From Bauhaus to the New World


In the second part of his feature marking 2019’s centenary of the Bauhaus school opening, Stephen Hitchins reveals what happened to its leading lights after the Nazis shut it down


The Bauhaus at Weimar, at Dessau, and at Berlin. The first symbolised the magic, the second the real achievement, the third was the fag end of a once great idea, 10 months in an abandoned telephone factory in Steglitz. A commemorative plaque now stands on Birkbuschstrasse 49 near to where the factory stood. But in Berlin there is the Bauhaus- Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung designed by Gropius with the most extensive collection of materials on the school’s history. It is currently being renovated and extended by 6,700 sq m, with the addition of new underground galleries, a single-storey entrance block and a five-storey glass tower designed by Volker Staab. Earlier plans to extend the building by SANAA were abandoned in 2009.

To see an original Bauhaus building, take the S-bahn number 2 to the ADGB trade union school by Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer in the suburb of Bernau. Opened in 1930 it became a study project for the school and is today a treasure in a pine forest, a zig-zag structure in brick, exposed concrete, glass, steel, and elaborately articulated steel casement windows. The Bauhaus expert Winfried Nerdinger called it a ‘masterpiece of poetic functionalism’.

Isolated in the woods, it is not known to a very wide audience. It was confiscated by the Nazis in 1933 and turned into a training facility for the SS. After the Second World War it was fenced off by the DDR, only to be found largely intact after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, since when it has been restored to its original state by Winfried Brenne and Franz Jaschke, for which they won the World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize in 2008.

The community of refugees that played a disproportionately large part in their countries of refuge and to whom Weimar’s memory owes so much was far more prominent than the much larger exodus that followed the Russian revolution. Yet for a time it was home to intellectual and artistic revolutionaries that were on the move.

Weimar Germany absorbed the majority of anti-Soviet emigrants to become Russia’s window to the West. With the fall of the Habsburg Empire, in the Twenties it became home to much of Austria’s creative talent.

This cultural mix fertilised Weimar and then the world. The Bauhaus was a constructivist international set up by a collection of Austro- Hungarians, Dutch, Belgians, Romanians, Soviet Russians, Swiss and Germans meeting in Weimar and later at Dessau and Berlin, a collective culture that the émigrés then imported into their new homes. For example, one of the camp followers in Weimar who attended classes but never formally enrolled, Sándor Bortnyik, returned to Budapest in 1925 and founded the Mühely (workshop), also known as the Hungarian Bauhaus.

View from the foyer of the lowered inner courtyard, Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung. Image Credit: Staab Architekten, BerlinView from the foyer of the lowered inner courtyard, Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung. Image Credit: Staab Architekten, Berlin

When the Bauhaus at Dessau closed Meyer, a self-professed ‘scientific Marxist’ for whom art was just a means to an end (‘the needs of the people instead of the need for luxury’), left for the Soviet Union with a group of students in the hope of contributing to the development of a progressive society, only for many of them to be sent to the Gulag and their work swallowed up in socialist classicism.

Meyer ended up in Mexico in the Forties. One of his pupils, Arieh Sharon, became head of his former professor’s Berlin office before returning to Palestine to design co-operative housing estates, private houses and commercial buildings that led to Tel Aviv being dubbed the White City. Here many of the best examples of Bauhaus residential architecture today are still to be found, renovated and preserved in a fusion of northern European ideas and Mediterranean forms.

A few of the school’s masters stayed in Germany (for a while Gerhard Marcks went to Halle, Oskar Schlemmer taught in Breslau), Paul Klee was in Dusseldorf before leaving for Switzerland. A few even attempted ‘Bauhaus modernism under National Socialism’ a fig leaf for the modernist movement under the Third Reich that allowed the Nazis to make a token display of open-mindedness and cultural tolerance. Herbert Bayer took some years to become disenchanted and produced posters, brochures, paeans to the Hitler Youth, and other promotional material for a succession of government projects. Looking back on his life in Berlin, Bayer later admitted to being ‘appalled how blind’ he had been.

