The original Mk1 Audi TT is 20 and, I think most of us would agree, it looks good on it. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – the concept TT’s design team, which included luminaries such as J Mays, Peter Schreyer and Freeman Thomas, admitted to taking inspiration from the Bauhaus school when coming up with the formula for Audi’s age-defying sports car. And this is why I find myself approaching Dessau-Roßlau in eastern Germany.
I’ve driven from London and across Mitteleuropa in a Mk1 – still an impressive, solid performer 20 years after its launch – in search of the city’s famed Bauhaus Building, an icon of architectural modernism.
The Bauhaus started in Weimar, Germany as an entirely new type of art school, focusing on modern design, architecture and technology. Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, the school sought to teach a multi-disciplinary curriculum with emphasis placed on creating innovative, simple and functional design in every area – be it buildings, art, graphic design or mass production.
‘Our guiding principle was that design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair, but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilised society,’ Gropius stated. And the results of Gropius’s guiding principle are everywhere today. Examples of Bauhaus-influenced design are legion: think of London’s Barbican, trendy typography, cool teapots and pretty much everything in Habitat. None would exist without Walter Gropius and his minimalist cohorts.
The Bauhaus Building is still the physical embodiment of the Bauhaus philosophy, just as it was in 1926. Free from any unnecessary flimflam, its exterior a feast of smooth concrete and glass, the building is full of innovation, with almost every step of a tour around its interior presenting a design ‘first’.
While we take this kind of design for granted today, it epitomised the avant-garde back in 1926. The building still looks as fresh in 2018 as it did nearly 100 years ago. And it sticks like glue to Gropius’s proclamation that: ‘We want to create the purely organic building, boldly emanating its inner laws, free of untruths or ornamentation.’
Parts of this proclamation could very well have informed the brief for the TT Design Study back in 1995. Pre-TT Audi design most certainly lacked the severity and ‘industrial-ness’ of the TT concept. It heralded a brand new direction for Audi. Lacking rear three-quarter windows, the concept car looked like a pure driving tool, devoid of those ‘untruths’ to which Gropius referred, benefiting from the same smooth, unadorned functionality that you see around every corner of the Bauhaus Building.
When the Mk1 TT was launched, it carried over the futuristic shape of its Design Study forebear, surprising many who assumed that the concept – or anything remotely resembling it – would never enter production. Ironically, the styling touches that slightly diluted the purity of the TT Design Study – the addition of rear windows so you could see out, and a rear spoiler for greater downforce – were all driven by the functionality of the car, rather than being ornamental. Gropius would probably have approved.
As Gropius never designed a car, none of us will ever really know what he and the Bauhauslers would have made of the TT’s design. In their day, they most likely preferred functional steel-framed bicycles over the bourgeois motor car. We can only hope that they would have recognised how elements of their unique brand of German modernism have been translated into this (still) most distinctive of sports cars.
Words by Luke Ponsford. Photographs by Greg White. With thanks to the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.