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Bauhaus rehouses the masses

The impact of the ideas expressed by the Bauhaus school has been profound and far reaching. Today it is seen as a style label to cover a wide range of arts, architecture and design.  But its roots and ideas of building a better society through good, thoughtful planning and design found their practical application in the mass housing programmes that took place in continental Europe after the First World War. Many of the architects who worked on these schemes were familiar with Walter Gropius’s ideas, and some came directly from the Bauhaus and its forerunner the Deutsche Werkbund. Others, like J. J. P. Oud were part of the De Stijl group in Holland . Significantly the housing programme coincides with the emergence of Modernism in architecture and design and the creation of the International Style of architecture as defined by Henry Russell Hitchcock in 1932, when this house building programme is drastically curtailed.

All of these architects and planners wanted to create a better world, particularly pertinent after the devastation of the war. Prior to the twentieth century there had been rapid industrialisation in Europe, culminating in increased urbanisation and resulting in poor housing conditions with much overcrowding, particularly in the cities. By 1931, between 60-70 per cent of the population on average lived in cities. Although attempts to alleviate the housing situation had begun before 1914, the war had created a hiatus as building virtually stopped in most countries for the duration. Hence by 1918 shortages were even more acute, for example in Germany the deficit was a million homes.

Faced with this housing crisis, what is significant is that all the European governments to a greater or lesser extent saw it not as an expensive emergency. Rather, it was an opportunity to raise dwelling standards and demonstrate a more effective and economic building method. Despite differences in politics and economics, there was a revolutionary change in the method of producing dwellings. For example, rationalisation and standardisation of construction and materials became public policy in Germany as early as 1920. Later echoed by Walter Gropius who in 1926 decreed, “The Bauhaus intends to contribute to the development of housing – from the simplest appliance to the complete dwelling – in a way which is harmony with the spirit of the age.”

The reasons for the changes in attitude were social, economic and political. There was a dissatisfaction with the old private / profit method of house building. There was an acceptance by the state to provide financial assistance for house building, including land purchase and tax reform. There was also the active participation from workers, planners and architects who drove the public demand for change.


At the forefront were Germany and Holland. Cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt saw some of the most innovative developments. In 1927 the Reichsforschungsgesellschaft Für Wirtschaftlichkeit im Bau-und Wohnungswesen (Federal Society for Research in Building & Housing Economy was set up with Gropius as vice-chair. Its role was to carry out research into the economic and technical problems related to housing. It covered planning, hygiene, sociology and the concept of the existenzminimum (minimum dwelling). The same year the famous Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart was built, organized by the Deutsche Werkbund, as a showcase of the work of leading Modern Movement architects, including Bruno Taut and the Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud.

In Frankfurt, under the direction of the city architect Ernst May, most of the land around the Nidda Valley was bought up and the Romerstadt Siedlung (1928), and the Praunheim Siedlung (1929) laid out from his designs . Elsewhere in the city he was responsible for the Bruchfeldstrasse Siedlung, the Hohenblick Siedlung, the Mammolshainerstrasse Siedlung and the Reidhof-West Siedlung (1930) to the south-west of the city.

Known as the New Frankfurt (Neue Frankfurt) these estates were one of the most comprehensive building programmes of the Weimar Republic. The functional design of the residential blocks and terraced houses created standards that are still followed to the present day. Key was sufficient space for light and air, with all apartments orientated to receive maximum daylight. This was by using the Zeilenbau method, where blocks were placed on a north-south axis, with wide green spaces in between. Internally all had standard fittings. It was here that the “Frankfurt Kitchen”, the world’s first built-in kitchen, was created by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926-1927.

In 1929 the central theme of the second CIAM (Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne) conference held in Frankfurt was the minimum dwelling. Gropius also discussed this in an essay, ‘Die Wohnung für das Existenzminimum’, where he advocated the principal requirements of minimal dwellings were light, air and space, “to live fully without hindrance.”

By 1930 Gropius has designed blocks for the Siemensstadt estate, Berlin. With Otto Haesler and others, he was responsible for the master plan for the Dammerstock housing estate, Karlsruhe. Architects Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner design the famous horseshoe estate at Hufeisensiedlung, Britz, Berlin-Neukoelln (1930).


In Holland, in 1918 the architect Oud was appointed architect for the Rotterdam Housing Authority at the age of 28. From 1900-1915 the population of Rotterdam had increased by 50 per cent. But the city had fallen behind other Dutch cities like Amsterdam in building low-rent accommodation for the working classes. Oud’s solution was blocks of flats, built of steel and concrete, grouped around courtyards and squares to provide light and air. This was manifested in the first block of the Spangen estate in 1919, the rest designed by Michiel Brinkman in 1922. Oud’s last large-scale estate was the Tussendijken estate (1921-1924), which was very plain with flat roofs.

His last housing project was De Kiefhoek (1930) which was individual three-bedroom houses arranged in terraces. The scheme was also presented at CIAM in 1929 as an example of ‘existenzminimum’. Oud’s ideas on architecture were published in the German magazine ‘Fruhlicht’ in 1921 and in 1923 he lectured on modern Dutch architecture as part of Bauhaus week in their Art & Technology exhibition in Weimar. He also contributed to the Weissenhofsiedlung exhibition at Stuttgart with a group of row houses.

Amsterdam had a well-run housing department. To cope with an increasing population, as early as 1916 the famous estates at Eigen Haard  and De Dageraad (1920-1922) were being planned by Michel De Klerk, architect and leader of the Amsterdam School of Architecture. Although architecturally different from the other examples of modernist housing, the layouts of superblocks with internal courtyards was in keeping with some of the early Berlin schemes such as the Schillerpark estate. By 1934, 48 per cent of the 78,070 new dwellings had been built with state or municipal help.

