Bundesschule Visitor Centre

The Bauhaus’ conflicting identities are reflected in a lean structure of beautifully crafted concrete

When Steimle Architekten won the competition in 2017 to build a visitor centre at a Bauhaus Unesco World Heritage site, it found itself engaging in a conversation that had started in 1928. That was the year that Hannes Meyer became director of the Bauhaus, a brief interlude between the movement’s more celebrated figureheads, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Meyer’s short reign was responsible for the Bauhaus’ second largest project, after the school’s own Dessau complex: the Bundesschule (trade union school) in Bernau, 30 miles north of Berlin. The Bundesschule hasn’t always enjoyed the same renown as the other Bauhaus sites. This is partly due to the all-engulfing tides of German history: completed in 1930, it enjoyed less than three years as a campus for continuing education before being repurposed as a Nazi management training centre.

It is also perhaps due to its architectural character: modest brick buildings that don’t quite fit the heroic image conjured by the white curves and thrusting cantilevers at Dessau. Meyer, an avowed functionalist, saw architecture not as an art but as an objective tool for organising society, based on scientific principles. Such views alienated many at the Bauhaus, while his communist politics set him on a collision course with the Dessau city authorities. In 1930 he was ousted from the school and emigrated to the Soviet Union, while the Bundesschule was consigned to the footnotes of history.

Its fortunes began to change in 2017, when Unesco gave it World Heritage status, and the city launched a competition for the first new building on the site in over 90 years. The challenges echoed the tensions in Dessau nearly a century earlier. The visitor centre had to speak to competing ideas of what the Bauhaus was, while also, as architect Thomas Steimle puts it, “transforming them into the present”.

Steimle’s single-storey concrete and glass building plays with Bauhaus themes such as the celebration of craftmanship and expressive use of modern materials, but with added functionalist rigour. “The requirement to limit the building to what is actually necessary and to dispense with non-essential accessories pays respect to the Unesco site, and also contributes to sustainability and economic efficiency,” he says. The structure is unadorned: the internal arrangement of beams and supporting walls is clearly visible through the glass and follows a logical, regular sequence. One half of the 11m-deep plan is open and column-free, for use as a flexible exhibition space. The other half has a series of walls at 3m intervals, which act as columns to support the roof as well as display surfaces.

The structure is deceptively lean, “reduced to the absolute minimum”, says Steimle. The internal supporting walls are 140mm thick and the roof slab just 120mm deep. Expanded clay beads were incorporated into the proprietary mix to improve the concrete’s thermal properties, making the structure work even harder. Several sample walls were produced in order to test the mix, including the aggregates for the desired colour, and also the formwork. The pattern of the shuttering required detailed drawings and trials on the sample walls, using different joints and boards from several saw mills.

Eventually, tongue-and-groove boards were specified from the mill with the most loosely tensioned saw band. “This ensured the desired surface structure, with a vertical strike in the wood,” explains Steimle. The soffits are also exposed, with grooves cast in for inlaid acoustic materials and recessed lighting. Such fine attention to detail seems a far cry from Meyer’s anti- aesthetic manifesto. But it helps visitors to connect Bernau to the wider Bauhaus movement. Perhaps nothing does this more overtly than the building form itself, embracing what Gropius termed “the aesthetic of the horizontal”.

Above the glass facade, the monolithic concrete roof extends the full 42m length of the building, projecting a further 6m at one end to create a canopy over the entrance. The effect of a solid roof plane seemingly floating above the glazed space is reminiscent of Mies’ Neues Nationalgalerie in Berlin. But it is a sleight of hand – a 2m-deep perimeter beam conceals the slender roof slab behind. One wonders whether Meyer would have entirely approved – but then, this building is far more than a simple tribute.

Photos Brigida González