The glass entrance tower to the new extension building of the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung designed by Volker Staab Architekten, Berlin. Image Credit: Staab Architekten, BerlinThe glass entrance tower to the new extension building of the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung designed by Volker Staab Architekten, Berlin. Image Credit: Staab Architekten, Berlin

Wilhelm Wagenfeld of table lamp and teapot fame stayed and eventually saw military service. Ernst Neufert ended up working for Albert Speer on the standardisation of German industrial buildings. Some, like Franz Ehrlich, were not so lucky. After working in Gropius’s Berlin office, Ehrlich ended up in Buchenwald, designing prison blocks, a guesthouse for Goering, an army barracks, a weapons factory, a zoological garden and a casino for the SS. In a final indignity, with the school’s utopian rationalism taking a dystopian turn, he used Bauhaus sans-serif lettering for the camp’s iron gates in a subtle subversion of the camp’s purpose, a signal that the spirit of resistance might still be alive.


The great irony of Nazi persecution of the Bauhaus is that driving it out of Germany only served to spread its ideas. The work of those associated with refugees from the Bauhaus who passed across our shores for a few years provides a useful foil against which to test the validity of more modern trends. And those that would even now excommunicate the modern movement bell, book, and candle for its failure to deliver ‘human scale’ should consider what they brought to this country.

The heady days when the hope, adventure and enthusiasm associated with the modern movement were being realised, and a democratic architecture created that would play its part in spreading wealth, opportunity and learning throughout society did not last for very long. This inevitably gave way to apathy as the surge of inspiration ebbed when the money ran out and the brave new world had to be run up on the cheap.

Out of the world of Brecht and Weill they came, the Bauhaus was on the move and would settle in the USA, but not before two of its leaders had spent time in the UK. Max Fry emerged from the Liverpool School of Architecture to land in London in 1924 looking ‘to the Continent to where I found what astonished me, being no less than the proposition of an architecture in its own right, relying on no past style whatsoever’. The old order was passing and Max was in the van.

Sea Lane House at East Preston in West Sussex, designed by Marcel Breuer in collaboration with FRS Yorke and completed in 1936.Sea Lane House at East Preston in West Sussex, designed by Marcel Breuer in collaboration with FRS Yorke and completed in 1936

In 1931 with others he formed the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) group. Then in 1934 Gropius arrived, the Bauhaus now behind him, and the man who, to our shame, we let slip to America – leaving a land distrustful of all things foreign, baffled and dismissive of the unfamiliar, in language or habit, for a land of opportunity, and one demonstrably being built by foreigners.

Fry is well-known for houses designed at this time: the Sun House in Frognal, Hampstead in 1935, Miramonte in Combe, Surrey in 1936, and 66 Old Church Street, Chelsea for the politician and playwright Benn Levy, built as a joint development with a house next door by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. Only number 66 is jointly credited with Gropius but the master’s influence can clearly be seen in the other two. With Gropius as his partner, Fry was commissioned to design Impington Village College near Cambridge; a rural college with a workshop, laboratory and hall. The partnership lasted until it broke under the rejection by the Fellows of Christ’s College, Cambridge of the design of an important extension, and Gropius left for Harvard.

The Bauhaus Museum Dessau is home to the Foundation’s collection of 40,000 itemsThe Bauhaus Museum Dessau is home to the Foundation’s collection of 40,000 items

In the meantime Gropius had applied to become Principal of the RCA in 1936 but the Civil Service decided against the appointment on the basis that he ‘was too continental and theoretical’. Someone suggested offering him a visiting professorship; in the end they offered him a visiting lectureship which he turned down. It took until 1947 and Darwin’s appointment as rector for modernisim to enter the college. Gropius had also been employed by Jack Pritchard in 1935 as the first design director of Isokon, a fact that was of crucial importance to the firm’s publicity. Gropius’s employment of others and management of their design production was far more successful than his own work, most of which was abandoned. Apart from one occasional table his own products were all jettisoned at the prototype stage. A dining table and chair were registered but never manufactured.

