Communistic Functionalist

The Anglophone Reception of Hannes Meyer

Philip Johnson described Hannes Meyer as a “communistic functionalist” whose most notable achievement was to have preceded Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as director of the Bauhaus. The position he assigned to Meyer was reinforced in the Bauhaus Exhibition of 1938 at MoMA. The particular view of the Bauhaus presented at MoMA in 1938 corresponds to the place of Meyer in the historiography of modern architecture in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The view that Meyer’s work allegedly lacked aesthetic interest, rendering it irrelevant to an Anglophone audience.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Modern Architecture: International Exhibition. MoMA, NY, 1932. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with a photograph of Villa Tugendhat, © 2019. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Writing in 1932, in the catalogue to the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, Philip Johnson described Hannes Meyer as a “communistic functionalist” whose most notable achievement was to have preceded Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as director of the Bauhaus.1 The conflation of left-wing politics and anti-aesthetic design principles that characterized Johnson’s view of Meyer was symptomatic of the Anglophone reception of the Swiss Bauhaus director in the decades that followed. Henry Russell Hitchcock, co-author of MoMA’s Modern Architecture catalogue, shared Johnson’s damning appraisal of Meyer as a functionalist. “Under Hannes Meyer,” Hitchcock wrote, “… the functionalists for a time obtained control. Meyer has built at Törten apartments deliberately devoid of aesthetic interest.”2 Hitchcock’s description of Meyer’s tenure as Bauhaus director reads as an inversion of the view of modern architecture he and Johnson espoused in the exhibition and in The International Style, their book-length treatment of the subject.3 While Meyer scarcely appeared in this latter publication, it is clear that his work served as a foil to the stylistic principles identified by Johnson and Hitchcock as central to the “international style.” Meyer’s “extreme functionalism” tacitly served as a counterpoint to the aesthetic interest evident in the work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, among others.4

The position Johnson and Hitchcock assigned to Meyer in the international field of modern architecture was reinforced in the Bauhaus Exhibition of 1938 at MoMA. Largely devoted to Gropius’s time as director of the Bauhaus, the exhibition minimized Meyer’s role in the historiography of the institution. In the exhibition catalogue, conceived under the direction of Gropius and executed by Herbert Bayer, Meyer appeared in a short description of the foundation of the architecture department within the school. The emphasis on Gropius’s agency in Meyer’s appointment is typical of the tone of the MoMA catalogue:

“In 1927 Gropius succeeded in bringing the Swiss Hannes Meyer to the Bauhaus as instructor in architecture. Hannes Meyer became head of the Architecture Department and, after Gropius left in 1928, Director of the entire Bauhaus for a short period.”5

At the end of the catalogue, Meyer appeared again in a section entitled “Administrative changes, 1928”—little more than a brief description of Gropius’s departure that notes in passing Hannes Meyer’s appointment to the directorship.6 Without describing Meyer’s activities at the Bauhaus, the catalogue simply states that he served until conflict with the municipal authorities led to his resignation in 1930. At this point Mies van der Rohe’s tenure as director of the Bauhaus came into focus. In essence, in the MoMA catalogue Hannes Meyer functioned as a hyphen between Gropius and Mies—his activities at the Bauhaus neither commented upon or described. He was simply a placeholder.

Wraparound catalogue cover Bauhaus. 1919-1928, MoMA, NY, 1938. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The Museum of Modern Art Library, © 2019. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

The particular view of the Bauhaus presented at MoMA in 1938 corresponds to the place of Meyer in the historiography of modern architecture in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The view that Meyer’s work allegedly lacked aesthetic interest, rendering it irrelevant to an Anglophone audience, was reinforced in the first chronicles of modern architecture’s development. In Pioneers of the Modern Movement, first published in 1936 and later known as Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner charted a genealogy that extended from the arts and crafts movement to the work of Walter Gropius.7 While Pevsner’s book addressed little work from the period following the First World War, it is clear that the criteria of his history of form would exclude Meyer from serious consideration. A few years later, Sigfried Giedion, in his Space, Time and Architecture (first delivered as a Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1938 and 1939), offered a history of modern architecture focusing on the aesthetic treatment of space.8 In his book, Giedion presented his famous comparison between Picasso’s Arlésienne and Gropius’s Bauhaus Building in Dessau—a juxtaposition emphasizing transparency and dematerialization as constituent elements of modern architecture. As is well known, in its first editions the book focused primarily on the achievements of Gropius and Le Corbusier and neglected figures such as Mies. Hannes Meyer, of course, is nowhere to be found in this book, which shaped the way several generations of American architects understood the history of modernism. The same is true for the most authoritative survey of modern architecture of the 1950s, Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, first published in the Pelican History of Art series in 1958.9 As in The International Style, his work with Philip Johnson from 25 years earlier, Hitchcock’s Architecture… treated developments at the Bauhaus in purely stylistic terms, without once mentioning Meyer’s name. Pevsner, Giedion, and Hitchcock shared an indifference to Meyer’s contribution to modern architecture—an indifference that exposed the formal and aesthetic point of view underpinning each of their respective books.

