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The Dessau Bauhaus Building 1926-1999


by Margret Kentgens-Craig. Birkhauser, 1998. 208pp. £44 approx. (Distributor 0181 542 2465)

'Bauhaus' is an adjective more than it is any other part of speech. 'That's so Bauhaus' is a familiar comment in certain circles - either as an insult or a compliment, writes Jeremy Melvin. But once upon a time Bauhaus was a noun, and this book, published to mark unesco's elevation of the Dessau building and associated sites as a World Heritage Monument, is a welcome attempt to reclaim the word's linguistic status for substance rather than ephemera.

Because the Bauhaus is a building. True enough, the idea started in Weimar and only moved to its Gropius-designed Dessau home in 1926. This was inaccessible, denigrated, downtrodden and virtually rebuilt between its opening in 1926 and 1989, but it is still there. Its glass facade around the workshops is a reconstructed version of the glass-and-steel wall system, with bicycle chains to open it, that Gropius invented in 1926. The staircase is just as Oscar Schlemmer painted it - a theatre for movement; and its image and composition as dramatic as ever. The building, in other words, is an embodiment of the educational and social programme, and demonstrating that is the dominant theme of the book's 13 essays.

Karin Wilhelm's 'Seeing - Walking - Thinking' is the most explicit attempt to do this. But other essays concentrating on smaller issues, such as Robin Krause on Breuer's now ubiquitous steel furniture (which was more or less invented for the Bauhaus), show how product and process were co- terminal in the minds of its originators. Other writers deal with the incorporation of the Bauhaus into ideology (political, visual and cultural), its social life, and its recent restoration in the light of Docomomo's research into construction and conservation of Modernist buildings.

Overall, the book gives a fascinating and varied account of a building and institution whose fortunes are bound together and whose interaction is still the most exciting educational experiment of the twentieth century. Just as the architecture took the constituents of tradition and dematerialised them, so the educational programme took artistic traditions and remade them. This book's strength is to show how central architecture was to that project.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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