The modernist Workers’ Union school was built into a forest outside of Berlin. Today it is open to visitors as the Bauhaus Memorial in Bernau. The glass front of the 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. It was 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. Indeed, 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. Similarly, 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. You might expect that the union workers who shared this experience would 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. So the other side took over 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 in the Bauhaus Memorial
After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the school was closed down. The building was 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 in use. Now they contain 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 UNESCO added the ADGB / Trade Union school in Bernau to its list. It belongs now to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau.
The ideas of Bauhaus architecture also live on in other architectural schools they have influenced. In Egypt, for instance, we have visited the village of New Gourna, once an architectural model village. The Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy built New Gourna in the 1940s with the same intention of making the buildings serve their social function.
At the end of the 2-hour guided tour we also get to see the gymnasium with its original wall bars from the 1930s and a huge window front. The spirit of the Bauhaus design is all around us. After the Bauhaus tour, we feel that the students who have the opportunity to stay here are quite lucky.
Is the Bauhaus Memorial 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. Howevre, there are guided tours in German and English available (more information: www.bauhaus-denkmal-bernau.de/en).
Our guide for the Bauhaus Memorial in Bernau was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. She had worked at the school during the period of the German Democratic Republic. She could hence 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. This other Bauhaus Memorial also belongs to the same UNESCO site.