Despite the relative absence of Meyer’s activities from Anglophone architectural historiography, Meyer was not completely unknown to architects in the United States. Indeed, we find a significant publication of Meyer’s work at Harvard during World War II. In 1942, the remarkable student-run magazine Task published a special issue devoted to architecture and city planning in the Soviet Union—a focus directly related to the wartime alliance between the United States and the USSR. As the editors of the issue noted, “the achievements of a nation which has built and planned on a scale larger than any yet contemplated elsewhere should receive the serious consideration of all planning technicians.”10 The lead article in this issue was Hannes Meyer’s text, “The Soviet Architect,” which had been published in the Mexican journal Arquitectura that very same year.11 What is more, the brief biographical note accompanying Meyer’s contribution is an early English-language publication that addresses his career from the Bauhaus, to the Soviet Union, to the beginning of his sojourn in Mexico. This biography, undoubtedly prepared by Meyer himself, stressed his role in the Soviet Union and minimized his work at the Bauhaus. It described his membership on the jury for the Palace of the Soviets competition, his position within GIPROGOR (The State Institute for the Planning of Cities), his planning of Birobidzhan and even that he was appointed as a professor of the Academy of Architecture of the USSR. While Mayer’s article offered perhaps the first synthetic history of Soviet architecture to appear in English, it revealed little about Meyer’s own work, either in the USSR or earlier in his career. Instead, it manifested one dimension of Meyer’s reception in the Anglophone world, which was not as an architect but as an expert on the Soviet Union.

Task, No. 3, 1943, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Archiv der Moderne.

The 1960s witnessed several shifts in the reception of Meyer. At the beginning of the decade, Reyner Banham made a few sparse but significant references to Meyer in his Theory and Design in the First Machine Age of 1960.12 In line with the book’s general aim, Banham sought to highlight the symbolic content within the legacy of the Bauhaus, opposing those who would describe it as the source of architectural utilitarianism. Instead, he emphasized the “spiritual” origins of Gropius’s project. Banham emphasized the theme of Durchgeistigung in Gropius’s Idee und Aufbau des Staatlichen Bauhauses Weimar. In this context, Banham offered a revealing description of Meyer’s work:

“Gropius … was far from being the Materialist or Functionalist he is commonly thought to have been—indeed, the Bauhaus had no Functionalist phase until Hannes Meyer took over on Gropius’s retirement.”13

Elsewhere in his book, Banham associated Meyer’s materialism with the influence of El Lissitzky. In other words, Banham reprised Johnson and Hitchcock’s 1932 assessment of Meyer as a functionalist with leftist political motivations, but with a crucial difference. The concluding chapter of Banham’s book offered a reappraisal of the concept of functionalism through a discussion of the deeply symbolic content of the work of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. In contrast, Banham praised Buckminster Fuller’s ability to understand and adapt to the rapid pace of technological change. Banham only tacitly suggested that Fuller’s work represented something like an authentic functionalism. It is nevertheless clear that, for Banham, functionalism was no longer a term of derision, as Johnson and Hitchcock had used it, but rather a positive label. Banham’s description of the Bauhaus under Meyer as a “functionalist phase” should thus be read as a compliment rather than a pejorative term.

Also beginning in 1960, there was a parallel and concerted effort to collect and interpret Hannes Meyer’s legacy on the West Coast of the United States. At this time, Roger Sherwood, an architecture student at the University of Oregon, initiated a comprehensive study of Meyer’s work. Letters in the German Architectural Museum and more recent correspondence reveal that Sherwood contacted Lena Meyer-Bergner directly on behalf of the association of architectural students of the University of Oregon:14 a clear expression of interest in the work of Meyer and an enthusiasm for his work as an architect. Sherwood expressed specific interest in the League of Nations project by Meyer and Wittwer, going so far as to write, “I consider this ensemble to be one of the most significant works of modern architecture but that its importance is as yet largely undiscovered.”15 In another letter, Sherwood described Meyer as “one of the most important and possibly one of the most overlooked contributors to the development of modern architecture,” and proposed to hold an exhibition of Meyer’s work in Oregon based on reproductions that Meyer-Bergner offered to send.16 It is unclear whether this exhibition took place, but in the following years, Sherwood moved on to study architecture at Columbia University, where he continued to research the work of Hannes Meyer. By 1962, he had proposed to Meyer-Bergner that it would be possible to publish a comprehensive study of Meyer’s work if he were able to travel to Switzerland to assist her in collecting and sorting throuugh the material at her disposal. In his correspondence with Meyer-Bergner, Sherwood also indicated some reasons Meyer’s work was not well understood in the United States:

“… W. Gropius does not reflect the same interest as HM, but Gropius has had a definite influence upon the world of architecture and his silence regarding HM has had a definite effect upon the acceptance of HM as an outstanding modern architect. Gropius’ silence, I feel, needs to be questioned—why did he refuse to mention HM, why Albers, and why many others? I think these questions and many more need to be answered and documented before the real image of Hannes Meyer and the high level of thought he represented is going to emerge and found acceptable.”17

Cover of Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject by K. Michael Hays, published by The MIT Press.

Throughout this endeavor Sherwood demonstrated a remarkable awareness of the historiographical stakes. He pointedly noted that a comprehensive study of Meyer would force American historians, who had previously referred to Meyer as a “communist functionalist” and a “fanatical functionalist,” to defend their positions. Despite Sherwood’s perceptive research and his efforts at assembling a great mass of material, his professional life as an architect and educator prevented him from completing the manuscript for a book on Meyer. The publication of Claude Schnaidt’s monograph on Meyer in 1965 made Sherwood’s continued efforts redundant, as this multilingual volume set the stage for some of the first serious appraisals of Meyer’s work in Anglophone criticism.18

Schnaidt’s book was fundamental to Kenneth Frampton’s influential comparison of Meyer and Le Corbusier as representatives of alternative approaches to architecture. Frampton’s essay “The Humanist v. The Utilitarian Ideal,” published in Architectural Design in 1968 set the tone for much of the subsequent English-language scholarship on Meyer.19 Frampton’s primary objects of analysis were the entries to the competition for the League of Nations headquarters by Le Corbusier and Meyer. His comparison consistently highlighted the alleged strict utilitarianism of Meyer and Wittwer’s project. Meyer’s project demonstrated a lack of concern for nature20 while Le Corbusier sought to embed his project in the landscape, orchestrating a processional approach: the architectural promenade was anathema to Meyer. Frampton described the opposing tendencies evident in these two projects as evidence of the “schism between humanism and utilitarianism” in modern architecture,21 arguing that this split presented an opportunity to assess the subsequent development of modern architecture as a conflict between the two. It is worth noting the associations Frampton drew from Meyer’s alleged utilitarianism:

“The iconography of Meyer’s Palais des Nations clearly derives from the early utilitarian socialist architecture evolved in Russia immediately after the Revolution. The glazed elevator shafts of the Secretariat block are evidence enough, quite apart from the radio aerial and sky sign which echo the imagery of the Pravda project designed by the Vesnin brothers in 1923.”22

Here, the forms of early constructivist architecture served to indicate the radicality of Meyer’s project—or at least his radical iconography—yet there is little discussion of Meyer’s actual work in the Soviet Union. An abstract notion of Meyer’s approach to architecture, as manifest in the League of Nations project, took precedence over a clear understanding of Meyer’s actual work. Frampton would subsequently use this project as a symbol for a utilitarian impulse to replace architecture with a techno-scientific understanding of building design. In his contributions to the journal Oppositions as well as his much-read Modern Architecture: A Critical History, the League of Nations project played this role.23

Frampton’s interpretation of the League of Nations project requires qualification. In much of his later writing he maintained a healthy skepticism about the possibility of achieving Meyer’s aim of a building that “represents nothing,” insisting that Meyer’s utilitarian impulse remained caught within the demands of representation, which is why Frampton persisted in insisting upon the Constructivist origins of Meyer’s iconography. Other authors approached Meyer with less subtlety. For Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, the authors of Collage City from 1978, Meyer is a figure with little depth and dimension.24 In their now infamous division of architects according to Isaiah Berlin’s schema of the fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing, Meyer (along with Gropius, Mies, and Buckminster Fuller) is placed in the hedgehog camp, a caricatured modernist category in opposition to a pluralistic approach to architecture and the city where collision, density, historical forms and a lack of overall planning were celebrated. The charicature of Meyer served in Rowe and Koetter’s book as a one-dimensional representative of all that was allegedly wrong with modern architecture and urbanism.

