The Controversial Director

By Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Under Hannes Meyer the Bauhaus enjoyed a very special period of flourishing. Yet this Director, who took over from Walter Gropius in 1928, rubbed people up the wrong way and was criticised. Why was that?

Thomas Flake and Hannes Meyer (during inspection of the building site for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau) (1928) by Erich ConsemüllerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“A difficult, even tormented person, who often went through changes.” (Hubert Hoffmann, student)

“He was always gushing with ideas and had to talk about them to somebody, it didn’t matter who.” (Gunta Stölzl, junior master)

“Hannes a disappointment (...) a pedant, a peasant and especially – not up to the job.” (Oskar Schlemmer, master)

Hannes Meyer while inspecting the building site for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau (1928) by Hermann BunzelBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Who was Hannes Meyer?

Like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe he was a Director of the Bauhaus, but to this day he is overshadowed by them. He was even ignored for a long time. It was not until 1965, eleven years after his death, that the first large monograph was published, and it was to take until his centenary in 1989 for Meyer’s life to be honoured in a comprehensive exhibition, which was shown in Berlin and Dessau among other places. This late reception has its reasons.

Bauhaus Dessau Building Department 1929. Hannes Meyer. Competition design trade union building in Jerusalem. Sections and views (1929, undated) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Hannes Meyer came from a family of architects and was born in Basle in 1889. After his father’s early death, he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. When he left school, he trained as a mason and building draughtsman and attended building courses at the school of craft trades.

By the time he founded his own architectural firm in Basle when he was 30, he had worked in various places, including with Emil Schaudt, the architect of the KaDeWe department store in Berlin, studied housing construction in Bath in England and planned the Krupp housing estate in Essen with the Metzendorf firm. In the 1920s he was one of the best-known architects of Functionalism.

He sympathised with socialist ideas from an early age. Even before the First World War Meyer was involved in land reform and cooperative movements which were seeking a middle way between Capitalism and Communism. In 1919 he joined the Swiss Cooperative Association and built its first communal estate, Freidorf near Basle. He lived there himself until 1926.

Untitled (Bauhaus building, Dessau, architect Walter Gropius, southwest view) (1931/1932) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meyer at the Bauhaus

In 1927 Hannes Meyer was appointed to the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius, to head the new building department. Up to that time Meyer had had no teaching experience at all, but even at an early age had taken an interest in Pestalozzi’s educational theories. Meyer adopted Pestalozzi’s model of small, actively learning groups or ‘cells’, and based his teaching on team work and self-organisation.

Four intertwined people (Bauhauslers on the terrace of the Bauhaus canteen with Hermann "Sven" Gautel (top) and Hin Bredendieck (bottom)) (ca. 1929) by Erich KrauseBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The idea was that the younger students should learn from the older ones and newcomers should learn from those with experience of building, in what were called vertical brigades. As Meyer preferred to confront his students with real projects rather than fictitious ones, he involved them in all the building contracts with which he was commissioned by the city or by private clients.

In architecture and planning, too, Meyer placed emphasis on team work. His motto was, “I never work on projects alone“. The architect was no longer to function as an all-powerful construction artist but was – like every other designer, intellectual and worker – nothing more and nothing less than a serving member of society. “the ‘architect’ is dead”, announced Meyer in a lecture – long live the creative team.

technical report trade union school in bernau (mark) for the allgemeiner deutscher gewerkschaftsbund (Sheet 3 of the competition entry) (April 1928) by Hannes MeyerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meyer’s approach to building projects was new as well. Architecture should develop out of the specific conditions of the location, and they had to be thoroughly analysed beforehand. Meyer introduced empirical studies at the Bauhaus – at that time something completely new in the training of architects. Today it is standard.

Untitled (Chimneys) by Reinhold RossigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“For instance, the students analyse the living conditions in workers’ houses on the margins of industrial areas – the direction wind, smoke and soot come from, the visibility conditions and the impact of dust from the street and traffic noise,” noted the guest lecturer Karel Teige at the Bauhaus at the time.

