Back in 2002, my colleagues and I dropped everything and spent two weeks filling sandbags to help protect a small German town from the highest floodwaters it had seen in a hundred years.
In careful white gloves we painstakingly evacuated everything from the basement of our building: the servers and other delicate technologies, and also, an array of design objects in ceramic, textile, glass, paper, metal and wood, long since kept in storage in the hope that, one day, they’d be able to be seen.
That building was the world heritage Bauhaus, and those objects part of the priceless collection now on display at the new Bauhaus Museum, opened last Sunday in Dessau to commemorate Bauhaus Centenary.
Yet while the objects can indeed now be seen, they tell only their own story, freezing the Bauhaus legacy just as it had been in that basement. It’s a story of objects, not of methodologies. At a time when public institutions all over the world are rethinking their civic role as confidence in democracy erodes, the institution that was founded on the basis of designing a new future must take the lead.
The Bauhaus in Dessau
The impact of the Bauhaus on Dessau has been transformative – but also, fraught.
Dessau is an 800-year-old former East German town that was once a seat of royalty, but more recently has suffered a great deal of social and economic hardship. Where the Bauhaus Museum currently stands, there once stood the grandiose Palais Reina, but this is not acknowledged on the site.
The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 to seek new ways to live and work in a world being rapidly transformed by social and industrial change. Its founding motto – “Art and technology: a new unity” – sought to overcome the social and class barriers to achieving that goal, privileging skilled labour and functional design in creating a future together. The school’s working style was collaborative and cross-disciplinary, generating new methods to overcome old ways of thinking.
The Bauhaus relocated from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 at a time of growing political instability. The Nazis closed it in 1932, and the Masters’ Houses were sold to the Junkers company on the basis that their “alien” architecture would disappear from Dessau.
In a single air raid on 7 March 1945, most of the town was destroyed – because by then, Dessau was the major producer of the chemical used in the gas chambers. It would take a great many years for the town to restore the dignity of its own identity.
The Bauhaus building survived only because it was occupied by Nazis, and later, by Russians. The Gropius House was almost entirely destroyed, and the three other Masters’ Houses survived, only to undergo highly damaging modifications across many years. Each of these buildings is separated from most of the town and the town centre by the railway station, deepening that cultural divide.
Today the town has grown to merge with the neighbouring town into the one conurbation, Dessau-Roßlau. When I lived here, unemployment was high and many streets still stood entirely deserted as had people left for the newly reopened West. The then Shrinking Cities program was tackling the tough questions of how to approach urban and regional planning in such circumstances – what should be destroyed, what should be kept, and on what basis? – and the Bauhaus had hosted an exhibition on the topic to facilitate useful discussion. Today, many of those streets are restored, their communities thriving, but a stark division still characterises the relationship between the Bauhaus and the town that has nurtured it for decades.
The new Bauhaus Museum
A museum to get that priceless collection out of the basement had long been on the Bauhaus agenda. Many sites had been proposed over the years, with many false starts – including the clumsy modification of the Kandinsky/Klee House to introduce climate control, now fully de-modified and restored as of last year.
Designed by emerging Barcelona practice addenda architects (González Hinz Zabala), the new museum promised a black box suspended in a glass prism, gesturing towards the iconic Gropius building on the other side of the tracks, while confidently performing the values of transparency, accessibility and integrity.
In realisation, the architecture is a shiny presence in the town centre, its highly mirrored façade making it difficult to determine how to access the entrance as you walk by. I spent many hours watching people interact with the structure during its opening week, watching from the inside as people approached the surface with a hesitant 2001-esque touch, hoping a door would appear, squinting harder to focus for clues from the interior, and then following someone’s friendly gesture towards the door.
This is among many teething problems that will soon find resolution. There’s no counter or circulation system installed yet, for example, limiting the visitor experience to just the one curtly-enforced hour. Bookshop sales are transacted at the café, making my tax receipt hard to justify to my accountant.