It was precisely in response to such an interpretation that the most sustained English-language analysis of Meyer’s legacy was articulated. In K. Michael Hays’s Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject: The Architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer from 1992, his intention, as elsewhere in his writing, was to identify architectural practices that opposed the “cognitive project of humanist modernism.” Hays’s problem with modern architecture as a humanist project was that it “encoded the values and norms of a bourgeoisie still emergent in a market economy, providing a system of representation that exactly sufficed the sense of self, the aesthetic preferences, social habits, and forms of entertainment of that class.”25 His examples of such architecture included Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, and Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank. However, when one reads between the lines, Hays’s book appears as a critique of a much wider body of work. Given that Frampton had already defined Le Corbusier’s work as humanist in opposition to Meyer’s utilitarianism, it might be safely assumed that Hays saw much of Le Corbusier’s work as also representative of bourgeois values. Moreover, it is possible to understand Hays’s references to Charles Garnier and Otto Wagner as veiled references to the celebration of formal exuberance by contemporary postmodernist approaches to architecture. Against this background, Hays interpreted Meyer as the representative of an architectural position that could offer a critique of dominant bourgeois ideology, in which the subject’s authority vis-à-vis the systematic nature of modernization and representation prevails. In this sense, Hays’s assertion that Meyer’s architecture was “pitted against hegemony” is to belatedly claim Meyer as a precursor to the neo avant-garde projects of the 1970s and 80s by figures such as Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi.26 In this remarkable, but admittedly partial view of Meyer’s work, Hays cast Meyer as a radical alternative to the allegedly humanist modernism and postmodernism that had dominated American understandings of architectural history.

  • 1 Philip Johnson: Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1932, p. 113.
  • 2 Ibid., 60.
  • 3 Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson: The International Style: Architecture since 1922, W.W. Norton & Co., New York 1932.
  • 4 On Meyer’s “extreme functionalism,” see Johnson: Modern Architecture, 1932 p. 21.
  • 5 Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, and Ise Gropius (eds.): Bauhaus: 1919-1928, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1938, p. 110.
  • 6 Ibid., 204.
  • 7 Nikolaus Pevsner: Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, Faber & Faber, London 1936.
  • 8 Sigfried Giedion: Space, Time, and Architecture. The Growth of a New Tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1941.
  • 9 Henry Russell Hitchcock: Architecture. Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 4th ed., Yale University Press, New Haven 1977.
  • 10 Editors: "Introduction to Soviet Issue," in: Task, No. 3, 1942, p. 23.
  • 11 Hannes Meyer: "The Soviet architecture," in: Task, No. 3, 1942, pp. 24–32; Hannes Meyer: "El arquitecto soviético," in: Arquitectura. Mexico, No. 9, 1942, pp. 3–19.
  • 12 Reyner Banham: Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Praeger, New York 1960.
  • 13 Ibid., 280.
  • 14 Letter from Roger Sherwood to Lena Meyer-Bergner, 4 April 1960, Nachlass Hannes Meyer, Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt am Main (DAM).
  • 15 Sherwood to Meyer-Bergner, 16 June 1960, Hannes Meyer Estate, DAM.
  • 16 Sherwood to Meyer-Bergner, 28 Jul7 1960, Hannes Meyer Estate, DAM.
  • 17 Sherwood to Meyer-Bergner, 29 April 1962, Hannes Meyer Estate, DAM.
  • 18 Claude Schnaidt: Hannes Meyer. Bauten, Projekte und Schriften, A. Niggli, Teufen AR/Schweiz 1965.
  • 19 Kenneth Frampton: "The Humanist v. the Utilitarian Ideal," in: Architectural Design, Vol., 38, No. 3, 1968, pp. 134–36.
  • 20 See Anja Guttenberger: “The ‘School in the Woods’ as a Socio-pedagogical Ideal Functional Analyses and Photographs by Peterhans,” in: bauhaus imaginista Online Journal (accessed on 5 March 2019).
  • 21 Frampton: "The Humanist v. the Utilitarian Ideal,"1968, p. 134.
  • 22 Ibid., 136.
  • 23 Kenneth Frampton: Modern Architecture. A Critical History  Oxford University Press, New York 1980.
  • 24 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter: Collage City, MIT Press, Cambridge 1978.
  • 25 K. Michael Hays: Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject. The Architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer, MIT Press, 1992, Cambridge, p. 5.
  • 26 Ibid., 286.
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In den frühen 1950er-Jahren bestanden gute diplomatische, politische und ökonomische Beziehungen zwischen der Volksrepublik China und der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik. Beide, sich als sozialistisch verstehende Staaten, waren 1949 gegründet worden. In diesem Aufsatz geht es um die besondere Beziehung zur chinesischen Architektur, Kunst und Gestaltung, die Franz Ehrlich entwickelte. → more

Contemporary Reflections on NID History — Teaching through the Design Archive

I often stage chance encounters for students with archival materials at the NID: a rare photograph of the building in construction, an odd handwritten scribble on a drawing by M.P. Ranjan, a stunning collection of sound recordings by David Tudor and John Cage. The amazement and wonder created by this staging becomes the starting point for the pedagogical value of archives. → more

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