Building a better house

What does Germany’s modernist Bauhaus movement have to do with the housing estate down your street? Siobhan Dowling heads to Dessau to find out.

Building a better house
Photo: Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

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.

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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Five German drinks to try this summer

There’s nothing quite like a cold drink on a hot summer’s day and the Germans know it well. That’s why they’ve got a variety of tasty alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to cool them down in the hottest months. Here are five you should try.

Five German drinks to try this summer

Summertime in Germany can get pretty hot, but thankfully there are plenty of popular drinks which can help you cool down, as well as tickle the tastebuds.

In Germany, fizzy water is wildly popular, so it’s not surprising that Sprudel is a key ingredient in most of the drinks on this list.


A Hugo cocktail. Photo: Greta Farnedi/Unsplash

The Hugo is a cocktail made of Prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint leaves, a shot of mineral water and a slice of lime.

This refreshing alcoholic drink was invented by Roland Gruber, a bartender in South Tyrol, the mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy in 2005.

Though the drink wasn’t invented in Germany, it quickly spread across the borders of northern Italy and gained popularity here. Nowadays, you’ll be able to order a Hugo in pretty much any bar in the country.


A woman holds a pint of Radler. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

One of the best-known and most popular mixed beer drinks is the Radler: a concoction of beer and lemonade, a bit like a British shandy. In some areas of Germany – particularly in the south – the mixture is called Alster.

Usually, the ratio is 60 percent beer and 40 percent lemonade, but there are also some interesting variants. In some regions of Germany, a distinction is made between sweet (with lemonade) and sour (with water) Radler. Some foolhardy drinkers even mix their beer with cola (called a diesel).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions producing the most important beer ingredient


A woman pours apple spritz into plastic cups. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Soeren Stache

Apfelschorle is an absolute German classic.

The traditional mix of apple juice and fizzy water is a 1:1 ratio, but if you’re making the drink at home you can adjust the measurements to your liking. 

The concept of Saftschorle (fruit spritzer) has moved way beyond the plain old apple in Germany though. On Supermarket shelves, you’ll find major drinks chains offering a wide variety of fizzy fruit beverages, including  Rhabarbe-Schorle (Rhubarb spritz), Schwarze Johannisbeer-Schorle (Black currant spritz) and Holunderschorle (elderberry spritz).

Berliner Weiße mit Schuss

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin.

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

The Berliner Weiße (or Weisse) is an old, German beer, brewed with barley and wheat malt.

As the name suggests, it originates from the German capital, where it was extremely popular in the 19th century and was celebrated as the “Champagne of the North”.

But by the end of the 19th century, sour beer styles, including this one, became increasingly unpopular and they almost died out completely. 

READ ALSO: Five German foods that aren’t what you think they are

So people started mixing the drink with sweet syrup. This gave rise to the trend of drinking Berliner Weissbier with a shot (Schuss) of raspberry or woodruff syrup, which is still widely enjoyed today. Some breweries even ferment fruits such as raspberries or strawberries.

The drink is so well-known in Germany, that there was even a TV series named after it which ran for 10 years 1984 to 1995.


Water and wine in equal parts and both well chilled – a light summer drink. Photo: picture alliance / dpa-tmn | DWI

Another fizzy-water-based German classic is the white wine spritz. 

A wine spritzer is a refreshing drink on warm summer days which has the advantage of not going to your head as quickly as a regular glass of wine. With equal parts fizzy water and wine, the drink has only about 5-6 percent alcohol, compared to glass of pure white wine, which has about 9-14 percent. 

For optimum German-ness when making this drink at home, choose a German white wine such as Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner or Riesling.

Enjoy and drink responsibly!