Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Modernoid Architecture in Dessau

I got to know Dessau in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt while writing a book on its most internationally famous institution, Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Thuringia. As its state legislature drifted slowly rightward under the pressures of the first Democratic, post-imperial Germany (Thuringia had the tacky distinction of being the first state to elect a Nazi minister—of education, no less), the Bauhaus moved to the liberal Dessau in 1925, where the mayor Fritz Hesse had welcomed the Bauhauslers so warmly that Gropius could build the school’s iconic Modernist campus (1926).

The American architect Philip C. Johnson was then cruising Europe looking for modernist buildings he could “brand” as the International Style at the about-to-be-founded Museum of Modern Art. He phoned Albert H. Barr, Jr. in Berlin--MOMA’s founding director--to urge him to visit Dessau, where he enthused over the new Bauhaus complex as “the greatest Modern building.”

(Johnson didn’t bother asking the professors and students inhabiting these structures, or he would have found them bitterly complaining about its excessive glass, which made them freeze in the winter and sweat mercilessly in the summer. This turned out to be a common complaint about Modernoid architecture--my neologism for “bad Modernist.”)

That great self-taught Detroit architect Albert Kahn (also a German immigrant in 1880), who became Henry Ford’s handyman, sneered at the Bauhauslers as “the Glass House boys.” Indeed, their Techno Hubris of overusing hot new materials like glass, steel and cement is in my opinion a self-destructive trait of Modernoid architecture.

As Nazism emerged as a false solution to the economic turmoil following World War I, the leftie mayor Fritz Hesse lost power to the new Nazis, and the Bauhaus got its second director, the Swiss Communist, Hannes Meyer, in 1928. Gropius fled in disgusted frustration to a private office in Berlin. Meyer was canned in 1930 for his leftism. (He took his ideas to Moscow!)

Mies van der Rohe became the third and final Bauhaus director in Berlin, where the Bauhaus rented an abandoned telephone factory. Mies tried in vain to get along with the Nazi hierarchy. But his history as the designer of a memorial (1926) to the two founders of the German Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg made him a persona not so very grata to the Nazis, who closed the school for good in 1933.

After a rocky history as a changing institution under the Nazis and the German DDR, the old Bauhaus building settled into a future (1994) as a seminar for mid-career design professionals seeking solutions for the difficult dilemmas of architecture and urban design. There are tours of Bauhaus Dessau, including the three Master Houses Gropius built for his star artists: Paul Klee, Lionel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche and Marcel Breuer. (Gropius’s own house was destroyed by bombing in World War II.) And there is a brilliant wall history of the Bauhaus.

The next “must” stop is a short walk from the main train station, the spanking brand-new Federal Environment Department. The architectural duo Sauerbruch and Hutton were lovers while studying at the Architectural Association in London. In 2004 they built this colorful tribute to Germany’s commitment to ecological salvation, cannily using the former duke’s private entrance to the train to his Wörlitzer Gardens as the common entrance for this new public facility. It is full of clever innovation, such as using the old Duke’s Door to enter a new egalitarian era.

It also sprinkles differentially blooming flowers here, there and everywhere. More astonishing is their deployment of weeds--yeah, weeds--to suture together transitional spaces. After three attentive visits, excluding that glorious day in 2004 when I schmoozed with the overtly loving pair, I predict this bi-national pair will be the first to receive a joint Pritzker Prize.

The other “must see” in Dessau is the Hugo Junker Museum. Junker was one of the great German scientific polymaths, on the same level as Max Planck. He was a physics/chemistry professor at Aachen before World War I, where he began to design domestic and commercial heating and winter equipment, including an all-steel prefab house. All of this early commercial gear is housed in the former airplane factory that first gave Junker international fame. The museological standard is higher and more accessible than any other I have observed in 60 years of obsessive museum crawling.

Hitler confiscated Junker’s stock in 1933 and “imprisoned” him in Munich, where the Gestapo could insure this liberal humanist wasn’t slipping aeronautical secrets to potential enemies. He died two years later, testifying to the fact that Hitler’s evil ways were not limited to the abuse of Jews.

The art scene is very vigorous, what with the annual Kurt Weill Festival every January. His foundation’s headquarters is in one of the Master Houses, on Frederick Ebertstrasse, just off Pushkinallee. I also had a stimulating interview with architect Lutz Meixner at the City Museum (in a brilliantly renovated Castle behind the Marienkirche and not far from City Hall). Meixner is a graduate of the Bauhaus Uni in Weimar. His show displays 125 of the 650 sketches of local buildings he has drawn as a hobby since he graduated. In the rest of the museum the city’s history is clearly described.

Finally there is the Tierpark, just off Pushkinallee, past the bridge over railroad yards. The zoo is celebrating its 50th year. I had a marvelous outdoor lunch of a spargel omelette there at the WaldSchange, a name that alludes to the medieval custom of changing all the post horses every so many miles.

Dessau is a very modern city with great medieval credentials, which includes the Anhaltische Gemälde Gallerie (read: State Painting Galleries). Wait until its three great Lukas Cranach paintings return from a retrospective at Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main. Stop as soon as you detrain at the Mobility Center to pick up a fistful of up-to-date data on plays, concerts and art galleries around town.

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