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Dessau Holiday With Architecture

Updated on July 27, 2017
Clive La Pensee profile image

Berlin and environs. Clive wants to take you places not known by travel agencies and tour operators. He has just returned from Dessau.

Why Dessau?

A visit to Dessau will be about architecture. The earliest in the area is a Rococo palace at Mosigkau, but one can travel through classical styles in the four palace parks, and end with modern art. That is the fascination for me.

The modern isn't new. It is 90 years old and pointed the way for everything we have built since, especially 1950 onwards. Dessau is the spiritual home of the Bauhaus – Walter Gropius’s architectural movement. Gropius planted the seed in 1922, started work in earnest around 1925, but his ideas were dead by 1933, as the National Socialists took control.

Gropius attracted the best in design and we still find Bauhaus ideas active in our modern furniture and household-implement design. I started my architectural pilgrimage with the Bauhaus.

Sunset Tranquility - a Few Miles From Dessau

Revellers departed - the sun sets on the day. This hotel could have been taken from  Fontane's novel "Irrungen Wirrungen".
Revellers departed - the sun sets on the day. This hotel could have been taken from Fontane's novel "Irrungen Wirrungen". | Source

The Martin Luther Kirchen Tag

Our decision to take a hotel in Dessau reflected the expected crowds in Berlin and Wittenberg. Barack Obama arrived in Berlin for the Kirchen Tag, to celebrate the 500th aniversary of Luther’s thesis. Berlin city centre was shut down to traffic. The Manchester suicide bomber had made the authorities even more watchful – if that were possible. Ascension Day was a public holiday and created a 4 day weekend for many. After Berlin, the Luther circus moved to Wittenberg. Our interest in Luther was served by fringe events, so we left the religious celebration to the Luther followers from across the globe, who had descended on Germany. We headed to the other end of the Wörlitz Park from Wittenberg, to an historic hotel - a Landhaus, at the very edge of town.

A century ago, such a Landhaus was a setting for couples to visit on a day out. They would enjoy a picnic under the trees and a cuddle, away from prying eyes.

Prior to railways, they arrived by boat. The mighty Elbe can be reached in minutes by foot.

The Landhaus is on the edge of the Luisium palace park. There are four parks, four palaces and they run into each other. Around each turn is a folly, garden palace, or nature set to work as an artist. This is worth knowing! Hotels often have bikes available for guests, and keen walkers won't find the distances daunting, because the paths are high quality and entirely off road.


Majestic Foot and Bike Paths

A few steps from Landhaus Dessau, I discovered this beautiful foot and bike bridge, connecting splendid paths, either side of an Elbe tributary.
A few steps from Landhaus Dessau, I discovered this beautiful foot and bike bridge, connecting splendid paths, either side of an Elbe tributary. | Source

Art in Nature

Hidden in undergrowth, a few metres from the path, a fallen tree. An anonymous artist made it into an art object, for all to enjoy.
Hidden in undergrowth, a few metres from the path, a fallen tree. An anonymous artist made it into an art object, for all to enjoy. | Source

Walter Gropius's Icon of Modernity

An hour to walk – ten minutes by bike, from the Landhaus Dessau, along the Elbe and through the historic park, The Georgium, one arrives in the Gropiusallee. The alternative, is to pass through the historic town centre, which is best if by car. Although 84% of Dessau buildings were destroyed in the war, one can’t tell. Much has been restored and the in-fill building has been done so sensitively, that it is hard to see the join.

Once in the Gropiusallee, you will wonder what the Bauhaus fuss is about. You have to get your architecture orientation back to 1928. These are not modern buildings you are looking at. They are the brainchild of a man 100 years ahead of his time. I don’t care for the brutal shapes, and yet, I can’t stop looking.


The Bauhaus - Atelierhaus and Bridge.

Originally the School of architecture, designed by Gropius 1925-26. Now a museum, restaurant and apartments.
Originally the School of architecture, designed by Gropius 1925-26. Now a museum, restaurant and apartments. | Source

A Day Ticket for Architecture Pure

A day ticket, purchased on entry in the Gropiusallee, gets you into

  • the Bauhaus main block – once the School of Architecture, now a café, shop, display area of Bauhaus inspired items and an exhibition room.
  • the Meister Häuser – four beautiful buildings set in a harmony landscape and once occupied by Gropius, Feininger, Muche and Schlemme, Kandinsky and Klee.

The Nazis hated the buildings. They were denounced as the work of Bolshevik Jews and would have knocked them down, but were distracted by WW2 and a shortage of space. The Allies did their best to bomb Dessau out of existence and the Bauhaus buldings took their share, while the DDR bigwigs were too ignorant to preserve them.

