Design: Triumph of the will

The Bauhaus is coming home at last. Seventy years after being kicked out of Weimar, the century's most influential design movement is finally being celebrated in the city of its birth. Darius Sanai reports
Click to follow
A FEW days before the Bauhaus Museum opened its doors for the first time in May, Michael Siebenbrodt was pacing frantically around its main hall in a haze of sawdust. He didn't seem like your average curator. "See this," he said, pulling out one of the exhibits. "Sit on it. Yes, that's right. Sit down, as hard as you like. See how solid it is?"

The Bauhaus, the most controversial and influential design movement of modern times, has finally been welcomed back to its original home, an idyllic central German city whose authorities threw it out in 1925. Weimar has waited 70 years for the opening of the Bauhaus Museum; for Siebenbrodt, the bearded 43-year-old dynamo behind the establishment of the new museum, it's the culmination of a lifetime's work.

Critics say a true Bauhaus Museum would extend to squeezing in many of New York's skyscrapers, an Ikea sofa-bed, a Braun coffee-maker and a council estate in Tower Hamlets. And they say it is impossible to have a museum of a "living" philosophy, covering everything from teapots to city-planning. But Rolf Bothe, a long-time colleague of Siebenbrodt's, disagrees: "You can show Picassos in a museum; why not Bauhaus designs?"

"And besides," he adds, "Since reunification all these tourists come from America and Japan and say, 'This is Weimar, so where is the Bauhaus Museum?' We couldn't say we didn't have one."

The story of Siebenbrodt's triumph begins 76 years ago, in the chaotic months following the end of World War One. The Bauhaus started up in April 1919, when Walter Gropius, a modern architect, was asked by the authorities in the German state of Thuringia to take over the arts and crafts academy in its capital, Weimar.

Gropius quickly signalled his intention to start something different to any previous arts school. He called his new school the Bauhaus - literally, "Building House" - and declared it would be a place to forge a "partnership between the artist, the industrialist and the technician".

The traditional distinctions between fine artists, craftsmen and architects were ditched in favour of an all-encompassing education designed to give the Bauhaus graduate relevant skills in a rapidly modernising world. Students had to learn how to use lathes as well as paintbrushes, to build tables as well as excel in technical drawing. Although functionalism in design had already been a key concept for some decades, the Bauhaus was the first art school to incorporate it into its syllabus.

Soon the Bauhaus was attracting some of the foremost artists of the time to its staff. Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky joined in 1920 and 1921, and with their arrival the school's reputation blossomed. In 1923 an exhibition which included the first ever Bauhaus-designed house established its name as an emerging centre of practical, modern design for everything from postcards to houses.

But the school's growing fame was accompanied by ever-increasing problems with the authorities. At the end of World War One, representatives from across the country gathered in Weimar to draw up Germany's first democratic constitution. The new Germany became known the world over as the Weimar Republic, and the city's name became redolent with the image of freedom.

Unfortunately, as Gropius was soon to discover, the reality was different. The conservative burghers of Weimar resented the invasion of radical art students with their weird ideas and lack of discipline - teachers and pupils would decide together when they would have classes - and in 1924 they voted in a coalition of nationalist parties to take over the state government. This was the beginning of the end for the Bauhaus. In one of its first moves, the new state government voted to halve the funding for the school, in the knowledge that it would not be able to carry on. In April 1925 the doors of the academy closed for the last time.

A year later the school reopened with many of the same teachers and pupils in the nearby city of Dessau, which still had a sympathetic, socialist government, but the end of the Weimar Bauhaus was an ominous signal of things to come. The Nazis, who were rising to power across Germany, despised what they saw as a "socialist" design philosophy: they closed down the Dessau Bauhaus in 1932, and when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 he sent in the stormtroopers, shutting down the school's last incarnation, in Berlin. The Bauhaus was closed down forever: it had lasted exactly as long as the Weimar Republic.

The teachers and pupils scattered around the world: some, including Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the school's last director, stayed in Germany for a few years, but many others ended up in more sympathetic countries, from the Soviet Union to the United States. Although fine artists like Kandinsky and Klee took most of their works with them, thousands of other Bauhaus relics, from furniture to house-plans, remained in Germany.

Many were confiscated by the Nazis and, later, secretly sold off through Swiss auction houses. Others remained in the hands of former students and teachers. Still others were abandoned in the former school buildings, where they remained undiscovered through the Nazi period and beyond.

