Architect Hannes Meyer and Radical Modernism

A biography

by Georg Leidenberger (Author)
©2023 Monographs 284 Pages


How did architecture, design and art transform from an aesthetic enterprise to serving the needs of the masses? And how did a single individual–and an outstanding representative of "radical modernism"--pursue his personal convictions in an age marked by war and totalitarianism in the name of the collective? These questions frame this comprehensive life story of Hannes Meyer, who as an upstart architect in Basel, director of the Bauhaus in Germany, urban planner near the China-Russian border, and designer of social housing and hospitals in Mexico, fought to affirm the rights of all to a life of comfort and human dignity while seeking to maintain his own identity in the process.
"Georg Leidenberger, for the first time brings to life this steadfast, difficult and polemical architect, portraying him in the whole breadth of his existence."-- Prof. Magdalena Droste, author of Bauhaus 1919-1933. Reform and Avantgarde

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Preface and Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. “Childhood and Youth in Basel, 1898–1909”
  • Chapter 2. “Wanderjahre, 1909–1919”
  • Chapter 3. “From Freidorf (1921) to Freidorf (1925). A Housing Compound, Two Publications and a Modernist Awakening, 1919–1925”
  • Chapter 4. “A Radical Modernist Directing the Bauhaus, 1926–1930”
  • Chapter 5. “Eclipsed Honeymoon in the Soviet Union, 1930–1936”
  • “Interlude: Geneva, 1936–1939”
  • Chapter 6. “‘Everything Here is Vulkanisch’: Mexico, 1938–1949”
  • Chapter 7. “Rootless at Home. Lugano, Switzerland, 1949–1954”
  • Bibliographical Essay
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names and Concepts
  • Index of Places


Fig.1. Civic Orphanage Basel

Fig. 2. HM (center) with sister Rita (left), Max (rear) and Peter (front), ca. 1899.

Fig. 3. HM with brothers Max (left) and Peter (center below), and unknown person.

Fig. 4. HM (far left) with school class, n/d.

Fig. 5a. HM, ca. 1912.

Fig. 5b. HM, ca. 1914.

Fig. 6. Housing in Freidorf.

Fig. 7. Co-op Hall.

Fig. 8. HM, Entry to “Am Hörnli” cemetery competition, 1923.

Fig. 9. HM, Theater Co-op, 1924.

Fig. 10. Page from ‘Junge Kunst in Belgien’ (1925).

Fig. 11. Laubenganghaus, Dessau-Törten, 1930.

Fig. 12a. Bernau Trade Union School, view from hallway.

Fig. 12b. Bernau Trade Union School, main building and walkway.

Fig. 13. HM during inauguration ceremony of Bernau Trade Union School, 1930.

Fig. 14. HM and Lena Bergner at beach of Sujumi, Georgia, 1931.

Fig. 15. HM (seated, left) with colleagues in Russia.

Fig. 16. People in Birobidjan, photographs by HM, 1933.

Fig. 17. Residents, photograph by HM.

Fig. 18. HM on balcony of Geneva apartment.

Fig. 19. HM, painting of Lena, Lilo and self.

Fig. 20. John Torcapel? with daughter Anne?.

Fig. 21. Children’s home Mümliswil.

Fig. 22. HM at pyramids of Teotihuacan, 1938.

Fig. 23. Study of popular housing in Mexico City, ca. 1941.

Fig. 24. Drawing of Mario Pierre, ca. 1947.

Fig. 25. Leopoldo Méndez, head of the Taller de Gráfica Popular and friend of the family.

Fig. 26. HM (third from left) and President Manuel Ávila Camacho (center right) at inauguration of CAPFCE exhibit, 1945.

Fig. 27a. School children, photograph by HM or Meyer-Bergner, ca. 1945.

Fig. 27b. School children, photograph by HM or Meyer-Bergner, ca. 1945.

Fig. 28. Hannes and Lena with children, ca. 1950.

Fig. 29. Hannes and Lena, ca. 1950.

Fig. 30. HM with sister Rita, ca. 1950.

Fig. 31a. Postcard by HM to son Mario-Pierre, 27.09.52, front.

Fig. 31b. Postcard by HM to Mario-Pierre, back.

Fig. 32. HM behind window, ca. 1948.

Preface and Acknowledgements

My encounter with Hannes Meyer proved to be as surprising and as it was gradual. Shortly after settling in Mexico City, I began teaching courses on “culture and design” in which I included the topic of the Bauhaus, yet I did not come across him as one of the school’s teachers, leave alone as its director. When somebody told me that an important Bauhaus architect had lived in Mexico, I was curious. The next thing I knew, I discovered a booklet of Meyer’s writings translated into Spanish. Drawn in by the originality and powerful language of his modernist manifestos—I recall underlining pages while standing in line at a bank—I was ready to learn more. The next encounter was with Meyer’s architecture. During a downtown stroll in my home town Köln, I found two richly illustrated volumes on Meyer at a used book store specialized in art. My mother bought them for me immediately; an artist herself, she immediately found a liking to his work. And quickly did I, being astounded by school patios floating in the air, theater sets composed of cubic figures and glass-domed auditoriums. Finally, I learned of another facet of Meyer: his letters, which are housed at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (German Museum of Architecture) in Frankfurt. As I scrutinized one densely filled double-sided page after another, with talk of some project in process conjoining with statements on art, news of the children, walks to the mountains, etc., each letter seemed to constitute a fascinating microcosm of this architect’s life.

