Ideas in practice

The Weimar palimpsest. Side notes on the competition for the design of the Bauhaus Museum

Weimar is a cities whose history, like in no other German city, concentrates its very powerful message in a small area, and its last 250 years have been recorded in both golden and black letters. In this city, fortunately spared by the war and with only a small amount of damage, relics of history can be found at every turn, despite the fact that the municipal authorities and tourist policy very much prefer an image of Weimar as the city of Goethe and Schiller. In Poland too, this image seems to dominate.In the context of the architectural competition for the design of the new Bauhaus Museum, the results of which were announced in July, it is worth our while to take a look at the history of the “Weimar palimpsest” and the place where the new museum building will be raised.

A visualisation of the design by Heike Hanada and Benedict Tonon which will be realised © Klassik Stiftung Weimar

Between 1572–1918 the city was the capital of a principality which in the 18th and 19th centuries went through its “golden and silver era”. Thanks to Princess Anna Amalia von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (it was she who created the wonderful library) and her son Carl August (1757–1828) the arts flourished here, especially literature. In 1775 the prince invited Johann Wolfgang Goethe to his court, and since that time, until the school of Walter Gropius left Weimar in 1925, the city enjoyed a period of almost uninterrupted cultural development. It is worth mentioning that in 1799 Friedrich Schiller settled here and in the 19th century Weimar became a haven for many musicians, among them Franz Liszt, who thus continued the tradition started by Johann Sebastian Bach. The mentally ill Friedrich Nietzsche spent his last years here, and the papers he left formed the core of the archives with his legacy. In 1897 the Silberblick Villa, beautifully located in the most elegant part of the city, for over forty years became a place of pilgrimage for researchers of his writings, and after 1933 it was particularly strongly engrained in the topography of Nazi Weimar. And the Kunstschule, founded in 1860 by Prince Carl Alexander, launched Weimar’s very complex – and cultivated until today – tradition in the domain of the fine arts. The tradition was embodied by the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) of Henry van de Velde, the later Bauhaus and the school founded in its place after Gropius moved to Dessau in 1925. A current heir of this tradition is the Bauhaus University, one of the most interesting architectural schools in Germany. The princely patronage gave Weimar not only a school of painting but also a magnificent collection of paintings. In 1867, Josef Zitek from Prague erected a neo-Renaissance building to house these works. The building was located on the peripheries of the city in that time, and connected to the railway station by way of a grand avenue. Later it was very unhappily included in the Nazi Gauforum complex.

In the early 20th century, on the initiative of Prince Wilhelm Ernst,* Weimar became a place of architectural reform, undoubtedly as part of the rivalry with the Hessen-Darmstadt Principality and the activities of its Prince Ernst Ludwig. In founding in 1899 an artistic colony on the Darmstadt Mathildenhöhe, composed of architects, painters, engravers and sculptors (overall more than twenty people at a time lived there), the ruler wanted not only “the Hessen Principality to flourish, but also the arts in it”. The main aim was to import the English model of “Arts and Crafts” to Germany and to develop a new style independent of the tradition of historicism. The artists received beautiful villas and wonderful ateliers, presented as fully furnished model houses at the first exhibition in 19011. The exhibition created a great stir and anticipated the undertakings of the “Deutscher Werkbund” founded in 1907. In view of all this it is not surprising that in 1902 the Weimar Prince commissioned Henry van de Velde to create the Institute of Arts and Crafts (initially as Kunstgewerbliche Seminar) and a year later asked Harry Graf Kessler to organise and run the princely museum. Both van de Velde and Kessler attempted to implement the great idea of art reform: van de Velde channelled the Weimar artistic production towards Art Nouveau, while Kessler in just three years organised about thirty exhibitions of contemporary art, above all French, and built one of the most important private collections of Modernist art in his house. In 1903 he co-founded in Weimar the German Association of Artists (Deutscher Künstlerbund), the most important organisation of German avant-garde artists of the time. In 1906, after staging a Rodin exhibition which the inhabitants of the city found revolting, Kessler was dismissed from his post. All this was too much modernity for the Weimar citizens! The process of opening Weimar art to modern tendencies was curtailed, almost halted. This decision reflected a growing conflict in the city, for two clearly opposed communities have emerged: pro-reform and traditional (called conservative-nationalist-popular). Their actions had a decisive impact on the ups and downs of Weimar arts in the following decades2.
The abolition of the monarchy and abdication of the prince opened a new chapter in the history of arts in Weimar. In 1919, after long behind-the-scenes negotiations, Walter Gropius was nominated the director of the State Bauhaus – the former Princely Saxon High School of Fine Arts merged with the Princely Saxon School of Arts and Crafts (Staatliches Bauhaus – ehemalige Großherzöglich Sächsische Hochschule für bildende Kunst und ehemelige Großherzoglich Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule in Vereinigung),** for this was the original name of the new academy – and this launched a brief episode in the school’s life in the capital of a newly created Land – Thüringen. It was here that the main tendencies of avant-garde style and teaching developed. The Weimar years of the school, although viewed very critically by the citizens, were the most productive period in the school’s history. Its students and professors took part in exhibitions in Germany and abroad and in 1923 they organised a great exhibition in Weimar itself, where a model house was presented (in Am Horn Street – today painstakingly renewed). Anywhere else the school’s success would probably have been an indirect success of the city. But in Weimar things went their own way. In 1924, when conservatives (the German Popular Party) took power in Thüringen, Bauhaus was forced to look for a new seat, and in 1925 it moved to Dessau3. Otto Bartning – a great modernist, but not as avant-garde as Gropius – became its director. From 1932 Bauhaus was headed by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who turned it into the State School of Crafts and Building (Staatliche Hochschule für Handwerk und Baukunst), completely subordinating the teaching to the ideology of the Third Reich.

