Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was an established architect in Germany when he got drafted into the war on August 1914. The history of the Bauhaus, however, begins after the war in April 1919 when Gropius was appointed director of Academy of Fine Arts and School of Applied Arts in Weimar. Gropius merged the two schools together and named it Bauhaus — building house.
From the beginning, Gropius released the Bauhaus Manifesto establishing the school’s purpose and how he meant to achieve it. He wrote, “Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.” This idea of unity was borrowed from the Middle Ages when masters and guilds were a part of society and the economy.
In the Middle Ages (5th - 15th century), craftsmen were a part of guilds depending on their craft. Some of these were blacksmiths, weavers, farmers, painters, candlemakers, etc. The artisans of the guild was called masters and their workers would be apprentices who would learn the trade by being assistants.
Gropius took inspiration from these guilds when forming the school’s curriculum and its hierarchy. Teachers were called masters and the students were called apprentices and all apprentices studied under every master’s "trade". The terms weren’t meant to create a superior/inferior distinction but instead were to show respect to the teachers as being the best at their craft.
Another inspiration from the Middle Ages was the gothic architecture style. Since guilds existed during the Middle Ages Gropius believed their style was the perfect example of different trades coming together to make a final building. Designers, mathematicians, sculptors, carpenters, builders — this was the unity, the collaboration, Gropius wanted for his school and for future designers.
The Bauhaus Manifesto’s cover was a woodcut interpretive scene of gothic towers reaching for the sky as to say his school was the tower to heaven — to perfection. However, Gropius was soon inspired by other works and changed the direction of the Bauhaus.
The school’s structure for teaching was designed by Gropius in a very simplified and direct system. Gropius laid out the system in a circular diagram working its way towards the center as the students progressed through the school’s courses -- the center being architecture.
The preliminary courses taught students expressionism and experimentation as to understand color theory, composition and materials. The second set of classes focused on psychology of color theory and forms and analysis of the human body. Workshops with specific materials came after where students learned how to properly and respectfully use materials for different projects. Each material used for building had it own workshop: wood, metal, textile, color, glass, clay and stone. The final course, which wasn’t offered until 1927, was the architectural studies.
For centuries art academies had students copy famous artwork before allowing them to paint their own ideas. Gropius designed the structure of the courses to re-teach artists the foundation of art and design by giving them the tools to create their own artwork.
Expressionism was heavily used by the students to make their compositions — it was meant to allow creative freedom to experiment with colors and forms the way a child plays with colorful building blocks. Thanks to Johannes Itten (1888-1967) — expressionist, mystic artist — was invited by Gropius to run the preliminary courses at the Bauhaus. Itten was the perfect teacher for the preliminary courses since he was an elementary school teacher before and had studied color theory.
Itten’s philosophy gave direction to the young school. During his time at the Bauhaus the school altogether focused on expressive art. They were looking to simplify the world around them into basic shapes and lines to create a universally understood form of art.
Wassily Kandinsky (1886-1944) was another major facet to the school that helped shape its direction. Artist have always been painting the world as it exists in front of them — the goal was to paint as close to reality as possible. Kandisnky broke those rules along with Itten, showing students to paint, not only what they saw but how they saw it.
This was one of the Bauhaus’s first strides towards establishing a pathway of their own, standing against academies in Europe. Bauhaus released a lot of great works during this time that caught people’s attention. It also caught the eye of the Nazis.
Gropius began changing the direction of the school and Itten was opposed the change. With Itten’s Mazdnzanan perspective he wanted the school to stay believing in individualism. However, Gropius was starting to feel the need to create things that would better society as a whole. Gropius's overall goal was to unite art with the machine-driven industry of product making.
In 1923 Itten resigned at the Bauhaus and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) took over Itten’s position as the co-preliminary instructor. Together — Moholy-Nagy and Gropius — switched the school’s focus into one that worked for society. The school’s courses also started looking into technical lessons as to help students modernize into the fast-pace advancements in technology. They added photography to the curriculum.
Gropius’s intention was to design objects following the philosophy of form follows function and trying to use the least amount of material while preserving quality and design. These guidelines dictated the aesthetic of the Bauhaus for the rest of its existence.
In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Germany. Majority of the faculty and students followed Gropius and the school to continue. What was even more exciting was that the city commissioned Gropius to design the school’s building entirely from scratch. Gropius had complete freedom to design the building without interference from neighboring buildings as the land was new.
When the building was finished it was the second of its kind designed by Gropius. The characteristics and overall idea of the building were a perfect example of the school’s principles. White concrete with glass curtains made this building stand out against other architectural designs across Europe.
Not all the attention it was getting was good, however. The Nazi had gotten control over the council of Dessau and deemed the Bauhaus’s art degenerate. They took action towards trying to get the school shut down. The Nazis believed real art was that of traditional art.
Feeling tired of the political interference, Walter Gropius resigned as Director of the Bauhaus in 1928 and appointed Hannes Meyer (1889-1954) as his predecessor. Gropius migrated to the US where he taught at Harvard’s architecture school.
Under Meyers’ leadership the school’s curriculum shifted slightly towards a focus on architecture along with Meyer’s push of communist ideals. The school received two big commissions which brought money in for the school. Due to Meyers’ treatment of the school, and the school's plea to have him removed, he was removed as director of the school.
Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe (1886-1969) was left in charge of the school. Unfortunately it was during a tough time as the Nazis took over the city of Dessau. The Nazis closed the school for a while as they investigated the building looking for a secret printing press releasing anti-Nazi propaganda. It wasn't the Bauhaus.
However, the Nazis gave Mies an ultimatum: They would allow the school to reopen if they changed their curriculum to fit the Nazis standards. Mies decided to close the school down.
Many of the faculty and students escaped to the US where they became prominent figures in art and design. Their influences were accepted by America, which helped modernize the country’s aesthetics. The taller buildings being constructed started having flat facades and walls made entirely of glass windows.
The Bauhaus had hopes and potential of creating a utopia. They were a little advanced for their time understanding the connection between artist and artisan. Their legacy of simplicity, function and quality became a staple in architecture and industrialization. The institution surely helped the world move forward and continues to do so.