this time for the purpose of affordability.
Considering the school’s slogan was “art into industry” , it was an appropriate choice to move the school to Dessau, a very industrial city with Social Democratic mayor Fritz Hesse. The mayor was very excited about this opportunity because he recognized Gropius’ building as an opportunity to rebrand his city while reinforcing cultural traditions of the region. The constant close contact with industry in Dessau helped Gropius and the Bauhaus continue to explore an increasingly rational orientation and style. The logic behind buildings and products was flaunted to the public. The Bauhaus Building was erected on a large plot of land close to the city center. This generous amount of space allowed Gropius to incorporate cubic building elements and experiment with unconstrained, asymmetrical design. In his book, Bauhausbuch , Gropius emphasized rejecting structure—he increasingly avoided symmetrical and hierarchical components and highlighted equality between each of the building’s facades. This design value was very much representative of the devastated social class system after the failed war. He reasoned this by saying that: “a building created in the spirit of today spurns the impressive appearance created by symmetrical facades. Only by walking around such buildings is it possible to comprehend their corporeality and function of their members”. Public engagement with the built environment was a tool for facilitating social change and national awareness. The more civilians interacted with the work of the Bauhaus, the more they were able to engage in public discourse about the state of their nation. Furthermore, architects were able to tie in references to Bauhaus affinities and affiliations in analogous European movements such as Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl movement to critique the German government.
Unlike many other buildings of the time, The Bauhaus Building in Dessau was built with a birds’ eye view perspective in mind. There was an airplane production industry in the town, so it was frequent that the buildings were seen from above. Therefore, Gropius used flat roofs and interconnected building segments to showcase precisely defined functions even from the air. The interior of the building further demonstrates the relationship between form and function. There are retractable walls creating the possibility to combine numerous rooms, yielding “one big space for celebrations”. Part of the Bauhaus movement was about designing buildings as Gesamtkunstwerke, translated as total works of art. This meant that the interior design, furnishing, and exterior were harmonious and unified.
Contrasting the truly ground-breaking Fagus Factory, the Bauhaus Building reflects contemporary modern standards and develops upon many elements introduced in Gropius’ first building. For example, the Bauhaus Building is white, set forward on a dark foundation. This helps to create the impression of weightlessness. Non-weightbearing, glass exterior walls are present in this structure as well. Again, Walter Gropius used hidden concrete beams on the interior to ensure structural integrity without compromising the look of the outer walls. Although this building is considered a fascinating and timely prototype and was considered the prototype for “serial production” of a Bauhaus building, it had some issues due to material flaws. Shortcomings in the building’s construction and components became obvious relatively quickly and can, as with the Fagus Factory, be attributed to a lack of experience with new technology and construction methods. These shortcomings included leaky roofs, quickly corroding window frames, and single glazing, which proved to be problematic for thermal insulation. With its “asymmetrical, pinwheel plan, throughout which Gropius distributed studio, classroom, and administrative space for maximum efficiency and spatial logic” the Bauhaus building truly uses its form to serve its function of epitomizing modernism for educational purposes. The building in Dessau integrates all of the teaching points and modernist characteristics outlined in the manifesto into a single structure .
Just as the Fagus Factory, the Bauhaus Building in Dessau was approved to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. This prestigious award implies the broad reaches of the building, highlighting Bauhaus as more than a building or school, but as an institution of cultural and historical significance. The critical and abstract thinking that was pursued within the program was fundamental in shaping a modernism dictated by societal aspects and the way of life. The program housed in Walter Gropius’ building represents a groundbreaking contribution to the design, economic, and social values of the twentieth century. In 1926, shortly after completing construction in Dessau, Gropius writes: “The overarching principle of the Bauhaus is the bringing together of many arts to form a new unity—an indivisible whole—that is anchored in the people themselves and requires life itself to attain purpose and meaning.” After the World War, the country was at its most divided. Gropius revised the focus of Bauhaus to encompass combatting the overwhelming poverty and social issues that were preventing the nation from successfully developing and collaborating on far reaching programs.
The true function of the Bauhaus Building was to house a program that educated a new generation of innovators and thinkers . This function was in part achieved due to its form, or stylistic choices. The Bauhaus program sparked a lot of public discourse and protests. The students of the school formed a unique community that defied many German social norms. The culture of the program is often considered “a precursor to the bohemianism that took hold in America’s liberal arts colleges half a century later.” The effects of the political and social upheaval of the Bauhaus Building and program can still be felt today. The German political right and more traditionally oriented groups in society hated Walter Gropius’ work for two reasons: they disagreed with what was taught inside of the building and did not approve of the structure’s modernist appearance. Eventually, in 1932, the National Socialists became the majority of the municipal assembly of Dessau. They decided to close the Bauhaus Building in their town.
Walter Gropius’ pre-war Fagus Factory and his Bauhaus Building are important examples of how architecture and spatial design can be used to influence social change. The importance of unity between form and function is reemphasized in each building component, both on the outside and inside. This integral link highlights the shifting values and sentiment of the German nation. During the time the Bauhaus school was active, between the years 1919 and 1933, successful twentieth century architects like Gropius were able to use design as a culmination of economic, social, and political implications. However, in spite of drastic reformations in society and the art world, certain historic German concepts carried through and can be credited to Wilhelmine schools and the pre-Bauhaus “Deutscher Werkbund” . The teachings of the Bauhaus manifesto have evolved into art and architecture today, partially because many affiliates of the program left Germany during the Second World War because they were persecuted by the Nazis. Upon his relocation to the United States Gropius wrote: “In this way, with the help of the fatherland, Bauhaus designs, Bauhaus men, Bauhaus ideas, which taken together form one of the chief cultural contributions of modern Germany, have been spread throughout the world.” This unfortunate time caused influencers and thinkers from the program to spread across the globe and further the reaches of their teachings. The effects of Bauhaus leaders are still greatly felt in society today and the work from the Bauhaus period is still integrated into curriculums all across the world. The effects of Bauhaus are most strongly felt in the United States, Japan, and Germany.

Works Cited:

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