If he is remembered at all, the architect Hannes Meyer is remembered inappropriately as the “third” director of the Bauhaus. He was actually the second director of the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius was first, from 1919 to 1927, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was third, from 1930 to 1933. Gropius and Mies van der Rohe are remembered and Meyer is not – which is a shame as Meyer was the best architect of the three.
The Bauhaus was never meant to be a school of architecture. It started as a school to ‘unite’ crafts and industrial processes by creating prototypes of objects that would be sold to industry for mass production and sale.
Under Gropius, buildings were only one part of a “total work of art”. Gropius left the Bauhaus and went to America to become King of Architecture at Harvard University and promote the Bauhaus way of teaching architects. This meant that architects were more like artists than engineers. This has had bad results for architectural education (as Bashar wrote about in his last post) and for architecture ever since. To put it simply, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (with Philip Johnson’s help) hijacked the history of architecture and led it in a direction that has not proven to be very useful at all.
Under Gropius, the Bauhaus was not very successful at making things people wanted, and it was only after Hannes Meyer became director that it finally made its first profit. It was Meyer who established architecture as a core subject, and it was also Meyer who was responsible for the Bauhaus’ two most important jobs – some apartment buildings in Dessau, and the Federal School of the German Trade Unions (ADGB) in Bernau. The ADGB building was restored in the 1980s and still looks like a modern building.
Whereas the buildings of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe have slipped into history and are just examples of what those architects once did, the principles that Hannes Meyer followed in 1930 are just as relevant today as they were then.
Hannes Meyer thought that architects should deal with real problems in real ways and to not pretend they were an artistic elite. For him, buildings had to be useful for people and for society. To him, what a building did and how comfortable it made the people who use it was the only thing that mattered. Functionalism was more than not wasting money on ornament or building more space than was necessary. For him, it meant an efficient structure and practical construction. It meant materials with properties that produced an environmental benefit for the occupants. ‘Environmental’ is still a very new for today’s architects but, back in 1930, Hannes Meyer considered the thermal and other properties of the materials he used. There is a famous quote on Wikipedia, about what he thought should determine a building. The worth of the building was in what it did and how well it did it.
“1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.”(Meyer, 1928)
It was a bit radical at the time and, even today, how well a building does the shelter thing is something we are still having trouble achieving. The Bauhaus style (not that they built much) was supposed to be inexpensive and functional. Corbusier took the idea of a machine and made it “arty” and was very successful. Mies van Der Rohe took the same idea and made it “expensive” and was also very successful. Meyer took the same and tried to make it socially useful and was forgotten by the history of architecture.
Below are some images of the other major project that he brought to the Bauhaus – a project for 90 low-cost apartments. According to the Bauhaus’ current website, Meyer’s motto of “putting the needs of the people before the need for luxury” was also adhered to in the balcony access houses and led to the construction of so-called “Volkswohnungen” (people’s apartments), which were rented by workers and employees on low salaries. The floor plans for the flats were markedly small. According to Meyer’s calculations of actual living requirements, 48 m² in three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom should be spacious enough for a family of four. While Walter Gropius consciously aimed, with his estates of terraced houses, to provide owner-occupied housing (for low-income buyers), the balcony access houses were rented out for the relatively low monthly sum of 37.50 reichsmark. … The tenants’ opinions of the balcony access houses were consistently positive – a point backed up by the fact that very few structural changes have been made to the houses to this day.
Hannes Meyer believed that buildings should enable people to get on with their lives comfortably inside them. Today, 80 years later, we are only just beginning to understand this, and how important it is for buildings to do the shelter thing really well.
We at MISFITS’ salute Hannes Meyer – Architecture Misfit No.1.
(See also The New Objectivity.)