What role does architecture play in choreographing performance – both the actions of the performer, and the reception of their audience? How do the spaces we inhabit affect our movements and behavior? For six weeks this summer, I had the opportunity to live at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, and while I was there, these questions concerned me in a very immediate and material way.
Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius built Dessau’s Meisterhäuser, the visionary double homes he designed to house the school’s avant-garde professors and their families, in 1925-26. At the same time, Gropius was also constructing the main Bauhaus building a few blocks away in Dessau. He was invited to do so by Dessau’s progressive mayor, as Gropius and his new, modern school – freshly founded in 1919 – had just been ejected from their first home in Weimar. Yet these buildings were used by Bauhaus faculty and students only until 1932. Then, the Bauhaus was formally dismissed from the city by its right-wing government, which opposed both its experimental teachings and its modern, formalist style (not to mention the Communist convictions of then-director Hans Mayer, Gropius’s successor). During the Nazi period, the houses’ large glass windows, inspired by industrial architecture, were covered up so they looked more “traditional” and “decent.” Their white walls and colorful accents were painted dull brown so they wouldn’t stand out too much. Even after the residents and their experimental approaches to art and pedagogy were gone, the houses continued to project Bauhaus ideals of modern efficiency and clarity.
Gropius originally built three double houses for six masters and their families, plus one “Director’s House” for himself and his wife Ise, all in a row. That house and one of the masters’ houses were destroyed by bombs during the second world war, and all suffered from neglect as well as ideological suspicion under East German scrutiny. Yet this started to shift in the 1960s, when the German Democratic Republic began to celebrate its Bauhaus legacy. Interest from scholars, tourists, and design aficionados from around the world began to intensify after German reunification in 1989, and today, the houses and academy building sites are managed by the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation. One of them – the Oskar Schlemmer/Georg Muche house – is used for residencies. The other intact houses are open to the public as museums. The two houses that were destroyed, Gropius’s house and Moholy-Nagy’s house, were replaced in the early 2000s with modern buildings that gesture towards the original buildings’ outer forms without trying to copy them.
The intact houses have been subject to various renovations over the past near-century; some of these were hostile or indifferent to their origins as masterpieces by Gropius, while others attempted, with varying levels of precision, to reconstruct the way the houses looked back in the late 1920s. The most recent renovations, carried out in the past decade with forensic attention to detail, privilege the material history of the houses’ structures, but are less concerned with their fixtures, furniture, or use. In the Klee/Kandinsky house, for example, the Foundation’s preservationists reconstructed the paint colors chosen by the two artists, including a luminous (and distinctly non-Gropian) golden wall in Kandinsky’s living room. Yet the kitchen is empty of fixtures, the WC is appointed only for basic functionality, and the few items of furniture in the rooms serve the function of museum benches, giving tourists a place to rest. In the Muche house, where I lived, one bedroom has been painted a startling, reflective black on ceiling and walls, which Marcel Breuer apparently insisted would be a restful color for sleep. Muche disagreed, and chose instead to sleep in the larger bedroom next door, which features a built-in closet with three colorful doors. I was unable to test Breuer’s theory, as there is no bed now in the black room – nor was I permitted to use Muche’s closet.
Muche was the youngest of the early Bauhaus masters. He was a painter associated with the avant-garde groups Der Sturm and Der Blaue Reiter when Gropius invited him to join the Bauhaus in 1919. Though he is not as well-known as his illustrious neighbors Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and, of course, Gropius himself, Muche was an important figure of the Bauhaus’s early days. For the its 1923 exhibition in Weimar, he designed the “Haus am Horn,” the first Bauhaus building ever built. At the time, Muche had recently gotten married (to Bauhaus student El Franke), and was occupied with increasing domestic efficiency so as to free up the woman of the house for more intellectual pursuits. His belief that architecture and design might usher in social emancipation was very much in the Bauhaus spirit.
For many visionary architects of the twentieth century – Gropius certainly included – architecture held revolutionary potential to change society. Inherent in the Bauhaus’s idealism was the belief that design might transform people’s lives – both the everyday choreography of living, as well as larger social structures, of which daily activities are the building blocks. The design of the Meisterhäuser reflect this belief in architecture’s social power in many large and small ways. Some of these are obvious to casual observers – for example, the generously-sized balconies and terraces that give residents access to fresh air, or the small kitchen, designed to be efficiently and comfortably administered by a single person (presumably the lady of the house, or possibly a maid).
The potential for this new way of life was reflected in a short film made 1926-1928 in which Gropius’s wife Ise demonstrates the modern functionality and comfort of her modern home, along with its state-of-the-art furnishings and gadgets. Modern living, so the film demonstrates, has a distinctly performative character. Ise Gropius lifts up the armchair designed by Marcel Breuer, to show her guests how lightweight and, therefore, easy to rearrange her furniture is. With the help of her maid (Gropius’s vision was a distinctly bourgeois one, which was a source of tension for his more radical colleagues), Frau Gropius transforms a daybed into a sofa. The household fixtures also “perform”: built-in table surfaces and cabinets open in multiple directions for ease of access, and modern appliances are brought to life by electricity.
