The Bauhaus, a design school founded a century ago this month in Germany, lasted just 14 years before the Nazis shut it down. And yet in that time it proved a magnet for much that was new and experimental in art, design and architecture — and for decades after, its legacy played an outsize role in changing the physical appearance of the daily world, in everything from book design to household lighting to lightweight furniture.
That legacy was eventually eclipsed by subsequent movements — most notably postmodernism, a transition satirized in Tom Wolfe’s 1981 polemic “From Bauhaus to Our House.” But now, at the Bauhaus’s centennial, the school is once again being celebrated worldwide.
Not only are new museums devoted to the Bauhaus opening their doors in Weimar and Dessau — the two cities in eastern Germany where it briefly prospered before being chased away by rightward political shifts — but countless exhibitions, symposiums and newspaper articles (including this one) are attempting to explain its significance.
Part of the Bauhaus’s appeal is simply its historical context, and its Hitlerian antagonists — the Nazis were intent on making Germany great again after the nation’s humiliating and economically crippling defeat in the First World War, the very event that had given rise, within a few months, to the Weimar Republic and a new art school, also in Weimar, where all hierarchies between art and design were to be abolished. Destroying both the republic and the school were among the Nazis’ first tasks.
The Bauhaus, which translates literally as “House of Building,” aimed to make architecture the convener and unifier of all the arts. As a whole, the disciplines embraced industrial production and aimed to create an integrated daily environment where design touched everything, from a teaspoon to a city — as its founding director, Walter Gropius, later put it. The distinction between the fine and the useful arts was to be abolished.
While architecture was not taught at the school for the first half of its existence, even today we speak of “Bauhaus architecture” and feel confident that we know precisely what that means — even though, often, what we call “Bauhaus” has no connection to the school at all. In Israel, the “White City” of Tel Aviv is often described as a legacy of the Bauhaus, though its buildings, which were rarely white at birth, were for the most part designed by people with no link to it.
Around the world, we speak of large-scale public housing as “Bauhaus- inspired,” even if the school’s work resulted in fewer than 1,000 units produced during the institution’s lifetime. Far more consequential models of modern housing came out of programs in Frankfurt and Berlin that had no connection to the Bauhaus, not to mention designers in other countries from the Netherlands to the Soviet Union. At times it seems that the short-lived school has been more successful beyond the grave than it ever was during its heyday — although in that time, the late 1920s, the Bauhaus brought together a wide array of arts and artists, anyone who deployed new industrial materials and celebrated abstract geometric forms.
“Bauhaus” has become, in short, a catchall synonym for modernism in architecture and design. The details of the school’s history — the huge diversity of forms, ideologies, opinion and experiments, not to mention the influence of its three directors — are more the concerns of academic historians than of those who continue to burnish the legend and exploit the selling power of the name “Bauhaus.” No less does it remain a term of derision for neo-traditionalists, who see the modernist Bauhaus as the great destroyer of values enshrined in classical pilasters.
Still, it is important to understand how little ideological coherence the Bauhaus maintained, at least early on. Like any vibrant art school, it attracted avant-garde artists and designers whose experiments had already begun before they arrived at the school. And the direction of the school shifted every few years even as it changed location and directors.
Indeed, the process of inventing an essential “Bauhaus” canon, based on the production of a few central years in a complex history, began almost immediately after the school’s demise. In 1938, five years after the school had been closed and a decade after Gropius turned over the directorship to the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, Gropius organized an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York in which he attempted to reshape the memory of the Bauhaus in his own image.
The exhibit, “Bauhaus 1919-1928,” was laid out by the Bauhaus-trained graphic designer Herbert Bayer in a beguiling installation in a storefront at Rockefeller Center, MoMA’s temporary quarters. The accompanying book was for decades the only English-language volume on the school.
The “1919-1928” dating already hinted at what was afoot. Gropius omitted the final five years of the school’s history, and thus the directorship of his two successors. And surreptitiously, he included some of the architectural projects he and Marcel Breuer were designing from their office in Cambridge, Mass., including the Hagerty House at Cohasset, Mass., featuring an American-style timber frame and an exposed, load-bearing stone wall, a collage unimaginable in the Dessau Bauhaus.