As is commonly known, Weimar had a wonderful democratic episode after the end of the First World War. It was here that the democratic republic was established (hence the name Weimar Republic), it was here, in the municipal theatre, that the first democratic parliament debated, and it was here too that the government was formed and the constitution passed. This piece of Weimar’s history is its pride, just like the tradition of the “city of the muses” in the era of Goethe and Schiller. But despite its status as the symbol of the transformation of the Empire into a republic, from the mid-1920s Weimar increasingly succumbed to conservative tendencies. It soon became one of the favourite cities of Hitler, who was sincerely welcomed here, which was partly due to the widespread Volkist views. In the centre the old Elephant Hotel was rebuilt for the Führer – today it is the “noblest” hotel in the city.4 In 1936 the construction of the huge Gauforum – a representative headquarters of the Party regional branch – was begun***. The northern part of the old city was razed to make room for it – the spatial unity of Weimar going back to the Middle Ages was thus destroyed. The new buildings adjoined the former Museum of Art, irreversibly ruining the elegant square and the 19th-century spatial composition in front of this building. Inmates of the nearby concentration camp Buchenwald – founded in 1937 with the complete approval of the city authorities – were brought in to build the Gauforum.
No less complicated was the history of Weimar after the Second World War. The city was looking for its historical identity spanning between Goethe and Buchenwald. In 1945 Hermann Henselmann,5 asked to reorganise the school existing in the place where the Bauhaus had been, proposed to transform the Gauforum into a Memorial Place for the Victims of Fascism (Gedenkstätte für die Opfer des Faschismus). An important element of the project was to be a centrally placed fountain in the form of several dozen streams symbolising the nations who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But in the early days of 1946 Soviet troops took over the buildings and enclosed the entire area, locating their command there. Weimar was one of the chief places in the GDR where Soviet troops were stationing. In the 1960s the centre of Weimar, including the Gauforum, became a focus of various plans, among them the “modernisation” of the entire Old Town, meaning an almost complete razing of what had been happily spared the wartime destruction. These ideas were not implemented, but it is worth recalling that similar conceptions were carried out in Legnica.
The Bauhaus tradition returned in the late 1970s, when the School for Architecture and Building (Hochschule für Architektur und Bauwesen) started organising Bauhaus seminars, and the building was restored, revealing Oskar Schlemmer’s frescoes, and in 1979 the 50th anniversary of Gropius’s school was celebrated. Since that time, under a changed appellation (in 1995 it was named Bauhaus Universität), the school again became one of Weimar’s numerous icons. In 1999, when Weimar held the title of European Capital of Culture, it was decided to build a Museum of Bauhaus here, designating 25 million euro for that purpose. This is intended as one of many museums in the city but also as a counterpoint to the museums of Goethe and Schiller, through a strong emphasis on the 20th-century history of the city. The Bauhaus Museum will be an important part of the great cultural Kosmos Weimar, financed from regional (Thüringen) and federal resources totalling 90 million euro. Construction will start next year, and the opening is planned for 2015.

