Throughout the 20th century, the cultural programme of the Staatliches Bauhaus, internationally known as the Bauhaus was to leave its permanent mark, in particular on the future of architectural production, but also on 20th-century art in general. In contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright's organic proposal on the other side of the Atlantic, this school, which originated from an idea of Walter Gropius, was to become the cornerstone of rationalist cultural production and was governed and guided by the function of final products.
In April 1919 Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelsohn inaugurated the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, merging the activities of the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Plastic Arts, also known as the Academy of Fine Arts, with those of the Kunstgewerbeschule, headed by Henry Van de Velde. The purpose of the new school was to gather the teaching of all the arts, architecture, sculpture and decoration under the umbrella of a unified design approach, while also continually keeping in mind the potential of mass production and thereby sharing many of the ideas of De Stijl and Russian Constructivism.
Gropius developed his approach from two observations: the aesthetic values of the arts almost always only related to their specific domain; moreover, they remained detached from the lives of human beings. Human beings had instead become wholly dependent on the power of machines and industrial production, which were scarcely concerned with aesthetic criteria. These were the observations that led to Gropius’ development of a new functional concept of design in the tradition of the Deutscher Werkbund, a movement that had strongly stressed the importance of relating the form of objects to their function.
The first practical consequence of Gropius' vision was the implementation of a new pedagogical project around which the whole life of the Bauhaus revolved.
The purpose of the system was to revitalise the creative role of designers. The ultimate goal was to train young people to become integrated into production processes and provide formal qualities to mass-produced objects.
The Bauhaus teaching approach acquired clear connotations already during the first year of the school's activities. The course had a 4-year duration. The educational method was based on introductory theoretical lessons that were the basis of a lengthy practical learning process in the Labs. After completing their studies, many students had the choice of remaining at the Bauhaus, and several of them were later to become teachers or teaching assistants.
The first year of the curriculum was a Foundation Course that lasted six months. During this period students became more aware of themselves and their skills and became familiar with a variety of materials. At different times during the history of the school, some of the courses were supervised by prominent figures like Johannes Itten, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
Swiss painter Johannes Itten joined the Bauhaus school in the autumn of 1919 and was active during the first three years of the school’s activity in Weimar. Itten, who was both an artist and a professor, was influenced by the ideas of Bohemian painter Franz Cizek and had opened his own art school in Vienna three years earlier. The pedagogical models of Frobel and Montessori inspired his teaching method, which he based on stimulating individual creativity through a learning - thinking - action process. Itten's preparatory course was greatly influenced by the Bohemian painter's method, and he expanded it further with Goethe's theory of form and colour. The aim of Itten's basic course, which was mandatory for all first-year students, was to allow them to unleash their creativity and assess their personal strengths.
Several seminars on visual language complemented the course. Their purpose was to acquaint students with the principles of form, drawing and colour. The seminars were held by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (analytical drawing and seminar on colour), by the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee (course on form), and by German artists Oskar Schlemmer and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack.
From the second year, students attended one of the workshops (Werkstatt). Here they worked side by side with a "form master" and a "master craftsman". Under their guidance, students became acquainted with the theoretical and practical problems involved in the production of specific types of objects.
During the earliest stages, not all of the laboratories were available. The maximum number of laboratories was recorded during the Dessau period (1925-32). They were led by several prominent international specialists of the period. These included Oskar Schlemmer and Joost Schmidt for sculpture, Walter Gropius, Joseph Albers, Marcel Breuer for the carpentry workshop, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Christian Dell, Marianne Brandt and Wilhelm Wagenfeld for the metal workshop, Gunta Stölzl and Lilu Reich for textiles. The ceramic workshops were led by Gehrard Marcks and Marguerite Friedländer; glass painting by Josef Albers; photography by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Walter Peterhans and Paul Citroen; mural painting by Wassily Kandinsky and Hinnerk Scheper. Lothar Schereyer. Oskar Schlemmer ran the stage workshop, while Herbert Bayer was head of the typography and advertising graphics workshops that produced materials for Lyonel Feininger’s graphic printing workshop.
Gropius called upon some of the most important artists of the time to lead the courses and workshops: they included Feininger, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy.
In keeping with Walter Gropius' unified vision of the arts, the goal of architectural design was to produce a functional building. All the arts were to have a role in its creation. In other words, a building was not the product of the work of architects alone. Conversely, it was the product of the interaction of a group of artists and designers. A modern artist-designer was expected to know how to integrate aesthetic values into industrial production. To achieve this he had to be aware of his creative and expressive strengths, re-appropriate the typical manual and crafts skills of human labour, and adapt the results of his work to the demands of industrial production.
This re-vitalisation of the designer's creative role involved training specially qualified young people. They were to be free and creative, acquire manual skills, be sufficiently familiar with new materials and technologies, be aware of the form and related function of an object or building, be acquainted with the demands of mass production and serial industrial methods.
The functional design concept aimed at training a new generation of designers. Hence, despite the lack of specific courses on the topic, architecture was the key focus of teaching at the Bauhaus. In the Weimar years, Gropius' office was always open to students. Over time, the school received a growing number of building commissions in which all the laboratories were involved.
The most important cultural event during the school's first years was the Bauhaus exhibition. During the exhibition that was held in Weimar between July and September 1923, professor Georg Muche created a housing prototype with the assistance of Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer. Their model was intended to provide maximum comfort at the lowest cost, applying the best craftsmanship and the best design in terms of shape, size and distribution of interior spaces.
During the following year, the school’s management clashed with the demands and requirements of the new Weimar administration. The search for a new location for the school's activities obtained the support and enthusiasm of the city of Dessau, where the new Bauhaus University moved in 1925: it occupied a building designed by Walter Gropius that was intended to be a model and synthesis of the school's design experience.
The design of the new Bauhaus building in Dessau highlighted its structural features, stripping away all unnecessary and added features. The structure and facilities were visible and explicit. The full-height iron and glass surfaces used a state-of-the-art window system. The integrated design of the building marked the beginning of a successful period in which an increasing number of industry commissions were received, and housing was built for faculty members; these projects were followed by the commission to design the Törten housing estate.
In 1928 Gropius left the school leadership because of disagreements with the faculty. These were partly based on its new attitude to local and national administrative institutions. Hannes Meyer succeeded him and, a few years later in 1930, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, became the school’s director.
Dessau's new National Socialist administration terminated the Bauhaus' educational activities in 1932. Mies van der Rohe attempted to reopen the school as a private, downsized version in Berlin. The experiment only lasted a year since it had to comply with the new Nazi cultural policies. The emerging cultural leadership's fear that the Bauhaus school courses might conceal subversive and socialist propaganda activities not only led to the school’s activities being discontinued in 1933, but also drove several faculty members and students to leave Germany and find refuge abroad where, in a variety of ways, they continued to work and pursue their cultural activities.