The modernist Workers’ Union school was built into a forest outside of Berlin: The glass front of the Bauhaus-constructed refectory looks out onto sparse woods and a pond. In addition to the large windows with an intricate opening system, the room has large skylights fitted with special heating pipes to prevent fogging from the hot food. When we visit, the room is not in use and the chairs are put up on the tables.
Constructed in 1930 for the General Confederation of German Trade Unions (ADGB), the modernist school buildings underwent an eventful history.
The German trade union federation was founded in 1919 and soon started to offer short courses for labour union cadres. For the construction of a proper training facility, the City of Bernau near Berlin offered a convenient parcel of land, in the forest and with a small lake, but not too far from the capital.
A showcase of Bauhaus architecture
The ADGB, keen to build a showcase piece of modern architecture, asked several Bauhaus-affiliated architects for submissions. Eventually a joint design by the two Swiss architects, Hans Wittwer and second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, was selected. The assignment came with a huge budget that left room for experiments and purposeful details.
The large windows and skylights in the refectory contrast with the auditorium – which has only one large window high up on the Northern wall. Nothing should disturb the concentration during presentations, and the room was even fitted with equipment for sound film screenings, which were still new and rare.
The architecture mirrors the social structure
The tables in the refectory seat ten people each, and on each floor of the four dormitory buildings connected to the common rooms, there was space for ten students. The participants of the training sessions were organised in teams of ten, who would eat, study and have fun together, play football matches against the other teams. Over the weeks spent at the school, they should form a community they would – ideally – never forget. The Bauhaus architects made sure that this concept of sworn friendship was also reflected and enforced in the design of the building itself. All the houses were connected to each other, hidden from the world by woodland, and the union workers who shared this experience could be expected to become personally united, too.
Only a few years later the German trade unions were forbidden and the Nazi party took over the school facilities. And for all their dislike of the Bauhaus style and philosophy, they recognised the advantages for team building and used the former trade union school as a Nazi cadre school and for Nazi paramilitary organisations. As did, after the war, the authorities of the German Democratic Republic – who disliked both Bauhaus and Nazis. Nevertheless, they reactivated the school buildings as a trade union training facility for the East German Confederation of Trade Unions.
The Bauhaus Design lives on
After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the school was closed and the building left to decay until in 2001 the German Chamber of Skilled Crafts (Handwerkskammer) got the lease on the premises. They soon started a redevelopment project of the original Bauhaus design that is still going on. Today the buildings are again used as a boarding school for students of vocational training courses – not too far off the original purpose and the priorities of the architects.
In 2017 the ADGB / Trade Union school in Bernau was added to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau.
At the end of the 2-hour guided tour we also get to see the gymnasium with its original wall bars from the 1930’s and a huge window front. The spirit of the Bauhaus design is all around us and we think that the students who have the opportunity to stay here are quite lucky.
Is the Bauhaus Trade Union school in Bernau worth a visit?
If you are interested in modern architecture the Bauhaus Trade Union school in Bernau is a hidden gem. The building is still in use for vocational trainings and not open to the public, but there are guided tours in German and English available (more information: www.bauhaus-denkmal-bernau.de/en).
Our guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. She had worked at the school during the period of the German Democratic Republic and hence could spice her talk with a lot of personal anecdotes.
If you are interested in the design and architecture of Bauhaus you might also want to check out our blog post about the Bauhaus architecture in the German town of Dessau, which also belongs to the UNESCO site.