The Bauhaus’ unknown director and the power of collaboration
WHILE THE EXHIBITION L'ESPRIT DU BAUHAUS CURRENTLY ON SHOW AT THE MUSÉE DES ARTS DÉCORATIFS IN PARIS IS GENERATING A PASSIONATE DEBATE  AROUND THE CONTRASTED HERITAGE OF THE GERMAN INSTITUTION, IT IS WORTH EXAMINING THE ROLE THAT HANNES MEYER - THE SECOND DIRECTOR OF THE BAUHAUS - HAD IN SHAPING THE SCHOOL’S PHILOSOPHY AND HOW HE WAS THWARTED AT THE TIME AND THEN ALMOST FORGOTTEN UNTIL RECENTLY.
"I never design alone. All my designs have arisen from the very start out of collaboration with others. [...] The more contrasted the abilities of the individual members of a designing brigade, the greater its capabilities and creative power…"
Born in Basel (Switzerland) in 1889 and trained as a mason and a construction draughtsman, Meyer started his career as an architect before entering the Bauhaus in 1927 as a professor of the newly established Building Department.
It was already in 1928 that he was appointed Director of the school by Walter Gropius. A position that he held for only two years (until 1930), but during which he was able to highly question the ethos of the institution.
Calling for a radical reorganization of the political and educational values of the Bauhaus, Meyer pushed for a new perspective on architecture and design, where the focus of the school would be - in an open critique to Gropius’ vision - “the people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!”.
Profoundly convinced that design could be used as a powerful tool for a more equal society, he introduced subjects such as technology, humanities and natural sciences to a previously largely arts based programme.
For two years the “Volkswohnung” (People’s flat) became the leitmotif of the school’s pedagogy, while the projects of the students had to be “based on society”.  His directorship resulted in a wide range of works: from minimal furnitures - in which the greatest economy in form, construction and materials was achieved - to vast architectural and planning projects - such as the ADGB school building, in Bernau near Berlin.
However, his political views - admittedly Marxist - had such a strong effect on the students, that part of the staff started to worry that the school could pay high repercussions. It was for this reason that, in the beginning of August 1930, Walter Gropius - together with the Lord Mayor of Dessau - decided to dismiss Meyer for “communist machinations” without notice and chose Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as his successor.
Kicked out of his own school, Meyer emigrated first to the Soviet Union - where he was responsible for extensive city planning projects (1930-36) - and then to Mexico - where he became Director of the Institute for Urban Development and Planning, at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City (1939-41).
Meyer returned to Europe in 1949 and died in Switzerland in 1954. His extensive work remained almost unnoticed until recent times. As sharing communities, co-housing projects, cooperative architectures and other forms of collective life and design are coming back, contemporary researchers start to understand that Meyer’s ideals and his concepts about collaborative processes was particularly revolutionary for his time.
1. Portrait of Hannes Meyer, by Erich Consemüller © Stephan Consemüller; 2. Workshop chair designed by students at Hannes Meyer's Bauhaus in Dessau, 1929 © Bauhaus Archive; 3. Bauhaus students protesting the dismissal of Hannes Meyer, 1930 © Bauhaus Archive; 4. Hannes Meyer with two students, sitting on the balcony of the Bauhaus building, 1928 - Photo © Umbo (Otto Umbehr), Bauhaus Archive Berlin;
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