The first house built by the Bauhaus was designed not by an architect but by an artist. It is a curious quirk typical of the famous design school which, for much of its existence, did not even have an architecture course yet was associated with the greatest architects of the modern era, including Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer.
The Bauhaus, which was established a century ago in Weimar, central Germany, was being financed by the local authority. Wanting to see some results from its investment, the municipality pressured the school into an exhibition of its output in 1923.
The centrepiece was to have been a settlement of modernist houses. In the event, only one was built, and that had already been designed by painter and Bauhaus Master Georg Muche for himself.
Gropius, the head of the school, had wanted to design the house, but the students voted against it and in favour of Muche’s design. In the school’s ever democratic spirit, it was Muche’s house that was built on a plot of land on the edge of the Park an der Ilm (where Goethe’s summer house stands), which had been acquired by the Bauhaus as an allotment. So short of funds was the school at the time that it needed to grow its own vegetables for its (mostly vegetarian) canteen.
Muche’s house, which in this centenary year of the Bauhaus has been beautifully restored and is now open to the public, was nicknamed the “coffee grinder”, as its boxy, stepped form resembled the old wooden machines ubiquitous in every central European kitchen at the time. It is quite curious and rather unexpected.
By the time it was built in 1923, house designs existed that would be more familiar to us today as Bauhaus houses, notably the stunning Red Cube House designed by young Hungarian architect Farkas Molnár. Muche’s Haus am Horn design was a little more conservative. It was more or less symmetrical, boxy and had cornices in the vein of Frank Lloyd Wright.
There was none of the blurring of boundaries between interior and exterior that would become the hallmark of modernist villas within a few years of its completion; instead it appeared a more contained, solid, even bourgeois structure.
But it caused a sensation nevertheless. Mies van der Rohe, who would later become head of the Bauhaus, visited and was impressed, as did Le Corbusier, who also — unusually for him — made positive comments.
The house itself is extremely simple. At its core is a double-height space that looks like it might be a studio, yet the clerestory windows face south and west — hopeless for a studio. So we might assume this is the communal family space. It is surrounded by the other functions — a room for the man and another for the woman and one for the children which, when it was built, contained a marvellous stack of modular furniture designed by Alma Siedhoff-Buscher. Some originals can be seen in the newly built Bauhaus Museum nearby.
These were designed to encourage imagination rather than determining use: a vividly coloured box becoming a boat, another a chest or a hiding place, yet another a train, the whole thing stacked into a mountain or a stairway, and so on.
The most influential aspect of the house, however, is the kitchen. Inspired by Taylorist notions of efficiency in production, the small space was designed so that the wife — and it was undoubtedly always the wife — would hardly have to move from a single spot. The larder, the work surfaces, the sink and the cooker were all within reach with a pivot on the spot or, at most, a step away.
Cupboard doors were flush, storage jars were specially designed, work surfaces were built in and everything had its place.
Unlike many traditional kitchens, which were often in the basement or overlooking an internal courtyard, there was a window to the vegetable garden with plenty of bright light. There was a clear line of sight through the house to the children’s room, so the kids could be in sight, but not in the way.
The kitchen subsequently influenced the development of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen, designed for the western German city’s social housing and the progenitor of built-in kitchens today.
In most other ways the rooms are unremarkable: plain, protestant, stripped back to their bare bones. The bathroom, like the kitchen, is built-in and still looks pretty chic. The built-in furniture elsewhere, though mostly not original, is elegant, functional and so minimal as to almost not be there.
The rooms are enlivened by a series of subtle flush fittings. Lights are built into corners so the glass is contiguous with the plaster. In one bedroom, a bedside light is boxed into the wall behind a frosted panel. Architecturally beautiful but practically useless, it projects the light across the room rather than down on to your book.
There are already here those touches of the failings of modernism, the sacrifice of practicality for appearance. But they do look good.
This is like looking at a star as it is being formed: peering into the past to see the future coalescing around a series of ideas that would lead to a modernism from which we have yet to emerge. And it is absolutely, endlessly fascinating.
Photographs: Thomas Müller; Kalhöfer & Hoffman; Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin