Carl Fieger - the Man behind Walter Gropius
Four preliminary designs exist by him for what is probably the most famous building in Bauhaus architecture, the Bauhaus School in Dessau.
What do we know about the architect and designer who preferred to work behind the scenes “with no ambition to step into the spotlight“? He was camera-shy too: this photo shows him in a dark work coat in Walter Gropius’s construction office and is one of the few of him that exist.
Carl Fieger was born in 1893 and studied structural engineering and interior design at the School of Arts and Crafts in Mainz. When he was 18, he went to Neubabelsberg near Potsdam and in 1911 began work as a draughtsman in the renowned architectural firm of Peter Behrens, one of the most influential German architects of the early 20th Century.
Many architects who later achieved fame trained in Behrens’ studio, and this is where the young Fieger met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius.
Behrens, who made his name as an art nouveau artist, was one of the founders of the German Werkbund, which played a crucial role in preparing the way into the modern age.
"Form follows function" – this famous statement by Luis Sullivan, the first great American skyscraper architect, became the design principle of the Werkbund. Decoration and ornamentation were at the time still part of the functional approach.
And that is why there are some wonderful embellishments in Carl Fieger’s initial furniture designs for this monumental prestige building ...
Built in 1911-12, the Imperial German Embassy in St. Petersburg – today a city administration building – was intended in the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II to represent Prussian architecture. It is not by coincidence that its red-grey granite facade with its row of columns is reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
The shell construction was overseen by Mies van der Rohe, who, as a young site manager at the time, still went by the name of Ludwig Mies. Carl Fieger worked on the interior design and in his coloured drawings displayed his remarkable talent ...
... for showing rooms in perspective and bringing out the different fabric textures, as we can see in this residential hall with a double staircase, three arcade windows of room height ...
... console tables with lidded vases ...
... and a panelled ceiling with plain light bulbs.
Carl Fieger first joined the firm of the ten years older Walter Gropius in 1913 as an interior designer and furniture designer and worked on some of the major projects of that time. In 1920 he went to Weimar with Walter Gropius, who had founded the Bauhaus School there with the aim of bringing all the artistic and craft disciplines together to create a unified work of art – the great building.
At the same time, Fieger was working as a freelance typographer and designer. He was experimenting with fonts and the ideal ratio of script to image and designing company logos.
In just such a Cubist-Expressionist form Fieger drew this basket chair on spherical feet, fully in the spirit of the Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 – “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all go back to our handcraft”.
In 1920-21 Fieger worked on the designs for the Sommerfeld House in Berlin, the first joint project undertaken by the private construction firm of Walter Gropius, who ran it with the architect Adolf Meyer, together with the Bauhaus workshops.
It was also the Bauhaus and its protagonists who provided what were now the crucial aesthetic impulses for Fieger’s work.
As the Gropius-Meyer private architectural firm was based in the premises of the Weimar Bauhaus, Fieger got to know the work of Marcel Breuer, who was at the time still a carpentry apprentice, and adapted his geometric forms for his design for a house interior.
From 1922 Fieger turned increasingly to architecture. His own design for an administrative building for the Chicago Tribune newspaper was his commitment to a new plain and functional style of architecture.
Influenced by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, this design reflected the current trends at the Bauhaus, which interpreted "form follows function" as "doing away with all ornament".
Steel, glass and concrete were the new building materials of the age. The skeleton construction of the building and the glass cube fronting it prefigured the striking Curtain Wall of the later Bauhaus building. In the end, Fieger did not submit this design for the competition, presumably because the firm of Gropius and Meyer was taking part in it with a similar project.
The architecture Fieger designed as an independent architect is innovative. His ‘double house for doctors’ was never built, but was nonetheless included in the prestigious standard textbooks of modern architecture and Gropius also published the design in his Bauhaus series.
Two intersecting cubes of different sizes and their apertures are intended to make different room functions apparent from the outside. Projecting sun roofs are characteristic construction details. An unusual feature are the strip windows, which are set deep in the walls and run round corners where they are broken only by a narrow window bar.
This design for a round house built from standardised components was also spectacular and unusual. There was a huge housing shortage in 1924 and Fieger called for a new type of house that could be industrially manufactured and built in series.
"We need today to invent the house incorporating all modern technical achievements, and that must be cheap enough to be affordable for the majority of those who need housing.”
At 70 square metres it offered room for an entire flat.
Nearly 100 years after it was designed, Fieger’s round house could be seen for the first time to the original scale in 2018 as an inflatable airdome. The model was made in PVC from the historical designs for the exhibition "Carl Fieger: From Bauhaus to Building Academy".
For political reasons, Gropius took the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau in 1925, and so the private firm moved there as well. Carl Fieger went with him and that is where met his future wife, Dora Sommer. Fieger was now crucially involved in the creative development of project designs and as such was involved in drawing up the fundamental organising idea of the new Bauhaus building complex. The function of each part of the building was intended to be visible from the outside and realised by means of differing heights and facade details.
The most spectacular part of the building is the glazed workshop section. The facade, known as the Curtain Wall, hangs like a skin of glass with a grid of steel glazing bars, seemingly weightless on the load-bearing reinforced concrete skeleton construction.
Fieger was against the idea of a fixed, defined layout, and called for multi-functional room use. Here are 40 m² for day and night, arranged using separating walls and a folding bed.
In his design of 1926, the model is symmetrically rotated and accentuated in striking colours.
The interior design included built-in cupboards which were used as flexible room dividers.
The wooden bedroom furniture is modular. Orange, grey and white reinforce the geometric forms.
Fieger also experimented with curved tubular steel and designed for himself this armchair with runners and conventional legs. In this he is clearly responding to Marcel Breuer‘s B3 club chair design, although Fieger’s arm rests seem disproportionately large.
The Glass Terrace offers an open view over the landscape and, in the spirit of Walter Gropius, is able “weightlessly to overcome the suspended torpor of the world“.
Fieger’s draft design shows an imposing, axially-symmetrical two-storey building.
The surviving drawings bear witness to Flieger’s intention to make this excursion restaurant into a mission combining all the arts – a “Gesamtkunstwerk“.
The architect also designed furniture, interior furnishings and colour arrangements.
“His skill and dexterity in architectural representation were amazing and unequalled. We beginners admired him when he used both hands at the same time to conjure charcoal perspectives that nobody was able to imitate.”
In 1928 Walter Gropius gave up his position as Director and moved his architectural firm into his twelve-room flat in Berlin. Fieger, too, left the Bauhaus with Gropius.
Carl Fieger became seriously ill in 1953 and returned to Dessau, where he died in 1960 at the age of 67. His wife lived until her death in 1987 in the Fieger House with the furniture he had designed. She left the estate to the Bauhaus.
In the 1960s a committed city archivist in Dessau called for the city to buy Fieger’s house, but this never happened. Today the house is privately owned, hidden behind high hedges, and cannot be viewed.
After Walter Gropius emigrated via England to the USA in 1934, Fieger kept in touch with him by letter. They never saw each other again.
Text / Concept / Realisation: Astrid Alexander
Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt
Based on: Carl Fieger. Vom Bauhaus zur Bauakademie. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung im Bauhaus Dessau 22.03 bis 31.10.2018. Herausgegeben für die Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau von Claudia Perren und Wolfgang Thöner. Text von Uta Karin Schmitt, Edition Bauhaus 52, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld/Berlin 2018
© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau