Bauhaus Dessau – the best place to visit for Bauhaus Architecture
Inspired by a recent visit to Weimar… and the Bauhaus 1.0, I thought I can drag out some local wisdom and and write a Bauhaus Dessau guide on visiting Bauhaus sites in Dessau, of which there are plenty! Dessau, and sadly the sites of the Bauhaus Dessau are completely off the radar for most visitors to Germany. While Bauhaus architecture is fairly popular, the town of Dessau is not. There are a couple blog post on the Bauhaus Dessau topic, all very detailed on history and architecture, but none have any useful information on the town, where to eat and whereto stay, so here goes… including some local’s tips.
I grew up near Dessau so the Bauhaus Dessau was always a presence, although in my childhood years, being used as a supermarket and an archive, although the German Democratic Republic did its bit to preserve the structure and historical features.
Also, you need to know that at present there is some restoration work ongoing in both the Bauhaus Dessau and the Meisterhaeuser so there are limited visiting opportunities or parts of the buildings cannot be visited. The Bauhaus website has details.
How to visit the Bauhaus Dessau sites
Dessau is a rather unattractive Eastern Germany city of around 80.000 inhabitants halfway between Berlin and Dresden – cities you don’t want to miss on your Germany trip. And while you get a regular train connection between the cities, I recommend that you make the little detour via Dessau if you are interested in 20th Century architecture – or landscape gardening.
The city’s population has been shrinking the past twenty years despite some federal efforts to relocate government offices there. A Bauhaus Museum was opened in 2019 at the Bauhaus Centenary and while it is not on the tourist hot spot list, you can easily spend a nice architecture-soaked day or two here. In addition to all things Bauhaus Dessau, you will find extensive English-style landscaped gardens here as well as a small aviation museum on the site of the former Junkers Aircraft factory.
Bear in mind there is always some sort of reconstruction and renovation going on at the Bauhaus, especially the Bauhaus and the Master houses. The Bauhaus website has information on what is currently accessible and on tours.
The “main” Bauhaus was built in a year between 1925 and 1926 by Walter Gropius, architect of the Bauhaus 1.0 in Weimar. Why did the Bauhaus move at all? Well, despite being part of the same country, Weimar was an established, staid old town of German classicism. Gropius may have constrained himself in the style of the building, but brought radical new ideas how the Bauhaus School would be run and attracted, allegedly too many political radicals, too many women… too much for the Weimar establishment. While the art school stayed in Weimar, the entire Bauhaus faculty moved to Dessau, a small industrial town, which offered land, money and more artistic liberty, and Gropius employed his architectural firm to raise a rather large new building partially from pre-fab elements on a previously disused plot north of the historical centre.
It already closed in 1932, when Mies van der Rohe moved part of the faculty to Berlin, while the Bauhaus building continued as a household school, army training centre and various vocational schools until the 1970s when the GDR government listed it and had it restored to its original state and reopened as a museum and cultural centre. Unlike the Weimar Bauhaus which was an architecture and applied arts college through most of its existence, it only became a working university again in the early 1990s.
Visiting the Bauhaus
The Bauhaus is open daily from 10.00-17.00 and audio guides for a self guided tour are available. It is a working university and I found it quite liberal – basically you can go anywhere as long as you don’t disturb teaching activity. There are guided tours daily at 11.00 although at present there seem to be tours in Germany only. You pay your fee, currently 8 Euros, at the shop, then you are free to wander and basically do what you want.
I recommend walking around the building first, then explore the staircase and grand lecture hall. Pretty much all the fittings are original or replicas, giving you a great insight into the design of the period. Take a break in the student cafeteria or lounge on the original Bauhaus chairs (well, replicas) in the generous hallways. I did find a tour very helpful the first time I visited, especially since nobody kicked us out afterwards and we were free to explore the building.
For up to date information in English, you can visit their website.
Originally three modernist semis called the “masters houses” built by Walter Gropius, they are named after their famous tenants – Laszlo Moholny-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to name just a few… with a detached home for the master Gropius himself. The detached house was completely destroyed in the World War Two, the others damaged extensively and not rebuilt for a long time. Now three are rebuilt, and the Kandinsky/Klee semi is usually open to visitors as a period residence.
Unless you are firmly interested in 1920s interior design, I would say the exterior or a lot more interesting than the interior which is extremely bare and in various states of reconstruction.
The Muche-Schlemmer House, reconstructed just 20 years ago, is usually open for exhibitions and is also used as offices.
The third one, Moholny-Nagy, was almost completely destroyed and has been partially reconstructed. The Gropius residence was also destroyed and only recently reconstructed to a bare walls state so not much to see – which is a shame! The 2014 reconstructions look a bit like place holders to be honest. Think of it what you like, but they do look a bit creepy with their windowless concrete walls, very much giving Potemkin village vibes.
Also worth mentioning is the “kiosk” a small sleek concrete hut serving as a outdoor bar, a 2014 reconstruction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s only Dessau building. Which is usually in full working order, serving as a small outdoor cafe.