Despite a number of unsuccessful refinements, instability was the chief reason that the chair was not made. Breuer designed pieces for Isokon, most famously his Long Chair from 1936. In the same year he produced an exhibition project with FRS Yorke for the Cement and Concrete Association: an extravagant Civic Centre for the Future. Yorke was a well-known name long before he made a partnership with Eugene Rosenberg and Cyril Mardall in 1944.

An Englishman of the deepest dye, born in Worcestershire, he had achieved fame with The Modern House, a book that appeared in 1934. From 1935-37 he was in partnership with Breuer. Houses in Hampshire, Sussex and at Eton College followed, along with that exhibition pavilion in Bristol. Sea Lane House at East Preston in West Sussex, completed in 1936, is perhaps the most important achievement of Breuer’s fruitful stay in Britain. Yorke wrote at the time that it was ‘a seaside house for contemporary living… that owes… nothing to period mannerisms’. It shifts away from the more rigid early modernism towards a more expressive style, is the only surviving pre-war building in Europe by Breuer, and is probably the best-preserved example of his early architectural work anywhere. In 1937 Gropius invited him to go to Harvard.

The Bauhaus Museum Dessau is home to the Foundation’s collection of 40,000 itemsThe Bauhaus Museum Dessau is home to the Foundation’s collection of 40,000 items

Others who escaped persecution and eventually escaped to the USA included Moholy-Nagy who went on to found the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design. Josef and Anni Albers established a tremendous incubator of the American avant garde, Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina. They taught there for 16 years before moving to Yale. As architecture critic Reyner Banham commented: ‘There was an almost traumatic urgency about those invitations to the Bauhaus masters, as men of goodwill sought to rescue leading European architects from the Nazi peril.’ In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art cemented the influence of its cool, objective, abstract and rational, disciplined uncluttered world of the Bauhaus with a major exhibition. Yet even in the Fifties New York could still be called Weimar in partibus.


The Bauhaus at Dessau closed in 1932. After suffering heavy bomb damage towards the end of the 1939-45 war, the building was provisionally repaired. Designated a protected monument in 1974, it was comprehensively restored for the first time in 1976. The Wissenschaftlich-kulturelle Zentrum Bauhaus Dessau (WKZ) then began to establish a Bauhaus collection and organise events, and to establish a new research and teaching institution dedicated to furthering Bauhaus ideas. The WKZ merged with two further education institutes in 1987 to form the Bauhaus Dessau, which in 1994 became the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. With its declaration as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1996, further extensive restoration was carried out that was completed in 2006.

Today, it attracts some 100,000 visitors a year and has become geared to tourism. Its permanent collection of 4,000 items is second only to Berlin’s. In 2019 a new 6,000 sq m museum will open in a low-lying glass structure with a raised steel exoskeleton by the Spanish practice González Hinz Zabala that won first prize in an open international competition in 2015. The most imposing Bauhaus building in Dessau after the school itself is the former Arbeitsamt, a round, glasscovered office building designed by Gropius in 1927, now the city’s motor vehicle office.

There is not a great deal left of Torten, a whole neighbourhood of more than 300 Bauhaus-designed buildings in Dessau built between 1926 and 1928. Nearby Sudstrasse stood the home of Carl Fieger, Gropius’s partner, and the Stahlhaus that is today unoccupied, rusted and nearing collapse.

Since February 2016 the website for the Bauhaus centenary celebrations Bauhaus100. de has been up and running. The first programmes initiated by the Bauhaus 2019 Association (the co-ordinating body established by nine of the federal states and the central government) also began last year with a general exhibition Modern Figures, Visionaries and Inventors at Dessau. In 2017 at Dessau the first of a cycle of exhibitions focused on Gerhard Marcks, the head of the ceramics workshop, and in Berlin there was be an exhibition on the how the ideas of the Bauhaus were pursued at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, with a particular focus on the light workshop headed by László Moholy-Nagy.

Future exhibits include one on photography and wallpaper design in Lower Saxony, the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Krefeld will be on show in North Rhine- Wesphalia, and typography will be the focus of an exhibition in Rheinland-Palatinate.