Portrait of Hannes Meyer (1928, ca. 1990) by Lotte Collein (née Gerson)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meyer as Director

A year after his appointment at the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius made him his successor as Director. It was not an easy legacy for Meyer to enter into. Income from the Bauhaus workshops, in which the students were not just trained, but also made products for industry, was far below expectations. And the building of the social housing estate in Dessau-Törten, planned as a model of cheap, social housing construction, proved to be much more expensive than conventional building.

"young people, come to the bauhaus!" (Double page from a Bauhaus advertising brochure) (1929) by Hannes Meyer (design)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

A new direction was needed in many respects, and Meyer proved to be the right man at the right time. He restructured the workshops, intensified contacts with industry – and he did a whole lot more too.

Bauhaus advertisement: kein schmuckes heim, glück allein [no ornamented house, pure happiness] - the 'people's apartment' exhibited by bauhaus dessau (1929)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

More for the people

The Bauhaus had departed from its idea of designing “for the people”, noted Meyer. The designs under Gropius were not for the broad mass of people but for an affluent middle and upper class. “People’s needs not luxury needs“, demanded Meyer now. The “people’s flat” became the statement of the reorientation of the Bauhaus under his leadership.

Laubenganghaus in Dessau-Törten, Peterholzstraße 40, interior model house, 2012 (2012) by Hannes Meyer (Architecture)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

In the "Laubenganghäuser" (houses with arbour walkways) with which in 1928 he extended the estate begun in 1926 by Gropius in Dessau-Törten, he demonstrated what design for the people was supposed to look like.

Untitled (bauhaus-wanderschau (Bauhaus Travelling Exhibition) in Zurich. Products from the weaving, wood, typography, sculpture and metal workshops) (1930) by Ernst LinckBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The furniture and products for the people’s flat should not be decoration but needed to be unconditionally useful, durable and affordable for everyone.

Tubular steel – so typical of the Bauhaus and yet too expensive for the ordinary worker – was hardly used any more under Meyer, or if so, then very sparingly. Wood was used instead. In addition, the furniture was to be light, flexible and collapsible.

Advertising poster for Bauhaus wallpaper (1932, undated) by Hubert Hoffmann (Hobby)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Bauhaus wallpaper, conceived specially for small flats with its understated designs, even became the Bauhaus bestseller.

Class with Alcar Rudelt, with students of the building department in front of the Bauhaus. From l. to r.: Heinz Nowag, Ernst Hegel, Hans Bellmann, Fritz Schreiber, Albert Kahmke, Alcar Rudelt (1932-05) by Stella SteynBauhaus Dessau Foundation

More knowledge

Meyer – “hugely well-read, completely at home in the latest scientific advances” (Hubert Hoffmann) – made sure as Director that the students came into contact more than before with the various sciences and academic disciplines and with different teachers. Philosophy, psychology and sociology were taught, as well as business management and economics. Meyer brought in more guest teachers than the other Bauhaus directors.

Bauhaus Dessau Vorkurs 1926/27. Oskar Schlemmer. Study on the subject "Man" (ca. 1927) by Konrad PüschelBauhaus Dessau Foundation

At Meyer‘s request, Oskar Schlemmer designed the course The Human Being (Der Mensch), which became compulsory for all third semester students. As well as figure drawing, it involved the teaching of psychology, philosophy and the history of ideas.

Houses with Balcony Access (1929-30), architect: Hannes Meyer and Bauhaus Dessau building department, 2011 (2012) by Hannes Meyer (Architecture)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meanwhile, Meyer showed how theory could be brought to bear in practice in his construction projects in which psychological concerns were given prominent attention. For example, he gave the houses arbour walkways in an attempt “to relieve the disadvantages of the conventional tenement”.

Untitled (Dessau-Törten housing estate, block with balcony access, architect Hannes Meyer with the Bauhaus building department, residents on a balcony walkway) (1930) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

In the arbour walkway, from which all the flats can be entered, the residents can meet each other “in public, like on a street pavement.”

technical report trade union school in bernau (mark) for the allgemeiner deutscher gewerkschaftsbund (Sheet 3 of the competition entry) (April 1928) by Hannes MeyerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Another groundbreaking concept is the design for the new German Labour Unions School in Bernau near Berlin, with which Meyer and his partner Hans Wittwer won the competition in 1928.

