What Is Bauhaus Architecture?

Bauhaus main building designed by Walter Gropius

Cethegus / Wikimedia Commons

Bauhaus is a movement that came out of the influential German school founded by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in the early 20th century, which had a utopian aim to create a radically new form of architecture and design to help rebuild society after the ravages of World War I.

By synthesizing fine arts, crafts, design, architecture, and technology, the Bauhaus promoted rational, functional design that embraced a form follows function, less is more ethos for a new post-war era. Bauhaus developed into the International Style when Gropius and other prominent members of the Bauhaus emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and later influenced the development of modernism in the 1950s and '60s. 

Bauhaus blurred the lines between disciplines and used arts and crafts techniques to maintain aesthetic standards in an increasingly mass-produced, industrialized world, all while using materials and resources in an intelligent and purposeful way. It produced everything from furniture and household objects to typography and buildings. A century later, the influence of Bauhaus lives on around the world.

Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv
rhkamen / Getty Images

The Origins of Bauhaus Architecture

The Bauhaus school was formed six months after the end of World War I in 1919. In the school’s founding manifesto, Gropius wrote that building is “the ultimate aim of all artistic activity” and that “the ultimate, if distant, aim of the Bauhaus is the unified work of art.” He aspired to the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the “total work of art” that synthesizes multiple art forms into one. 

The school moved from Weimar to Dessau and finally to Berlin before it was shut down by the Nazis in 1933 under its final director, the celebrated architect Mies van der Rohe. The Nazis branded the Bauhaus under the umbrella of “degenerative art,” calling its progressive ideas and internationalism “un-German.” Unfortunately, it was not the first or last time that a government has used nationalism as an assault weapon against social progress as expressed by architecture.

But Bauhaus wasn’t defeated by the Nazis. Instead, Gropius and other prominent members of the movement left Germany, spreading the ideas of the Bauhaus from Western Europe to the U.S. and Canada to Israel, and turning it into an international movement.

Walter Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts
Walter Gropius House, Lincoln, Massachusetts. Finavon / Wikimedia Commons

After moving to the U.S. in 1937, Gropius designed the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts and headed up the architecture department at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He was joined there by Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus student who became an architect and furniture designer of such iconic items as the tubular bent metal Wassily Chair designed in 1925, that is still produced and feels just as modern today as it did nearly a century ago. 

Painter, photographer and Bauhaus instructor László Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago in 1937 where he founded the New Bauhaus. The same year Mies van der Rohe emigrated to Chicago to become the head of the IIT, designing its campus which was completed in 1958 as well as the iconic Seagram Building in New York City in 1951.

Despite only being in existence for 14 years, the Bauhaus took root around the globe and remains arguably the most influential arts and design school in the history of the world.

Seagram Building in NYC
Seagram Building in NYC. Noroton / Wikimedia Commons

Key Elements of Bauhaus Architecture 

Not all Bauhaus buildings look alike. They can be angular and linear or feature curved balconies and round corners. But here are some essential common characteristics:

  • Eschewing ornamentation to focus on simple, rational, functional design
  • A focus on simple geometric forms such as the triangle, square, and circle
  • Asymmetry favored over symmetry
  • Use of steel, glass, concrete, and other modern materials
  • Flat roofs
  • Glass curtain walls
  • Smooth façades
Bauhaus Archive, Berlin, Germany
Bauhaus Archive, Berlin, Germany. Joel Filipe / Unsplash

Interesting Facts About Bauhaus Style

A core tenet of Bauhaus design is “truth to materials,” which focuses on using materials in their most natural, honest form, allowing them to be celebrated and seen rather than covered up. 

The largest concentration of Bauhaus-style buildings in the world is in Israel. Tel Aviv’s “White City” is on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site list for its 4,000+ painted white Bauhaus buildings, which were built starting in 1933 by Jewish and political refugees fleeing Europe. 

Bauhaus architecture and design principles still influence the shape and look of everyday objects. For example, Steve Jobs openly discussed the influence of Bauhaus simplicity on the aesthetic of Apple products. 

Bauhaus building in Tel Aviv
kolderal / Getty Images