The chosen site is located behind the former Gauforum; in the place where garages used to be we now have an empty lot and an expressway. The Gauforum was the only – almost fully completed – Nazi forum in Germany.6 Now three buildings are occupied by the Land Offices (Thüringer Landesverwaltungsamt), while the former Peoples’ Hall (Volkshalle) has been transformed into a shopping mall. The large space between them is inaccessible as there is an underground parking lot beneath. So it is dead, empty and “safe”; no groups of leftist or neo-Nazi youth (a widespread concern in Thüringen) can stage demonstrations here. The buildings adjoin the former Museum of Art – a neo-Renaissance edifice from 1867. The Museum and the Gauforum lie at the border of northern Weimar, a typical 19th-century regularly planned suburb between the Old Town and the railway station.7 It is not the “best residential address”, and therefore the creation of the museum raises hopes for revitalising this section of the city and its functional restructuring. At the same time the plot is situated close to the City Museum (Stadtmuseum), housed in the classicist residence of Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1747–1822), writer, publisher and entrepreneur, a great Weimarian from the Goethe era, and the municipal park (the former landscaped park by Bertuch’s house). In 1932 the museum was extended with a hall (Weimarhalle, rebuilt extensively in 1999), now a dynamic congress centre. There is another museum nearby, small but important for Weimar culture: the Harry Graf Kessler Hall of Art (Kunsthalle Weimar Harry Graf Kessler), named after the eminent patron of art from the early 20th century.8 The entire ensemble is the starting point for restructuring this part of the city and endowing it with a new meaning and symbolism.
So the spatial, architectural and functional situation of the future museum (not to speak of the convoluted communication arrangement) is extremely complicated. Of all possible locations – and there were ten of them in various points of the city – the most difficult one was selected, but paradoxically it is the one that possesses the greatest potential for reviving this part of Weimar, creating a new cultural centre here and opening the way for a new social configuration in this area. Despite many lingering misgivings regarding this location – especially among Weimarians themselves –the decision calls for creation of a kind of architectural manifesto here, an outstanding design and an outstanding exhibition. The museum would fit perfectly into the new “museum-based image of Weimar”. The recent decisions concerning the adaptation of the Gauforum building for the Haus der Demokratie (Democracy House) may fundamentally change the symbolism of this section of the city. The Gauforum was the headquarters of Thüringen’s Gauleiter, and during World War II it housed Fritz Sauckel’s office “coordinating” the deployment of millions of forced labourers on the territories of the Third Reich. As stated above, the Gauforum was built by inmates of the concentration camp in Buchenwald and a large exhibition devoted to forced labourers will be designed here.9 But we should not forget that after the First World War Weimar was the place where the democratic German state was established and its constitution passed (hence the name Weimar Republic). This part of German history will also be covered by the exhibition which will fill the floors of the Gauforum building transformed into the Haus der Demokratie.

As we can see from the description above, the surroundings of the future Bauhaus Museum are an exceptional place, like no other in Weimar and probably not only here – held in the vice of history. The choice of this thorny location offers an opportunity to create a kind of “museum island” – of course incomparable to the Berlin one. While in the German capital collections of Great Art were placed in buildings evoking the antique style, in Weimar, in and around the Gauforum, a “Museum of Art History” may come into being, uncomfortable and sometimes not pretty in the selection of pieces. In various exhibitions and various spaces of the buildings adjoining each other history and culture may merge, the classical Weimar of Schiller and Goethe, the 19th-century flourishing of all arts under the princely patronage, the successes and failures of Kessler’s and Gropius’s ideas, the birth of the Weimar Republic democracy and finally the ominous climax of the knotted history of the city in the Gauforum buildings. Room should also be found for the Communist history of Weimar, including the story of the large Russian garrison and the difficult transformation in 1989 in its manifold guises. The buildings of the forum, although today occupied by Land offices, potentially have enough space. In this area of Weimar many important themes of the German progress are condensed. The Bauhaus Museum, which also shows the history of the architectural school, could fit perfectly into this complex historical background.
The Bauhaus Museum building by the Gauforum could join together and reconcile things which are difficult to reconcile: the urban space degraded by the investments from the 1930s, the war and the post-war demolitions. It could also be an architectural answer to the variety of forms in this place: from small-scale classical, palace-like buildings through neo-Renaissance to the monumentality of the architecture of the Third Reich. And finally it may, also with its exhibition, become inscribed in the very complex history of the space in which it will find itself. Sceptics might say that so many tasks are too much of a burden.
The third stage of the architectural competition for the new Bauhaus Museum in Weimar has just been completed. As many as 526 groups took part in the competition. Twenty-seven designs were selected for the second stage and four received prizes.10 In the third stage the work by Heike Hanada and Benedict Tonon was named as the best. After the first round of the competition the jury headed by Professor Jörg Friedrich, an architect from Hamburg, did not award the first prize. This shows that the competition was not easy. The jurors included the founder of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles Kurt W. Foster, the eminent art historian Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani from Zurich, and Werner Durth, expert on the architecture of the Third Reich and post-war reconstruction of Germany, while the consultants were well-known and highly respected historians of architecture, Barry Bergdoll from Columbia University and MoMA in New York, and Winfried Nerdinger, director of the Museum of Architecture in Munich. The presence of art historians was more than justified here, as both the museum’s location and its ideological message seem very difficult, even tortuous, especially in the context of Weimar’s extremely complicated history. It is rather astonishing, then that in such a large jury, including also many politicians (perhaps too many), there was no single historian. It is true that historians are rarely invited to architectural competition juries, but here their presence would have been justified.

