New Bauhaus Museum

Bauhaus Redux
As part of the new Bauhaus permanent exhibit in Dessau, Germany, the historic home of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee is surprisingly sparse. Aside from a few photos of the middle-aged artists posing with rakish smiles, the unadorned, recently refurbished building where they once lived and worked serves as a testament to the movement's functional "design for living" philosophy. Nestled among pine trees alongside the half-dozen other Masters' Houses that architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius built in the 1920s, the angular building features sprawling windows, spacious workshops, wine-red floors and pastel-green stairwells. It is the radiant symbol of an avant-garde movement whose activity was cut short—and one that people are now clamoring to rediscover.

With "Bauhaus Dessau: Workshop of Modernism," Germany looks anew at the explosive seven-year period between 1925 and 1932 that produced one of the seminal architecture and design movements of the 20th century. Founded in the democratic, anti-academic post-World War I atmosphere of Weimar in 1919, the movement shifted in 1925 to Dessau, where it flourished under a central tenet: that the ultimate aim of all creative activity is building. It celebrated a communal—almost utopian—philosophy that blended practical, utilitarian design with an organic esthetic aimed at bringing man into harmony with the modern, industrial age. There was controversy from the get-go; local authorities claimed the buildings "scarred" the landscape, while the Nazis called the structures "un-German" with "culturally bolshevist, Marxist-Jewish intentions." They forced the movement to disband in 1933, and, under decades of communist leadership following the second world war, the buildings fell into disrepair.

Even as recently as 10 years ago, there were no tours allowed through the neglected Kandinsky-Klee house—or its neighboring buildings, where Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy lived, among others. But since the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation renovated the homes starting in 2000, some 80,000 tourists have been pouring in annually. Half of those who visit the World Heritage Site—which includes the Bauhaus Building and its workshops, where the artists taught—now request guided tours, offered in six different languages. "All the ideas of the European avant-garde collected here," says Kirsten Baumann, the curator of the show.

The new exhibit focuses less on architecture than on the school's radical approach to learning, which blended art and technology, teachers and students, education and production. On display are Wilhelm Wagenfeld's renowned Bauhaus lamp (1924), Marcel Breuer's Wassily chair (1925-26) and a famous collection of ashtrays designed by Marianna Brandt. It's the first time such items can be seen in the place where they were produced, giving the luminous, jigsaw-shaped Bauhaus building renewed relevance.

Devotees will find it thrilling to stand where Kandinsky wrote his famous 1926 text "Points and Lines in the Plane," which helped to define abstract art, and where he introduced the primary color scheme. They can also see the rooms where Klee taught design courses in bookbinding, stained glass and weaving, telling his students: "It's not that making draftsmen or painters out of you is our first priority. But we must draw and paint together because these activities force us to come into contact with the essential laws of nature." As visitors today come into contact with Dessau's past, they aren't just stepping into buildings. They are traveling in the footsteps of those who once dared to dream them.