Films, exhibitions, symposia, books, articles: the anniversary of the opening of The Bauhaus turned out to be a small but lucrative academic industry. The Bauhaus are more celebrated now than at any point since the design school opened its doors in 1919. This art and architecture collective led by the Masters (as they called themselves) Walter Gropius, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and eventually Mies van der Rohe, designed very little during their run from 1919 until 1933 when the National Socialists closed their doors. And as every history of the movement will quickly remind us, the Nazis did not appreciate the Bauhaus. But the record of admiration in other direction is far less clear. Not only did Gropius and Mies collaborate in various ways with the Nazis (a well-established part of the record), but biological determinism was at the core of Bauhaus thinking and practice. What is most striking is how academics have learned to love this particular moment in modernist history, while refusing many others, without taking their racially charged biological commitments seriously. Every scrap of writing, theoretical treatise, painting, photograph, design, architecture is saturated with a vision of human biology that is not only suspect but reactionary.

It is one of the most repeated claims about modernism to say that, as Bauhaus scholar Kathleen James-Chakraborty says, “its goals of transforming society if not art [went] largely unachieved.”[1] Those endless plans and manifestoes for revolutionizing everyday life went unfulfilled. The aesthetic revolution was never followed by the predicted social one. For some, this is a lament, but for most, the failure of big social plans saved us from tyranny. Aesthetic revolution preserves the thrill of the new without all the dead bodies. Love it or hate it, everyone seems to agree the dreams of modernism never became reality. But that story is incomplete, at best.

A better way to tell the story of modernism is to see how, for some, art was politics, and politics was a waste of time, or worse. Le Corbusier spelled this out when he asked at the end of Towards an Architecture, “Architecture or revolution?”[2] His point was to say if your houses and factories were pleasant and well-ventilated, then the masses would have no need, no desire, to revolt. Le Corbusier, it turns out, was comfortable with political engagement even if it did not include architecture. Things were different at the Bauhaus. True to their convictions, at the Bauhaus, architecture (all the arts fell under that banner) replaced any kind of collective politics.

Early on in his career Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, was worried that many workers failed to find a “satisfying occupation.”[3] It wasn’t so much the jobs that were the problem, it was the workplace. Architects needed to create spaces that would generate satisfaction, because happy workers meant soaring profits. From the “purely social point of view” it was essential that workspaces were “airy well-proportioned,” because when “the worker is happy, he will take more pleasure in his duties and the productivity of the firm will increase.” Gropius applauded those “enterprising owners” who hired modern architects as they have been “plainly deriving incalculable reward from their farsightedness.” It “pays in the long run,” Gropius insisted, to involve artists in factory production, because “not only have leading firms earned themselves a reputation for promoting culture but—equally important in business—have considerably increased their financial gain.”[4] Win-win. This was Gropius’ lifelong vision of the relation of art and politics and it was the lesson broadcast at the Bauhaus and beyond.

In the aftermath of World War I, Gropius teamed up with Bruno Taut, César Klein, and Adolf Behne to create the Arbeitsrat für Kunst or “Artist Soviet.” Taut announced their shared vision of “Socialism, in its non-political sense.”[5] Some Soviet! One of Taut’s favorite subjects was attacking political socialism to preserve the purity of “Christian Socialism,” what the Bauhaus called a few months later the “Cathedral of Socialism.” Here is Taut:

“But has the useful ever made us happy?—Profit and even more profit: Comfort, Convenience—Good Living, Education—knife and fork, railways and water-closets: and then—guns, bombs, instruments for killing!…Boredom brings quarrelling, strife and war: lies, robbery, murder and wretchedness, blood flowing from a million wounds….Preach the Socialist idea: “Get organized! and you can all live well, all be well educated and at  peace!”—As long as there are no tasks to be done your preaching will echo emptily….Harness the masses—for a gigantic task….A task whose completion can be felt to have meaning for all….—Boredom disappears and with it strife, politics and the evil specter of War….There will be no more need to speak of Peace when there is no more War.”[6]

Not surprisingly, Taut’s gigantic task was to build gigantic architecture (actually, on mountaintops). Gropius similarly affirmed the “cleansing effect of the war” as “necessary” for the new “type of life” to emerge.[7] Their colleague Erich Baron lamented the “filthy war…followed by a filthy peace! Both require a purging that boldly overcomes anything previously ‘self-evident.’…No life arises without death.”[8] It was on these terms that Gropius praised the “pure idealism” of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht—they had the good sense to die for their cause—even if they were the “same as their rightist counterparts” in their misguided devotion to practical politics.

