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Social Bauhausing: Sheffield. Modern. Living!

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The interior of the Bauhaus building in Dessau. Photo by Gaf.arq (Wikimedia Commons).

Design began in 1919, but most people in Germany didn't know what it was. The horrors of the First World War fuelled a desire for fresh ideas and a move away from the constructs of conflict and oppression. In the words of architect Walter Gropius: "The intellectual bourgeois of the old Empire - tepid and unimaginative, mentally slow, arrogant, and incorrectly trained - has proven his incapacity to be the bearer of German culture."

Sheffield Modern is a festival of architectural delights marking the centenary of the Bauhaus. Among the events taking place this weekend is a celebration of social housing and the renaissance of Bauhaus forms in 1960s Britain. Bauhaus conceptions of social housing from the 1920s influenced high-rise projects like Park Hill and the since-demolished Kelvin Flats.

We want to bring the lowest levels of society higher

At the Bauhaus, the workshop became the dominant model for creative output. A new Germany needed a new identity, with new forms and a new art. But what did the Bauhaus actually build? Did the school succeed in creating a new form of design that would better all of society?

Ironically, given that the school's teachers espoused that all creative activity was building, architecture wasn't initially taught. Founder and director Walter Gropius maintained his own architectural practice, and many of the buildings attributed to the Bauhaus were actually separate entities. The first real piece of Bauhaus architecture, Haus am Horn, was designed by Georg Muche for the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 and realised by Gropius's practice.

The design was based on an earlier idea for a Bauhaus colony, a geometric 'honeycomb building' by the student Walter Determann. Sadly, Muche's realisation was less audacious than the concept, with a pedestrian use of space. Interlocking cubes created clumsy corridors, and the large central atrium was a boring carbon-copy of old designs.

It fell to Gropius to reconsider existing ideas of space. His own theory was that the tangible first had to be appreciated before a mathematically-constructed space could be imposed. Once both are harmoniously balanced, the viewer enters into an artistic space which reaches beyond aesthetics and elevates the space and the people within it. Gropius's first realisation of this concept is best viewed at the directors' office in Weimar. These ideas of space, and their relationship with the world around us, would form the basis of Gropius's architecture and future Bauhaus buildings.

It wasn't until the Bauhaus moved to Dessau that a new model for social housing could be realised. Along with a home for the school - a modernist cathedral which immortalised the aesthetic of the movement - and a series of masters' houses, Gropius was tasked with creating a housing estate espousing the virtues of assembly line production.

Architecture must be for everyone

The Törten Estate comprised 314 two-storey buildings built in three phases between 1926 and 1928. While aesthetically striking, the buildings lacked the practicality of a living space. North facing windows with no direct sunlight made the living areas cold and austere. The estate was designed to have a housing cooperative and shop at its heart but these never came to fruition. The plan was based too much on practicality. The homes for workers were less considered than those for masters, who lived in luxury. A new bourgeois.

By contrast, the architect Bruno Taut was an early proponent of the garden city movement. Between 1924 and 1931, Taut completed 12,000 social housing units and championed the inclusion of amenities within his designs. When questioned about these additions by opponents who said that they were too grand for ordinary people, Berlin mayor Gustav Böss, one of Taut's supporters, said: "We want to bring the lowest levels of society higher."

Taut's most revered project, Hufeisensiedlung, is noted for its use of colourful details in contrast to the pristine white exteriors of Gropius and Le Corbusier. The latter, on seeing Taut's design for the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition, exclaimed: "My God, Taut is colour-blind!"

But perhaps Taut had the greatest vision of all. He championed social housing as more than just a place to exist, but a place of light with access to fresh air and public spaces. He believed that community is at the heart of architecture. Architecture must be for everyone. Walking into a cathedral, I experience a greater sense of awe at the feat of human endeavour than any sense of the divine. When considering the Bauhaus renaissance of the 1960s, it is to Taut that we should look as the originator of modern social housing, and Park Hill now stands as a brightly coloured homage to Taut's vision.

Steve Allen

Sheffield Modern runs from 22 to 24 November at venues across the city.

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