Square roots: Bauhaus celebrates its 90th birthday

Born from the chaos of the First World War, the ordered design of the Bauhaus school celebrates its 90th anniversary this week. William Cook explores the German cities where the movement took hold

In a quiet cul-de-sac in Dessau, in an undiscovered corner of Eastern Germany, the world's most influential art school is celebrating its 90th birthday. Founded on April Fool's Day 1919, the Bauhaus has become a byword for the best aspects of modern architecture and design, and in this historic, rundown town you can see where the revolution began.

The Bauhaus (literally "building house") started life in Weimar, but it was in Dessau that it took root. "The ultimate aim of all creativity is the building," announced Walter Gropius, the suave Prussian architect (and former cavalry officer) who set up the Bauhaus in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War.

In Dessau he established an innovative studio where artists of every discipline worked together, breaking down barriers between pure and applied art. "There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman," declared Gropius, in his audacious Bauhaus manifesto. For Gropius, art wasn't confined to galleries. Everyday utensils were artworks too.

To house this creative commune, Gropius built the Bauhaus Building in Dessau. This spectacular college complex inspired many of the best buildings of the 20th century – and some of the worst ones too. Often imitated but never bettered, its sharp geometric style became the template for the flats and offices we live and work in today.

The Unesco-listed structure has been wonderfully restored after communist neglect and wartime damag. It is still a college and is now open to the public. There's a museum, but the best exhibit is the building itself. Flooded with natural light, it still feels fresh and radical; hard to believe it was built in 1925.

For architecture buffs, this landmark alone would be enough reason to visit Dessau, but there are other stunning Bauhaus works all around this battered, atmospheric town – most notably the Masters' Houses, where the Bauhaus teachers lived. Hidden in a leafy glade, these sleek villas are also open to the public. Pick of the bunch is the brightly painted house where two of the school's most celebrated teachers, Klee and Kandinsky, lived.

On the other side of town is the workers' suburb of Törten, the prototype for countless modern council estates. Like Dessau's other Bauhaus buildings, this project was so progressive, it's easy to forget how old it is, and how avant-garde and daring it must have seemed when it was built. There's a futuristic steel bungalow which serves as an information centre, but most of these cuboid houses are now in private hands, and it's intriguing to see what their modern owners have made of them. Some occupants have kept them in their original minimal condition, but a lot of residents have softened their stark contours with kitsch knick-knacks. Gropius would have hated it.

At the heart of town is Gropius's grand employment office – an ironic relic, since Dessau is beset by economic woes, as it was when Gropius built his meisterwerk.

Badly bombed during the war, Dessau was rebuilt by the communists in a drab imitation of the Spartan style that Gropius pioneered. This is the enduring paradox of the Bauhaus: how did such beautiful buildings inspire such dreary replicas? In Dessau, you see the best and the worst of modern architecture.

If you set off early, you can visit Dessau in a day trip from Berlin. A more intrepid option is to stay overnight in the stylish self-catering apartments where the Bauhaus students lived, part of the eponymous Bauhaus building. It's a bargain. A single room costs €25 a night and a double costs just €40. As you'd expect at such a price, the facilities are fairly basic, but the rooms are light and airy (and clean and comfy) and you're sleeping in a piece of art history. You can eat in the swish canteen downstairs or make your own meals in the kitchen along the hall.

In 1931 local Nazis drove the Bauhaus out of Dessau (they saw the style as too internationalist, and insufficiently nationalistic). So the school moved to Berlin under the directorship of another legendary German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He hoped the school would fare better in Germany's more cosmopolitan capital. The move gave the Bauhaus a bit of breathing space, but in 1933, Hitler came to power and the Nazis gained control of Berlin. They drove the Bauhaus out of Berlin, and most of its members emigrated, mainly to the US. Ironically, the Bauhaus proved even more influential in exile. Gropius and van der Rohe inspired a new generation of American architects; their colleagues taught US artists and designers to see the world in a new way. When post-war Europe was rebuilt, this modernist Diaspora had become the prevailing orthodoxy. By chasing it out of Germany, the Nazis made the Bauhaus mainstream.