After the fall of the Nazis, architects and designers in West Germany started using Bauhaus ideas and the movement's philosophy enjoyed a revival. But Weimar and Dessau were both in East Germany and, ironically, it was now the Communists turn to ban the Bauhaus as "capitalist".

It wasn't until the mid-1960s that the eastern authorities allowed a Bauhaus school building, designed by Gropius in Dessau, to be refurbished; a second refurbishment, more faithful to the original, came in 1975, and an idealistic young architect named Michael Siebenbrodt played a key role in it.

Siebenbrodt knew as soon as he graduated what he wanted to achieve: "It was my dream to bring a museum of the Bauhaus into Weimar." In the late 1970s, he got a job with the city's culture department, and in his spare time started what was to be a long process of tracking down pictures, crafts, graphics and sculptures, convinced thousands of them were still hidden away, or in private hands.

He quickly began to uncover many Bauhaus gems - from tables to paintings - which had lain unnoticed in nooks, attics and crannies in Weimar for more than half a century. But he encountered nothing but obstruction from his Communist bosses, who were as conservative as their Nazi predecessors. "So many times during my searching, I came across a beautiful piece of Bauhaus design, and I wanted to give it to the Weimar archive, but they weren't interested," he says.

It wasn't all frustration. One day, when visiting the old Bauhaus school building in Weimar, Siebenbrodt noticed a workman sitting on an "interesting" chair. "I asked him where he got it from, and he said: 'This old thing? I found it in the junk out back'." The workman thought he was mad when he said he wanted to buy it, but the chair turned out to be a Van de Velde original, built by the man who was Gropius's main inspiration, and worth a small fortune.

By the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Siebenbrodt and his colleagues had amassed hundreds of items. The conservative bureaucracy was shaken up during the democratisation process, and after unification in 1990, the new city council looked more kindly on the Bauhaus. But the prospect of a museum dedicated to the movement still looked a long way off: besides anything else, unification meant that Weimar was in the same country as the Bauhaus Archive, a privately owned collection of artefacts in Berlin. Would there be room for two Bauhaus museums?

Siebenbrodt remained as determined as ever, arguing to the city council that he had already collected hundreds of items that could be displayed - and that any Bauhaus Museum should be in Weimar. Together with Rolf Bothe, then the director of the city's exhibition hall, he pressed harder than ever for the creation of a museum to coincide with a boom in tourism to Germany's "cultural capital", newly opened up to the West.

Weimar's bureaucrats slowly shed their reluctance. Says Bothe: "They said, 'This is the city of Goethe and Schiller, the German classics. We can't have modern art here.' So we had to convince them that the Bauhaus was historical as well and then the consent finally came, in 1993."

"Many of them," he adds mischievously, "were the same kind of people who closed the Bauhaus down in 1925. The only difference is now that Bauhaus is part of their 'glorious history'."

The Bauhaus Museum has pride of place in the middle of Weimar, opposite the theatre where the Weimar Republic was established in 1919. It occupies what used to be the city's Kunsthalle, a temporary exhibition hall, five minutes' walk away from the original Bauhaus school building.

The museum is no Prado. The efforts of Siebenbrodt and the delving into the archives by the Weimar authorities, who found a couple of hundred Bauhaus mementoes in storage, have filled one hall and two medium-sized rooms. The Bauhaus archive in Berlin has more material, and Siebenbrodt is ready to admit he did not have the funds to establish a definitive tribute to the Bauhaus. Besides, no museum in the world can afford to buy the major works of Kandinsky; and the designs of Mies van der Rohe are best viewed looking upwards from the pavement of Manhattan.

But nobody can doubt the poignancy of the place, tracing as it does the history of the movement from its roots in Van de Velde's Weimar Arts and Crafts School to its closure. Drawings by Kandinsky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Lyonel Feininger are all on display, as is a postcard by Klee, advertising the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. Beside them are originals of Bauhaus inventions, such as steel-tubed furniture and domed table lamps, and architects plans for radical glass-tower skyscrapers. Visitors to Ikea, drivers of BMWs and people living in tower blocks may notice some of the designs have a familiar ring about them.

There are also framed copies of correspondence between Gropius and the regional Culture Ministry, from the time the Bauhaus was put under a death sentence. The last letter, signed by the teachers on Boxing Day 1924, announces the imminent closure of the school due to the "deplorable interference" by the authorities.

In its first five weeks of opening, the museum clocked up 50,000 visits - way beyond Siebenbrodt's expectations. Idealistic to the last, he says: "I hope some students will visit and be inspired to start a new Bauhaus one day."

! Bauhaus Museum, Weimar (00 49 3643 546161).