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Why a deserted Dessau belies the optimism of the Bauhaus

It is an experience to walk through the former east German town of Dessau from the moribund Hotel Prince Leopold to the Bauhaus. The hotel reeks of the old DDR and has more employees than guests.

The only people in the restaurant are ghastly papier-mache figures offering menus with theatrical gestures.

Once outside you find yourself in an arena of wide but deserted intersections at the centre of which stands Dessau's railway station, a building from another age. Dessau was bombed to hell during the war and parts of it still look like it.

The railway station in particular looks as though it has taken a near miss. The glass in every one of its doors is broken; graffiti and semi-erased graffiti dog its walls, louts prowl and the long pedestrian tunnel beneath the tracks looks distinctly uninviting.

Dessau does not get much luck. The city has lost 10 per cent of its population since reunification and unemployment is running at 30 per cent. Empty system-built housing blocks are routinely pulled down. No problem finding a place to park, but speed cameras mean the sparse traffic crawls around unnaturally slowly.

When the pedestrian underpass finally emerges into daylight the scene is transformed. Gone is the vast open space, here is a tiny cobbled square with trees and bland apartment houses protected by metal roller blinds. Again the parking provision seems enormous. In England it would be stuffed with cars on double yellows, here there are none.

A street sign points to the Bauhaustrasse. A quick step across the grass and there it is, the street leading to the Bauhaus with its inimitable bridge not more than 200m away. Today the view is perfect. In the grey morning light it looks like a monotone photograph from the 1920s with nothing to dispel the illusion but a single Volkswagen Golf. The picture might have been taken by Lucia Moholy-Nagy in 1926 - except for the fact that most of the housing that serves as a prelude to the Gropius buildings was erected after them.

At last the doors to the Bauhaus appear, with the Anhalt Hochschule (formerly the curriculum-linked trade school), on axis on the other side of the road. I trip up the steep black entrance steps, through old doors straight into an undersized, low-ceilinged lobby filled with people. The conference marking the last day of the Buckminster Fuller exhibition is about to start. In the auditorium another shock awaits. Another Moholy-Nagy photograph with almost nothing changed, copies of the original Breuer chairs in black and chrome, installed exactly as they were for the first time in any lecture hall anywhere 75 years ago.

In between sessions I sneak about the hallowed Bauhaus buildings (there are guided tours but they all start at the wrong times). The famous director's office is locked but later I meet a helpful student who shows me other parts. He tells me that about 25 graduates are at work here cataloguing the environment. 'Our problem here is not urbanisation but disurbanisation, abandoned property, depopulation, the lignite legacy of industrial junk, ' he explains. I marvel at the way such problems can coexist with the optimism all the youthful users of this famous but cramped, dark and institutional structure express.

Apart from the buildings themselves there are few, if any, Bauhaus relics here. Most are in the Bauhaus museum in Berlin. Sensing that the Bauhaus has become more and more a cult relic of a the pedagogical wonder it once was, I ask whether it can rise again. My guide's optimism slips for the first time: 'You mean be what it was 75 years ago? No, I don't think anyone believes that.'

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