Dessau is the best place to see Bauhaus architecture, but Gropius's collective transformed every avenue of applied art, and the biggest collection of this work is in the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. This fascinating museum is in a striking gallery designed by Gropius in the 1960s, a few years before he died. The exhibits comprise everything from fine art to furniture, from cutlery to chess sets.

This summer Berlin is staging a special show to toast the Bauhaus's 90th birthday, drawn from the Bauhaus foundations in Berlin, Dessau and Weimar, as well as the extensive archive at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Fittingly, the venue is Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau, a splendid gallery built by Walter Gropius' great uncle. It will be the biggest show ever devoted to the Bauhaus. It is unlikely that so comprehensive a Bauhaus display will be staged again.

Meanwhile, Berlin is a great place to hunt for Bauhaus relics. They are more thinly spread than they are in Dessau, but these treats are well worth the trek. The highlight is van der Rohe's sublime Neue Nationalgalerie, which houses a superb collection of 20th-century art, including some important works by the Bauhaus pedagogue Paul Klee.

If you want to venture further afield, Berlin's Bauhaus Archiv will supply you with a city map, listing more than 70 modernist buildings in Berlin designed by Gropius and his contemporaries. One of the best (and biggest) sites is the sleepy suburb of Onkel Toms Hütte, where you can wander through a dramatic estate decorated in bold primary colours (it's easy to find - just head for the U-Bahn station of the same name).

You can even spend the night in Bauhaus style. Tucked away down a peaceful sidestreet a short walk from the Bauhaus-Archiv, the Brandenburger Hof is a five-star bolthole that feels more like a private house than a hotel. The building is classical but the décor is devoutly modern furnished with Wilhelm Wagenfeld lamps, Marcel Breuer tables and van der Rohe chairs.

With so many Bauhaus buildings to see in Berlin, the temptation is to tramp around town ticking off all the sites, but to appreciate the Bauhaus legacy all you need to do is look around. What made the Bauhaus groundbreaking was the general attitude it engendered, rather than the specific things its pupils made. Ideas that once seemed revolutionary have now become conventional. "Chuck out the chintz" could almost be a Bauhaus mantra. Gropius and his acolytes inspired a different way of thinking about the arts: rational and functional, rather than sentimental and nostalgic. Berlin's space-age cityscape is a testament to their lasting influence. There's scarcely a new building here that doesn't obey their practical ideals. When the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus in 1933, it seemed like the end of modernism. Gazing at Berlin's modern skyline, you realise it never went away.

Other cities celebrate

Berlin and Dessau aren't the only German cities celebrating the Bauhaus' 90th birthday. In Weimar, where the Bauhaus began, there's a new walking trail incorporating key sites like the Haus Am Horn, one of the movement's iconic buildings.

There are also several exhibitions, including a survey of the work of Bauhaus student and concentration camp survivor Franz Ehrlich. Events elsewhere include a Kandinsky retrospective in Jena and an exhibition in Erfurt entitled Struggle For The Bauhaus. The town of Apolda is also taking part, with shows about Bauhaus pioneers Lyonel Feininger and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. For details visit Thuringia Tourist Board's website: thueringen-tourismus.de.

Further information

Modell-Bauhaus opens on 22 July at the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin (00 49 30 254 860; martingropiusbau.de). For further details visit modell-bauhaus.de (German only).

Bauhaus Archive, Berlin (00 49 30 254 0020; bauhaus.de). Bauhaus Institute, Dessau (00 49 340 650 8251; bauhaus-dessau.de).

Getting there

The main carrier between the UK and Berlin is easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com), which flies from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton to Schoenefeld airport. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from East Midlands, Edinburgh and Stansted to the same airport. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) flies to Berlin Tegel from Heathrow and London City. There are several direct trains every day from Berlin to Dessau. For more details, contact the Deutsche Bahn UK Booking Centre (08718 800 866; bahn.co.uk).

Staying there

For further details about staying in the Bauhaus student flats in Dessau call 00 49 340 650 8250 or visit bauhaus-dessau.de. Brandenburger Hof, Eislebener Strasse 14, Berlin (00 49 30 214 050; brandenburger-hof.com). Double rooms start at €255, with breakfast.

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