Here on the Southern edge of the city, is where the second most interesting bit of Bauhaus history, is. Housing for the masses! Not a new idea, but after the higher school buildings and masters villas and private commission, about high time to realize the socialist radical ideas and generate housing for the lower income groups of industrial Dessau.
The Steel House
This building, believe it or not, was built for “experimental living” between 1926 and 1927 by Georg Muche and Richard Paulick, while the Gropius office set to construct a large-ish estate of terraced houses for lower- to mid-income workers. It is a lot bigger than the terrace houses on the estate, and was actually lived in until the 1980s. Steel sheets were quickly abandoned by the Bauhaus architectural practice as they were deemed too costly and not flexible enough, preferring pre-fabricated concrete sheets instead.
Start your walk at the “Konsumgebäude”. it’s a combination of five-storey apartment block and flat-roofed shop building, built by Walter Gropius in 1928, rather as an afterthought to the estate. it is mostly a construction from rendered brick, so quite traditional, although the white render and metal window frames don’t give that away. It looks like a blueprint for the International Style which spread throughout Europe throughout the 1930s (Highpoint I and Lawn Road Flats in London being good examples) except for Germany.
The city commissioned the estate and just over 300 terraced houses, something rather new in Germany, were completed, connected by streets in a fan shape, with small back gardens and between 55 and 70 square metres, rather small in today’s terms for a house. If you walk with your eyes open from the Konsum Building along the “Kleinring” street, you will see a couple houses that are like Gropius intended them – simple, white, single-panel windows.
Most have been changed beyond recognition by pebble dash, insertion of double glazing, conversion of the rather impractical flat roofs into extensions – it’s because these buildings weren’t listed throughout much of their life time and privately owned, so owners had little appreciation for the Bauhaus aesthetic and tried to make their little houses as comfortable as possible. In Eastern German time,s usually middle incomers with a degree of education and good DIY skills and a love of gardening used to live here, usually owning the little terraces.
Part of the ensemble are also five pleasant multi-storey houses with large yards and plenty space in between for lower income families. They are still owned by the municipality and are rented out to those with lower incomes. One flat is kept as a small museum flat, and can be viewed as part of a (sadly, quite rare) tour of the Törten Estate. They are built cost effective from Brick by the Bauhaus Office, not Gropius, and were owned by the Konsum Verein and rented out to lower income families, with just under 50square metres deemed sufficient for a family of four.
Their style is very reminiscent of social housing in the UK, which kicked off proper with the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act. If you look around formerly low income parts of London, for example, this style will look very familiar.
Last not least, there is a house made from steel. This house is not really fit for living. Boiling hot in summer, freezing in winter. Georg Muche und Richard Paulick designed it in 1926, and it has quite palatial dimensions when compared to the other houses in the estate. Hard to believe someone actually lived in it until the 1980s.
A late 1920’s design by relative unknown Carl Fieger. Built on the site of a previous inn, it sits in a rather nice position on the Embankment of the river Elbe, and is another prime example of the light yet fuss-free style of Bauhaus 2.0. It is a restaurant, and has a beer garden. Used to be quite fuss-free when I was junior staff at the hospital (where my office overlooked the Bauhaus), and we’d often cycle tehre with the staff from my ward, drinking cheap coffee or eating ice cream. It’s gone a bit upmarket since although no one has done anything to spice up the meh mid-noughties interior, the restaurant offers a solid seasonal German menu with some veggie options, and there’s always the beer garden if you are on a budget and just want to take a good look at the building.
Other Bauhaus buildings
Of which there are the job centre, the Fieger House (next to the steel house), the Engemann House and the Naurath and Hahn Houses. With the exception of the old job centre, they are privately owned, have been modified before being attributed to the Bauhaus and listed and are not open for viewing. The job centre is now a public municipal building and can be visited during regular office hours at the discretion of staff working there.
The Bauhaus Museum
The latest incarnation of Dessau’s Bauhaus attractions, opened in 2019, this monolithic cube slap bang across from the similarly monolithic shopping centre in the centre of town is a new showcase for Bauhaus furniture, designs and miscellaneous items that were in storage and only partially displayed in the Bauhaus due to space constraints.
I am not sure what to think of it because it’s been slapped into a corner of a previously nice park and now makes the city cente look rather claustrophobic. Also not sure what to think of the design – looks like they have taken inspiration from the soulless looking Weimar Bauhaus Museum. However, as I am not sure how much of the furniture and other exhibits is available in the Bauhaus now, might be worth taking alook, especially since a combination ticket is not much more expensive and it’s a leisurely 15-minute walk from the Bauhaus.
Dessau Bauhaus Practicalities
Dessau was almost completely destroyed in the Second world War and rebuilt in pretty faceless, love-less Eastern German style. A romantic city to linger it is not but Bauhaus Aficionados will be happy here for a day or two. Also note that there is a German chain of DIY stores called “Bauhaus” of which there are several in Dessau, so careful what you put into your map app. I have made a map of all the Bauhaus sights, places to eat and sleep, feel free to download it.