Meyer’s work and his trajectory seemed to be an excellent window through which to expose key aspects of twentieth-century history, including modern art and architecture; national case studies, such as the republic of Weimar Germany, the Stalinist regime of Soviet Russia and the post-revolution of Mexico; and broader themes such as the political Left, and the relationship of art to the turmoil of world war, totalitarianism, and mass exile. Yet, eventually the reverse occurred when I decided to write a very different book: a full-fledged biography—“the history and interpretation of a life written by someone who is not its protagonist”1—where by definition the guiding theme is the person at hand, and where historical context is employed to shed greater light on the former.

As a biographer, I had to relate with another (historic) person and thus faced a dynamic in which empathy and comprehension coexisted with criticism and outright rejection. An awareness of certain similarities between our trajectories certainly, if not always consciously, contributed to my decision to undertake a biography of Hannes Meyer. Although he was Swiss and I am German, we share the German mother tongue and also speak Spanish and English. We both left our native countries early on and ended up in Mexico, not until having moved around other parts of the globe. Finally, our work has/had revolved around social issues, in particular, to address the needs and agency of the new industrial classes of the early twentieth century, and to do so from the standpoint of the middle class (Meyer would say “bourgeoisie”). His politics proved more difficult for me to deal with, especially with regard to his idealization of the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s. Having grown up in West Germany and fully engaged in dealing with the legacy of Nazism both in my family and in my country, Meyer’s admiration of this other totalitarian regime perplexed me. Here then, I had to apply my formation as a historian, in order to comprehend a man through an examination of his times rather than to judge him on the basis of my own, present-day categories and values. I hope this book guides the reader to do the same.

Still, as a biographer, more than as a historian, I invariably found myself unbelievably close to my subject, as if he were a friend with a character that both attracted and distanced (and certainly one who outstayed his welcome, as the project extended year after year). I eventually decided to encapsulate his personality as “intense,” that is as somebody who engaged in life with enormous energy and rigor and for that very reason could also be someone uncompromising, at times rigid, and for those who surrounded him and this biographer who studied him, not always easy to deal with. One piece of family information serves to illustrate the point: Meyer’s grand-son, Pierre Meyer Zamora, who I was most fortunate to get to know, knew relatively little of his grandfather, because his father had preferred not to talk about him. Meyer’s son also studied architecture, yet barely practiced the trade, opting to work as a seaman and later as a clothes dealer.

Unlike the latter, I chose to talk a lot, and write more, about Hannes Meyer. For in the end, having followed his life taught me many things about the person in—to return to “context”—his times. As I finish this study, I realize that Meyer walked me through processes that were once his own and also emblematic of twentieth-century history, the outstanding one being that of modernity. As we shall see, Meyer converted to it, in an almost religious fashion, then molded it as an avant-garde, and also fell victim to it. I might have looked at this artist’s life in terms of his production only: his certainly outstanding “modernist” oeuvre. Yet in the end it was through biography, by means of an “intense” immersion into a single life, that I more fully comprehended what modernity meant, and I only hope that I have managed to convey that lesson to the reader.

Many people formed a part and helped along the way of this undertaking. This book is dedicated to my departed mother, Hanne Leidenberger, who exposed me early on to the fine arts and who encouraged me to pursue and persevere in this project. Likewise, my father, Freimut Leidenberger, contributed by transmitting to me the work of his architect father, Albert Leidenberger. He and my stepmother, Hannelore Leidenberger, backed me constantly, including with the financing of a (costly) advertisement in the Neue Züricher Zeitung in search of information on my subject matter. My family— my wife Yael Bitrán Goren, and children León, Clara, and Samuel Leidenberger Bitrán— has been the basic pillar for all of this, in all of life. Yael’s contributions to this study are manifold, be just stated her wonderful presence, her astute insights into finding a publisher, and also her not-always-subtle insistence to get the book done. My research stays in Frankfurt and Berlin were much heartened by the welcomes received by my deceased brother Florian Leidenberger and my cousin Christian Hammel, respectively while Inez Wolf and Willi Roggendorf have always signified ‘home’ to me in Köln.’ The solitude of this work was compensated by making new friends, such as Mario Pierre Meyer Zamora, Hannes Meyer’s grandson, and his partner Perla Carranza Figueroa, who opened up to this project and have become an invaluable part of it. I would not have met Pierre and Perla without the intensive detective work of Juan Arturo Brennan and María Josefina Benavides Enríquez. Another dear friend made during this project is Monique Sauter-Neher. She and her husband André warmly hosted me in Basel, where Monique accompanied me in search of Meyer’s roots and legacy.