Here, the residential pavilions are connected by a generous glass aisle to avoid anonymous corridors like those in hotels. This created a space flooded with light, giving a view into nature and inviting people to linger.

Election demonstration in Leipzig (1928, ca. 1980) by Albert HennigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Fatal politicisation 

Where Walter Gropius managed during his time as Director to keep politics away from the Bauhaus as much as possible, there was a politicisation and radicalisation of the Bauhaus students under Meyer. The Bauhaus was split into communist and moderate factions.

Karl Marx. The Capital (1957) by Reinhold RossigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meyer himself never made any secret of his own political leaning and was increasingly radicalised from the cooperative movement to Marxism. This was his downfall, as he could not manage to orient the Bauhaus internally to his socialist goals while at the same time representing it to the world in a neutral fashion and manoeuvring it through the politically difficult times.

Send-off for foreign students deported in association with Hannes Meyer's dismissal. From l.: Bela Scheffler, Tibor Weiner, Anton Urban at the train station in Dessau. 1930 (1930) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Dismissed without notice

On 1 August 1930, Meyer was dismissed without notice by the Dessau city authorities for “communist machinations”, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was installed as his successor. It was inevitable that the dismissal of Hannes Meyer would become a major scandal.

Thomas Flake and Hannes Meyer (during inspection of the building site for the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau) (1928) by Erich ConsemüllerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

"And so I was cut down from behind. In the Bauhaus holidays of all times, when I was away from the Bauhaus members who stood close to me. The Bauhaus camarilla is cockahoop. The Dessau local press falls into a delirium of moral outrage. The Bauhaus condor Gropius swoops down from the Eiffel Tower and pecks at my directorial corpse, and on the Adriatic W. Kandinsky stretches out on the sand, relieved: It is done.”

Hannes Meyer at the Moscow University of Architecture WASI (from left to right: Hannes Meyer, Head of the All-Russian Central Institute for Technical and Industrial Newcomers, Mordvinoff, Works Council of the State University of Architecture, Bela Scheffler, Salamatin) (1931) by Hermann BunzelBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Meyer went first to the Soviet Union, where he taught at the Academy for Architecture among other places, and later went to Mexico. He broke with the Marxism of Western European intellectuals and became a committed Stalinist. This was the turning point that marked his break with his previous friends, including many Bauhaus people. In 1949 he finally returned to Switzerland, where he died in 1954.

Untitled (students on the terrace of the Bauhaus building, Dessau, behind the canteen. From l. to r.: Moses Bahelfer, Hilde Reiss, unknown, Jean Weinfeld, Selman Selmanagic, unknown) (1931) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The rediscovered Director

There are many Bauhaus members and historians who see the Meyer era as the heyday of the Bauhaus. Under Meyer the workshops were more successful, the students more motivated and the products more social. Meyer ensured more equality of opportunity by abolishing the aptitude test, improving earning opportunities for students …

… and admitting women into all the workshops as well as to the architecture course.

Untitled (Portrait Hannes Meyer) (undated) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

But his political commitment to Marxism and Stalinist Russia affected the reception of his work and contributed to his marginalisation in relation to the other two directors of the Bauhaus.

It is only in the last few years that the impact of Hannes Meyer has begun to be appreciated and researched. Our picture of him has become more differentiated, and Hannes Meyer as a human being has become more tangible. As Friedrich Engemann, at the Bauhaus first as a student from 1927 to 1929 and then as a teacher from 1929 to 1933, said recalling Meyer,

Beach tableau (myself with Lena Meyer-Bergner) (1931) by Hannes MeyerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“Perhaps the huge influence Hannes Meyer had on all of us – regardless of whether we agreed with him in this or that or not – lay in the fact that he let us see into his own inner searching, that he let us be part of the pro and contra that was going on within himself. For us, in the quite unusual way he taught and entered into discussion with us Hannes Meyer was a great and strong experience in being human.”

Credits: Story

Text / Concept / Realisation: Cornelia Jeske

Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske

Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Credits: All media
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