BY Hettie Judah in Features | 04 OCT 18

Bauhaus Dessau: Crisp Shadows, Clear Lines and a Surprising Abundance of Colour

Ahead of ‘Anni Albers’, which opens at Tate Modern next week, Hettie Judah visits the legendary German educational institution

BY Hettie Judah in Features | 04 OCT 18

Set in Tel Aviv in the late 1940s, Linda Grant’s novel When I Lived in Modern Times (2000) describes the effect of brutal desert climate on the city’s Bauhaus architecture. Tel Aviv was a concrete metropolis constructed on an idea ‘imported from Dessau, a cold, grey, snowy German place’. Transferred to the Mediterranean, the place relentlessly ‘sucked the heat through its thin white walls’. Exacerbated by the Bauhaus buildings’ failure to provide shade or airflow, the heat becomes so brutal it’s almost a supporting character. 

Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Building, Dessau, 1935–36. Courtesy: © Estate of Lucia Moholy and DACS

Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau opened in 1926 and closed in 1932. In 1943, its interiors were destroyed in an aerial bombardment. Granted UNESCO world heritage status in 1996, it was meticulously restored and re-opened a decade later, alongside what remained of the Masters’ Houses, the Carl Fieger-designed Kornhaus restaurant on the Elbe and other Bauhaus-associated buildings around the city.

Dessau is not always ‘cold, grey and snowy’. Waking up in the student block of the Bauhaus campus on an early morning this summer, the calm, cleanly arranged bedroom heated quickly through its glassy front. Sun blasted the flat facade of the dormitory block, striking angular shadows across the smooth concrete floor from the bent metal framing windows and furnishings alike. Here, too, there was no shade, and no through breeze. 

Glass, steel, concrete, the visual drama of crisp shadows and clear lines: whether through László Moholy-Nagy’s photographic studies in cast light and shade or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s gleaming towers, the combination is immediately evocative of Bauhaus modernism. Through the lens, we see the Bauhaus as a black and white world that, bundled in with Mies’s famous ‘less is more’ dictum, suggests an overall atmosphere of cool restraint. 

Anni Albers, Black White Yellow, 1926/65, cotton and silk, 2 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, DACS, London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Yet the Bauhaus interiors are a candy box: in restoring the building to its original colours, dozens of different shades of paint were used, from intense powdery reds, oranges and blues to subtle off-whites and greys. The Bauhausers went in for ultra glossy surfaces: even metallics. Access to the auditorium – once home to Oskar Schlemmer’s choreography – is through highly lacquered ivory doors, set in dark recesses in a pale pink wall. Some seven different paint colours and textures were used in this space alone, from sand to indigo. Inside the auditorium silver-painted radiators were mounted high on the charcoal walls, looking through to a dining hall beyond with a hot orange ceiling. 

The colour is not a superficial presence: it works precisely with the sightlines of the building, altering how the space is read. Its use is subtle, adventurous and goes all the way to the heart. One plane of the ceiling in Gropius’s own study is primrose: the side of his display cabin begonia orange. The F51 chair – his own design, in his own office – is upholstered in textured woven fabric in subtly variegated shades of yellow. 

Anni Albers, Design for Wall Hanging, 1925, gouache on paper, 34 x 27 cm. Courtesy: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, DACS, London and Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the Masters Houses – designed by Gropius and occupied by Moholy-Nagy and Schlemmer, as well as Josef and Anni Albers, Lionel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Georg Muche – colour is used throughout, and even as an accent on the apparently white exteriors. The underside of Schlemmer’s terraces were painted bright yellow: Muche’s orange. Barely visible, they effectively robe the white facades in a veil of reflected colour.

The retrospective of Anni Albers work shown earlier this year at K20 in Düsseldorf, which opens at Tate Modern next week, is likewise full of revelations: particularly for those familiar with the monochrome images of her influential book On Weaving (1965). A 1950s photograph of the Rockefeller Guest House in New York is the very image of chic Modernism: glass facade, polished concrete floor, bare brick walls, and a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. Beside the photograph, however, is a sample of the textile Albers created for the glass wall. Woven with copper threads and chenille it is… blingy. What would the room have looked like at night, with that curtain sparkling in the artificial light, sending warm, coppery shivers into the icy depths of champagne coupes and Cartier? 

Anni Albers, Study for Temple Emanu-El Ark Panels, 1957, foil and metallic thread on card, 43 x 37 cm. Courtesy: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photograph: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Albers’s designs for the ark at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas remain in situ, but a study is included in the show, the overall design suggested through a collage in coloured metallic foil and the weave itself through a small sample rendered in metallic threads of gold, blue, silver and green. Her weavings made in the Bauhaus during the 1920s share many of their strong tones with the colours used to paint the buildings, inside and out. Or perhaps we might more properly say that the buildings share their colours with Albers’ tapestries? Some of the designs with the closest colour affinity date from 1925, the year before Gropius’s Bauhaus was inaugurated.

Closing the day at Fieger’s Kornhaus, low light coming across the Elbe through the glass wall of the curved dining room makes a shadow play on the walls. As night falls, the globe lamps on their stubby red arms cast rosy reflections onto the walls behind. The glass sparkles in its metal window frames. This building bathed in evening sunshine is not white but golden. 

Main image: Anni Albers, Design for Wall Hanging, 1926, gouache on paper, 30 x 22 cm. Courtesy: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, DACS, London and Museum of Modern Art, New York

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.