In the second stage of the competition, which ended in March, one of two second prizes went to the young architect Johann E. Bierkandt from Landau, who had studied in Weimar (interestingly, his diploma work from 2003 was a design of the main railway station in Łódź). His design does not take up a dialogue with the surroundings and the complicated past; it is a rather neutral form not resembling a museum. An opposite strategy was adopted by the group Architekten HKR Hentges Kursawe Rehberg-Thiedecke from Cologne. These experienced architects juxtaposed the rather large, elongated volume of the museum with the Gauforum buildings, creating yet another dominant architectural element in this space, which also closes up the skyline of the main street. Third place was taken by Heike Hanada (who has been working with the Bauhaus Universität in Weimar for many years) and Benedict Tonon from Berlin. The museum will be based on their design. The fourth-prize design, by Daniela Bergmann from Rotterdam, is a building composed of three cubes, perhaps to the largest extent attempting to reconcile all the mutually contradictory requirements. The whole building is transparent, which endows it with a kind of transcendence.
None of the winning designs was fully satisfactory for the public. In the post-competition debate which swept through the media in March it was emphasised that the works were nondescript and that practically all the proposed structures could be raised in any city, not only in Weimar. This provokes a fundamental question: should museum architecture be closely related to the location, or should it perhaps be neutral, timeless and “global”? Should it reflect the contents, especially in the case of thematic museums? As we know, recent investments and designs in Poland (for example, the Museum of the Second World War) give many different answers to this question. Limited financial resources excluded “great names” from the competition: Zaha Hadid sent in a draft design but with the reservation that the construction would cost ten times more than the planned sum. This meant that she did not even receive a distinction.
The museum in Weimar will face competition from other institutions cultivating the legacy of Bauhaus. The Bauhausarchiv in Berlin (previously in the western part of the city), the museum so far functioning as the main venue of exhibitions on Bauhaus and created during the Cold War, and the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, aspiring to be a better guardian of the Bauhaus heritage than the institution in Berlin, are now joined by the museum in Weimar. Who should be responsible for what? How can the collections and priorities be divided? Should the museum in Weimar confront the very complex history of the city and place described above? How should the history of the school founded in the place vacated by Bauhaus in 1925 be treated – should it be taken into account or discretely ignored, leaving difficult issues unresolved? In my view the architectural form of the new museum should have followed from answers to these questions.
The decision has been taken. The design by Hanada and Tonon is undoubtedly meant to evoke associations with Bauhaus art. The simple and monumental cube (25 × 45 metres, 20 metres high), made from noble materials and illuminated with strips of LED light, will emerge from behind one of the Gauforum buildings. Approaches to the edifice will be marked by a long pool, leading to a monumental door. The interior of 2250 square metres (that is relatively small) is planned in such a way that it could be arranged in various ways according to requirements and the only permanent elements are the staircases. To put in such a difficult place a neutral cube, loosely connected in architectural and urban-planning terms with the surroundings, abstracted from the historical context, is the easiest solution but probably also an obvious evasion. Similar questions could be asked about the programme of the exhibition itself. It may be “nice and easy” – after all the Weimar collections alone contain lots of attractive pieces which will allow the organisers to dodge the dangerous pitfalls of history. But is it advisable? A sweetened image of the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller, something like the Mozartkugel in Salzburg, may still dominate in Weimar, while uncomfortable matters will be disposed of in Buchenwald; you can go there, but not everyone will bother to do so. If the Haus der Demokratie is be erected and the Gauforum buildings are filled with new contents, the Bauhaus Museum will in a sense become part of an exhibition presenting the difficult and complicated past of the city. Currently the process of creating the museum devoted to Bauhaus is almost going “backwards”, the ideological and symbolic conception of the entire space and the exhibitions probably should have been developed and discussed before the competition was announced. Unfortunately, this is how museums are created nowadays: the architecture is more important and the content is adapted to the usually flashy form, rather than the other way round.
What will dominate this crucial place in Weimar in the future? Will it be an ambitious and unique “museum island” or a hodgepodge of various functions? Will the arrangement of the square between the Gauforum buildings and its opening revitalise the space? Perhaps it is worth reconsidering Henselmann’s conception of a fountain in the centre of the square? In the context of Democracy House this idea is worth recalling. Will the change of the function not only of the southern building of the forum but in the future perhaps also of the remaining structures result in a sensible whole?
Weimar is faced with difficult decisions but it has an opportunity to create a space of Art and History unique not only in Thüringen but also in the whole of Central Europe. This example of “confronting the past and the future” is also worth analysing in detail in the context of various museum undertakings in Poland, for often it is the simplest solutions that are chosen, but not the best.