The “School in the Woods” as a Socio-pedagogical Ideal

Functional Analyses and Photographs by Peterhans

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo),
ADGB Trade Union School Bernau near Berlin – Territory in the woods, 1928–30, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
(I 1695/1 F), © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

The building theory classes at the Bauhaus focused on imparting a functional understanding of architecture. Building had become a science. As a result, the ADGB Trade Union School was designed logically from the inside out, with the requirements of the residents and dictates of the natural environment determining the form arising from the environmental and materials studies. Walter Peterhans’ photographs of the school images illustrate both the architect’s intentions for the building and the environmental studies conducted by Bauhaus students.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau near Berlin – Main entrance, 1930, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

With the construction of the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau-Waldfrieden, near Berlin, the Swiss architect and second director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, was able to realize his ideal of how a modern building should be designed and built for the first time. Meyer had been awarded the commission on the basis of his design proposal prior to being appointed Bauhaus director. In order to be closer to the building project than would have been possible from Dessau, Meyer set up a construction office in Berlin. Meyer’s collaborators on the project included Hans Wittwer, who Walter Gropius appointed alongside Meyer to develop a building theory class at the Bauhaus in 1927,1 who had previously worked with Meyer as an architect in Switzerland, as well as several students from the building theory course itself. Among them were Arieh Sharon (draughtsman, project manager of the teachers’ residences), Antonin Urban (draughtsman), Hermann Bunzel (project manager for the school facilities), Wera Meyer-Waldeck (who worked as an interior design), Edmund Collein, Philipp Tolziner, Lotte Beese, and Konrad Püschel. Working under Meyer meant working within a collective whose projects were collaboratively planned and realized rather than attributed to named individuals.

As with the oft-cited “vertical brigades,” whose main purpose was to ensure the involvement of Bauhaus students from all of the school’s workshops, Meyer drew collaborators not only from the building theory course, but from every Bauhaus workshop (carpentry, weaving, metalwork), achieving an ideal balance of material and craft applications. Meyer’s was a holistic approach to architecture, making no distinction between masters and students, or site managers and skilled tradesmen. In fact, Meyer’s design process was uniquely suited to the ADGB school commission, being that the architect’s methods were predominantly socio-pedagogical in nature and the complex itself was intended for the pedagogical/leisure activities of participating union members, who could avail themselves to training courses at the school for one or two months. Meyer’s task was, in effect, to embody the democratic structure of the union itself in his design. The construction site in the woods of Bernau appeared ideal for this project. Although secluded, it was still fairly close to Berlin.

Philipp Tolziner & Tibor Weiner, Study sheets of methodical research: "Housing under socialism", ca. 1930, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.

Starting with the requirements of the trade union, Meyer had students in the building theory class at the Bauhaus draw up functional diagrams—charts and graphics in which the participating Bauhauslers recorded information on the building site, the sun path, and, above all, the needs of the intended occupants. A trial project by Tibor Weiner and Philipp Tolziner illustrates how such diagrams were drawn up, how carefully the Bauhaus students were in preparing them, and how, throughout their study project, Weiner and Tolziner followed a comprehensive approach to planning and designing.

For this study project, the brief was for instructors and students to design a housing project for factory workers and their families in an imagined socialist society. Their political ambitions thus awoken, participants were inspired in 1930 to produce a series of four “study sheets,” methodical research projects presented through words and graphics, entitled Wohnen im Sozialismus (Housing under socialism). The first completed study sheet charted a daily routine from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., including external factors (time, temperature, location and conditions). On the same sheet, Weiner and Tolziner also presented two graphical renderings, one depicting the inter-relationships between people, and another concerning the link between people with nature. Findings from this first study sheet were used by students for a second study sheet presenting graphic representations of the factors of movement (e.g., what is the movement pattern of a blue-collar worker?). These were enhanced by diagrams detailing the sun’s path and analyzing fresh air requirements. With this information it was possible to precisely plot the optimal orientation for each individual unit within the larger grouping of housing blocks. These analyses concluded with floorplans for a single housing unit, where the incidence of sunlight in the various rooms was noted. On the third study sheet, the students drafted analyses and layouts of the other associated structures which, according to their plan, the housing complex should include—sun terrace, gymnasium, gangway, corridor, covered walkway, kitchen, individual rooms, and communal rooms. Here, they went so far as to annotate the diagram with notes on the optimal use of each space. Finally, on the fourth study sheet, which rounded off the overall plan of this hypothetical socialist housing complex, elevations and sections of the residential blocks were drawn up.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau near Berlin – Glass hallway from outside, 1928–30, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (I 1705/2 F)/© Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