Elsewhere in Holland, there were the first experiments in high-rise housing in the Nirwana Flats, Benoordenhoutseweg 227, The Hague by architects Johannes Duiker and Jan Wiebenga (1930).


The population of France remained largely static throughout the nineteenth century with less than half living in rural areas. Hence there had not been any great need to build new dwellings after the First World War. Yet as the urban population increased, combined with poor sanitation, the authorities were driven to do something, particularly in the Seine region around Paris. In this area the population had increased from 900,000 to over a million and half by 1921 and by 1931 it reached over two million. In 1922 legislation was passed to incentivise house building through a series of loans to developers. The first manifestation of social mass housing was in the Seine region under the influence the urban planner and socialist politician Henri Sellier director of the Habitation Bon Marché (HBM).

He proposed a ring of garden cities surrounding Paris and he inspired the creation of some fifteen between 1920-1945, the biggest being La Butte-Rouge garden city, Chatenay-Malabry  situated 12 km south of the city, begun 1929 with building continuing up till 1955, with over 3500 dwellings built during that period. Although influenced by the early garden city movement, the layout here was made more formal with a hierarchy of roadways and public squares. Sellier was also responsible for the Cité de la Muette at Drancy (1929-1931) which at fifteen stories was the first experiment in high-rise, low rent housing.


After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 the country was in a parlous state, with Vienna bankrupt. Cut off from its former sources of coal, oil and food, it was close to collapse. There was also severe overcrowding due partly to neglect by private landlords who had a quasi-monopoly on the housing market.

In Austria the Social Democrats emerged as the only political group able to control the mass of unemployed workers and returning ex-soldiers, to prevent a communist revolution. Although the threat had subsided by 1919, Vienna had elected its first Socialist mayor, who set about making the city a model of municipal socialism. Through loans and other means the Austrian currency was reasonably stable by 1922. The city council then through a form of rent tax and land purchase initiated a radical housing programme to reshape the social and economic infrastructure along socialist lines.

Their most enduring achievement was the construction of the 400 Weiner Gemeindebauten (municipal housing blocks), in which workers’ dwellings were incorporated with kindergardens, libraries, health clinics, laundries, shops and recreational facilities. The Gemeindebauten provided not only new living space, housing one tenth of the city’s population, but also a vast social infrastructure. Distributed mostly within two to three miles of the city centre, they were part dwellings, part public buildings. The programme at the outset was to house 200,000 people, of which 167,000 had been accommodated by 1934.

Less Modernist in appearance the design and layouts of the new housing did not follow that developed by the architects and planners in Germany, of widely spaced row blocks. Based largely on the traditional Viennese apartment block, these new blocks were four, five or six stories high and hugged the perimeters. Most had central courtyards with gardens, and fountains. They did not make use of a newly rationalised building industry, rather, they were constructed using craft-based labour-intensive methods, thus providing employment. Internal fittings, doors, windows etc, were, however, standardised and mass produced.

Essentially the Gemeindebauten were designed by architects trained in Vienna before the First World War under Otto Wagner, whose legacy included such internationally known figures, such as Adolf LoosJosef HoffmannJosef Frank and Peter Behrens. All the architects of these blocks were his pupils, such as Karl Ehn, who designed the famous Karl-Marx-Hof (1930)

Examples of the Gemeindebauten included: Liebknechthof housing estate,(1927, Karl Krist), Reumannhof housing estate, (1920s, Hubert Gessner), Metzleinstaler Hof housing estate, (1920s, Hurbert Gessner), Szydzinahof housing (1926, Karl Ehn), Winarskyhof (Behrens et al, 1925), and the last and highest was at Friedrich-Engels-Platz-Hof (1933, Rudolf Perco).

The city was proud of its achievements, earning the nickname ‘Red’ Vienna. More widely, in 1930 Josef Frank, the only Austrian to be involved in the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, produced a master plan for the Viennese version. This was inaugurated as the Werkbund Housing estate, Lainz in 1932 (RIBA46414). Intended as an exhibition of modern living, it included contributions from other European architects, such as André Lurçat and Gerrit Rietveld. Receiving over 100,000 visitors it attracted many national and international architects.


By 1934 with the rise of National Socialism in Germany and Austria, there was a drastic curtailment of the housing programmes in these countries. Elsewhere in Europe, including the UK, the shift towards more conservative regimes, also saw a reduction in building social housing. Thus, this unique experiment had come to an end. Although, the housing shortage had not been fully resolved, some five million homes had been built by Germany, followed by three million in England during this period. Holland had managed 900,000 and France 600,000. Contemporary housing experts, Elizabeth Denby and Catherine Bauer considered it a remarkable achievement. Both commented on the high quality of the architecture and the overall raising of living standards. In the UK, John Highton, the Secretary for the Department of Health in Scotland wrote a report entitled, ‘Working-class Housing on the Continent’, noting that, “For a number of years we have been aware that working-class house in Continental countries have taken striking and novel forms.

What was the impact of the Bauhaus in this programme? In strictly architectural / design terms it may appear tangential, but the desire to create a better world through a socially conscious architecture was a fundamental tenet of the Bauhaus and amongst Modern Movement architects. The use of standardisation and modern building methods were also key. But the clearest and most recognisable manifestation of these aims is the home. What is striking during this period is that all the governments had accepted that housing was a public utility and should remain so.

This feature was written to complement the exhibition Beyond Bauhaus - Modernism in Britain 1933-66 in the Architecture Gallery at the Royal Institute of British Architects headquarters, 66 Portland Place. The exhibition runs from 1 October 2019 - 1 February 2020.

Feature by Suzanne Waters.