In my building of the week posts, I usually profile a building that demonstrates some aspect of sustainability or social architecture, something we can celebrate and learn from. This one’s a bit different. It’s a beautiful bad example, a building that is iconic in design circles, but looks terrible from an energy perspective: the Bauhaus school of architecture and design.
The Bauhaus school was founded in 1919 in Germany. It was influential enough to be able to command a purpose-built campus a few years later, planned by Walter Gropius. The campus included accomodation blocks, teaching spaces and offices, all demonstrating their signature unfussy and practical design aesthetic.
The best-known part of the site is the wing that houses the workshops. It appears in all the photos because it has the word ‘Bauhaus’ down the side, but it’s the structure itself that’s the radical bit. The workshops were designed as open concrete platforms on pillars, with glass walls down the side to maximise the light. This was pioneering and highly influential, and in time concrete and steel structures with glass curtain walls would spread around the world in what became known as the ‘international style’.
From a design perspective, the Bauhaus has earned its place in history, even if the soul-less glass blocks that it grandfathered have been less loved. But in an age of climate change, design is more than aesthetics and practicality. It has to include energy performance, and here things start to look very different.
In 2019, the architecture professor Daniel Barber published his analysis of the building’s energy use, in a paper called Heating the Bauhaus. The reality is that “while effective in producing a sense of openness and engagement, this design and construction approach was remarkably poor as a thermal system.”
Those glass walls were single glazing and constantly lost heat in winter, and the concrete walls weren’t insulated either. Maintaining a comfortable temperature was difficult, despite the huge number of radiators. The building employed a full-time boiler man to shovel coal into the heating system in the basement. More boilers were added after the first ones couldn’t keep up, and a second boiler operator was hired. And then a few years later, a third, working on shifts to keep the boilers running 24 hours a day.
The original coal store proved far too small, and by the 1970s there was a big coal pile out the back of the building. Smoke blackened the neat white walls. Plans to shift to gas powered heating were abandoned when they realised the building needed more gas than the local grid could supply.
The Bauhaus continued to burn coal until 1998, when it was finally connected to a district heating system. But even this proved too expensive and ultimately impractical. When the building was most recently renovated in 2011, there were some difficult decisions to make. How much of that original design were they prepared to change in order to make the building practical to heat?
In the end, they chose to ‘functionally abandon’ that wing of the building. The workshops are no longer used, left as “empty monuments to the architectural ideas of 1920s modernism.”
That’s Barnabas Calder in his book Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, which I will review in a couple of weeks, and where I first read about this. The book is a history of architecture through the lens of energy, and it fundamentally challenges the legacy of modernism. He suggests that “the failure in energy terms of this beautiful building might be the most valuable way it can contribute to contemporary architectural education.”
The operators of the building today, who run it as a visitor centre and museum, probably wouldn’t disagree. This year the site is hosting a discussion programme on glass curtain walls and climate change.
What’s true of the Bauhaus school is true of much of the movement, writes Calder. “The wonderful buildings of modernism were the very antithesis of everything that sustainable architecture needs to become: they gloried in profligate heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting systems, in new energy-hungry materials, in car based cities and unlimited international air travel.”
As a result, many buildings from this period are simply incapable of running at the levels of efficiency we need for a zero carbon future. Retrofitting might be possible sometimes. Others will ultimately be bulldozed. And maybe a handful will end up as empty warnings, reminders that the world is not infinite.
“Too many modern buildings and projects” says Daniel Barber, “stand as monuments to the inevitability of growth. They are stranded assets, objects in the urban landscape—and object lessons in how not to live and build.”