“Building is just organisation: social, technical, economic and physical organisation.” (Hannes Meyer)
Hannes Meyer was one of the most important architects of New Architecture movement of the 1920s. During his brief term in office as the second Bauhaus director, he gave the institution new impulses that had a lasting influence on important aspects of the Bauhaus’s reception and animated the topical debates. His theory, which emphasised the social aspects of design, was widely criticised and poorly received.
Hannes Meyer, the son of an architect, began his architectural career in 1905 with training as a mason and construction draughtsman in Basel. He also attended construction courses at the vocational school there. This was followed by sojourns in Berlin, staying with the architects Albert Fröhlich and Johann Emil Schaudt. He then studied housing construction in the English town of Bath. In 1916, he became the office manager for the Munich architect Georg Metzendorf, for whom he worked on the planning of the Krupp Margarethenhöhe housing estate in Essen.
From 1919, Hannes Meyer headed his own architecture office in Basel. Based on his plans, the Freidorf communal housing estate near Muttenz was built from 1919 to 1921. In 1924, he joined the Basel group associated with the magazine ABC Beiträge zum Bauen (ABC contributions to building). Mart Stam, El Lissitzky and Hans Schmidt also belonged to this group. Together with Hans Wittwer, with whom he later built the ADGB school (Federal School for the German Trade Unions) in Bernau near Berlin, he experimented in 1926/27 with constructivist forms and functionalist methods. These also formed the basis for their competition designs for the Petersschule (St. Peter’s school) in Basel and the League of Nations Building in Geneva, neither of which was actually built.
In 1927, Hannes Meyer arrived at the Bauhaus Dessau with his business partner Hans Wittwer and assumed a post as director of the newly established building department. On 1st April 1928, Walter Gropius appointed him to be his successor as the director of the Bauhaus. Despite reaching a broad conceptual consensus – for both of them, building meant the “organisation of life processes” – Hannes Meyer moved away from artistic intuition towards building theory. He separated the sciences from the arts and introduced new subjects related to technology, natural science and the humanities. He also reorganised the workshops to meet the requirements of industry and an egalitarian social ideal. An important goal for Meyer was to “curtail the influence of the artist”. Starting in the winter semester of 1927/28, the school offered free painting classes. The Bauhaus now aspired to two educational objectives: to educate the production or construction engineer and the artist. Instead of Gropius’s “exploration of the principles of design”, Meyer called on the students to base their designs strictly on the given requirements and to study the “life processes” of the future users. He promoted the expansion of the workshops on a cooperative basis and set up vertical brigades that united the students of various academic years in the implementation of projects such as the ADGB school building. The curriculum now included photography (in a photography workshop which was part of the advertising department) and lessons in urban planning.
For Hannes Meyer, building, as the design of the human environment, was “based on society”. The goal, the “harmonious organisation of our society”, was therefore to be achieved through “life-supporting design”. Meyer represented the standpoint that the Bauhaus had abandoned its idea of designing “for the people”: most of the Bauhaus products were already expensive and therefore reserved for an exclusive group of buyers. As a result, Meyer‘s new slogan was: “The people’s needs instead of the need for luxury!”
In his urban development plans, Hannes Meyer was committed to the cooperative movement and called himself a Marxist. From 1928 to 1930, he built the school building for the ADGB in Bernau near Berlin and the Nolden House in the Eifel region in 1928. From 1929 to 1930, he extended the Dessau-Törten housing estate designed by Gropius with the Laubenganghäuser (Balcony Access Houses).
Meyer’s continued critique of the direction in which the Bauhaus had developed caused increasing tensions with Walter Gropius, who had lost nothing of his power base even after his resignation. In addition, the Bauhaus’s students became increasingly politicised and radicalised as the communist influence grew. Because Meyer did not prohibit these tendencies in his role as director, Gropius – together with the Lord Mayor of Dessau, Fritz Hesse, and Bauhaus teachers such as Wassily Kandinsky – ultimately pleaded to have Meyers fired in order to protect the school from political repercussions. On 1st August 1930, Meyer was dismissed summarily by the city of Dessau due to “Communist machinations”. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had also been recommended by Gropius, became his successor as director.
As early as 1930, Meyer emigrated to the Soviet Union with a group of former Bauhaus students. In the same year, he taught at WASI, an academy for architecture and civil engineering, in Moscow. In the following years, he also acted as an advisor for urban development projects at Giprogor, the Russian Institute for Urban and Investment Development. From 1932, he participated in the Standardgor Project and was the director of the scientific committee for residential and public buildings at the academy of architecture founded in 1934. Among other things, Hannes Meyer designed plans for universities and academies, for the development of “Greater Moscow” and for settlements in the Far East. On lecture tours in Europe, which took him to Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries, he reported on urban development and architectural projects in the Soviet Union and discussed what he believed to be the great perspectives that were opening up there for architects. Hannes Meyer actively participated in the discourse that began in 1929 on the suppression of the “bourgeoisie” concept in architecture and revised some of his radical theoretical approaches, coming more into line with the concept of socialist realism. In the course of the Stalinist purges, to which some of the Bauhaus’s members also fell victim, Meyer returned to Switzerland in 1936. In 1937, the cooperative children’s holiday home Mümliswil was built under his direction.
In 1939, Hannes Meyer was appointed by the Mexican government as the director of the newly founded Institute for Urban Development and Planning at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. For political reasons, Hannes Meyer was dismissed from this post in 1941. Hannes Meyer designed plans for residential homes and developments, for hospital developments and schools. He supported working groups of artists such as the Taler de Grafica Popular (TGP), organised exhibitions and dedicated himself to the few building contracts that he acquired.
In 1949, he returned to Europe. His hopes of participating in the reconstruction of the war-torn cities were dashed, and he returned to his homeland of Switzerland, where he was unable to realise any further projects.
Hannes Meyer, who is also referred to as the “unknown Bauhaus director”, was always too Communist for some and too bourgeois for others. Only in retrospect does it become clear that he probably had a stronger influence on the Bauhaus than Gropius may have wanted to believe.
Merten, Britta: Der Architekt Hannes Meyer und sein Beitrag zum Bauhaus. Ein Vergleich mit Walter Gropius und Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008;
Verein Baudenkmal Bundesschule Bernau e.V. (Hg.): Weltkulturerbe vor den Toren Berlins. Hannes Meyer (1889-1954), Bernau 2004.