In the aftermath of World War I, German architect Walter Gropius was convinced that art should play a social role, rather than simply one of aesthetics. He founded the Bauhaus in 1919 (link to bauhaus history cultural serving), whose philosophy was that everyday objects should achieve beauty through simple form, material, and colour. Gropius would speak of a “new unity,” first of craft and fine art, later of art and technology, the ultimate aim being the building as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art (he would later call this “total architecture”)


At the heart of the Bauhaus philosophy was social living. A house should have a smooth, elementary form, as if it were industrially manufactured. The rectangular system and the Bauhaus signature flat roof were deemed equal surfaces with windows and doors. The aim was to achieve equality between front and rear, top and bottom, right and left. Every element of the building should be both supportive and supported. Architectural ideas reflected social perspectives—a society of equals.

One example of this is the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin. The Horseshoe Estate housed 3,000 members of a trade union building society set up in 1924. Bauhaus architect Bruno Taut, a committed socialist, was asked to plan an affordable estate. The result was an unpretentious, block of brick-built modernist flats in dramatic colours. They were then let or sold to trade unionists. The estate’s flat roofs led to a heated debate as the German right considered these un-German, “degenerate.” Indeed, in 1933 when Hitler and the Nazis took power, Taut fled Germany. The suburban Horseshoe Estate expresses optimism for a new way of life and social equality. As with the school building, each part supports and is supported by the other and all look on to a green communal space around a small pool, fed by ice-age groundwater.

Gropius stepped down as director of the Bauhaus in 1928, succeeded by the architect Hannes Meyer (1889–1954). Meyer maintained the emphasis on mass-producible design and eliminated parts of the curriculum he felt were overly formalist in nature. Additionally, he stressed the social function of architecture and design, favouring concern for the public good rather than private luxury.

Where Gropius had attempted to move the school toward a closer union with German industry, with the aim of making products for a general market, as well as adopting a broadly formalist approach to architecture, Meyer, though also working with industry, was more explicitly political in his aims. “Volksbedarf statt Luxusbedarf” (“The needs of the people instead of the need of luxury”) became his slogan and that of the students who followed him. He reorganised the curriculum, emphasising the importance of building as a social, rather than formal, phenomenon.

For architects in the mid-1920s, a utopian desire to create a better world also began to take shape. During this historical period, hundreds of thousands of people needed to be re-housed throughout Europe. Buildings, the architects envisioned, should not only respond to the needs of society but also actively liberate and elevate it.

Governments across the globe were experimenting with forms of planning, from the city block to the factory floor to the entire economy itself. In that context, the Bauhaus was an idea that could accompany that process — could give aesthetic, architectural and spiritual weight to the revival of society through design.

While “Bauhaus” became shorthand for functionalist architecture, an identikit style of angular, boxy white buildings and ribbon windows, there were, in fact, many different Bauhauses that existed during the school’s short life span, and even more so in its afterlife. What made for its vitality was the sheer number of movements for which the Bauhaus provided temporary shelter: Expressionism, functionalism and equality.