In Munich and Dessau, Art and Design Call. But History Is Even More Compelling.

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Sebastian Modak


Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Orcas Island in Washington, where he confronted the loneliness of a solo trip around the world.

In the final years of World War II, about 90 percent of Munich’s Alstadt, or Old Town, was reduced to rubble by Allied bombers. In the years that followed, using an extensive archive of prewar photographs, the city worked to rebuild it stone by stone, to restore as much as possible of its prewar grandeur.

About 280 miles north, a much smaller city, Dessau, was also similarly destroyed during a bombing raid in March 1945. Its reconstruction took a different form: the sterile apartment blocks that became emblematic of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. In fact, arguably Dessau’s most historically important building — an amalgamation of gray concrete and dark glass that housed the short-lived but hugely influential Bauhaus art school from 1926 to 1932 — wasn’t restored until 1972.

I visited both cities — so different from each other that at times I had to remind myself I was in the same country — for the arts, which had put them on this year’s 52 Places list. With a wave of innovative programming, Munich is making a name for itself in the global performing arts scene. Dessau is one of three German cities celebrating the centenary of Bauhaus, the revolutionary artistic movement. As is often the case when you travel anywhere expecting something specific, I found far more to think about than opera and architecture.

Munich’s efforts to rebuild itself in the model of its past haven’t always been completely accurate. On some buildings, intricately carved columns and stone facades have been replaced by clever trompe-l’oeil paint jobs, because a financially destroyed postwar Germany couldn’t afford the grand construction projects that had once been routine for the Wittelsbach royal family that ruled over Bavaria.

Elsewhere, the darkest parts of Munich’s history — as the nexus for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party — have been scrubbed away. The Hofbrauhaus is now the most famous beer hall in a city of beer halls, where, downstairs, the long, wooden tables are always packed, mostly with tourists seeing how many liters of Helles beer they can stomach and still stand up straight. Upstairs, in a hall that is now mostly quiet, Hitler and the National Socialists held their first major meeting in 1920.

Just a short walk away, on a stone wall in the picturesque Odeonplatz, a few out-of-place dark bricks are the only traces of what once was a monument to the Nazi party operatives who were killed in the National Socialists’ attempted coup in 1923. A trail of nearby golden cobblestones marks the way through Viscardigasse, known as Dodgers’ Alley, because it was the preferred path taken by those who wanted to avoid walking past the monument where they were required to give a Nazi salute.

At the same time, Munich’s contemporary charm — under summer sun and clear blue skies, it was one of the most all-around pleasant cities I’ve visited this year — seems determined to distract you from that history.

At the English Garden, a 910-acre park, one of the biggest urban greenspaces in the world, life is very good. Crowds sunbathe in their birthday suits while children throw Frisbees and run free. At the Eisbach, a man-made river that cuts through the park, a standing wave sees a regular rotation of wetsuit-wearing surfers taking turns in the three-foot break until they tumble into the rushing water. Spectators sip cold beers and hold their phones up trying to get the perfect surfer Instagram Boomerang.

Clearly marked bike lanes run through the city and along the Isar River. The scooter-share menace that has spread across the world like a pandemic is here, too, but, conforming to stereotypes, the scooters are almost always perfectly parked in neat rows and I actually found them to be an incredibly safe — and convenient — way to cross the city.

A world-class opera was one of the main reasons Munich made the 52 Places list. Sadly (or perhaps not, considering my track record of unintended naps at opera performances), the Bavarian State Opera was on hiatus during my visit, but there was plenty of other art to soak in.

The biggest revelation for me was the Lenbachhaus, a 19th-century villa that in recent years has been expanded with the addition of a modern copper-and-aluminum-lined building by Norman Foster. It houses an eclectic collection of local art spanning centuries, but its centerpiece is its permanent exhibition on the Blue Rider movement, founded in Munich in 1905 by a group of Russian immigrants that included Wassily Kandinsky and Marianne von Werefkin. The timeline of the group’s history blends seamlessly with the colorful, abstract art, allowing the uninitiated (like me) to gain a surprisingly clear understanding of it all, without too much effort.

  • I found the “City Walk and English Garden” tour from Munich Walk Tours a perfect way to get my bearings and some historical context in just a few hours. In fact, I got along with my tour guide, an Irish English teacher named Noel Byrnes, so well, that I joined his “Beer and Brewery Tour” that evening, and then joined him and some of his friends for a pub trivia night a few days later.

  • You can’t go wrong when it comes to Munich’s beer gardens and you should sample a few. For something less conventional, try Atzinger, a restaurant and bar that also has its own outdoor space.

  • For one of the best views of the city, head up the tower at the Church of St. Peter. Be warned that it’s quite a climb. And keep an eye on your watch, because if the bell rings and you don’t have your hands over your ears, it will leave your head vibrating for quite some time.