Hannes Meyer had the students of the Bauhaus building theory class draw up similar environmental analyses for initial project planning on the Trade Union School. On the planning application, these were situated next to the architectural plans so as to facilitate understanding. One plan showed the incidence of sunlight in the individual guest residences, as well as elaborating different furnishing options; another featured a diagram showing the incidence of sunlight in the classrooms and lecture rooms; a third was a study of the incidence of sunlight in the complex as a whole. Meyer and Wittwer planned the construction of the school complex on the basis of these studies, as a “sculptural interpretation” and “direct transcription from the functional diagrams.”2 The resulting design was more or less Z-shaped, made of yellow brick, and built at various elevations aligned with the sloping terrain, subdivided into a communal area, residential blocks for boarders, and a school wing complete with gymnasium and library. A glass hallway built on an incline, which Meyer described in terms of function as aVerkehrsschlauch3 or transit corridor, linked the separate building groups. Paths between communal, living, and school areas were designed to open up the complex and to facilitate visitors becoming acquainted with one another as they walked between the residence halls and seminar rooms. In the four residential blocks for boarders, there was space for 120 visitors accommodated in twin rooms. All four blocks were assigned different colors, with variations in shade used to distinguish each of the three floors. Color coding served to aid orientation, give residents a sense of belonging, and also served as a basis to split visiting residents into teams for sporting activities, generously allocated for in the plan, with an open air swimming pool and an adjoining sports facility. Opposite the boarders’ rooms, each of which featured a large window, a small lake was dug amidst a group of pine trees; a soothing, sylvan view to enhance regeneration.

Based on the socio-pedagogical functions of the various building groups, Hannes Meyer’s collective designed the Trade Union School logically from the inside, the needs and ambulatory habits of the residents, out; the buildings’ shell. The individual buildings constitute functional units in themselves, with their arrangement resulting not from subjective formal rules of composition, but from their relationship to one another. The proposal for the site plan was also informed by the feedback and analysis of the building’s future users, the trade union members themselves. And in his arrangement of route paths, vistas, and open spaces, Meyer accomplished a completely new socio-pedagogical organization of communal life, manifested in the buildings and their disposition upon the site. Neither hierarchy nor authority were apparent: this was a democratic building both in form and function.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer and the Bauhaus building theory class, Technical explanation report ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau near Berlin (competition entry), April 1928, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (I 1736 D), © Heirs after Hannes Meyer/Sondra Wittwer.