The staff of the archives that house Meyer’s papers provided great services, both when contacting them from afar and upon my visits. Special mention includes Wolfgang Welker and Inge Wolf at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Sabine Hartman at the Bauhaus Museum-Archive Berlin, and the staff at the Bauhaus Stiftung Dessau, especially Steffen Schröter. Oral histories also formed part of this research. Many thanks to Peter Degen, Stefan Hofer, and Rolf Kuhn, who informed me of the legal quarrels that had occurred regarding where to deposit Hannes Meyer’s papers (a story that could be the subject of another book). Julia Mehira provided insights into life in the Civic Orphanage Basel, the deceased architect Reinaldo Pérez-Rayón on being a student at Meyer’s Instituto de Planeación y Urbanismo in Mexico City, Pedro Friedeberg on his father’s relationship to Meyer, and Leonora Torres on her father’s collaboration with Meyer at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Meyer’s grandson Pierre and his granddaughter Anna Anicetto conveyed highly valuable recollections of the Meyer-Bergner family.

The challening process of finding a publisher and funding for the book was rendered easier by the suggestions and support of Inderbir Riar, Robert Zaretzky, Stephan Scheuzger, Friedrich Veitl, and Cornelia Mechler; Lois Zamora and Roman Brotbeck went especially out of their way to help with this regard.

Just as Hannes Meyer formed part of an extensive and international network of colleagues, so did I benefit from scholarly discussions and selfless exchanges of information with the following: Orosz Márton from Hungary; Dorothea Deschermeyer, Celina Kress, Susana Dussel, Martin Kieren, Joaquín Medina-Warmburg, Bernd Hüttner, and Astrid Volpert from Germany; Zhou Xiangli from China; Greig Crysler, Dara Kiese, and my deceased friend Catherine Rendon from the United States; Alberto Gurovich from Chile; Ana María Rigotti and Adrián Gorelik from Argentina; deceased Roberto Segre from Cuba; and Juan Casas, Enrique Xavier De Anda Alanis, among many others, here in Mexico. Magdalene Droste has been a wonderfully engaging colleague. This project required handling many foreign languages, and I am indebted to Marina Karem for her translations of Italian documents and to Lena Kopilova for translations of Russian ones; Monique Sauter also kindly gave me a hand with idiomatic expressions in Swiss-German. I also thank Jorge Pérez Alarcón for helping me to understand the personal dynamics involved in my biographical relationship with Hannes Meyer.

Many people invited me to present and disseminate the project’s work-in-progress. I thank Servando Ortoll for bringing me to the Instituto de Investigaciones Culturales-Museo in Mexicali; Emilio Cantón of TV-UNAM in Mexico who let me participate in his documentary on Hannes Meyer in Mexico; Juan Ignacio Del Cueto Ruiz-Funes for opening doors at the Architecture Faculty of Mexico’s National University; to Lukas Ondreka, producer of the German Podcast Dissens; and to Gabriel Konzevik and his distinguished “salon” of architects. I benefited greatly from the comments and corrections on the complete manuscript by Magdalene Droste and María Lourdes Díaz Hernández as well as by reviews of individual chapters by Ryan Long, Pamela Scheinman, Marcy Schwartz, and Zhou Xiangli. Thanks also go to Irving Barrios Romano for assisting with the editing of the manuscript. As do to Santiago Ayala Espinosa for assembling the book’s indexes.

My university, the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, provided key institutional backing, including two research fellowships that allowed me to travel to archives in Germany and the United States, respectively. A semester-long research stay as Frederic Lindley Morgan scholar of architecture at the University of Louisville allowed me to advance with the project. Christopher Fullerton made this possible and—together with Linda Gigante, Gail Gilbert, Ben Hufbauer, and Linda Rowley—provided me with a warm welcome.

The Berta Hess-Cohn Stiftung provided generous support with the printing costs of this book; this signifies not only a key financial backing, but also a symbolic one: the recognition by this Basel-based foundation of Hannes Meyer’s contribution to the history of this city. Pierre Meyer-Zamora and Perla Carranza most generously shared photographs of their family albums to be reproduced in this book, and I also thank the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. Finally, I am grateful to the staff of Peter Lang Academic Publishers, especially to Anja Lee and Zippora Madhukar, thanks to whose professionalism the book appeared well and swiftly.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (July)
Architecture Hannes Meyer Social housing
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 284 pp., 36 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Georg Leidenberger (Author)

Georg Leidenberger is professor of 20th-century history at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City (UAM). He is a specialist in the history of architecture as well as urban society and politics and has published on the themes of public transportation, social housing and urban planning in Mexico, the United States and the trans-Atlantic region.


Title: Architect Hannes Meyer and Radical Modernism