The Bauhaus movement emerged as architects and artists began to rebuild a battle-torn Europe after the great war, and became a fashion in itself.
There is a tremendous pent-up energy in Lyonel Feininger's famous Kathedrale woodcut, used on the cover of Walter Gropius's manifesto for the opening of the Bauhaus in 1919. Feininger's cathedral is not a static, glowering, repressive gothic building but a jazzed-up composition full of dissidence and movement - a vision of the future. Construction, light and music, three lodestars of the Bauhaus, are already in place. Gropius's own original copy of the manifesto is one of the exhibits in a major Bauhaus survey opening at Mima (the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) later in the month. Considering the widespread impact of the Bauhaus, how surprising that this is the first Bauhaus exhibition in Britain since the Royal Academy show in 1968.
What exactly was the Bauhaus? In the simplest of terms, it was an art school set up in opposition to the old European art academies. It evolved a new language of art and design that was abstract and dynamic, liberated from historicism. As Gropius saw it in 1923, "the idea of today's world is already recognisable, its shape still unclear and hazy". The impulse behind the Bauhaus, which was more a philosophy of life than a teaching institution, was to give modernity a precise physical form.
"Bauhaus", that cryptic but now so familiar word - it even became the name of a gothic rock band - is derived from bauen, building in the sense of creating, and haus, the house and spiritual home. It was a grand concept positing the power of the architect and artist in rebuilding a battle-fatigued Europe after the horrors of the first world war. If the Kaiser had won, we would not have had a Bauhaus, which drew much of its artistic vigour from the fact of Germany's defeat. Buildings in the man-made landscape took on a new significance, psychological and sexual as well as purely practical. The Bauhaus first defined the multitude of ways in which the built environment affects the way we live.
What was new about the school was its attempt to integrate the artist and the craftsman, to bridge the gap between art and industry. The unity of arts had of course been a central tenet of the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, and the ideals of William Morris influenced Gropius's planning for the school. But the Bauhaus was the antithesis of the Arts and Crafts movement in fundamental ways. No more romance of handmaking in the countryside: its emphasis was urban and technological, and it embraced 20th-century machine culture. Mass production was the god, and the machine aesthetic demanded reduction to essentials, an excision of the sentimental choices and visual distractions that cluttered human lives.
Students at the Bauhaus took a six-month preliminary course that involved painting and elementary experiments with form, before graduating to three years of workshop training by two masters: one artist, one craftsman. They studied architecture in theory and in practice, working on the actual construction of buildings. The creative scope of the curriculum attracted an extraordinary galaxy of teaching staff. Among the stars were Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, the painter and mystic Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers and Marcel Breuer. Bauhaus students were in day-to-day contact with some of the most important practising artists and designers of the time.
The school, masterfully marketed, acquired a reputation and an influence out of all proportion to its physical reality as a single institution in the German provinces. The name Bauhaus soon became a bogey word to adherents of the bourgeois style that it so vigorously opposed. German mothers told their children: "If you don't behave, I'll send you to the Bauhaus."
But to those who responded to its uncompromising vision of the future, the term Bauhaus had a certain magic. The school came to be known for the marvellous masked balls and kite processions, experimental light and music evenings, and "Triadic" abstract ballets that it organised. These occasions welded students of many ages and nationalities together into a community. The Bauhaus was the beginning of the art school as an alternative way of life.
From the workshops of the Bauhaus emanated many products now considered design classics: Marianne Brandt's metalwork; Wilhelm Wagenfeld's table lamp, an opaque glass dome on a nickel-plated shaft; Breuer's deceptively simple tubular steel chair, precursor of the green canvas seated chairs that older readers may remember from their childhood. Bauhaus principles espoused designs whose functional purity set them apart from fashion. But so-called "Bauhaus style" became a fashion in itself - so much so that the description has now become a catch-all, covering work by Modernist designers such as Eileen Gray who were not even there.
The Bauhaus opened in Weimar, but relocated in 1925 after the leftwing Social Democratic Party, which had sponsored it, lost control of the state parliament to nationalists. The school moved to Dessau, a middle-sized industrial city in central Germany. Here Gropius was able to put his most ambitious ideas into practice with a purpose-designed building that combined workshops, lecture rooms, theatre, refectory and student accommodation constructed and fitted out by the Bauhaus staff and students, "the band of fellow workers inspired by a common will".
This was a Modernist utopian project like no other. The completed Bauhaus, with its simple cubic forms and shimmering glass surfaces, was seen to have announced a new international architectural style. The unity was striking: the different functional elements came together to form an abstract geometry, as in a De Stijl painting. To the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg, the building seemed "cast of one piece like a persistent thought".
But the Bauhaus could never last in early 1930s Germany. Many Bauhaus staff and students were Jewish; besides, the experimental, abstract direction of the teaching was anathema to the Nazis, who, by 1931, had taken control of the Dessau municipal council. The following autumn, the Bauhaus was closed down, and the Nazis sacked the building, breaking the windows and throwing out the workshop tools. Only international protest prevented them from razing the whole site.