With this functional approach, integrated directly into Bauhaus pedagogy through their building theory class, Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer brought a new dimension to the architect’s profession. At the Bauhaus under the two architects, building became a “technical procedure.”[footnote Hannes Meyer: ‘Building’ [1928], in: Buildings, Projects, and Writings, Teufen AR, Switzerland, Arthur Niggli Ltd., 1965 ( 2 July 2018)).] The architect was to be trained as an “analyst,” “able to appreciate reality in all its manifestations.”4 The content of Meyer and Wittwer’s building theory classes therefore focused on imparting a functional understanding of architecture. “Building has become a science. Architecture is building science.”5 Designs for individual buildings or building complexes should proceed from the principle of function, including decisions about material color and surface structure. With regards to the Trade Union School, this scientific character was based on the several functional diagrams made by the Bauhaus students of architecture, in which the varying requirements of the future residents were analyzed, with findings integrated into the plans. By contrast, while constructing the Dessau Bauhaus Building between 1925 – 26, Walter Gropius’ focus remained entirely on the symbolic power of visual effect. In his memoirs, Philipp Tolziner finds fault with the fact that the vast glazed surfaces grew very hot in the summer, especially in the building’s workshop wing, subsequently described by students as a Schwitzkasten (sweatbox). Clearly a functional planning error, as Tolziner established in his and Wittwer’s classes, where, when carrying out preliminary research for other projects, he charted the angle of the sun in its motion across the sky, drew diagrams of the shadows cast, and drafted plans based on this data.6

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau near Berlin, 1930, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

As a result, the ADGB Trade Union School was designed logically from the inside out, with the requirements of the residents and dictates of the natural environment determining the form arising from the environmental and materials studies. Together with experts in the collective, the building was designed to meet the specific needs of its users and was adapted to suit the terrain, the sun path, and, based on Meyer’s socialist concept, facilitate an open-minded, friendly communal way of living. The architect’s focal point thus shifted from physical building to the uses envisaged, with its form developing quite naturally and directly as an outcome of research conducted by Bauhaus students and feedback from future ADGB residents, thus achieving the Bauhaus's intended aim of unifying theoretical classroom education and practical work in-situ. With this master plan, at this largely unknown location, the Bauhaus under Meyer built a center of education and wellness conceived and constructed in the spirit of both the Bauhaus and ADGB.

This shift in the way the Bauhaus understood architecture during Hannes Meyer’s period as director (1928–30) was harnessed by Walter Peterhans (head of the photography class founded at the Bauhaus in 1929), in his photographs of the Trade Union School, taken at Meyer’s behest. With the technical precision of the professional photographer, he perfectly staged the realization of Meyer’s functional analyses in the architecture. Possibly in consultation with the architect, Peterhans consistently chose perspectives that would illustrate Meyer’s claims for this socio-pedagogical building, and, in particular, raise awareness within the observer of the close relationship between architecture and nature. Peterhans presented the “school in the woods,” as Meyer liked to call the school, as an oasis of relaxation for the union members, set among pine trees, a place where students could focus solely on their education, and occasionally relax in the outdoor swimming pool. In Peterhans’ photographs, the school spreads out like a “learning factory,” with its seven building groups under flat roofs and three chimneys at the entrance aligned with the sloping terrain. It evinces no great ambitions to attract attention; rather, its aim is to serve those that spend time within its walls. His compositions emphasize the immediate connection between the interior and the exterior spaces, whose boundaries, owing to the extensive glass facades, seem to dissolve, with bright sunlight streaming through the interior spaces, creating a dramatic play of light and shadow where the dissolution of the complex’s architectonic barriers into nature plays a central role. In a photograph of the glazed corridor connecting the various educational and residential complexes, with its yellow bricks, chunky red-painted timbered ceiling, and windows extending from floor to ceiling, the focus is on the entire length of the corridor, due to the photographer’s placement next to a glass door between foyer and corridor. Discernible in the distance—typical of Peterhans’ architectural photography, which used human figures to create a sense of scale and function—a man enjoys the view of nature from the corridor. The dimensions and function of the corridor, extending past the entrances to the boarders’ rooms, and along the enclosed green area towards the seminar rooms and gymnasium, become immediately apparent: a place for casual meeting and conversation. Another photograph shows the end of the corridor in front of the gymnasium entrance and staircase leading to the classrooms. The space is filled with young swim-suited men washing their feet in the basin provided for this purpose. It is likely they have come from the sports ground or the open-air swimming pool nearby and are washing their feet before continuing on to their rooms. Another, taken from the end of the glazed corridor, looks upwards towards the color-coded boarders’ residences with their large glass doors. The factors important to Meyer during the planning of the school—nature and architecture in harmony, interaction between the students, recreation and education in one location—were brought together in a combination serving to articulate both modernist Bauhaus design principles and the precepts of the life reform movement of the Weimar Republic.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer mit der Bauhaus Baulehre (Architekten)/Walter Peterhans (Foto), Bundesschule des ADGB in Bernau bei Berlin – Lesesaal, c. 1930, Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau (I 1687 F), © Nachlass Walter Peterhans, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau near Berlin – Glass hallway from inside, 1930, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (I 1707/1 F), © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau – Glass hallway, 1930, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