The photo-collages of Albers, who trained as a painter and was hired by the Bauhaus to teach a workshop on the craft of stained glass, was held at MoMA until April. (When Gropius resigned, students and faculty gave him a book of photo collages.)

Eventually there will be an international touring exhibition that will return to Germany in 2019, 14 exhibitions within Germany, three new museums, an inaugural festival, and an educational programme that began last autumn with a team of ‘Bauhaus Agents’ – artists, architects and designers responsible for a cultural and communication programme in schools. Ten of the 16 federal states are involved, which is good because to date most of the visiting hard-core Bauhauslers have been foreign.

Strange to relate, within its country of origin the Bauhaus is not greatly revered. The first DIY store in Germany opened in 1960. Its founder conflated his own name, Heinz-Georg Baus, together with the verb to build, bauen, and the word for house, haus. Now Bauhaus is the largest chain of home improvement stores and far better known to most people than the school. The association with modernism does not help either. The rapid rebuilding programme to house people after 1945 of necessity resulted in pre-fabricated, high-rise concrete monstrosities that for many symbolise all that is wrong with design and architecture, and for which they blame the modern movement and by association, the Bauhaus. The next few years the authorities hope will go some way to convincing the domestic audience of the value of its design heritage and pride in this aspect of the country’s cultural identity.

For decades Weimar did not even recognise the school’s existence in its selfpromotion. For the new Bauhaus Museum at Weimar due to open this year on the edge of Weimarhallenpark, the minimalist geometric concept of Heike Hanada and Benedict Tonon was chosen from 536 submissions. Following the open competition in 2012 the city issued a new overall development plan stretching from Schloss Weimar and Burgplatz across a number of classical sites that made it one of Europe’s cultural centres in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to the Bauhaus.

Since October 1995 the former college has been the Bauhaus University. Today there are 4,000 students enrolled in 40 different courses across four faculties: architecture and urbanism, civil engineering, art and design, and media. A student initiative is the walking tours through the historic sites and studios where the Bauhäusler studied; reconstructed wall murals by Schlemmer, and Bayer; and the centrepiece of the first official Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, Gropius’s office, has been rebuilt, the square-withina- square concept based on Renaissance ideas of proportion.


Case Study

Thonet tubular steel furniture and the Bauhaus: A new material from the spirit of modernism

Thonet is well-known among design aficionados for its long and fruitful relationship with the architects and designers from the Bauhaus school, which celebrates its centenary in 2019. Throughout its own 200-year history, Thonet has been a pioneer and after its ground-breaking work with bentwood, tubular steel became the second most significant material in its furniture portfolio. Various design milestones from the Bauhaus era remain in the Thonet offering today.

Marcel Breuer began experimenting with cold bent tubular steel at the Bauhaus in 1925, which enabled the use of the cantilever effect, then in 1926 Dutch architect Mart Stam designed his iconic cantilever chair. An exhibition called The Dwelling which took place in Stuttgart in 1927 became another important step in the success story of tubular steel furniture: here designs by Mart Stam and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe among others were presented to the public on a larger scale for the first time and to international acclaim.

Marcel Breuer’s B 9. Image Credit: Stiftung Bauhaus DessauMarcel Breuer’s B 9. Image Credit: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

The general public remained circumspect, however, until the late Twenties when Thonet developed a new fabrication technique and began producing tubular steel furniture in its Frankenberg/ Eder facility. Due to the commitment of such a well-loved household name, the concept took on a new dimension and the designs grew in popularity – appreciated for the clear, open and simple forms in harmony with the New Objectivity. By the Thirties Thonet was the world’s largest producer of tubular steel furniture, offering designs by luminaries such as Mart Stam, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Pérriand and A Guyot.

Mart Stam’s S 43. Image Credit: Stiftung Bauhaus DessauMart Stam’s S 43. Image Credit: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

The most significant ‘invention’ from this era was undoubtedly the concept of the cantilever chair, a design that dispenses with back legs and thus gently flexes (and in some cases, easily stacks).