An attempt was made to resurrect the Bauhaus in Berlin in a disused telephone factory. But soon after it reopened, Hitler became chancellor; the Nazi regime was entrenched in opposition to an institution viewed as "one of the most obvious refuges of the Jewish-Marxist conception of 'art'". On April 11 1933, Berlin police raided the premises. Photographs show Bauhaus students being loaded into trucks.
By the time of the closure, many of the staff associated with the Bauhaus in its great creative period were dispersing. Gropius had resigned in 1928. Klee left for Bern and Kandinsky for Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1933. Albers emigrated to America in 1933, where he taught at Black Mountain College in Chicago and developed a foundation course based on the original ideas of the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy went to Chicago, where in 1937 he founded his own art institution, the "New Bauhaus", which, like its successor, the Chicago Institute of Design, adopted and expanded Gropius's original curriculum. The Nazis' banning of the Bauhaus only gave its ideas greater international impetus.
London was the first stopping point for many of the émigré masters, who arrived with a touching faith in Britain's liberal traditions. Gropius and his wife, Ise, arrived in 1934, followed by Breuer the next year; together they formed the nucleus of a Bauhaus community in exile at Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead. Wells Coates's early reinforced concrete block of flats was one of very few buildings in London that bore any relation to Modernist ideals.
Disappointingly, Britain in the mid-1930s was less in tune with the Modern than the émigrés had expected, and the opportunities for work, at a period of commercial despondency, were slim. Most travelled on to what the Modernist critic Herbert Read called "the inevitable America". But there were some who stayed, infusing British art schools with Bauhaus principles. Naum Slutsky, the brilliant metalworker who had been master goldsmith at the Weimar Bauhaus, was still teaching at Birmingham as late as 1964.
A search for the surviving Bauhaus spirit in this country would have to start at Impington, the village college in Cambridgeshire designed in 1935 by Gropius in partnership with Maxwell Fry. It was Gropius's only significant architectural commission in this country, and it came from Henry Morris, a notably eccentric and imaginative chief education officer. Morris created the concept of the village college, an education and arts centre for the whole local rural community, from childhood to old age. Gropius and Fry planned the building at Impington with functional wings splaying out from a big, broad, sociable central corridor, already a proven Bauhausian idea.
The Cambridgeshire college was a welcoming building, human in its scale. Nikolaus Pevsner, another German émigré, detected new poetic qualities in Impington: "Can it have been the effect of English picturesque notions on the more rigid intellect of Gropius?" With its splashes of bright colour and its witty porthole windows, this was Bauhaus loosened up, and it set the pattern for progressive school-building in Britain after the war.
The nation also came close to a Bauhaus way of life at Dartington in Devon. This was a fascinating social experiment initiated by Leonard Elmhirst, a Yorkshire-born disciple of Rabindranath Tagore, and his (fortunately) wealthy American wife, Dorothy. One of its main aims, which ran in parallel with Gropius's ambitions at the Bauhaus, was to "integrate the creative artist into the workaday world of realities". Dartington, too, became an avant garde international community committed to a multitude of disciplines - painting and sculpture, music, theatre, dance, modern crafts. The house for the headmaster of the progressive Dartington Hall School was designed in the white-cube Modern style reminiscent of the Bauhaus masters' houses at Dessau. The Ballets Jooss company from Essen, ejected by the Nazis in 1934, were welcomed at Dartington, and pictures of the Jooss dancers give the strange impression of the Bauhaus resurrected in the Totnes countryside.
The Bauhaus started much that we now take for granted. A revolution in the art schools of this country began in the immediate postwar period with the reconstituted Royal College of Art. The new principal, Robin Darwin, was a painter. As at the Bauhaus, the professors were themselves practising architects, artists and designers, stars in their own spheres. RCA students were specifically trained for the emerging design professions. The ethos of the RCA - attuned to new technologies, self-confident, anarchic - quickly spread to other colleges. It was this Bauhausian energy and commitment in the art schools from the 1960s onwards that turned Britain from a predominantly literary culture to the visually alert nation we (sometimes to our surprise) now find ourselves to be.
There was a postwar sequel to the Bauhaus in Germany, too: the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, opened in 1955. The first rector, the Swiss-born architect Max Bill, a former Bauhaus student, designed the Ulm school buildings in a style best described as late-Bauhaus lookalike. The school had ties to Braun AG, the leading German domestic equipment manufacturers. Braun's beautiful, functional wall clocks, food mixers, radios and record players became, like prewar Bauhaus furniture, their period's cult objects; clean-lined to the point of anonymity, they defined modern design for a generation.
I have always loved Bauhaus's peculiar combination of solemnity and regimented craziness. Over the years, I have met a number of ex-Bauhaus masters, and I visited Ise Gropius, Walter's wife, in the wonderful Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, shortly before her death in 1982. But it was not until last spring that I saw the Dessau buildings, which had for many years been marooned in communist East Germany. I now understand what Rayner Banham meant when he called the Bauhaus at Dessau "a sacred site". What made it so moving? Not just the architectural coherence of the school and the masters' houses nearby in the pine woods, but the weight of its history. Bauhaus ideas survived to shape the modern world.