Adolf Behne wrote to Gropius to insist on their “independence from any party connection,” that it was essential for them to stay “far from party politics.”[9] Like Taut, Behne rejected practical Socialism in its entirety: “New social welfare organizations, hospitals, inventions, or technical innovations and improvements—these will not bring new culture.” For the “Art Soviet,” art could do what no politics ever could. “Glass architecture will bring the new culture,” Behne declared, precisely because politics never could.[10]

Gropius left the Arbeitsrat to open the Bauhaus, but as many commentators have noted, the Bauhaus manifesto carries over the terms of the Arbeitsrat. At the Arbeitsrat Taut welcomed a time when “Kings would walk with beggar-men…artisans with the men of learning.” Erich Baron affirmed the “‘People’ as an active and suffering embodiment of the inhabited earth, including emperor, king, gentleman, peasant, burgher, and beggar.”[11] This is the background for Gropius’ famous declaration in the Bauhaus manifesto to “create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist!”[12] Gropius takes aim at class distinctions, never class conflict. It was the “arrogance” of the barrier that concerned him, not the necessity for it. There is no sense that the Bauhaus had the slightest interest in ridding the world of either kings or beggars, or even the difference between artist and craftsman. It was not a matter of rich and poor, but of how the rich and the poor treated one another, their attitude toward one another, about the “arrogant”—not economic—barriers between them. The problem was classism, and the solution to that problem was class respect. “The level of cultural progress cannot be measured by how it climbs into higher classes,” Baron smugly declared.[13]

How different is this early view from the opening of Moholy-Nagy’s (well canonized) Bauhaus book The New Vision of 1928?

“Not only the working class finds itself in a position today; all those caught within the mechanism of the present economic system are, basically, as badly off….At best the differences [between rich and poor] are material ones….The revolutionist should always remain conscious that the class struggle is, in the last analysis, not about capital, nor the means of production, but actually about the right of the individual to have a satisfying occupation, a life-work that meets inner needs, a balanced way of life, and a real release of human energies.”[14]

Moholy reiterated Gropius’ 1913 view that the pressing problem was for the worker to have a “satisfying occupation.” Happy workers, or well rendered design, rendered socialism obsolete. Moholy never tired of clarifying that the “standard for architects” was not “economic class,” and it wasn’t form either, but rather the “biologically evolved manner of living which man requires.”[15]

Perhaps the most astonishing lapse in the literature on the Bauhaus is the lack of attention given to their vision of the biological. Virtually every major document generated by the Bauhaus is invested in a vision of what Moholy calls the “biological ABCs.” Moholy defines the Bauhaus educational program as “striving toward the timeless biological elements of expression which are meaningful to all people and useful to all people.”[16] If you satisfy those elementary biological needs—and that can be done with architecture—then the political problems dissolve.

In the later 1920s the Bauhaus and their colleagues sought to put these biological essentials into industrial production with their “minimum existence dwellings.” The new MoMA rehang luxuriates in this moment, featuring the “tiny kitchen” designed by Grete Schütte–Lihotzky. (Like the rest, this dream has become an unglamorous reality.) Gropius defined the minimum dwelling, combining mass production and health benefits, as the “elementary minimum of space, air, light and heat required by man in order that he [may] fully develop his life functions without experiencing restrictions due to his dwelling.”[17] As it turned out, humans didn’t need much at all to live. Gropius cited the work of contemporary hygienists who observed that with “good conditions of ventilation and sunlight, man’s requirements of living space from the biological viewpoint are very small.”[18] Gropius deduced a formula for the new house: “enlarge the windows, reduce the size of rooms, economize on food rather than heat.” If in the past people overestimated the “value of food calories in comparison to vitamins,” then the minimum dwelling was the vitamin exchange for the excess calories of “larger apartments.”[19] Under this broader social-diet regime—smaller dwellings, bigger windows; fewer possessions, more air and light; less food, more vitamins—Gropius affirmed that the “individual and his independent rights” will replace the “economic plight of urban populations.”[20] Less socialism, more individual—that is, libertarian—rights.