Today, it is recognised as one of the key benchmarks in 20th century design. Numerous successful classics remain in the Thonet portfolio, among them the S 33 and S 43 – the first cantilever chairs by Mart Stam, plus the models S 32, S 64 and S 35 by Marcel Breuer as well as the S 533 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.


On a hillside outside of Stuttgart are the curving terraces of the Weissenhofsiedlung of 1927, another piece of the Bauhaus story that remains one of the most significant landmarks of the period. A museum since 2007 it was an international showcase of workers’ housing, white rectilinear dwellings with flat roofs, generous windows and balconies with ships’ railings featuring 21 buildings by Gropius, Peter Behrens, the Dutch architects JJP Oud and Mart Stam, and Le Corbusier among others. The exhibition helped establish the International style and demonstrated among other things the fascination that low-cost, prefabricated housing held for Gropius.

In Berlin, regular guided tours are available at the Reichsforschungssiedlung Haselhorst and the UNESCO world heritage estate Siemensstadt, where Gropius intended to bring ‘Licht, Luft und Sonne’ (light, air and sun) to all. Some of the most austerely beautiful private homes in Berlin were designed by Bauhaus architects in the Twenties and Thirties. A group of them are clustered around the corner of Heerstrasse and Am Rupenhorn, including two spectacular ones at 161 Heerstrasse and 24 Am Rupenhorn.

The Weissenhofsiedlung, a housing estate built in Stuttgart for exhibition in 1927, later to be an exemplar of the International styleThe Weissenhofsiedlung, a housing estate built in Stuttgart for exhibition in 1927, later to be an exemplar of the International style

Other innovative early modernist housing projects that fascinate obsessives are still to be seen on the edge of the Neukölln district of Berlin, Bruno Taut’s 1926 Hufeisensiedlung, (his contribution at the Weissenhofsiedlung, number 19, was distinguished by its use of primary colours in contrast to the pure-white entries of his contemporaries), the Ernst May House on the Römerstadt Estate in Frankfurt where a museum houses the famous Frankfurt Kitchen, the ‘housewife’s laboratory’ designed by the Austrian Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky when she was 30. On her 100th birthday she admitted she had never cooked before designing what would later become became the most mass-produced, prefabricated kitchen in Germany.

If you are in Stuttgart then there are seven of Schlemmer’s original Triadic Ballet costumes dramatically lit, sitting on a raised pedestal in a darkened room of the much-acclaimed 1984 Stirling Wilford-designed extension to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. It is a building that celebrates architecture as a combination of styles and elements from the 19th-century into a modern building, and that is higher, wider, grander and more spectacular than the original – a demonstration, if one were needed, that this was one of the few starchitecture practices that understood there are times to be flamboyant and times to blend in.

On a somewhat grander scale, on industrial wasteland the same size as the Werkbund estate on the grounds of the Weissenhof, 33 architects are now building more than 1,000 apartments in the middle of Charlottenburg in Berlin. An idea of Claudia Kromrei and Paul Kahlfeldt, the WerkbundStadt is being built as a field of experimentation, just as Mies devised in 1927, through all the variants of modernist house building.

Part of a new cultural district that is being established in Weimar, the new museum designed by Heike Hanada with Benedict Tonon will be a minimalist glass cube located at the edge of the WeimarhallenparkPart of a new cultural district that is being established in Weimar, the new museum designed by Heike Hanada with Benedict Tonon will be a minimalist glass cube located at the edge of the Weimarhallenpark

It has been conceived on the same collegial principle of Mies with architects invited from all the Werkbünden and federal states, together with some from Switzerland and the Netherlands. They were invited because the organisers do not believe experimentation is compatible with competition: ‘Competitions tend to result in mediocrity, and mediocrity is the worst thing possible.’ Each architect had to submit proposals for three selected plots and the project managers had 114 designs from which to choose. Berlin is a ‘brick city’ and the tradition will continue with 60 per cent of the buildings in brick. Despite following that convention the overall result will certainly fuel debate on planning processes and construction practices. It will be the Weissenhof on the Spree.


