Gropius' fabricated perversion,
or: a Bauhaus pipe re-invented
(some writing in progress)

We hadn’t come to Dessau because of the pipe. We were there to do field-research for our re-construction of a piece by the forgotten Bauhaus choreographer Jakob Klenke: we slept in his room, traced his long walks through the city park, re-enacted his movement practice in and around Walter Gropius’ 1926 Bauhaus building.

In our breaks, we (two architects and three choreographers-performers) would have coffee and cake in the canteen, tucked away in the souterrain of the Bauhaus’ workshop wing. The pipe was 6 inches wide and was made completely out of glass. It stretched vertically just in front of a column by the bar. As I passed the pipe to pay at the counter, a gush of water flowed down through it and reminded me that, in fact, I knew this pipe. Or at least I knew a story about it.

It was artist Steven Pippin who had told me this story. Travelling to Berlin on his way back from an exhibition, he had also paid his visit to the Bauhaus. In a break, he had coffee and cake in the canteen and noticed the pipe. These were the nineties and the glass pipe was so stained with filth from the inside that it was nearly opaque.

Gropius had placed the pipe there as a didactic device. It was the waste pipe of the workshop toilet on the floor above. As the Bauhaus students had their meals in the canteen, the pipe would remind them, rather graphically, of the metabolic nature of the building and, in extension, of art and life. What goes in, comes out, from dust to dust, and so on.

Sadly, a quick survey of the original plans revealed that this story wasn’t exactly water tight. The space currently housing the café was originally the caretaker’s apartment – the canteen was situated in the wing connecting the studio building with the workshops. The space above this flat wasn’t a toilet but an exhibition space.

So, contemplating the pipe and awaiting the next gush, we agreed on another, politer story. To achieve its iconic glazed façade, freed from structural and service constraints, the building needed and inward sloping flat roof with internal rainwater drainage. The glazed internal rainwater downpipe was didactic, but in another sense: it taught the students the principles of a triumphant modernism.

In the meantime, however, Pippin, had followed his gut and had built his own homage to Gropius’ waste pipe. Pippin’s transparent pipe runs from the first-floor toilet of his studio home, a former optician’s shop on a South London high street, through his ground floor workshop, where it cuts through the counter of the kitchenette. It is not glass but acrylic and is, like the current pipe in Dessau, still mostly transparent.

Pippin’s re-enactment of Gropius’ misconstrued perversion had fabricated its own, true story. Would he have acted with the conditioned scepsis of a historian – like I did[1]–, and concluded that the original was “just” a rainwater downpipe, this fantastic metabolic contraption would have died there and then. Since the optician’s shop’s pitched roof neatly drains into a Victorian composition of external cast-iron downpipes, the re-creation of my version of the facts in Pippin’s house would have not only been significantly less poetic but, above all, highly impracticable.

In what follows, I want to approach both stories as true fabrications. If every re-construction is always also a construction, could taking seriously this misreading help us to construct richer readings of the “original” object of reconstruction? In other words, could the reading of one (call it the rainwater hypotheses) learn from a closer exploration of the other version (the waste hypotheses)?

(In)version 1: Inside-Out

Modernism has a rich and mind-expanding supply of documented obsessions with toilet fixtures and plumbing, so I will need to hand-pick just a fine selection to make my point.[2]

One of the challenges faced by modernist architects was to reconcile the imperative of a free plan and maximum transparency on the hand with the fixed and intimate nature of sanitary domestic functions on the other. Gropius’ student Philip Johnson, in his 1949 Glass House, solved this issue by containing the bathroom in a circular brick core: a positively opaque pipe right in the midst of the vitrine-like house.[3]

Le Corbusier was famously less prude when he placed a bidet in the middle of his own living room. In an act of architectural nudism – or, as his wife, who would cover it up with a cloth whenever they had visitors, would have it, exhibitionism –, both the building and its inhabitant are stripped bare.[4]

In comparison, Gropius’ toilet waste pipe was at once more explicit and more abstract.[5]More explicit because the inhabitant wasn’t just undressed but turned inside-out – if we regard the pipe as the extension of the human digestive tract, it exposes not the naked body but its insides. More explicit also because it did so in public rather than for the private pleasure of the family home.

More abstract on the other hand because the origin of the pipes’ content – the identity of the person being inverted – remained unknown. By the time one would run up the stairs from the canteen to the floor above, the toilet-goer would have been long gone and blended into the crowd of students in the workshop.

This is more than just a practical consideration: identity is concealed because it is irrelevant. The metaphor of metabolism relies on this excretory abstraction.[6]As opposed to Le Corbusier’s fondness of not just the utility but also the curvaceous forms of plumbing fixtures, the obsession here was with the system, not with the object as such. The pipe is an incarnate graphic arrow in a diagram rather than an object of fetishism.[7]

Decoys and lenses

Gropius’ was by no means the first nor the last instance of pipe glorification in architectural history.[8]Reyner Banham, the theoretical godfather of the emancipated pipe, argued in 1965 that “when it [the house] contains so many services that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the house, why have a house to hold it up?”. His writing is saturated with the analogy between buildings and anatomy – the house covers up our “mechanical pudenda”, the post-war approach to services was to “Let-It-Dangle” and so on.

In the built manifestation of Banham’s plea, the Centre Pompidou, the architectural body is inverted, proudly wearing its insides out. But still, when we sit behind the Pompidou on a nice summer day, perhaps having an ice cream, we hardly see the near future of this ice cream flowing down its façade. What we see instead are coloured pipes that signifyrather than expose the services inside. For all the ice-eater knows, those pipes might in fact be empty decoys – or, even more daringly, a blue one might be carrying fresh water and electricity rather than ventilation, as the colour code would suggest.

