Gropius, Mies and Breuer headed to the US – but some Bauhaus alumnae disappeared into the USSR. Only now is their work coming to light, finds Owen Hatherley
The Bauhaus left Germany when Hitler came to power. Led by its director, the ‘Bauhausler’, as they are known, moved en masse to a young, optimistic country: an enormous land of vast plains and mountain ranges, and huge industrial cities stretching from the continental heartland to the Pacific coast. These Bauhaus exiles designed entire new cities, which would be visited by enthusiasts from around the world. They would even design the capital city of a new national home for the Jewish people.
The above might sound like it refers to what Bauhaus designers did when they emigrated to the US and Israel, but actually all the factual details are taken from Bauhaus émigrés’ work in the USSR. The director in question is Hannes Meyer, the Swiss socialist who held the job for two years in between Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (and who, notably, helped the Bauhaus turn a profit for the first time). The Bauhausler are not the famous names, but obscure architects like Bela Sheffler, Konrad Püschel, Philipp Tolziner, Tibor Weiner, Izrail Geimanson, Peer Bücking and Antonín Urban, who have fallen into obscurity, their work little known either in Germany or the former Soviet Union, with nary a famous work of architecture between them.
The great heartland industrial cities redesigned by the Bauhaus here are not Chicago or Detroit but Yekaterinburg, the regional capital of the Urals (and the fourth largest city in today’s Russia), and the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk; and it is the replanning of Vladivostok, a seaport on the Pacific close to China and Japan, rather than Los Angeles on the other side of the ocean, that we’re referring to. And the ‘capital city of a new national home for the Jewish people’ is not ‘Bauhaus Tel Aviv’, as its marketing still calls it (even though only one Bauhaus-trained architect ever built there), but Birobidzhan, the USSR’s Jewish Autonomous Republic on the Chinese border, which was founded by young enthusiasts at the start of the 1930s, and planned by none other than Bauhaus director Meyer.
It has been known for a long time that a ‘Bauhaus Brigade’ went to the USSR in the early 1930s, and that with them were other refugees from Germany’s descent into fascism, such as Bruno Taut, fresh from designing Berlin’s great mass housing projects, and Ernst May, who had done the same in Frankfurt. Mart Stam and Lotte Beese arrived from the Netherlands, while Andre Lurcat and, on several long visits, Le Corbusier himself came from France. But the Bauhausler – who were from across Europe, and were mostly committed communists – stayed longest and went deepest into the Soviet bureaucracy, designing a score of new cities as part of the Five Year Plans. Many of them would fall victim to Stalin’s xenophobic purges, when secret policemen were given quotas of victims from ‘suspect’ nationalities. But what we don’t really know is what they actually did. That’s where a remarkable photographic project, Bauhaus in Russia – Haunted Houses, comes in.
Part of the trans-national Bauhaus Imaginista project to mark the school’s centenary, Haunted Houses has been organised by the art historian Tatiana Efrussi and the Moscow-based photographer Yuri Palmin over the last two years, and entails tracking down the parts of Russian cities that were masterplanned or designed by members of the Bauhaus Brigade. When the images first appeared online this year, they were incredibly striking. Meyer once said that ‘as director of the Bauhaus, I fought the “Bauhaus style”’, and you can tell that from these photographs alright.
There are extremely few traces of the familiar Bauhaus design repertoire. The cold, beautifully detailed luxury architecture that other Bauhausler like Mies, Gropius and Marcel Breuer would take to the US is obviously missing, but just as absent are the more demotic white-walled, ribbon-windowed apartment blocks that would come to dominate Tel Aviv and Haifa. Instead, there are wooden houses, rusting factories, wastelands, blocks of prefabricated flats, kitsch reconstructed churches, dachas – the exurban landscape at the edge of every provincial Russian city. What could the Bauhaus have possibly had to do with any of this?