When the wall came down (1989) they were restored to their present glory, but the art and other contents were long gone – either stolen, destroyed or put into a safe cellar, lest the Nazis remembered they hated them.

Souvenir Ticket - Historic Bauhaus

The beautiful ticket is worthy of the Bauhaus. Simple, slick and certainly not to be creased in a handbag
The beautiful ticket is worthy of the Bauhaus. Simple, slick and certainly not to be creased in a handbag

Bauhaus Woodland Tranquility.

The four Meister Houses back onto a perfect woodland landscape. Gropius knew inspiration needs nourishment.
The four Meister Houses back onto a perfect woodland landscape. Gropius knew inspiration needs nourishment. | Source

Meister Houses as Museums

The Meister Häuser were occupied originally by Gropius, Feininger, Muche/Schlemmer and Kandinsky and Klee. They are now museums, largely without exhibits. The shapes and forms are there to marvel at, but the art has largely disappeared. One of the houses has a fascinating film-review, with English sub-titles, on the life of Kurt Weill, his work with Bertold Brecht and relationship with Lotte Lenya. Further films deal with his life in exile in France and then the USA.

We get to hear some archive recordings of Lotte singing Weill/Brecht songs. Forty years ago, serious Brecht admirers had only her voice on vinyl, which means we haven’t heard her since the vinyl wore out. She was the best in this genre and the films reminded me of what I have missed in the intervening years. I’m delighted to say we (in Europe) can replace our vinyl with remastered digital, at bargain prices.

There is a room with Feininger aquarelles, but serious art enthusiasts will be disappointed. This is about shapes and new living, not about the people who had the dream.


Gropius Living Landscape

Without furniture, the rooms look brutal, but were creative boiler houses for their original users.
Without furniture, the rooms look brutal, but were creative boiler houses for their original users. | Source

Bauhaus and Enlightenment

The area we now know as the Wörlitzer Landschaftspark, was once a hub of the Enlightenment. Centuries later, the Bauhaus architects were invited to settle in Dessau. Other cities were reluctant hosts, but in the early 1920s, Walter Gropius and his disciples, were welcome in Dessau, where they attracted other great artists and designers. Maybe, the Bauhaus is a natural Enlightenment progression.

The engineer Junker, worked closely with the Bauhaus to initiate designs that we now find in every walk of life. Study the Bauhaus chairs. Find their forms in IKEA. Bauhaus architects and designers were shut down by the National Socialists in 1933. Most had to flee Germany. What would our world be like if they had continued? Maybe the reproduction Lexmod Wassily Style chair, would be available at one third its current Amazon price.

They still attract the best in design. I used the rest-room in the Bauhaus Bistro. The taps work with sensors. The hand position turns on and mixes hot/cold water or activates the dryer. Only soap isn't dispensed by them. Don't sneeze! If your hand shakes, you can start again to feel for the dryer position.

Dyson Make the Mixer Taps for the Modern Bauhaus

These taps in the rest room, designed by Dyson, activated by a genius.
These taps in the rest room, designed by Dyson, activated by a genius. | Source

Navigation in Dessau

Information is easily available. I photgraphed this map onto my phone, and made navigation easy. Many street signs are for circular walks and not the shortest route. Care needed!
Information is easily available. I photgraphed this map onto my phone, and made navigation easy. Many street signs are for circular walks and not the shortest route. Care needed!

Modern Glass in an Ancient Settting

Source
The Cranach trio are framed by beautiful modern glass.
The Cranach trio are framed by beautiful modern glass. | Source

And Back in Time

Dessau is an historic town. Lukas Cranach, a great friend of Luther and illustrator of his bible, has three of his greatest religious works in Dessau. In the Johannis and Marien Church, one finds Cranach's Crucifixion, Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane. The Old St. Marien Church was destroyed but rebuilt. Some things couldn't be recreated, which was an opportunity for modern art to meet an old master. You live such a moment when, whilst looking at the Cranachs, your eye is drawn to the modern glass designs in the windows, standing in perfect parenthesis.

On a personal note I need to mention that Cranach’s portrait of Christ protecting the adulteress is one of the most moving pictures I know, and can be found in Weimar, just down the road from Dessau. I find it so poignant in its portrayal of forgiveness, as a done-deal. What a holiday destination Saxon-Anhalt is?

Next time, I will move on from Dessau and try to give a flavour of the four landscaped parks, which begin at Dessau's eastern perimeter, and describe the palaces, the Dutch influence and their treasures.

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