Objects greet you in neat shelves once you do get upstairs for your hour. Works in ceramic, textile, glass, paper, metal and wood, many instantly recognisable, and many awaiting new discovery. There’s an emphasis on the tactile in a couple of moments that encourage you to play with a Moholy-Nagy rotatable drum of textures, created by Rudolf Marwitz, or one of his rotatable lights. Photography is not allowed without a €5 permit which can be purchased along with your entry ticket (€8,50 or €15 for a pass to all of the Bauhaus buildings), and this is strictly enforced, as is the hour limit.
For me, being reunited with precious objects I’d helped save was quite emotional. I’d spent a year working with an international team of practitioners on projects offering design-led solutions to the problems of contemporary globalisation. My Bauhaus was a place of intensive collaboration to a rigour that was challenged weekly by external critics. Controversially, the then Director Omar Akbar drew a line of consistency through to post-modernity and beyond, hosting these annual international think tanks to redress global complexities in the cross-disciplinary Bauhaus style, seeking that new unity in new ways.
The Bauhaus Museum’s privileging of a set of object-moments freezes the Bauhaus legacy into a set of design styles, rather than a set of methodologies.
While the Museum has succeeded in providing safe, climate-controlled exhibition for these world-historic objects, the museum as a cultural institution has yet to outline its purpose and its potential.
Nor is there any articulation of the relationship of the Bauhaus to Dessau and its people, despite the important decision to locate the Museum in the centre of town opposite the shopping centre and park – as opposed to next to the Bauhaus institution, itself long criticised for its distance from the town’s community life.
The German media response since Sunday has consistently been concerned with the Museum’s local disengagement – unfairly, given there’s been a year-round program of activity across Dessau – and also of the opening itself. On one side of the street, a roped-off VIP area for invited guests to enter the mirror-glassed structure; on the other, a jumbo screen showing the launch speeches behind a small stage where earlier a brass band had been playing incongruous tunes including Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk and, in an unhappy irony, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror.
Returning after 17 years specifically for this opening, it struck me how the opportunity was missed to have held one unifying event, presented on a stage outside the new structure, where everyone was equally welcome – and then, opening the doors to all. To her credit, Angela Merkel stopped for some moments before entering the Museum, shaking hands and speaking with locals gathered on the other side of the rope barriers. Her opening speech was strongly feminist, highlighting female practitioners at the Bauhaus, and honouring its first female Director, Claudia Perren, who has held the role since 2014.
The role of the contemporary public institution
How should we understand the cultural institution today? What does it make possible for us? What does it colonise? Or in other words, what are the values it expects us to engage with as the basis for our participation? And how does it understand its own civic role?
Right now, the role of the contemporary cultural institution is being examined the world over, as we struggle to find ways to reconcile a worsening lack of trust in democracy with the increasingly undemocratic actions of governments.
Politicians and parliaments, at a loss to redress the climate emergency, sustainable urban planning and resilient design, are trailing artists, galleries and museums who are at the forefront in confronting the most pressing questions of our time.
We need artists, designers, architects, academics, planners, scientists and policy-makers working together with rigour and with urgency. We need public institutions to offer activating glimpses into the histories that frame this urgency. And we need to get better at articulating the impossibility of the politically neutral position – so that all institutions who welcome the public are conscious of their own role in determining what future publics are capable of achieving.
This is why the Bauhaus came into being.
Achieving this is vital not only to the success of the new museum as an institution, but vital to the Bauhaus legacy and its potential to inform generative new thinking.
And as urgent concerns about the climate emergency gather so many of us in Berlin and beyond next Friday, there’s no time to be lost.
HEADER IMAGE: The new Bauhaus Museum. SLIDESHOW: The new Bauhaus Museum, interior showing the open space of the ground floor; the restored Kandinsky/Klee House; the Bauhaus building, interior showing my old studio. All photographs by Esther Anatolitis.