The Auerbach House by Walter Groupis with Adolf Meyer
Barbara Happe and Martin S. Fischer
Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus 100 years ago, in 1919, and the centenary of the school is being celebrated around the world with exhibitions, events, and new publications. Recent scholarship focuses on Gropius and the school’s teachers and students, and investigates topics ranging from women and gender, the body and sexuality, spirituality and politics, and the global dissemination of Bauhaus people and ideas. The newly revised book The Auerbach House by Walter Gropius with Adolf Meyer by Barbara Happe and Martin S. Fischer, begins with a description of the founding of the Bauhaus, grounding it in this frenzied appetite for the school and its founding director. However, the text is not really about the Bauhaus. Instead, it is a study of just one house, the Auerbach House in Jena, Germany: its architects, design, construction, and the fascinating and tragic life of its patrons Felix and Anna Auerbach. The book is a revision of the authors’ 2003 publication Haus Auerbach of Walter Gropius with Adolf Meyer that documented the history and restoration of the 1924 house from 1994 to 1995.
The new edition advances the earlier publication’s argument that the rather little-known Auerbach House was crucial to the development of Gropius’s modern or “Bauhaus” style with updated images and research. “The Auerbach house is his [Gropius’s] first ‘Bauhaus,’” the authors declare. Comprised of two interlocking asymmetrical rectangular boxes the building has the characteristic flat roofs and a Terranova stucco exterior devoid of ornament and color that are typical of modernist architecture. The use of Bauhaus to describe the style of this building is somewhat sticky. Popularized in the 1920s and still in use today, “Bauhaus style” is a phrase that streamlines the great diversity of Bauhaus periods and production into one coherent look.
This house is more modern than Gropius’s earlier buildings, like the wooden Sommerfeld House that is filled with expressionist ornament by Bauhaus students, and similar to his renovation of the Municipal Theater, also in Jena in 1921–1922, with its plain cubic facade. Therefore, the motivation behind the authors’ thesis is to situate the Auerbach House within this canon and establish it as an essential Bauhaus (and Gropius) product. They succeed not only because it was one of the first truly modernist designs by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, but also because of their detailed discussion of the building’s design and construction: the innovative and inexpensive materials used like Jurko block construction and hygienic linoleum, and its inventive color design by Bauhaüsler Alfred Arndt.
The house was sold in 1936 and left to obscurity in postwar East Germany until the book’s authors purchased it in 1994. Happe and Fischer therefore are not disinterested scholars of the Bauhaus or modern architecture; they are the home’s owners who still live in the space with their contemporary art collection. Like the Auerbachs before them who adorned the home with their impressive art collection, the authors decorate the space with works by Peter Halley and Frank Stella, specifically selected by the artists for the building and its owners. Although the book is comprised of extensive research, making use of numerous archives, interviews, and academic publications, it is also personal—a unique combination for architectural history today.
Gropius’s architectural firm was a separate entity from his famous school but it often hired strapped-for-cash students for private architectural work. That was the case for Alfred Arndt who had joined the Bauhaus in 1921, studied in the Wall-Painting Workshop, and passed his journeyman’s exam on April 17, 1924, qualifying him to work as a craftsman. The book devotes a whole section to Arndt’s innovative design. He painted the house with a bold and colorful design, using bright pastel colors to accentuate the architecture and complicate the cubic spaces. For example, in the living room a bright yellow band runs up the wall and skirts the ceiling, breaking up the expanse of the bright turquoise painted on all other wall and ceiling surfaces and molding the space into something new. Using Arndt’s extant color plans, located in the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin (reproduced in the book with new color accuracy) and modern analysis of the wall surfaces, the restoration was able to recreate 37 different colors with specially made paints by the German paint company KEIM. It was believed for decades that Arndt’s plan had not been implemented; therefore, this restoration was crucial in expanding the understanding of Bauhaus wall painting and providing an in-situ example. This edition of the book improves the quality of the wall painting images and utilizes recent scholarly work, including my own dissertation on the Bauhaus Wall-Painting Workshop, to update the analysis of the house. Not all modernist architecture was white, void of ornament and color, and this book provides a dynamic example of the use of color and painting in architecture. At the Bauhaus, Arndt and his fellow wall painters used color to emphasize architectural elements and transform space, guide users through a building, and encourage psychological reactions. The authors put Arndt’s color design into this broader wall painting context at the Bauhaus and beyond, including comparisons to Le Corbusier’s color palette.
While the specifics of the architecture, construction, and color design of the house are of interest to the specialist, what holds mass appeal are the house’s older Jewish patrons, Felix and Anna Auerbach, 67 and 62 respectively at the time of construction. Felix was a physicist and professor at the University of Jena. Anna, née Silbergleit, was a suffragette and accomplished amateur photographer. The details of the Auerbachs’ personal lives, their shared childhoods in Breslau, progressive political beliefs (Anna was chairwoman of the Central German Union for the Right of Women to Vote), artistic patronage (they were founding members of the Jena Art Association in 1903, an organization that exhibited the most avant-garde art of the period) and academic pursuits are well documented in the book. Therefore, the building is considered not only as an object in Gropius’s oeuvre but understood as a product of a specific cultural context and patronage. A fascinating aside discusses Edvard Munch’s 1906 portrait of Felix using the extensive correspondence between the couple and the artist. In her 1911 New Year’s card Anna praised the artist, “you soon will be celebrated as the most recent link in the chain Grünewald – Rembrandt – Manet – Munch.” When they moved into their new modernist house in fall 1924 the couple sent a postcard (which is reproduced in the book) of the exterior to Munch with an X marking the location of his painting on the interior.
In the years that followed the home’s construction, the Weimar Republic collapsed and Hitler was appointed German chancellor in January 1933. On February 25, 1933, the 76-year-old Felix suffered a second stroke, partially paralyzing him. The following night, as the Germany they knew, including the Bauhaus, was dissolving, the couple overdosed on sleeping pills, ending their lives together in their Gropius-designed home.