Isaak Butkow

1928–1932 Bauhaus student

Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Portrait of Isaak Butkow, photo: Etel Fodor-Mittag, 1929.

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Isaak Butkow was born on 12 April 1909 in Wilno in Poland, now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which was at the time occupied by Russia. He came from a lower middle-class Jewish family, attended a grammar school with a focus on the humanities and, for one year, a drawing school for the plastic arts in Wilno.

In the winter semester of 1928 Butkow enrolled as student number 304 at the Bauhaus Dessau. There, he lived in lodgings together with Moses Bahelfer, likewise a native of Wilno; both were penniless and their hosts provided most of their meals. Having completed the obligatory preliminary course, in 1929 he attended the carpentry workshop for two semesters. In the summer semester of 1930 Butkow began to study architecture and was given leave to take on practical work in construction. In the winter semester of 1930 and the next two semesters of 1931 he continued his training in the building workshop. Throughout his studies Butkow received from a third to full tuition fee exemptions worth from 10 to 40 Reichsmark. The students could apply for the exemptions awarded by the masters’ council as long as they could prove their need and were dedicated students.

In 1931 Hugo Junkers commissioned the Bauhaus under Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer to plan a large residential housing estate in Dessau. Specific project planning tasks for individual complexes were handed over to talented students in the architecture section of the building department; Butkow assumed responsibility for the development of plans for the theatre and the cinema. Unfortunately the architectural detail drawings got lost. Butkows draft of the theatre based on a steel-construction by Junkers, was intended to be covered with bright bricks. For reasons of protection against fire, the row seats for theatre and film palace should have been upholstered steel pipe armchairs. He even created a colour-coded guidance system for the entrance hall, cloakroom, auditorium, catering area and even the emergency exits.

The police expelled Butkow, a member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) since 1929 and, according to the Bauhausler Max Gebhardt, a core member of the communist faction at the Bauhaus, from Dessau on 4 April 1932. Having turned up at the Bauhaus again briefly on 28 April 1932, he was denounced by a student and was immediately sentenced to six weeks imprisonment.

Butkow subsequently moved to Berlin, where he was unable to find work and waited for an entry permit to the Soviet Union. As apolitical émigré, Butkow was active there in a students’ collective for urban development and planning and worked as an architect for the management of the Moscow-Volga Canal in the USSR. He lived with his Russian wife and his son in Pererva, a district of Moscow. On 27 September 1937 he was accused of spying for Germany, arrested and sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad on 2 October 1938. The place of burial is the Butowo firing range located in a southern district of Moscow, a site of mass murder operated by the NKWD (People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs) of the Soviet Union. Isaak Butkow was vindicated on 26 September 1957.

Text: Burckhard Kieselbach

  1. Literature:
  2. Plener, Ute Ulla & Natalia Mussienko (1985): Verurteilt zur Höchststrafe – Tod durch Erschießen, Berlin.
  3. Archiv Sammlung Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau.
  4. Hahn, Peter (1985): Bauhaus Berlin, Berlin.
  5. Erfurth, Helmut (2010): Junkers, das Bauhaus und die Moderne, Dessau.
  6. Junkers, Hugo: Leben und Unternehmen, http://www.junkers.de/junkers-und-das-bauhaus/das-bauhaus-plant-für-junkers-eine-„großsiedlung“-dessau, 09.06.2016.
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