On 11 April 1933 when Mies van der Rohe turned up for work it was not to be a normal day. The Bauhaus was closed. The 20th century’s greatest school of art, architecture and design was finished. The Gestapo scoured the building for a secret printing press suspected of publishing anti-Nazi propaganda, and documents linking the Bauhaus to the Communist party. Bauhaus director Mies was held and released after an interrogation. The Bauhaus stayed shut. Mies eventually got to see Rosenberg, the minister for culture (Office for the Supervision of Ideological Training and Education) and an architect, one sympathetic to the director’s ideas but one who nevertheless believed the school supported opposition to the government.

On 21 July a letter arrived giving permission to reopen – provided architect Ludwig Hilberseimer and the painter Vasili Kandinsky were sacked and replaced by supporters of National Socialist ideology, and the curriculum rewritten to suit ‘the demands of the new State’. The politics of design were impossible to ignore in Berlin in 1933 – a place where the very pitch of your roof could land you in trouble. Apolitical as he was, Mies gathered his colleagues, opened the champagne, and promptly closed the school himself. Yet still, on 10 August, in a note to the students he declared that if the Bauhaus had been financially viable he was willing to compromise and would have agreed to the regime’s requirements.

Honest construction, death to decoration, ornament a crime, efficient, industrial mass production of ‘good objects for the people’, the modernist ideals had been coupled with socialism by both van der Rohe’s predecessors, Gropius and Mayer. Weimar Germany’s rising architectural star, Mies had been chosen to project the image of a modern, progressive, peaceful country at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929. As Georg von Schnitzler, commissar general of the Reich, said at the official opening of van der Rohe’s masterpiece: ‘We do not want anything but clarity, simplicity, honesty.’ But by 1933 the school’s degenerate, internationalist, Jewish, Bolshevik style was just not considered German.

Starved of work, and not inclined to flee as others did, Mies entered the not-so-heroicperiod of his life as he tried to ingratiate himself with this new, powerful and rich state patron, signing a motion of support for Hitler in the August 1934 referendum and joining Goebbels’s Reichskulturkammer, a progressive alternative to Rosenberg’s ministry, which asked for ‘fresh blood’ and new forms to give ‘expression to this age’. Mies was shortlisted to build the state’s new Reichsbank, with a fiercely modern, abstract design that would have satisfied what American architect Philip Johnson called ‘Hitler’s craving for monumentality’. Goebbels even pressed him to design the Deutsches Volk Deutsches Arbeit exhibition. Things were on the up. But then, in 1934, Hitler met Albert Speer, and that obsessive personal relationship put an end to Mies’s architectural workload. The Reichsbank competition on which he depended financially was cancelled. He existed on royalties from his furniture.

The foyer of the new Bauhaus Museum Weimar, designed by Heike Hanada with Benedict Tonon. Image Credit: Klassik Stiftung WeimarThe foyer of the new Bauhaus Museum Weimar, designed by Heike Hanada with Benedict Tonon. Image Credit: Klassik Stiftung Weimar

The moral ambiguities of his situation were many. For the national pavilion at the 1935 Brussels World’s Fair his competition entry was adorned with an eagle and swastika. He stayed in Germany until 1937, ‘blind in the right eye’ as one commentator observed, reluctant to condemn the Nazis, for which his former Bauhaus colleagues attacked him. No one to my knowledge has spoken of Mies in the same way Thomas Mann criticised the novelist Hans Fallada (Alone in Berlin and Nightmare in Berlin) and other stay-behind writers whose Nazi-era work he said attached to them ‘a stench of blood and shame’, but Moholy-Nagy’s widow Sibyl came pretty close. According to her, Mies’s participation in Nazisponsored projects was evidence that his ‘desperate attempts to play up to National Socialism showed he was a traitor to all of us’.

Neither an admirer nor a staunch opponent, his political indifference and general disdain for politics were not enough. Eventually those past associations meant that Mies came under suspicion. He was being interrogated when his assistant returned to the office from the local police station with his emigration visa. Packing one small suitcase he hurried to catch the train to Rotterdam and the steamer for New York. The International style went West to the land where speculators quickly realised ‘Mies means money’.