Other aspects of Bauhaus life, however, only became evident to me after I spent time living in the house. For example: The almost dizzying number of doors. Gropius clearly intended for the Meisterhäuser to be highly customizable, and perhaps even on a daily basis. The living room and dining room can be closed from each other, or opened into a single, large space. Each also opens to the central foyer, and the dining room also opens to both the kitchen and the back terrace. Upstairs, the bathroom opens into two bedrooms, as well as the hallway. Presumably, Gropius wished to provide easy access to all the house’s inhabitants – since there are three bedrooms on the second floor – but when all three doors are open, it can be very difficult to maneuver. I found myself moving differently throughout the house depending on the configuration of open and closed doors. Clearly, Gropius intended the house’s inhabitants to choose their own paths, but instead, I felt that the house was choreographing me.
Surely many people have daydreamed about living in a museum. Many U.S. American children, myself included, grow up reading E.L. Konigsburg’s 1967 novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about a young brother and sister who secretly take up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and end up solving an art mystery. The reality, however, was not quite like living in a modernist fairytale. The Foundation focused on restoring the buildings’ structure and substance, not their interior decoration, so the Muche House doesn’t look the way it did back when Bauhauslers lived there. Furnishings are simple and sparse, a sometimes odd mix of handsome (if austere) designs by Marcel Breuer and plain, functional fixtures from IKEA. The house was designed to be lived in as a home, but renovated to be exhibited as a museum, so it isn’t suited to certain everyday activities. For example, I used a lamp cable to hang my laundry to dry when I couldn’t find anything else. I was not to touch the walls, nor to use the lovely balconies. In general, one has to tread lightly when living in a UNESCO World Heritage site. (I mean this quite literally; I was asked to wear slippers to protect the original floors.)
In short, I didn’t feel that I was living in the house the way it was intended to be inhabited. The structure had been conserved, but not the fixtures and homey touches that were also an essential part of performing the Bauhaus way of life. Of course, it was still a privilege to experience the house in such a profound and unusual way. I’m sure many people are curious about what it might be like to live there. In fact, I know they are, because I frequently saw them peeking through the windows.
Because the Meisterhäuser are a major tourist site – and because all of the houses, which are nearly identical, are accessible to the public except for the one I lived in – it’s understandable that visitors treated the place like a museum, rather than a private residence. With tourists constantly peeking through the house’s large windows, and even trying to enter through the doors, I felt very much on display. People were curious about the interior, and about my life there. Intentionally or not, I was performing the Bauhaus. I wondered if I shouldn’t put on a 1920s suit and give tours in character as Walter Gropius. It would only have been a step or two further than the performance I was already giving, which was shaped by the house’s architecture, its preservation needs, and the crowds of tourists that came through every day.
It was also odd encountering miniature models of “my” house all throughout Dessau – in the main building of the Bauhaus, in the museum downtown, near the info-desk for Gropius’s Törten-Siedlung, and even in the Kandinsky/Klee house next door. With their clean lines and simple geometric forms, the Meisterhäuser already look a bit like models of themselves. Looking down at a facsimile of my own living space through the plexiglass of a vitrine, I almost expected to catch a tiny version of myself peeking through one of the miniature windows.
The small white models reminded me of the mazes used by scientists to test the behavior of lab rats. Was I, too, a subject in the experiment of modernism? Or was I just an animal in a zoo? Lyonel Feininger, who would have been my next-door neighbor nearly one hundred years ago, apparently had a very similar feeling. The Meisterhäuser still look so modern and striking today; they must have been a shocking spectacle when they were first built, and even though they weren’t yet museums or registered monuments, they were still marvels of modern architecture, and they regularly drew tourists out for a Sunday stroll. A letter Feininger wrote to his wife in 1927 registers complaints that I easily could have written myself:
“Der Sonntag ist mir ein gefürchteter Tag ohnehin; aber diese Menschen, die unablässig von früh bis spät vorüberschlendern und vor unseren Häusern glotzend stehen bleiben! (von denen zu schweigen, die in den Garten kommen und in die Parterre-Fenster gucken). Die Öffentlichkeit, die so auf einen hereinbrandet, ist furchtbar.“
“I dread Sundays anyway; but these people who stroll by incessantly from dawn to dusk, stopping to gawk in front of our houses! (not to mention those who come into the garden and peep into the first floor windows). It’s terrible how the public crashes in on one.”
Feininger comes across as rather grumpy in the letter; is a little public exposure really such a high price to pay for living in one of the most important buildings of the twentieth century? But now that I have experienced for myself what it feels like to live in a museum, I completely understand his exasperation. It seemed like the tourists who incessantly strolled by felt entitled to observe my life in the house – to treat it like a performance. And having read his letter, I came to understand that this unnerving sense of being on display belongs inherently to life at the Bauhaus. After living in the Muche house for six weeks, I began to think of physical relationship to the architecture as part of its legacy. Though the house’s renovation privileged its material traces, this “performance,” too, is something worth keeping alive
And by the way: You too can perform Bauhaus life in Dessau – by staying the night in the Prellerhaus, the former students’ quarters, with their iconic balconies. One of the rooms there is “restaged” to resemble the typical furnishings that would have been used back in the early days.
All photographs by the author unless otherwise noted.
 Letter from Lyonel Feininger, 1927. Quoted in: Claudia Perren and Alexia Pooth, eds. Gropius Haus Zeitgenössisch. Bielefeld: Kerber, 2019.