Gropius’ pipe is more transgressive. It is neither the mere undressing of the human body (Le Corbusier) nor is it the inversion of the anthropomorphised “body” of the building (Pompidou). It is the topological inversion of the human body itself.

The pipe transforms the building into an architectural version of the cannulated cow: through the insertion of a porthole-like device into a living cow, researchers can physically reach into its digestive tract and study its metabolism. Yet unlike this didactic apparatus’ physical inversion, the pipe’s operation is of an optical nature. The pipe, in other words, is a lens. By looking inwards into the pipe, we are looking outwards into the body.  

(In)version 2: Outside-In

But for now, let’s put aside our indulgent conflation of Gropius and Pippin and their respective pipes’ contents and ask if the second, rain-water version of the story could learn from the first (in)version.

If the pipe is indeed a rainwater downpipe, it is also a topological extension, not of the human digestive tract but of the outside façade. We are, by looking inwards into the pipe, looking outwards into the landscape. The pipe is a fifth, inverted façade. Like the outside curtain wall, it is made of glass, allowing for the quintessentially “modern sensation” of “fully apprehending the outside from within, yet feeling neither cold nor wind nor moisture”. [9]

Yet unlike the outside façade, which offers a landscape panorama stretching infinitely outwards, the cold, wind and moisture are now carefully contained in the vitrine-like pipe. Following the rules of geometric inversion, all points outside the container of inversion are translated into the inside and by extension, all points at infinity are translated into the centre of inversion.[10]If the glazed facade enclosed ourselves, protecting us from the outside, we have now enclosed the outside itself by geometrically capturing it, inverting it from an extensive field into a condensed object and displaying it, like a trophy, in a cylindrical vitrine at the centre of our place of production.

There, it plays a double role as an object of both conquest and contemplation. Like Gongshi, the ancient Chinese tradition of placing rocks, chosen for their resemblance to dramatic mountainous landscapes, in scholar’s manicured garden or on their desk, the pipe serves not just a trophy but also as a memento of the viewer’s own futility and as an invitation to let the mind wander outwards, beyond the focal point of its current productive obsession.

As I returned to my seat, it was already dry outside, yet internal rain still drizzled down the pipe next to the counter. With the workshop toilet dismantled as a valid option, this meant the slope of the flat roof must be rather shallow. The weather was captured and then displayed, delayed.


I have yet to find any literature on Gropius’ pipe – most of the Bauhaus building’s reception has focused on its glass façade. 15 years after its completion, Siegfried Giedion extolled the Bauhaus’ ground-breaking qualities by juxtaposing a photograph showing the transparent corner of its workshop wing with a cubist painting by Picasso. He commented that "there is the hovering, vertical grouping of planes which satisfies our feeling of a relational space, and there is the extensive transparency that permits interior and exterior to be seen simultaneously, en face and en profile, like Picasso's 'L'Arlésienne' of 1911-12”.[11]Cubism’s crusade against the reduction of perspective and its effort to show objects simultaneously from different spatial and temporal points of view found its peer, following Giedion’s argument, in the Bauhaus overlay of transparent planes.

Yet, though the photograph of Gropius’ corner superimposes, by virtue of the façade’s optical properties, multiple perspectival layers, it does not quite manage to fracture perspective itself. Perhaps this is simply because it is a photograph of the building rather than the building itself or its lived experience. Giedion’s analogy assumes that architecture can be described in the same, pictorial terms as a painting, allowing him to draw an all too formal analogy between the works.[12]

The medium, in this case, confounds the message. Because the message, Giedion’s description of a “variety of levels of reference, or of points of reference, and simultaneity”, seems to gain a new form of plausibility when we re-examine the Bauhaus through the lens of our pipe rather than through the lens of the camera.

Observing the glass pipe, we are not just looking simultaneously into it and through it (as was already the case in the photograph used by Giedion), we are simultaneously looking, by virtue of the remapping of an inverted panorama into an object, back outwards into the landscape. Maybe L'Arlésienne’s subversion of pictorial space finds its match in this inversion of architectural assumptions. And maybe the Bauhaus’ subversion should be experienced through the productive misinterpretations that come with coffee and cake. [13]

[1] Though I must plead guilty to relaying Pippin’s version to many of my students, before getting interested enough to undertake a fact check. [2] See Jennings “Corbu’s Nude”, see Colomina “Are we Human”. [3] Counteracting or emphasising, depending on who you ask. See Koolhaas, “Toilet”, p. 67. Would be good to also discuss Eileen Grey. Mies solved it in a similar way in Farnsworth, see Jennings. (He also mentions the House as A Vitrine in both cases) [4] See also Otto Wagner’s glass bathtub. [5] Note that we agreed to suspend our disbelief towards this version, exploring, so to speak Pippin’s Gropius. [6] By contrast, when I took my students to visit Pippin’s workshop and we came to the inevitable moment of discussing the pipe, his invitation (or challenge if you will) to the students to use the toilet, was met with chuckles. Perhaps the displacement of the pipe back into a domestic environment takes away the critical mass of a building’s inhabitants to achieve Gropius’ effect of excretory abstraction. [7] Neither is it voyeuristic or for the purpose of personal hygiene – for this, the Germans already had the examination plate in German toilets bowls. [8] (see book on toilets by Koolhaas: external toilets on outside in middle ages.) [9] Richard Sennet, quoted by Friedberg p. 117.
[10] And vice versa, but this is less relevant in this case.
[11] Friedberg 119.
[12] This argument is very close to Robin Evans, Projective Cast, p 57-59. [13] Historical photos of the workshop building show internal rainwater downpipes in the same spot. After war damages, a pitched roof was added, and drainages took place through external downpipes – see renovation 1976, which restores flat roof and internal drainage.