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Building a better house

The Local · 6 Jul 2011, 12:03

Published: 06 Jul 2011 12:03 GMT+02:00

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Aficionados of modern architecture visiting Berlin often make a pilgrimage out to Dessau, a small city around 120 kilometres southwest of the German capital. They go to visit the impressive Bauhaus school and nearby masters’ houses, designed and built by the iconic art school’s director Walter Gropius in 1926 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

However, the city is also home to a less well-known architectural landmark, the Dessau-Törten estate. Also designed and built by Gropius, the project was an early example of his architectural vision, to provide social housing using innovative cheaper building methods.

Now a new permanent exhibition and information centre is about to open, which will allow visitors to explore the history and development of the pioneering estate.

When Gropius, his students and his band of artistic educators, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, were forced out of Weimar in 1925 by a new right-wing government, they looked desperately for a new location for the Bauhaus.

The small city of Dessau may not have been an immediately obvious choice. However, the local government, seeing a chance to give the city a cultural boon and also address a desperate housing shortage, wooed Gropius by offering him the opportunity to build homes for low-income families using new building technologies.

A total of 314 small terraced houses were constructed in several phases between 1926 and 1928, in what was an experimental project. Photographs from the time show rows and rows of almost identical houses, all with flat roofs, white walls, and long factory-style windows. The estate was an early example of rationalization and standardization.

“These were the first precursors to houses built using industrialized construction methods,” said artist Ursula Achternkamp, the curator of the new exhibition.

The houses, which were all owned by the residents from the outset, were very small and often housed many generations of the same family. The first ones had an area of 75 square metres (807 square feet), while later houses were just 57 square metres. However, the use of split levels and light made them seem larger, and each house had a balcony and a long garden.

Visitors to the current incarnation of Dessau-Törten may well be disappointed not to find rows of identical modernist cubic houses. Instead the estate has evolved into a hodgepodge of different facades, windows and doors, with a high preponderance of net curtains, garden gnomes and home improvements that might make Gropius turn in his grave.

“The original state of the housing is barely visible today,” Achternkamp explained. “That is why we have so many films from the past, so that people can see how it looked and how life was lived here.”

The exhibition includes interviews with former residents, audio material, photos, plans and models. And a large part of the exhibition is dedicated to showing how the estate’s first residents reacted to their new homes.

“They were happy to move here, having lived previously in small, dark apartments,” Monika Markgraf, head of architectural research at the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau, told The Local.

To own a light-filled house with a proper kitchen and a garden was a big improvement on the overcrowded tenement-like buildings they were leaving behind. “This was freedom, almost like a palace,” she said.

Story continues below…

The Bauhaus Foundation is also organizing tours of one of the only houses in the estate to have been preserved in close to its original state. It belonged to an elderly lady who had been one of the first people to move in during the 1920s.

She changed remarkably little during her many years in the house. Countless original features, including the kitchen with its stove and built-in tiled washtub, remain. It is also one of the only houses to have kept its stall, attached to the back of the house, which allowed the owner keep small animals such as hens and rabbits.

“She used it exactly as Gropius had planned,” said Markgraf. “One can really get a sense in this house of how people lived back then.”

The new Information Centre and permanent exhibition open on July 8.

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Your comments about this article

18:31 July 6, 2011 by expatriarch
¦quot;One can really get a sense in this house of how people lived back then.¦quot; Are you serious? Why would one want to know that?

Bauhaus is so damned sad, boring, pathetic, boring, bland, without any sort of character worth mentioning, did I mention BORING and COLD?

It is an embarrassment to further Bauhaus architecture for anything more than a side-note of architecture history books. Please stop cherishing or honoring Bauhaus. It is as simple-minded and primitive as it gets. It is reminiscent of an infant finding a flat rock and being fascinated by it...in a pile of flat rocks. How many stark boxes with square windows and industrial boring simplistic furnishings can you "design" before you are embarrassed? Seriously, Germany is a design waste-land without any native inspiration or genesis. All design influences are brought in from the outside and do not develop past slight evolution that is still close to the original.

Think of it; BMW, Mercedes, Porsche...the power-houses of what defines what is German and Germany...all had to bring in outside designers, many from the USA, to give their cars anything resembling "character". Remember the boxes on wheels that were Mercedes before ~1997 or the never changing BMW before the same time? They were Bauhaus on wheels. Literally, a seats, a wheel, an engine, some glass, an some sheet metal, some uniform buttons...equitably spaces and styled....all put on a set of wheels. Das wird tun...no passion, no character, no personality, no style.

Friends don't let friends like Bauhaus! Please stop the cycle! It's killing Germany and German culture. It's called imagination, adventurism, creativity...get some, Germany! Lines don't all have to be straight and go from point A to point B.
18:58 July 6, 2011 by Mingus
Don´t be too harsh on Bauhaus, remember that was almost 100 years ago and at that time was revolutionary. Is like compare (and cherish) Marconi´s first wireless communication with a modern smartphone saying that Marconi´s solution was "simple-minded and primitive". Or maybe you are comparing rational & efficient german design with fancy & ludic italian design?
21:25 July 6, 2011 by ovalle3.14
There was humane, playful architecture before Bauhaus. There were no radio communications before Marconi. Your argument is invalid.
23:49 July 6, 2011 by Mingus
In fact were communications but this time was done in a different way (impersonal? cold? boring?). Boring,cold and patethic was also a Volkswagen in the 30´s or a Trabant in the 50´s but well, was done for other people, maybe not you or me. As I said, is something that set a footprint in those specific years. By the way I remember this quote: "If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music...and of aviation" - Tom Stoppard
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