“Many things, which appear to be a luxury today, will be accepted as the norm tomorrow.”
-Walter Gropius, 1930

Dessau is full of discordances. It is a city that seems to be a reunification afterthought for infrastructure investment, yet has the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 10-year old headquarters that serves as a model for the E.U. and the world on how creative architecture and planning can conserve energy and reduce unwanted structural waste.

Dessau is the city where the Bauhaus finally settled nearly a century ago. To compare the ideals of the Bauhaus with the outer rings of Dessau itself, you feel yourself entering into a bipolar world that has deep feelings of resentment and self-reliance.

The Bauhaus today is merely a shell of its former glorious self. Run by a non-profit that has done an excellent job of restoring the complex, with meticulous detail, to the way it looked when its founder Walter Gropius graced the halls. It was a place to dream, to push boundaries and to promote social equity.

Within the context of post World War I Germany, these ideas were indeed radical and were on par with what we think of in the United States as the roaring 20’s. It is no surprise that this institution functioned for a total of 14 years as successive Nazi and Communist governments found the ideas espoused by the Bauhaus too threatening to their own agendas.

So why the conflict in the built environment of Dessau? Dessau has always been an industrially strong city. After the Second World War the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) government took full advantage of the infrastructure already there. With every Eastern Bloc Communist government, hubs of industry were designated and specialized and in Dessau’s case it was oil.

With communism comes a very high quality and level of city planning. With the idea of everyone being equal it is fairly simple to design neighborhoods and entire communities. The execution of the designs was of poor quality and poor materiality. The communists left cities across Central and Eastern Europe scarred with unimaginative residential and commercial neighborhoods that have proved too costly to renovate even 20 years after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany.

The opportunity to stay in these old communist buildings 10 years after I had spent two-years living in the former Soviet Union was bittersweet for me. It brought back many wonderful memories of my time in the Baltic countries. It reminded me of the hopefulness and idealism in the original ideas of Marx and Lenin that the older generations still wistfully talked about the (not unlike the Bauhaus).

In the 60 hours that I spent in Dessau I can only guess as to the development of the city after World War II, but I think I’m close. The future leaders of the city still have the task of reconciliation on their list of missed accomplishments. As the Mecca of architecture students and professionals around the world, the city must demand more out of their visitors and themselves. They must do more to entice people to see what life is like on the other side of the tracks. To venture into the outer-ring neighborhoods and see what life was like when East Germans were not able to choose where they wanted to live.

My thoughtful and hopeful wish is that we all can channel the spirit of the Bauhaus movement to encourage groundbreaking ideas that are transformative for the citizens of Dessau. Once this begins, hopefully the divide (both physical and mental) can start to be bridged and the process of unification can finally be referred to in the past tense.


Sharing Spaces

In beginning art classes you learn the concepts of positive and negative space. In architecture and planning, these spaces can have tremendous impact on the psyche of citizens and visitors alike.

During our time in Berlin, two places (one example of each) stands out in my mind. The first is an example of positive space. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. 10 years ago the Nordic countries of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland agreed to create an embassy complex that consisted of six buildings. One for each of the countries and one commons building where they can gather with public, hold seminars, produce exhibitions and simply eat and drink together.

This shared embassy space is symbolic not only for the physical design in which the embassy’s buildings are arranged in the order they are seen on any map, but for the materiality of the structures and the energy efficiency in which they espouse to the global community at large.

This is no ordinary complex. Ambassadors are at eye level with one another, effectively letting one another gaze into the workings of their neighbors and the relations with their largest trading partner, Germany.
Water features are incorporated into the complex with the representation of the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea separating the buildings.

Inside the public exhibition space the Danish embassy was sponsoring an exhibit entitled “Building Sustainable Communities”. This was an exhibit that showcased Danish architects and their work around the world. The only architectural model that was displayed was the Massar Children’s Discovery Center, which is currently under construction in Damascus, Syria. Ironically, the Syrian embassy was right across the street. I asked our tour guide what relationship the Nordic complex had with the Syrians and she answered “none”. While this was not surprising on the diplomatic level, I found irony in the proximity of the embassies and that the Syrians most likely had no idea that one of the premier architectural endeavors in their nation was prominently displayed right across the street.

While the embassies all function separately with their own foreign agendas and policies, the symbolism of symbiosis this complex purports as a purposely-built positive space in the New Berlin may be lost on those that don’t know what to look for. The average citizen of Berlin or Germany most likely has no reason to visit these buildings, but for those of us lucky enough to get a tour, our sensibilities of what is possible has forever changed.


The Journey is Half the Fun

The journey is half of the fun (especially with our crew). After a seemingly quick layover at JFK in New York, we took off, scattered on a Delta 767, and 8 hours later we had put the United States and the Atlantic Ocean behind us.

Berlin’s airport is definitely not Frankfurt. It is smaller, older and could use a good German remodel. It is without a doubt designed for German efficiency though as our bags arrived not 10 minutes after we had cleared passport control.

The majority of the group has been shuttled to the hostel while I stay back waiting for another student who is travelling on a different flight. I just purchased my Tageskarte for the Berlin public transit, as we will be taking a bus and the subway to catch up with everyone else.

Two things strike me already after only being in Europe for two hours: 1, my German is rusty at best and 2, it is a real treat to travel with others that have not traveled to a foreign land.

Speaking a different language is not necessarily a must in today’s Europe, but having a rudimentary knowledge certainly garners the good will of the locals. My laughable attempt at buying my transit card in German got me some sympathetic smirks and an immediate offer to do my transaction in English (for which I was grateful). I think it is important for other sojourners to follow one simple rule when travelling in Western Europe:


This simple rule will help people to avoid making culturally insensitive comments, or have others around you view the group as typical American tourists.

It is fun to see the excitement that is so palpable with some in our group. This is a magical experience already for them and they are just taking everything in. I remember the first time I was in a country where I could not read the signs or understand anything anyone was saying. How exotic. How transformative. How poignant those memories were looking back.

So, as I run off to find Sarah (I hope she made her connection in Paris), I can hardly contain my love for travel and the sharing of this experience with so many others that I respect and admire. Their eyes are wide open right now, and it is a good reminder, for me, to view this experience in studying cities, cultures and societies in Germany with the hope of changing my life perspective yet again.