Perhaps uneasy about his past he was, despite the efforts he made to save the institution, unwilling to share his Bauhaus experience when asked to participate in an exhibition in 1938. Whereas exile all but extinguished the creative flames of Mann, Zweig and Brecht and, some would argue, Gropius and Breuer, staying in Germany during the Second World War inspired Fallada to write his masterpiece of grassroots resistance. In contrast, it was only after he was uprooted to USA that Mies alone achieved the greatness for which he was always destined.

The spirit of the Bauhaus, design as religion, lived on for many years. Just one example: in 1955 Elaine Lustig Cohen was responsible for signage of the Seagram Building in Manhattan. She has been summed up as having ‘the soul of a Bauhaus devotee’ with ‘the eye of a Constructivist’; a ‘quintessential Modernist’. Her first husband Alvin Lustig died in 1955 at the age of 40. Shortly afterwards Philip Johnson called up to ask when the first stage of the signage project for the Seagram Building would be ready. Sixty years later she told ArtForum: ‘I had never designed anything on my own in my life, but I did every piece…

The 375 address outside, the Brasserie sign, fire hose connections, switches, even things that wouldn’t be seen.’ The building opened in 1958 and was immediately hailed as a minimalist architectural masterpiece.

Bauhaus students crowd on to a balcony at DessauBauhaus students crowd on to a balcony at Dessau

Born Elaine Firstenberg in 1927, she worked for her husband as ‘an all-purpose secretary, production assistant and draftsperson’, describing her job with him in New York as ‘office slave’. ‘It was, after all, a different time’ she said in an interview in 1995.

She claimed that her design and sensibility, her sense of abstraction ‘came from architecture. When I was doing graphic design in the postwar period, architecture was going to save the world’, she recalled. ‘We were all going to be good in life because of the space we lived it in,’ and that is the point. Through education, design and architecture would save the world.

We would build a better tomorrow. They believed it, Elaine Cohen believed it, and even those of us at art school in the Sixties believed it. It was always more than just an art school. A Bauhaus-style education imbued us all with that zeal. Do students still feel like that?


One person outlived them all. As the boys from the Bauhaus died, so Alma Mahler- Gropius-Werfel sipped another glass of Bénédictine. At the end of August 1949, on her 90th birthday party in Beverly Hills, luminaries from ‘German California’ came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, and the divorced wife of Walter Gropius. Everywhere she went she created a lavish Viennese salon. Beneath the blue skies of ‘the coast’ was no different.

Birthday tributes came from Arnold Schönberg, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky; the list was endless. Her empire over men never faltered. While the students studied and the tutors tutored, Alma majored in men. She refused to be diverted. No sooner had she arrived in the USA in 1941 ‘she received political figures, members of the high aristocracy from the toppled Austro- Hungarian Empire, as well as artists like the Russian painter Marc Chagall’. One of Alma’s diary entries reads ‘I am utterly vulgar, superficial, sybaritic, domineering and egotistic. She could also write that she ‘quivered with joy’ when a friend remarked that she had led Mahler away from Judaism.

Testament to the joy of life at the Bauhaus were its theatrical productionsTestament to the joy of life at the Bauhaus were its theatrical productions

An unrepentant anti-Semite who would later admire Hitler’s ‘kindly, soft eyes’ she enmeshed them all. Between times with Gropius, Alma, the man-eating celebrity groupie, had an affair with Oskar Kokoschka.

Like most of the men she had, he became obsessed, in his case this reached at extreme edge. When she left him he commissioned a life-sized replica from a professional dollmaker, Hermione Moos, with minute instructions couched in the language of forensic surgery, down to the last tuft.

He insisted that every detail of Alma’s anatomy should be correct. He sent drawings and details of an intimate sort to Moos, a willing and imaginative co-fetishist in Kokoschka’s scheme. Once he took delivery of her replica, it accompanied him everywhere: to restaurants and even to the theatre, where he would book a seat for it. She was one for the boys.





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