The bio-determinist outlook of the Bauhaus cut across all styles, periods, and individual differences and carried over into the work done in the United States. Not surprisingly, those “timeless biological elements” included race. Johannes Itten—the defining character of the first phase of the Bauhaus—was explicitly racist. In 1921 he designed his plan for the House of the White Man and he and his colleagues published essays celebrating the fact that “the white race represented the highest level of civilization.”[21] Virtually every narrative of the Bauhaus stresses the difference between the early Expressionist phase at the Bauhaus—the period dominated by Itten—and the arrivals of Oskar Schlemmer and Moholy-Nagy in 1922 and 1923, which mark the second, industrial-technological phase of the Bauhaus. And yet what is the stylistic difference between the House of the White Man and the celebrated Haus am Horn by Georg Muche built in 1923? Is Itten’s instinctive racism any different from Gropius’ and Moholy’s “scientifically” inflected account of race? After all, at the same moment Itten was removed, Gropius and his colleagues were busy courting racist industrialists for jobs by appealing to their racism. Here is the collective Bauhaus letter to Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst of 1923: “We make our appeal to yourself, who have the privilege of living in the Land whose population today is in the act of taking the reins of Leadership of the White Race into its grasp.”[22] Gropius was in fact a virulent anti-Semite, and its class character is evident from the start. Here he is during World War I:

“We can fight battles as much as we want to but the weaklings and the pigs at home will destroy everything we achieved. The Jews, this poison which I begin to hate more and more, are destroying us. Social democracy, materialism, capitalism, profiteering—everything is their work and we are guilty that we have let them so dominate our world. They are the devil, the negative element.”[23]

What is crucial to notice here is the equivalence drawn between “social democracy” and the “Jews,” as his political program is identical to his views on biology, and biology is at the center of the Bauhaus project at large.

There is plenty to show that Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer held similarly virulent anti-Semitic views. Arnold Schoenberg, once a close friend to Kandinsky, wrote to him in 1923 wondering aloud about the rumors of anti-Semitism at the Bauhaus, “I heard that even a Kandinsky sees only evil in the actions of the Jews and in their evil actions only the Jewishnesss.”[24] (In 1923 the Bauhaus set about to cleanse their ranks of Jews.) Schoenberg ended the friendship: “We are two kinds of people. Definitely!” As late as the 1960s, Ise Gropius, now living in Lincoln, Massachusetts, had this to say about her Jewish servants: “We never allowed them to come upstairs of course, because you know Jews, they always stink.”[25] Here the Gropius’s class politics matches up with their racism: presumably, the servants didn’t need to go upstairs, as they had maids for that.

The Bauhaus’ shared and sustained aversion to political socialism was inseparable from their vision of the “materialist” Jew. Well beyond their conspiratorial vision of the Jewish-socialist cabal, they shared the primitivist discourse of racial difference. Although it has gone utterly unremarked, Moholy in the New Vision notes how, in his courses, it is “interesting to observe…the differences in sensory training in different races. A Japanese, for instance, has doubtless a more active relationship to tactile values than a European. This difference was also evident in the touch exercises with blindfolded eyes. In contrast to his fellow-students, who usually attempted to ascertain what the material was by stroking it, Mitzutani danced his fingers on it.”[26] What is it that Moholy is seeing here? He is seeing how form is both generated by biology and responsive to different biological determinants. Germans, Japanese and Jews respond to the world differently; it is part of their “biological essentials,” and no politics can change that.