Getting to Dessau
By car, very easy, it is just off the A9 principal motorway between Munich and Berlin. Beware of speeding cameras in the vicinity, yes, there is no speed limit on German motorways but only where there is no speedlimit. The motorway round Dessau is notorious for speed cameras, usually mobile ones.
By train, in theory you get some half decent trains from Leipzig and Berlin, usually taking about 1-1,5hours, sometimes requiring one change. The high speed train bypasses Dessau, nearest high speed train (ICE) stations are Dessau and Wittenberg, its about half an hour from there with frequent connections (at least every hour) to Dessau. Bitterfeld is not a place you want to Linger, Wittenberg is worth half a day or so because of its role in reformation history and it’s a pleasant little town.
Other things to do in Dessau
There is not much to see in town, but garden lovers will have a great time in the Gartenreich Dessau-Woerlitz. Culturally very important, totally different period. The ruler of Anhalt, Prince Leopold Friedrich Franz, traveled a lot and brought back ideas from England, and started building landscaped gardens from the mid-1700s onwards. Some elements you can see in town, but the prime example is the Park of Woerlitz, about 12km east, 30min by bus or train hourly). Since this is a blog post about Bauhaus, I kindly refer you to their website for more info.
Where to stay
A real Bauhaus aficionado must stay in the guest house of the Bauhaus for sure. These are very authentic guest rooms once built for visiting faculty and guests, and as such, do not expect hotel standard. They do look lovely and tidy, and you can book them for a very reasonable 65-70Euro for a double. If you want to take it a notch up, a reconstructed single room is also available. There are shared facilities throughout including a small kitchen. You can reserve them by going to the website of the Bauhaus.
Other than that… meagre offerings . There are two or so business hotels where you pay 100-130 Euro for a meh but reliably comfortable room.
Better to stick to smaller guest houses here. One looks like a gem, no need to go to Bavaria to live your cliched German forest maiden phantasy, The Forsthaus Leiner Berg is a wooden gamekeepers house in a forest yet with all mod cons. Only disadvantage: It is not exactly central and you will probably need a car. Still, for about 80Euros for a double including breakfast it is a pretty good deal.
Somewhat closer to the Bauhaus, the Hotel 7 Säulen is vis-a-vis from the Meisterhaeuser and offers solid mid-range accommodation with a nod to modernist style in the 100-Euro range.
And that’s really it with recommendations for Dessau, but Ziegler’s Restaurant und Pension in Woerlitz looks rather nice, too – very spacious modern rooms for about 120 Euro a double.
Where to eat
Okay, I am pretty biased here, because I only go to one or two restaurants every time I am in Dessau. I tried a handful and these really stick out. I tried to include the website but please note often there is no website and if there is, it is only in German. Don’t let it stop you visiting, usually some English is spoken.
The best restaurant for me, by a mile is “Hellas” a good old trudge south from the centre, not so far if you are visiting the Toerten Estate (just hop on the tram to the final stop, then walk 5 minutes along the big main road) . No website, just a facebook site, but has been run by the same family for ages and offers very reliable Greek food with a German slant in a supremely friendly atmosphere. Another Greek Restaurant with a good reputation is “Athos” round the corner from the master houses. My browser classed their website as “suspicious” so I will leave it at that. Generally, Greek restaurants in Dessau are reliable as there are quite a few.
Chinese in the provinces
I would not say it’s a high culinary temple, but the “Hang Zhou” restaurant somewhere in the Western suburbs between allotments and DIY stores is a Eastern German classic of food megalopolis. If you are very hungry and want to enjoy the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, this is your place. Tripadvisor gives it the worst reviews ever, locals love it.
Coffee and Cake
In the old days of me growing up, there were at least five distinctive, family-run patisserie-cafes in Dessau. One has survived and their creations are worth an hour or two of your time. Now the Konditorei-Cafe Mrosek may have lost their delightful retro interior, but their cakes and ice cream sundaes are still great. Chimney cakes are a specialty, and so is their oversized cream puff, oh, and the East German Prasselkuchen, quite literally, crackle cake, from streusel and puff pastry.
If you didn’t strike lucky with any of the suggestions above, there are some restaurants getting good reviews but I have never been. There is a Syrian Restaurant called Palmyra next to the Bauhaus Museum which looks rather nice. The “Teehaus” behind the Bauhaus Museum is good according to my mother. And in many towns in Eastern Germany you will get a decent Vietnamese meal due to many Vietnamese settling in Eastern Germany and opening small businesses here.
As usual, here is a handy map with all places mentioned in the blog post.
The Small Print
As a Dessau local yokel, I tend not to require accommodation when visiting the homeland, but I am very tempted to try out the Bauhaus guest rooms. All other hotel links are affiliate links to Booking.com, meaning I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you book using one of the links. I have known most restaurants for years and can assure you of their superior quality. Don’t expect an English menu, although some English will be spoken. I visit Dessau all the time to see family, so these pictures were taken by me at various times between 2007 and 2022.