The photographs were the result of an open call, in which respondents were given the grid references of Bauhaus-planned areas. Sometimes, these were already familiar to people in those cities. Architect and historian Kirill Stepanov points out on the Bauhaus Imaginista webpage that in the decreasingly Jewish eponymous capital of Biriobidzhan, in Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, ‘Hannes Meyer has become an almost legendary figure. Love for the “beautiful word” [Bauhaus] and admiration for this exceptionally talented architect in part derives from our nostalgia for the unrealised project of building the first Jewish socialist city in modern history.’
There are in fact a couple of ‘Bauhaus style’ buildings in the city – but they aren’t by Meyer. What Stepanov documents are the scorched remains of the barracks that the first pioneers lived in, as this happens to be the place for which Meyer drew up his plans; as was common, these were heavily altered to the point of unrecognisability in the implementation. Another project, by the photographer Mikhail Ekadomov, shows the places in inner Moscow where an ultra-modernist new central district planned by Meyer, Geimanson and Bücking would have stood. It was never built, and the area is now full of churches that were reconstructed in the 1990s. The photographer calls the project ‘the pursuit of a phantom’.
There are, of course, plenty of modernist buildings of the late 1920s and early 1930s in the former Soviet Union, and some of them had Bauhaus input, like Moisei Ginzburg’s famous Narkomfin building of 1930, whose colour scheme was devised by the Bauhausler Hinnerk Scheper. Many Soviet figures, such as El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich, lectured at or published with the Bauhaus, and the VKhUTEMAS school in Moscow is widely recognised as the Bauhaus’s closest counterpart outside Germany. But the ‘Bauhaus Brigade’ had little to do with any of this. They arrived almost exactly as Soviet architectural ideology moved away from modernism and towards classicism, and a time when industrial change was so rapid and brutal that there was little room for refined aesthetics. Tatiana Efrussi points out to me that ‘the actual work of architects connected to the Bauhaus was carried out in the 1930s, and can hardly be connected to any well-known examples of “photogenic modern architecture”.’
But then, creating elegant, self-contained and photogenic works of architecture was not what Meyer wanted to do in the first place. On whether or not it’s possible to see Bauhaus ideas, as opposed to the Bauhaus style, in any of these images, with their overgrown green spaces, their sense of informality and accident, Efrussi is unsure. ‘Bauhaus students were also prepared to enter an almost anonymous world of modern collective architectural production,’ she reminds us. ‘Also, the Bauhaus was a personal network of those who went through this super-intense experience of life at something like an experimental art commune, and this network united the authors of very diverse works.’ But all of this was eventually ‘ephemeral’, and these qualities are hard to find in the images, unless you go looking for them.
One of the few places you can clearly see the ‘Bauhaus style’ is in Uralmash, a planned industrial suburb of Yekaterinburg, partly designed by Bela Scheffler; but you won’t find it in the strikingly ordinary, provincial classical technical schools in Nizhny Novgorod and Novokuznetsk, which are likely to have been designed by Antonín Urban. Both architects were arrested and shot during the Great Purge, in 1937-38. I asked Efrussi whether it’s fair to see the USSR as the place where the Bauhaus went to die. She points out that while there might have been awful tragedies for some, there were also much more mundane stories. Most architects survived (like Meyer and his close collaborator Hans Schmidt), and they ended up planning and building in a variety of styles across the communist world, from Berlin to Beijing and Pyongyang. One example is the case of Philipp Tolziner, who designed a large concrete panel estate in 1960s Vladivostok, which Efrussi points to as ‘a pleasant (even if too “ordinary” for locals) city space. So there is life, but perhaps indeed not that joyous.’
Efrussi sees the Haunted Houses series as a corrective to certain ideas of what happened when foreign modernists went to the USSR. Rather than seeing them as ‘victims or “lucid observers”’, she wants ‘to see their work as a part of Soviet architecture.’ Theirs ceases to be a story of a road not taken, exchanged for a more familiar journey to the West, but instead, it’s part of the story of the post-Soviet space. The ‘Bauhaus Brigade’, she says, ‘belonged to the context. Their buildings and projects shared the fate of many of their Soviet colleagues: decay, oblivion of authorship, transformations. In this sense they contributed to the post-Soviet city landscape of today’. Here, the Bauhaus fell to Earth.