I won’t dwell on the well-researched subject of Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, and his ties with the Nazi party.[27] When confronted by the Nazis Mies held the Bauhaus party line as he declared to Alfred Rosenberg that “The Bauhaus has a certain idea, but this idea has nothing to do with politics.”[28] He meant, of course, socialist politics. He was trying to deflate the image of the Bauhaus as a Bolshevik-Socialist breeding ground. And there is no doubt the Bauhaus was perceived by authorities (and by academics) as having progressive political commitments. The problem is that scholars have been far too generous in accepting that perception. It’s as though the fact that the Nazis hated the Bauhaus tells us that the Bauhaus were in fact progressive. But Mies was absolutely correct: the Nazis had nothing to fear from the Bauhaus at the level of politics. (A side note. Academic consensus further insists that “when the [Bauhaus] aesthetic arrived in America, it lost its political character and became a metaphor for a better life.”[29] It would be closer to the truth so say the opposite. When modern architecture arrived into the United States, particularly along the West Coast, it carried a deeper set of Leftist commitments than its German precursors.)

Adolf Behne, in one of his many celebrations of the Bauhaus, was pretty clear about what having no politics in Germany in 1930 meant:

“No one can doubt that the new building methods as such question absolutely nothing about men or about human goals. Sing Sing [prison] will be built in as modern a way as a new market hall, a department store as fashionably as a new housing colony, and when a somewhat larger new prison becomes important for a new military—or maybe even a giant new factory for gas bombs, so they too will be truly modern.”[30]

Apologists want to call this opportunism, but one would be hard pressed to see it that way. More like determined affirmation of technocratic capitalism. This is the politics that defines the Bauhaus declaration of 1923, “Art and Technology—A New Unity.”

The Bauhaus, of course, were under the leadership of a socialist for two years in the later 1920s. No doubt Hannes Meyer was sincerely dedicated to leftist politics, and those politics inevitably put him at odds with the views of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, his successor as director of the Bauhaus. But it would be wrong to think that Meyer’s architectural vision was in any way at odds with the dominant commitment to biological determinism at the Bauhaus. Meyer continually spoke of the house as a “biological apparatus,” one based on the “careful study of every biological factor.” Meyer’s reputed functionalism was not based in the materially situated demands of client, materials, program or site, but rather on how a building could be “calculated according to a strict biological methodology.” At every turn, Meyer stressed that the new architecture “deliberately employed the results of biological research” in order to achieve verifiable results that bypassed the contingencies of changing social realities.[31]

So why do we continue to nurse the fantasy of Weimar art, the view that—in John Willett’s words—“Nothing emerges more clearly from a study of [art under the Weimar Repbublic] than that it was founded on a broadly socialist, and in many cases communist ideology”?[32] And if commentators have backed off a bit on asserting the intrinsically progressive nature of the Bauhaus they have doubled down on the “indeterminacy” of the Bauhaus project. Barry Bergdoll, writing in the New York Times, sustains the fantasy that the Bauhaus was “universally misunderstood.”[33]

According to Bergdoll, what we all fail to get about it is “the huge diversity of forms, ideologies, opinion and experiments.” In the overuse of the word Bauhaus to describe any vaguely modern stuff—like the word “Eames” on Craigslist or eBay—we fail to “understand how little ideological coherence the Bauhaus maintained.” For Bergdoll, what we have to see is how fractured it was during its lifetime and that “it was mutating and multiplying in its afterlife. For in the end the Bauhaus was a school, never a static style or a single-minded movement.” Style is one thing, single-minded—which it was—is another. For those authors not happy with the idea that the Bauhaus meant too many things to pin down one might go the theoretical route, as Juliet Koss does, and say that Bauhaus works were “insistently refusing to postulate a firm stance of any kind.”[34] Except every stance seemed to find its way back to the biological ABCs. Not at the level of style, which might change (Itten’s work often looks different from Moholy’s), but at the level of idea.[35] It was unwavering from beginning to end in its refusal of socialism and its commitment to bio-determinism, the latter served as the justification for the former. Now that the Bauhaus anniversary is over, we might begin the sobering work of taking their biological fantasies as seriously as they did.



[1] Kathleen James-Chakraborty, introduction to Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to The Cold War, ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xix.

[2] This is a chapter heading in Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Research Instiute, 2007), 291ff.