And then, of course, there’s Munich’s calling card: beer by the liter, served in giant, glass Masskrugs that the superhero waitstaffs improbably carry by the dozen-strong handfuls. Of the Big Six breweries — the only ones allowed to brew specific batches for Oktoberfest — only two haven’t sold out to major conglomerates: Augustiner-Bräu dates back to the 1300s, making it Munich’s oldest independent brewery, and Hofbräuhaus is owned by the Bavarian State Government. But all six have their own beer gardens, where tables are shaded by chestnut trees and you can eat every possible variation of sausage (or bring your own picnic) while keeping the beer flowing.

For my first few days, it seemed like there was an unspoken agreement in the city that parts of the past were best not discussed. But then I visited the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, which opened in 2015 at the site of the infamous Brown House, which once served as Nazi party headquarters. The museum, which left me short of breath and teary, takes an unflinching look at Munich’s role in the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. According to many people I spoke to, the museum was long overdue.

Still, I found Munich somewhat impenetrable and it wasn’t because of any language barriers (English is widely spoken). It was like there was a shiny veneer over most of the city. I had trouble connecting with locals: Of the dozen strangers I had real conversations with over my time there, only one of them was from Munich. When I found a dive bar, like the very lively Sehnsucht, it felt like a marketer’s version of divey rather than the real thing.

I know that soul is there somewhere — every big city has one. But my search for it revealed the limitations of an in-and-out visit. I didn’t have enough time to discover it.

When you walk into the first exhibition room at the brand-new Bauhaus Museum Dessau — a giant glass “black box,” as its architects call it — you immediately hear recordings of excerpts from newspaper articles from the early 1930s debating whether the Bauhaus school should be shut down for being degenerate and communist as the rising nationalist right claimed.

The school had been chased out of town by conservative politicians before: in Weimar in 1925, just six years after it was founded by the architect Walter Gropius. In 1932, the National Socialists won the ongoing debate in Dessau, and the school was moved a second time, to Berlin. It would be shut down for good less than a year later.

Bauhaus was an avant-garde art and design school that aimed to combine every form of art — architecture, painting, weaving, industrial design — into a Gesamtkunstwerk, a term translating roughly to “total work of art.” Though the focus shifted under successive directors, it was always built on the idea of form meeting function and beauty without the frills. The idea was to create things — light fixtures, chairs, entire buildings — that everyone and anyone could use and love.

Much of the focus during the centennial celebrations in Dessau, where Bauhaus arguably had its heyday while housed in the famous building that’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site, was on the movement’s legacy. Apple products, Ikea furniture and public housing projects — anything that could generally be described as “modern” — have all, at some point or another, been traced by someone back to Bauhaus.

  • Unless you’re a major architecture buff, Dessau is probably best tackled as a day trip from Berlin, less than two hours away by train. Just be prepared to walk a lot; some of the major Bauhaus sites are far apart and the public transportation system is lacking (buses run infrequently). Think about renting a bike.

  • Though the Bauhaus attractions are the city’s main draw for tourists, there are other things. Just nine miles away, is the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, a giant park that is a master class in 18th-century landscaping. Dessau proper has a beautiful park of its own. Take a meandering walk through Beckerbruch Park on your way to the Kornhaus, another Bauhaus landmark.

The reality is that there’s not such a neat line between Bauhaus and the present trends of consumerism, construction and design. And, within Bauhaus itself, there were debates, changes and controversies over its brief 14-year history. The new Bauhaus Museum grapples with some of that nuance while still heralding the movement’s cultural impact.

Its curation, designed largely as pairings of masters (as teachers were known) with their pupils, puts a spotlight on the pedagogy of Bauhaus versus the results. The letters, blueprints and furniture prototypes all bring the idea of Bauhaus, mostly thought about in lofty terms, to a more manageable ground level.

Most of all, the museum made me appreciate my walks around Dessau even more. There’s the Bauhaus school building itself, of course. On the scheduled guided tours you get access to otherwise off-limits sections, like the auditorium and the dorms, where it’s easy to imagine young men and women from 30 different countries putting their creativity into overdrive. Just down the street, there are the Gropius-designed Masters’ Houses, where the likes of Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe lived.

Once I had Bauhaus on my mind, I saw it everywhere — in the big rectangular windows of newly built homes along the Elbe River and in the right angles of the G.D.R.-era apartment blocks in the center of town.

But it was Bauhaus’s other, less tangible legacy that stuck with me. On one of my walks through Dessau, a mostly sleepy town, I saw some disconcerting graffiti: a three-foot high swastika, spray-painted in yellow against the side of a shop. Germany, like so many countries, has seen the anti-immigrant, far right gaining ground. I thought back to the voices at the museum, reading the opinions of those who believed Bauhaus was a danger to society. If some of our aesthetic tastes haven’t changed much since the end of Bauhaus, it’s also true that, for some, neither has a fear of the new.



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