Hannes Meyer’s Philosophy of Architecture

Hannes Meyer (1889-1954) was the most controversial and the least well-known director of the Bauhaus. He established architecture as a core subject at the art school and was a radical functionalist. A strong proponent of the idea that architecture should, first and foremost, serve those for whom it was built:

1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.

Hannes Meyer, 1928
Hannes Meyer, 19401

Meyer tried to make buildings inexpensive, comfortable, and functional. This seems like it should be the main aim of every architect, but it’s actually quite uncommon today. Every time you see an eye-catching building with curved forms, ask yourself: does the form of this building serve any function besides looking flashy? The answer will usually be no. Looking flashy might be useful in some cases, but it should never override the needs of the inhabitants. But that is exactly what happens when an architect doesn’t pay enough attention to the peculiarities of the site, material choices, the climate, construction costs, sun reflections, etc.

A work of architecture is meant to be used, its form is largely determined by precedent, and it is set before the public where they must look at it every day. The architect should respect the work of his predecessors and the public sensibility by not using his architecture as a medium of personal advertisement. Indeed, no architect can avoid using the work of earlier architects; however hard he strains after originality, by far the larger part of his work will be in some tradition or other. […] Why should he be so rude to earlier architects as to distort and misapply their ideas? This happens when an architectural element, evolved over many years to a perfect size, shape, and function, is used upside down or enlarged beyond recognition till it no longer even works properly, simply to gratify the architect’s own selfish appetite for fame.

Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, 1973

In 1933, a few years after the construction of the ADGB Trade Union School, Hannes Meyer published an article where he explained his design process in detail:

My designing work is continually analytical. […] I try to approach the design — and induce my associates to approach it — entirely without any prepossessions or preconceived ideas. My preliminary sketches consist of innumerable analyses in diagram form drawn on the smallest possible scale on a standard pad of squared paper.

Whenever possible the designing brigade should seize the opportunity of putting together the detailed building program themselves since it provides a good chance to make a joint analysis of the problem facing them. At all events the analysis must cover three areas:

a) techno-economic elements
b) politico-economic elements
c) psycho-artistic elements

This analysis of the building program must be carried out scientifically and systematically, for it is the ultimate basis of the design. […]

I also make an analysis of the building site independently of that of the building program. My first visits to future building sites are among the most memorable events of my professional career.

The plants, living creatures and minerals I find there usually tell me more about the characteristics of a place than the people accompanying me. Geobotanic studies are a personal hobby of mine and I never leave a building site without a botanic cross-section in my pocket, for plants are a clear pointer to the subsoil and the conditions of life on any part of the earth’s crust.

Hannes Meyer, How I Work, 1933
ADGB Trade Union School2
Foyer of the ADGB Trade Union School3

This heavily functionalist approach to architecture is in practice most often employed when material conditions are so limiting that they simply cannot be ignored. We see this for example in rural Egypt, ancient Greece, and Antarctica.

Meyer believed that architecture is not autonomous. It is never separate from its historical, environmental, political, and economic context:

The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. […]

Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch.

Hannes Meyer, TASK Magazine, 1943
Laubenganghaus, Dessau4

So what can architects today learn from Hannes Meyer? I believe the value of his approach lies in reminding us to focus on the people and their needs, instead of our subjective notions of what seems beautiful. Performance first, aesthetics later.


  1. By Unknown author https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Emil_Meyer_OB.F06496c.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78497514
  2. By Fridolin freudenfett – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72620326
  3. By Carisafari93 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82730199
  4. By James Steakley – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116019751

One response to “Hannes Meyer’s Philosophy of Architecture”

  1. […] You may accuse me of reductivism and point out that we can also reduce the premise of a poem or a Shakespeare play to a trite sentence. The premise of Macbeth, for example, might be “ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction” (Egri, 1960, p. 4). But there’s much beyond this premise (for an excellent analysis, see “Macbeth or Death-Infected” in Kott, 2015), and the simplicity of the premise in no way makes the play worse. While in the case of architecture, the attempt to say something often takes away from aesthetics or functionality. […]


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