Hannes Meyer & Hans Wittwer with the Bauhaus building class (architects)/Walter Peterhans (photo), ADGB Trade Union School Bernau – End of glass hallway, ca. 1930, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne, © Walter Peterhans Estate, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

In a photograph of the reading room in the now non-existent library, Peterhans focused on the plain wooden tables with their stools and lamps, which, standing at right angles to the windows, extend the whole length of the wall, oil radiators beneath them (one of the first oil heating systems in Germany). This positioning was designed to encourage concentration on the learning material while enabling a side view of the glazed corridor, the residential blocks and—some distance away across the large lawn area—the foyer building with its auditorium and canteen. Another view of a similarly appointed room in the residential blocks, highlights the functional Bauhaus-designed furnishings: the tubular steel beds designed in the Bauhaus carpentry workshop, the waste paper baskets made from an indestructible vulcanized fiber; the desks conceived by Bauhausler Wera Meyer-Waldeck; the simple chairs by Thonet; the shaving mirror by Marcel Breuer (the double wardrobes were likely designed at the Bauhaus as well). All the furniture is built according to one principle: it is functional, versatile, and built from inexpensive materials according to the highest standards of the day.

As noted previously, Walter Peterhans’ photographs do more than merely document the school. His images illustrate both the architect’s intentions for the building—the arrangement of the various building groups and their meaningful connections with one another—and the planning process itself, the environmental studies conducted by Bauhaus students to identify the needs of the residents and analyze the characteristics of the building site. One might surmise this approach was not the photographer’s idea alone, but was developed in concert with Meyer. In any case, it marks a clear turning point in the presentation of Bauhaus architecture, contrasting sharply with the heroic representations of the Bauhaus building under Gropius, taken from oblique angles by Lucia Moholy. Peterhans’ photographs, on the other hand, focus on the realization of the functional diagrams in the architecture. In so doing, the photographer manages both to close the distance between the observer and the Meyer-Wittwer building and the Bauhaus interior so that the viewer feels as if they are sitting in the reading room or entering the students’ boarding room, and also convey the overall concept of the building groups and their relationships to one another by means of a purposefully deployed range. In the process, Peterhans developed a photographic style mirroring the stripped-down functionalist aesthetic of the Bauhaus, using light, shadow, perspective, and scale to give tangible shape to both the qualities of the architecture and the aspirations of the architects’.

Translation from German by Rebecca Philipps Williams.

  • 1 The same year the Bauhaus began offering a degree in architecture.
  • 2 Hannes Meyer, construction specification from Hannes Meyer’s unpublished ‘Bauhaus-Album’, manuscript, DAM.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Klaus-Jürgen Winkler: Der Architekt Hannes Meyer. Anschauungen und Werk. Berlin, VEB Verlag für Bauwesen, Berlin 1989, 54.
  • 5 Hannes Meyer: in: Buildings, Projects, and Writings, Teufen AR, Switzerland, Arthur Niggli Ltd., 1965 ( 2 July 2018)).
  • 6 Philipp Tolziner: “Mit Hannes Meyer am Bauhaus und in der Sowjetunion. Erinnerungen eines ehemaligen Mitgliedes der Bauhausbrigade ‘Rotfront’”, 38-page typescript, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.
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