Gropius and Breuer’s style was evolving even as Gropius was trying to hold on to the name “Bauhaus,” one of the few “things” he had insisted upon taking with him from Weimar as the property of the school when the institution moved to Dessau. Gropius’s effort, in the context of the impending war and from the vantage point of Franklin Roosevelt’s America, strongly implied that the Bauhaus had designed the modern architecture of democracy.
As Gropius’s successor in 1928, Meyer greatly expanded the Bauhaus architectural curriculum, which he had introduced a year earlier, at Gropius’s behest. Meyer held that factors like climate, hygiene and human sociology, as well as the nature of modern industrial building materials, should generate the forms of modern buildings. He also studied solar energy, even if few today claim that sustainability is a Bauhaus trait, fixated as we are on the Bauhaus “look.”
Meyer’s role in the dissemination of the “Bauhaus” idea is less appreciated. In 1930, after he was forced out of the directorship by the National Socialists, he took a group of Bauhaus students to Moscow. Their impact in the Soviet Union, and in Mexico, where Meyer taught and worked from 1939 to 1949, has rarely been studied. Meyer was clearly not to be celebrated, as first World War II, and then the Cold War, set the tone for the historical memory of the Bauhaus.
Nor were the school’s final years, in which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe shifted directions radically away from Meyer’s functionalist approach toward a refined study of the new spatial possibilities of architecture, a modernism of free-floating planes and even luxurious materials.
Mies arrived in Chicago in 1938, where he first redrew the architectural curriculum of the Armour Institute of Technology (today known as the Illinois Institute of Technology), and then rebuilt the campus in a steel, brick and glass vocabulary unlike any of the buildings he had built in Germany. Just as the Bauhaus had splintered during its lifetime, it was mutating and multiplying in its afterlife. For in the end the Bauhaus was a school, never a static style or a single-minded movement.
There’s no debate about the significance of the Bauhaus. But in celebrating the Bauhaus the way we do — highlighting its allegedly far-flung influence in space and time — are we blurring our understanding of what the school achieved, of the challenges it faced, and the ramifications of both in the 85 years since it closed?
The Bauhaus produced one of the most powerful expressions of a view that design was everything. It served, in a way, as the embassy of modernist design. But its success has often led to a reductionism in our understanding of the rich nexus of artistic movements that crisscrossed at the school itself, as well as the diverse developments it helped inspire.
At its worst, Bauhaus has been reduced to mere style, a superficial sensibility informing labels, brands and fashion. Gropius and his acolytes recognized and deplored the idea, claiming that their designs arose from a pure functionalist embrace of modern materials, and in response to the demands of modern living — nothing more. “No Bauhaus Style and No Bauhaus Fashion,” a writer warned in the pages of the house organ, also called Bauhaus. “Such facile stylistic labeling of the modern must be emphatically rejected.”
But they undermined themselves by selling products endowed with the trademarked label “bauhaus dessau.” With the exception – ironically enough given their abolishment of traditional niceties — of a line of wallpaper, the seemingly everyday products were made in such small numbers that their prices made them instant luxury goods.
As much as the Bauhaus rejected the very notion of style and fashion, it could not help but generate the perception that it was creating a unified and easily identified stylistic image, wrote the critic Ernst Kallai:
Houses with lots of glass and shining metal: Bauhaus style. The same is true of home hygiene without home atmosphere: Bauhaus style. Lamp with nickel-coated body and a disk of opaque glass as lampshade: Bauhaus style. Wallpaper patterned in cubes: Bauhaus style. No paintings on the wall: Bauhaus style. Incomprehensible paintings on the wall: Bauhaus style. Printing with sans-serif letters and bold rules: Bauhaus style. everything written in lowercase: bauhaus style. EVERYTHING EXPRESSED IN CAPITAL LETTERS: BAUHAUS STYLE.
By both rejecting style when it could be reduced to fashion, and embracing an aesthetic that was too easily reduced by followers and commentators to exactly that, the Bauhaus ensured that its legacy would be universally embraced and almost as widely misunderstood. As the avant-garde painter and theater designer Oskar Schlemmer noted about the school’s emerging aesthetic in 1929, “This style is to be found everywhere but the Bauhaus.” In the school’s diverse production there are still strands with potent relevance to issues today — Meyer’s interest in passive solar, for instance. But this involves accepting that we might still learn from the Bauhaus, if we accept that much of it might look nothing like what Tom Wolfe parodied some three decades ago.
Barry Bergdoll is a professor of art history at Columbia and the author of “Mies in Berlin.”
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