Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer

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.

Hannes Meyer (1889-1954)

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.

The ADGB Building, built 1930.

Thanks to Thorsten Klapsch for photographing this important building.

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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.

The Dessau Törten apartments in 1930.

A plan of an apartment at Dessau Törten.

Unlike Walter Gropius, who designed the earlier sections of the same development, Meyer based his building layout on an orthagonal street grid to ensure equal lighting for every apartment. Each housing block is aligned east-west, with the access balconies on the north side.

All living room and bedroom windows are on the south side.

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.)

8 thoughts on “Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer

  1. Josh

    I got out the only book in the whole uni library on Meyer after reading this post some months ago, ‘Hannes Meyer: Buildings, projects, and writings’. It was published 10 years after Meyer died, not sure if you have read it, Graham, but it has some interesting and very ‘misfits’ accounts of lectures and projects by Hannes.

    Glad i saw this post, which introduced me to HM and sparked at least a little new interest in architectural history.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Hannes Meyer, Marxist and modernist (1889-1954) | The Charnel-House

  3. thomaswensing

    Mies van der Rohe never sold out because his position was never socialist or communist to begin with. The transposition of the New Objectivity or, more generally European modernism, to the US has been problematic from the start. In Europe a lot of architects were not happy with the fact that Hitchcock and Johnson labelled their efforts as stylistic, aka they called everything with a flat roof the International Style, and largely ignored the social program of many European architects.
    People like Meyer treated architecture more as a result of economics and scientific insights. The group around Meyer did not like the work of Corbusier and his Five Points (roof garden, pilotis, free plan, free facade) as they felt it fixed modern architecture into a formal position. The prescriptive formal solutions of Corb were seen as the death knell to the development of architecture. The first CIAM congress (1928) for instance was dominated by the German, Swiss and Dutch and has therefore a much more Marxist and activist stance as the subsequent congresses dominated by Corb.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I only read “The International Style” recently and was quite shocked. Previously, I’d just accepted that Johnson & Hitchcock had “downplay” or “largely ignored” the social program of European modernism so I was appalled to see how they deliberately and tactically neutered and sanitised it for American consumption and (somewhere along the line, I imagine) their own personal agendas. I would not have been happy either. As for Corb, I’ll side with Karel Teige: “A flat roof or steel furniture can never be regarded as the ultimate goal of avant-garde architecture”.

      Reply
      1. thomaswensing

        I love that one by Karel Teige, one of my favourites. As for Johnson – what to expect from someone who actually followed the Nazis as a journalist in their invasion of Poland? He wrote glowingly about the eviction of Jews from their villages, sickening. He is so tainted – I don’t know where to begin.
        See Joan Ockman in “The Constancy of Change”. What does it say about American society that he was re-instated as the pope of architecture after the war? So after he built a synagogue in the 1950s everything is well again?
        I am glad you focus on some of the ‘forgotten’ names on your blog. People just don’t know these things. On the other hand the left isn’t innocent either; did you know that the Communist in Stuttgart city council voted against the Weissenhof Siedlung because it was proposed by the Socialists, and it was supposedly too middle-class?

  4. eric chavkin

    Meyer vrs Mies

    While at SCI_ARC I once had the pleasure to meet a old ex-Bauhaus student of Hannes Meyer . He loved Meyer and then compared him Mies. His example was the design and cost of chairs. A chair designer while Meyer ran the school would be equivalent to a $11 to make today; by comparison a Mies designed chair would cost $1100.

    eric chavkin

    Reply
  5. Pika-Pi

    I have a question, why didn’t Mies van der Rohe allow any supporters of Hannes Meyer to attend the school when he took over it?

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hannes Meyer happened to be a member of the Communist Party and, because of the political situation in Germany at the time, Communists were seen as – shall we say? – troublemakers. This is always given as the reason, but we will probably never know the full truth. Mies van der Rohe was not particularly political. (Philip Johnson was to later say that Mies would have worked for Hitler if only Hitler had liked flat roofs.) When Mies van der Rohe got rid of Meyer and his supporters, it’s quite likely that Mies van der Rohe was aware of, or perhaps responding to, pressure from some outside source such as the local Nazi Party. Without going too much into the place of the Communist Party in pre-WWII European politics, one of their general beliefs was that “the workers” should have control of the means of making things and should share in the benefits. This was the opposite of the system where people such as architects made products for wealthy people to enjoy. This is, more or less, the system we have today. But I don’t think Mies van der Rohe worried too much about this. He just followed the money and went to America and had a fairly successful career designing for “corporate America”. Some might say he “sold out” but, again, I don’t think he worried too much about it. Ultimately, Mies van der Rohe became famous and Hannes Meyer didn’t. We can conclude from this that Mies van der Rohe was very good at creating buildings for America’s new wealthy clients.

      Reply

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