[3] Walter Gropius, “The Development of Modern Industrial Architecture,” in Form and Function: A Source Book for the History of Architecture and Design, 1890-1939, ed. Tim and Charlotte Benton with Sharp (London: The Open University Press, 1975), 54.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bruno Taut, The City Crown, trans. Matthew Mindrup and Ulrike Altenmüller-Lewis (Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), 83.

[6] Bruno Taut, Alpine Architecture, trans. Shirley Palmer, ed. Dennis Sharp (New York and Washington: Praeger, 1972), 125-26.

[7] Walter Gropius, quoted in Reginald Isaacs, Gropius: An Illustrated Biography of The Creator of the Bauhaus (Boston, Toronto, London: Bulfinch, 1991), 64.

[8] Erich Baron, “Aufbau,” in Taut, The City Crown, 122.

[9] Adolf Behne, quoted in Richard Pommer, “Mies van der Rohe and the Political Ideology of the Modern Movement in Architecture,” Mies van der Rohe, ed. Franz Schulze (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 110.

[10] Adolf Behne, Die Wiederkehr der Kunst (Leipzig: Kurt Wolff, 1919), 65; translation mine.

[11] Baron, “Aufbau,” in The City Crown, 121.

[12] Walter Gropius, “Program of the State Bauhaus in Weimar,” in Hans M. Wingler, Bauhaus. Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, trans. Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Gilbert, ed. Joseph Stein (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1978), 31.

[13] Baron, “Aufbau,” in The City Crown, 116.

[14] László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, trans. Daphne M. Hoffmann (New York: Dover, 2005), 12.

[15] Ibid., 200.

[16] Ibid., 8.

[17] Walter Gropius, “Sociological Premises for the Minimum Dwelling of Urban Industrial Populations,” in Scope of Total Architecture (New York: Collier, 1970), 98.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 98-99.

[20] Ibid., 96, 95-96.

[21] Johannes Itten et al. quoted in Magdalena Droste, Bauhaus, 1919-1933 (Colonge, London, et al: Taschen, 2002), 32.

[22] “The Masters and Students of the Weimar Bauhaus to Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst and others,” trans. Lyonel Feininger, in The Bauhaus: Masters & Students by Themselves, ed. Frank Whitford with additional research by Julia Englehardt (Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1993), 153.

[23] Walter Gropius quoted in Nicholas Fox Weber, The Bauhaus Group (New York: Knopf, 2009), 39. Anni Albers—a rare Jew among Bauhaus colleagues—described her Jewishness as “that stone around my neck” and referred to other Jews as having “that dark side” (ibid., 359).

[24] Arnold Schoenberg, Letters, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, ed. Erwin Stein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 88.

[25] Quoted in Rebecca Watson, “Growing up in the Bauhaus,” Financial Times (April 5, 2019),

[26] Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision, 30.

[27] See, for instance, Elaine S. Hochman, Architects of Fortune: Mies Van Der Rohe and the Third Reich (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989). I do not mean to suggest that Mies’ career is reducible to fascist ideology. Unlike others among the Bauhaus, Mies may truly have been a political opportunist. That is, his biological commitments were ultimately less sincere than his aesthetic ones.

[28] Mies van der Rohe quoted in Franz Schulze, Mies Van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, new and rev. ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 153.

[29] Joseph Rosa, A Constructed View: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), 102.

[30] Adolf Behne quoted in Winfried Nerdinger, “Bauhaus Architecture in the Third Reich,” trans. Kathleen James-Chakraborty, in Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to The Cold War, ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty, 139.

[31] Hannes Meyer quoted in Hideo Tomita, “Hannes Meyer’s ‘Biological’ Concept and its Loosening Influence on Form,” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 7:2 (2008): 183.

[32] John Willett, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety, 1917-1933 (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 225.

[33] Barry Bergdoll, “What Was the Bauhaus?,” New York Times (April 30, 2019),

[34] Juliet Koss, “Bauhaus Theater of Human Dolls,” The Art Bulletin 85: 4 (Dec. 2003): 728.

[35] From the beginning Kandinsky insisted on the diversity of forms and its dissociation from a more stable underlying content. So while there are “many different, equally valid forms,” these forms are merely the “external expression of inner content.” Kandinsky, “On the Question of Form in Art,” Complete Writings on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), 237.