During our trip to Dessau recently, while wandering round the Törten Estate, we spotted a number of trees decorated with Easter eggs. A little research on the fountain of all knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) revealed that the Ostereierbaum is a German tradition where trees and bushes are decorated with Easter eggs. Afterwards we spotted eggs on sale in the supermarket around the corner from our hotel in Berlin. Like the Christmas tree, which also originated in Germany, a pagan tradition alive and well.
The Törten Estate in Dessau was built on the edge of the town, so some distance from shops and facilities. So Gropius designed a building for the local consumer co-operative society – the Konsumverein, or Konsum. It was built in 1928 during the final third stage of the estate development.
The flat one-storey section was designated to a central grocery store, which was connected to a butcher’s shop and a bakery on either side by folding walls. The five-storey section contained staff rooms and three apartments.
Today, the Konsum Building is used as a visitors’ centre for the Törten Estate as well as apartments and a dentist’s surgery.
A journey on the tram from Dessau train station to the south of the town took us to the Törten Estate. This is development of affordable workers’ houses designed by Walter Gropius, the Director of the Bauhaus.
The estate was commissioned by the municipality of Dessau as affordable houses for working people and was built between 1926 and 1928 in three phases. The load bearing walls are made of prefabricated and inexpensive hollow slag-concrete blocks and the ceilings Rapidbalken (precast concrete joists), prefabricated on- site to reduce the cost of construction. The work was carefully planned to avoid periods of inactivity, again aimed at keeping down costs. There was a definite influence from the English Garden City Movement with lots of green space and tress around the estate. All the houses have large gardens so the owners could grow their own food, keep chickens etc.
Aerial shot of the estate (Source: Bauhaus Dessau Foundation website)
A total of 316 houses were constructed with differing designs for the three phases. They were relatively small by today’s standards, but need to be viewed in the context of the time. And they are still occupied today (although many have been extended).
The design of the houses followed Bauhaus principles. Basically cubic with flat roofs and with strip windows with metal frames. So were quite radical for their time. Compare them with the homes constructed in contemporary developments in the UK such as Letchworth and Port Sunlight – similar planned towns and villages for workers where the houses were of Arts and Crafts influenced vernacular styles.
Walking round the estate indicated to me that people are essentially conservative when it comes to their houses as changes made by the owners is evident – particularly to the size, shape and positioning of the windows.
This is one of the Phase 1 houses built in 1926. This particular example has been restored to it’s original condition and has the distinctive strip windows and steel front door.
Prismatic glass blocks have been used to one side and above the front door. They would have allowed light into the hallway and are an attractive feature. It’s possible to look around the inside of this house, which is owned by the loacal Council, during an organised tour of the estate. (Unfortunately we had missed the start of the tour).
This is an example of a Phase 2 house from 1927.
There were some substantial modifications. Here the glass blocks have been used to provide light to the staircase (a little like the large staircase windows in the Masters’ houses). The Phase 2 houses were slightly smaller than those built during Phase 1 but had a separate bathroom on the first floor
One of the Phase 3 houses at Mittelring 38 was restored to its original condition in 1992. Today, it is used by the Moses Mendelssohn Society, and is open to the public for a modest entry fee (2 Euros for adults).
We were given a tour of the house by the warden. He spoke only German, but luckily Caroline our “interpreter” was with us. The tour was very informative and we were able to see the original features, including the boiler and the earth closet toilet. It is smaller than the houses from the earlier two phases and has a “split level” design with some of the living rooms in the basement – the strip of windows at the bottom of the facade is actually high up in the room on the lower level.
This is the garden at the back of the house
So occupants certainly had plenty of space outdoors. I doubt that many of the modern occupants use it for growing vegetables and keeping chickens, though.
There’s also an experimental steel house, designed by Georg Muche and Richard Paulick, that was constructed on the estate during the first phase. As the name suggests, it’s fabricated from metal.
The house was occupied into the 1990’s. It must have been murder to heat in the winter and keep cool in the summer. And also must have suffered from condensation. Today it’s been restored to it’s original condition and can be visited during the tour of the estate.
It was just a short walk from the Bauhaus school building to reach the Master’s Houses, which had been designed by Gropius. There were originally 3 pairs of semi-detached houses for the senior Masters and a detached house for Gropius himself all set in the pine woods which were then on the edge of the town. An idyllic setting. The detached house was destroyed during the war but is being rebuilt. The semidetached houses are essentially the same with the same floor plan, albeit mirrored and rotated by 90°. They were built from prefabricated elements – “cubes”. Their use facilitating construction.
It was possible to access 5 of the Master’s houses which have been renovated. The first we looked at were those initially occupied by Klee and Kadinsky. It was hard to believe that we were walking through the same rooms where they lived and worked. They were quite spacious and had large balconies and massive workrooms/studios with large north facing windows to let in the light but also so passers by could see them at work.
It wasn’t possible to see all the rooms as some weren’t accessible and it would have been nice if they had been furnished. When originally built, all the houses were equipped with modern furniture, and fitted cupboards were integrated between the kitchen service area and the dining room and between the bedroom and the studio.
Gropius and Moholy-Nagy fitted out their houses exclusively with furniture by their Bauhaus colleague, Marcel Breuer, but the other masters brought their own furniture with them.
The staircases had long windows extending almost the height of the building which let in plenty of light
and provided views over the other houses and woods.
There are spacious balconies which could, in effect, become outdoor rooms during pleasant weather.
We gained a good impression of how the Masters lived. It must have been a pretty ideal living and working environment, but with a lack of insulation and single glazed windows with metal frames, the houses must have been either pretty cold in the winter or cost a fortune to heat.